Getting back on the convention circuit
16:55

Getting back on the convention circuit

Tech Industry
Well, we all spent an awful lot of time in virtual seminars, sessions and webinars on zoom or webex or teams or one of the other platforms. And they're good. They work out fine, but it's not the same as getting on a plane. Plane going to a big beautifully produced conference or expo hall and being surrounded by 1000s of people who are basically giving you tacit confirmation that yes, this is the place to be this week in my industry. And yet every week, we do more virtual Hangouts and meetings, they start to become more normal. Press tech well now he's the CEO of Freeman, the largest company that does these kinda shows. Now, they usually have someone else's name on them, either a brand like Cisco or an association like the CTA, or it's CES. But this company is the one that actually gets it done and helps to strategize what happens under the roof as well as actually building all that stuff. Disclaimer, my wife works for Freeman. And as a result, I've known Bob for a number of years, but our questions are very salient in this interesting pandemic year. Bob, first off, let me ask you this. So everyone understands because you guys are usually the unknown party behind the shell. What is it you guys do? You know, we are basically the largest provider of events in the world. So we're the global leader, and it's both in person and virtual events that we produce every day. Some people now are thinking about planning for hybrid events. And, you know, we're about 100 year old company and we do everything from strategy to creative Design and logistics. Our crowd knows CES really well. That's one of your shows. And as, and as we all know, it's going to go virtual this year, coming up in January of 21 depending on when, Someone is watching this episode. That's a huge shift. CES has been an in person show like so many others for all these years. Give us an example just using that as one example how much of a change is that been in you guys having to work out new muscles or develop new muscles. We work with CTA to take about 3 million square feet Of space and turn it into a temporary city. And we work with over 4,500 individual exhibiting companies and 175,000 attendees to really make that an incredible experience. And I think it's going to be missed this year is what I, I really believe. Of course a lot can be done online and we are working with our big exhibitors to Think about how they have their presence and we're already working on it. So instead of waiting until the first week of January to have the show, we're already pushing out content and making films and preparing for a really rich environment online. But of course there's really no substitute for, you know, being face-to-face and engaging with people. And as soon as it's safe to do so. I think what we're really going to see is an integrated approach to using digital for reach, maybe quantity and using in person and face to face for quality and depth. So that's an interesting point you bring up a lot of the trade shows, expos and conferences they will message their attendees. These are often you know, very specified audience, not open to the public, and there's always a message of scarcity early bird sign up now don't miss your seat. Don't lose the ability to go to a certain track. Hotels are selling out fast. Is there a move, do you think in this hybrid future where scarcity becomes less of the issue? Everyone who's qualified can attend. Either in-person or online and scarcity becomes less of the, less of the coin of the realm. Well, that's interesting. So, Freeman, we have two primary types of customers, so we support organizers. So this would be the association like CTA or American heart association or w whatever, it could be a for-profit trade show organizer. Like a media company. And then we have corporate marketers that we support. And so we see a lot of corporate events on the association side. It is true that there's always a scarcity message because a large percentage of an audience doesn't attend a typical event might get 10% of its membership or, you know, we've seen we've produced, an event for a big corporation this summer. And they might normally get 13 to 15,000 people at the physical events and online they had 80,000 people so I would argue is that we're using me the medium of digital for actually a different purpose than we are the face to face piece or the in person piece. And I actually believe the imperson piece becomes more exclusive. If you think of it, and you integrate all the different mediums if it's broadcast, if it's in person, if it's virtual programming, we're going to distribute content differently based on that audience. We're actually going to reach many, many more people. So we're In fact, we're producing an event for the Radiological Society of North America later this month. And I suspect they'll reach many more attendees than they would have in person. And what we also know from virtual events, even pre-COVID, is that they are the number one marketing tool for in-person events. Once I go and sample content, even online, I wanna go back and have more. So that the registrations actually go up for people who've attended a digital event in the past. But I assume that virtuous wheel requires that the digital event is done well. And I know a lot of us have been on conferences this year, that were real last year. Yes. And you get there, and you get a lot of beautiful, creative in the email. They really build you up, there's a great site for the