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Kerry Lee Doehr

Event Pros: How Optimism May Be Encouraging Your Demise--the Stockdale Paradox

Wedding pro and business consultant Kerry Lee Doehr shares the importance of mixing optimism with a reality check to stay in business.

As an eternal optimist, I have always relied on promise and hope to pull me through. I thought with the current pandemic it would be no different. I am also known for being a realist and am able to roll up my sleeves and get uncomfortable when necessary to grow.
That said, when COVID-19 hit, I was optimistic as ever. Shelter-in and self-quarantine for a few weeks? No problem. I've got this. Let me do my part. Oh, you need to cancel my next speaking engagement? No problem. I have six more scheduled over the year. As every social and professional plan I'd made disappeared one by one, as mandatory shelter-in laws extended longer and longer, and as I watched the special events and hospitality industry struggle with "when" for their clients and events--for their very livelihood--it was more challenging to be in suspended animation in the realm of the unknown and stay optimistic.

2020 was going to be an epic year of transformation for me and I had some big plans professionally.

As I observe industry groups and conversations from all over, I see a huge focus on the "next" thing that will supposedly bring instant salvation and that moment when it will suddenly all work out and we can get back to normal.

But, just because we are "resilient" doesn't mean our industry will "bounce back," as I hear constantly now. And let's be clear: I'm not saying that it is going extinct entirely. I'm saying it may not be a "bounce" back as much as a "pivoting-pirouette-in-the-air-landing-in-a-cha-cha" back.

Besides the fact that large gatherings as we knew them will most likely not be able to happen until late 2021, and the very few events we may be allowed to have in the coming months will be exceptionally small with huge rules, regulations and policies on social distancing and new foodservice policy and procedure, there is a greater potential detriment here that I fear some might be missing in their conversations and desire to stay optimistic. Failure to acknowledge it may mean extinction for their business and, in some ways, parts of our entire industry. It is based on the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is based on James Stockdale, a former POW in Vietnam who was tortured for seven years during his capture. When asked who struggled the most to make it out alive between him and his fellow POWs, he responded, "The optimists," which shocked everyone. They were the ones that kept saying, "We are going to be out by Easter." And Easter would come and go and they weren't released. Then it was Fourth of July, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s (you get the gist) and nothing happened. They just kept putting their optimistic faith out there on one single event that they believed would bring sudden change and salvation. Many of them literally died of a broken heart.

James Stockdale--and some survivors of horrific imprisoned circumstances--have said that the true secret to survival in brutal circumstances is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs that are equally true.

1. That you will prevail.

2. That you must confront the brutal truth in front of you in the present.

This is the Stockdale Paradox. In summary and put simply, it is the idea of hoping for the best (something that should never be neglected) but preparing for the worst.

In business, the Stockdale Paradox can help us evaluate a current situation and then plan to address the challenges as they pertain to that business and the circumstances surrounding it. The challenge is that while it's important to be positive knowing you will overcome the current turmoil, sometimes team members can view acknowledging and tackling the challenges head-on as negative. The point is, you need both optimism and realism to survive and not go extinct.

It also reminds me that we cannot live for the future as we define it now. If we create a life of wondering when this pandemic is going to be over and then hang all our salvation on that one date or circumstance, we are creating a miserable daily life of fear and anxiety.

I suggest that we get busy now creating our "now" and our future while taking into consideration what that would look like if we had to stay like we are right now.

We may be missing grander points and more opportunities to re-create ourselves if we are too laser-focused on staying positive without the necessary dose of realism as it is right now before us.

Here's some brutal reality: Normal will never return. Some of our businesses won't survive. The wedding and event industry was in a predicted economic downward spiral prior to COVID19 when things were "normal," and was shifting for years prior to that.

If you've done your homework, you know that recovery is not like a light switch that we just turn "off" and "on." It's more like a dimmer switch that we must turn on and up in phases, gradually. The economy is not expected to start showing signs of catching up for another three years. And when some semblance of what used to be is able to happen again (as far as events), experts are saying it could be late 2021. Do you really want to wait that long to figure out your fate?

Anyone who tells you that the economy is rebounding now and that all those bookings will come flooding in late 2020 and overflow into next year has either not done their homework or is trying to sell you something. Or if they are trying to be optimistic, they are not doing their due diligence by ensuring they are also being realistic as the Stockdale Paradox suggests.

Let's get busy thinking, engaging and redesigning now. Because the optimist in me knows that if we choose to be real about what's going on presently and how it pertains to our niche business, we cannot only prevail, we will be light-years ahead of many who chose not to, and this kind of development is the stuff legacy dream businesses are made of. This is our resilience and evolution of the special events and hospitality industry.

Kerry Lee Doehr is CEO/founder of event planning business Santa Barbara Wine Country Weddings and Events, as well as Engaging Inspiration, a consultancy dedicated to leadership, communications and education for the special event and hospitality industry. She is committed to progress in the industry that goes beyond trend and design, saying, "Who we are and how we handle ourselves ethically is more of a barometer to business longevity and branding than all the money in the world spent on advertising."

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