78 TRANSFORMING EXPERIENCES – THE POWER OF EVENTS – Contributions by Emma Wood
My academic background stems from marketing but has evolved over the years into several related but ‘non-business’ areas. Working in a School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management my research in tourism and place marketing swiftly moved to a focus on events and the benefits they might potentially bring. This led me to become critical of the spurious and often meaningless economic impacts produced for clients and to develop approaches for assessing the social impacts of events. In focusing on smaller scale community events it became clear that events on their own rarely provide a lasting economic or social benefit but can have major impacts if they are set within wider community development schemes and are repeated and frequent rather than one-offs.
Events of all types have the power, and quite often the intention, to bring about personal transformation. That power derives from their out of the ordinary nature, the creation of a liminal experience distinct from everyday life. Events are innately social, creating collective experiences and shared emotional responses. Events also incorporate degrees of participation – activity rather than passivity through interaction and engagement. What results are highly memorable experiences that continue to be shared long after the event is over. This continual reflection and adjustment of memories from shared experiences reinforces and strengthens the power of those experiences. It is this process that can transform lives through changes in attitudes, behaviours and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Tourism brands recognise this power in the collective experience with many switching marketing budget from mass media advertising to events and experiences. Harnessing the power of the ‘buzz’ created to allow consumers’ memory sharing to do their marketing for them.
The field of event studies has an established body of knowledge in the impact of events and has moved from a focus on the economic to a consideration of the social and the environment. However, it is only recently that impacts have been considered at a personal level. This change to a person’s feelings of inclusion, wellbeing, happiness are surely one of the better outcomes of a thoughtful programme of events and an important strand of social psychology and the sociology of emotions. Research in consumer behaviour provides insights into the process through which such transformations take place whether that be a change in loyalty to a soft drink or an increase in feelings of self-worth. However, the role of collective experience, emotion and memory within this process remains a fascinating area of events research with much still to learn.
More recently events have been recognised as potential intervention tools for social issues such as encouraging feelings of belonging, reducing social isolation, encouraging tolerance and civic pride. My own research has examined events as tools of social inclusivity (recent immigrants and Shoreditch Festival), belonging (Asian communities and Melas) and most recently loneliness reduction (arts events and older women in rural areas).
In researching the social impacts my own theoretical foundations moved from marketing to engage more with social psychology and a new focus on collective experience and more recently shared memories of events. The effect of the heightened emotions shared with others and reminisced about afterwards now appear (to me at least) to be one of the most affective and longest lasting impacts of events. Remembering such experiences together reinforces and coalesces attitudes which then determine future behaviours in terms of similar experiences.
In line with the theories around event and experience design and the components which (for brands) lead to the greatest effectiveness it seemed reasonable to assume that events with a certain amount of challenge but resulting in achievement and a level of creativity/choice would hold the most potential for positive change. With this in mind I began to explore how art/craft undertaken in a social environment (ie a weekly, fortnightly or monthly event) might benefit those taking part.
My work with old women and craft events has also taught me something about the restorative power of shared experiences and memories. Using emotion sensing wristbands (galvanic skin response) helped me and my participants visualise their emotional journeys and better understand the highs and lows experienced in shared experiences. Listening to these women’s stories, told to each other, about their past lives and the role of art and craft within them, gave such privileged insights into the real meaning and importance of small-scale community events and of creating the time and space to share memories.
I have found that events are an ideal context in which to study consumer experiences and in particular shared emotional experience. Any event where we experience something together over an intense period of time and in a place distinct from ‘ordinary’ life provides us with an out of the ordinary experience, often with an element of escape.
For each event we attend there is usually a shared sense of ‘something’, if not purpose, perhaps interest, celebration, novelty, shared with those around you. Emotions are engendered even before you got there – anticipation, anxiety, when there (here) – disappointment, joy, surprise, and afterwards – contentment, happiness, guilt. These are heightened by a sense of others feeling the same as us and are often shared afterwards due to their collective nature.
Our memories are so important that we adapt these and negotiate versions of them with others – usually a better version that increases in emotional resonance in the sharing. There is also an important distinction between ‘remembered emotion’ and ‘emotion in remembering’. I’d argue the latter is more important as we don’t relive the emotion felt at the time but we do get emotional as we remember it and this is exaggerated as we remember with others.
Now here’s what I think is the important bit. What we experience matters little but it’s how we remember it that shapes who we are, what we think and how we behave. This has to be case as memory is flawed, experiences become blurred, forgotten, emotions last longer but still change over time and are not remembered as they happened but appear anew as part of the memory of a situation told/or thought about in another situation. Each sharing of a memory of emotion, or remembering of an emotional experience becomes a new experience. Events give us the opportunity to understand how this happens as they create shared emotional memories.
Marketers have understood the importance of memory sharing on some level in combating cognitive dissonance, in reassurance marketing, in the use of testimonial, word of mouth, reviews and the influence of others. However, the personal change elements have been less well researched. This is particularly true in event marketing – with a short-term focus on the event – moving swiftly on to the next without consideration of leveraging the effects over the longer term (harnessing the buzz). Capturing feelings/experiences at the event therefore is not exactly pointless but tells us little about future behaviour intentions. We all know the buzz can fade quickly and the intention to get on a bike after watching the Tour de Yorkshire remains just that – an intention. So how do we keep a memory alive, maintain an element of the emotional response, generate new and stronger responses? The most powerful way is through sharing the collective emotional memory.
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you of one or two things or at least piqued your interest in them. Events are creators of emotions and emotional memories. These are shared at the time and afterwards. The sharing of these creates an agreed memory of emotion and emotion in remembering which is important for personal identity, social cohesion and belonging. These agreed emotional memories become the main drivers of future attitudes and behaviours and therefore have the power to transform personal and social wellbeing… and to sell products.
As a marketer (we do love mnemonics), and because this is about me. I’ll leave you with an apt aide-de-memoire – It’s EMMA – I think shared emotional memories mould attitudes. But as a less flippant ending here’s a short poem created from quotations from my event memory participants
The festival memory journey
Remember the nerves?
We laughed and cried
I sulked you laughed
We both laughed
How proud we are
Let’s do it again
Let’s look forward to it
Laugh together again
Written by Emma Wood, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Read Emma’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
(some of my work and a few of those that have inspired me)
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Wood, E. H., Jepson, A., & Stadler, R. (2018). Understanding the Well-Being Potential of Participatory Arts Events for the Over 70s: A Conceptual Framework and Research Agenda. Event Management, 22(6), 1083-1101.
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Wood, E.H. and Moss, J. (2015). Capturing emotions: experience sampling at live music events, Arts and the Market, Vol. 5 Iss: 1, pp45-72
Wood, E.H. and Li, Y (2014). Music festival motivation in China: free the mind, Leisure Studies, DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2014.962588
Wu, S., Li, Y., Wood, E. H., Senaux, B., & Dai, G. (2020). Liminality and festivals—Insights from the East. Annals of Tourism Research, 80, 102810.