conference. And then when you actually log in on show-open day, it's just a tele-presence, it's just another Zoom or Teams or WebEx. And that's fine, but it almost seems like there's less of a payoff- Yeah. Less of a richness than you were expecting in all the roll-up. What are the things you've learned this year, this crazy year, that have helped you guys make digital events as good as they can be? In the beginning of this COVID period, we saw basically the stopgap measure of taking whatever I planned for a physical event, and trying to put it online. Which of course is an epic fail, because that's not an experience you can have online, but it has definitely gotten better. We've all been growing with our customers and getting more sophisticated, and really recognizing why people are there. So the vast majority of people who are attending digital events are going for content, they're really not going as much for networking. So we have to program that medium differently, we have to think about it in a different way. In the beginning, the dissatisfaction rate was something like, 91% of people were unhappy with their experience, but it's improving. But I think it's important to say that what we experienced pre-COVID and what we're experiencing now will not be the future. So right now, we have a lot of folks who are basically adjusting to this environment, but we're gonna end up with a more integrated approach. And again, we'll use the digital component for a different experience, much shorter. I personally believe we're kind of at a TED Talk basically, for content online, no more than seven or nine, eight- Yeah, I'm glad to hear that, I think we've all learned very quickly that there's something about 15 or 20 minutes that works really well online, and something closer to an hour can work in person. And like you say, you can't just shovel the in-person onto the Internet and say, here, we did it. Yeah, well, and you're competing with so many other things when you're online, versus in-person. When I have you in-person, I've got a captive audience. I mean, sure, you might have been out too late the night before, but the truth is, you're all-in. When you're online, you're checking your email, you're looking at your text messages, you may have a kid flying through the background. There's a lot going on, and so you're just really distracted. So you've gotta give people bite-sized chunks of content to hold them. But again, I think the beautiful opportunity is this integrated approach, an omni-channel approach to how we educate and reach people. I received a pitch to go to a conference recently, one that I normally go to in Orlando, and it's usually about a $3,000 registration. This year, it's $300, that clearly doesn't work. How will the math, loosely speaking, of the hybrid future work out for those for whom it's a business, like your company? Yeah, well, I think that, again, as I mentioned, we're gonna reach many more people than we would have reached in a physical event. Let's say an association has 100,000 members, but only 10,000 people came to their annual meeting. I think the annual meeting will actually become more valuable, because it will be so contextualized, so personalized, it will be the experience. And then for all of those folks that didn't come already, the other 90,000 members, it's a new revenue stream. And quite frankly, it's a new way for organizers to be relevant, to make sure they are talking to their entire community all the time. We just did this incredible thing for AMD, where we dropped a film for CES. And they had more reach in the first 24 hours then they would have gotten all week in the show. But think about, if you did that, and then the most qualified buyers showed up at the show? I think that actually makes that experience more valuable. And I think, quite frankly, it'll make you wanna be there all that much more. You'll be dying to spend $3,000 on that conference in the future. And there are some shows, those who of us who attend many of them know, there are some shows that are marketplaces of thoughts, discussion, and ideas and networking, kind of intangible shows, although they will typically have an expo. And then others that are very centered on CES Sema, these shows that have giant industrial equipment. Do those have different paths back to full health? Or is it kind of the same playbook for both Well, I think it's going to be the attendee that's different. So our research we've been doing proprietary research On the market since March, and what we're seeing is that people are eager to get back to live. They want to be face to face as soon as it's safe and healthy to do so. And I think organizers and corporate marketers are really clear that can happen sometime late next summer, early fall. So we've got a little bit more of this. This period of digital, first kind of mentality, we launched a program at the beginning of COVID. We help the industry launch something called go live together where we've been lobbying in Washington, meeting with our legislators, so they really understand the importance of events. It's a little bit of an industry. That's Kind of in the fabric of America, you don't really see it. In the global economy, you don't really see it. But almost half of all companies use events as their primary marketing vehicle. It is a huge and critical component for small business. And so I think what we're going to see is evil needing to get back. You know, big company, small company, you might have more or less to city in that pipeline, but you are using these events to drive your sales channel, your pipeline. That's interesting because that brings up this idea. I was thinking everyone has been hearing the last seven, eight months that man hotels and airlines, they took it on the chin. The most even restaurants were able to adapt pretty well, but hotels and airlines. Got hit the most but if you look at it, they're really just a means to an end. Conferences shows and Expos RNN. So you guys are in a way right at the very tip of the pyramid where the pain hit. What's it been like? What was it like in the early months take me back to how you guys made your initial adaptations. I hate the word pivot. Yeah, no, I hear you. I mean, it's been obviously awful in many ways. It's, it's been a very difficult time, very challenging, more than we've seen in our lifetime. But again, coming out of it, I'm starting to see the, the opportunity that's going to emerge. But in the beginning it was a lot of how do you manage the liquidity? I was, I remember listening in, on a. A session with JP Morgan and Jamie diamond was talking about the shift. I won't use the word pivot that CEO's were having to make. Like, we went from managing to, from profits to cash. And so you immediately think about, okay, I'm at the helm of a 93 year old business here. How do we work through this? How do we take good care of our people? I mean, even fundamental things like mental health, I found myself having leadership discussions around mental health. We brought in a, an industrial psychologist to work with our teams because it is a very big shift. It's a very fast change, but ironically enough, while the near term is frustrating, the long-term value proposition is actually greater. And so it's a good time for leaders. I think to make a bunch of the hard decisions that you didn't want to make when times were perfect and good and really ready the business for whatever tomorrow holds which really equals agility. We have to make sure we build an organization that's agile and it's It's interesting, based on the size, we were fairly large companies, certainly in our industry ,and an old company. So, in some ways COVID is for some of that change that will serve as well in the future. And that's interesting because what you're bringing up there is what I've heard from a number of leaders in this series that we've been talking to since COVID kicked in, and a lot of them will in some form or another say We had to identify what we should keep doing, what we should start doing and what we should stop doing. Identified through a filter of what is COVID made us see better or perhaps for the first time. Do you have anything that slots in those buckets? Keep are gonna stop. Yeah, so many things. I mean, so I have my own simple filters. These aren't the Strategy Team filters, but mine is Can it make money now? can it help my customers with their recovery? And if I had a pile of money when I give it to you, and if you don't pass those filters, then we have a question about why are we doing this? What is it really going to mean for the long term and what's been really interesting for Freeman is we have this long storied history of production and Logistics and producing events but we've been investing in the last decade in strategy and creative and digital, in all of these tools and solutions. And the adoption rate by our customers was relatively low, to be honest. We had lots of good success, but I really wanted everybody to adopt this. I didn't know that we were gonna have a Covid moment. But i really viewed this as the future that you know, you need to put as much effort into all of those types of activities as you do the actual production of the event And now, those businesses are flourishing. People are saying, yeah, we need all that stuff. Maybe we didn't quite see it before. But if you're gonna have an integrated strategy for reaching all of your customers using digital events, broadcast and physical events, the upfront go to market strategy is pretty important. There are investments that we made pre-COVID that looked like they were small investments, small opportunities. We were trying to get customers to think differently about how they really lay out their strategy for life. So thinking about in-person and digital, or virtual and broadcast, and those things have been a hard slog pre-COVID. People it was hard to get it, like, I just want to produce what I've always produced. I want to do the same like- Yes sounds like telehealth in the medical industry where they had to drag it along forever. And then literally overnight, I think the quote from the New York Times about the NHS in Britain was, we moved ten years In one week. Yeah, exactly. It's so funny to say that Brian, I just, I have a doctor's appointment and I thought, I'm gonna have to go into the office, and they were like, no, you're not gonna see the doctor. It's telemedicine, and I've been trying to do this for forever. I don't need to always go see a doctor, and it's changed everything overnight. So that's what's happening in events, the way we think about our strategy, our creative, our digital assets completely different than just six months ago. So that transformation or pivot has actually been very helpful for our customers. So customers are coming along as quickly as you on this new thinking would you say? Customers are right there with us. They were not before. It was still felt like a bell and a whistle and a little nice to have. And all of a sudden it's feeling various essential. Bob Priest-Heck is the CEO of Freeman. [BLANK_AUDIO]

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