A Labor of Love

A salute to the people who get it done

For more than 100 years, Americans and Canadians have celebrated Labor Day on the first Monday in September. The national holiday was born out of the struggle by ordinary men and women to organize around workers’ rights. It’s a day to honor the dignity of a job well done, to acknowledge those whose work laid the foundation for our prosperity, and to enjoy a day of hard-earned leisure spent with those we love.

Labor Day seems especially poignant this pandemic year, which finds so many represented workers — especially in the business events industry — out of work or under-employed. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, especially when it’s not just a job, but your livelihood.

According to Union Plus, there are more than 60 national/international unions that represent millions of workers across America and Canada. Here’s a list I came up with of the union-represented professionals Freeman is proud to work with in our industry…you may be able to add to it:

  • Audio visual technicians
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Plumbers
  • Riggers
  • Material handlers
  • Millwrights
  • Decorators
  • Porters
  • Stage hands
  • Carpet layers
  • Teamsters

These are people who are experts in what they do, but until events are once again viable, their options are limited. We can help everyone stay safe until they can get back to work, and get back to work as soon as it’s safe, by urging our representatives to pass legislation that supports live business events. As part of the Go LIVE Together coalition, we’re working to secure relief funding that will benefit everyone working in our industry, through extension of unemployment, additional funding for vaccine and rapid testing development, access to long-term funding and loans to sustain our businesses, and liability protection.

You can learn more about how to help by learning about the #GoLIVETogether movement here.

Have a happy Labor Day. Here’s hoping next year’s holiday is one everyone can celebrate together.

Don’t Be Right — Be Effective

Shouting never helps.

Is it me, or is everybody getting a bit overwrought these days? Election rhetoric tends to cause a certain degree of national divisiveness, but this year it is compounded by the added stress of pandemic concerns, economic woes, and social justice issues. Everything seems to be subject to debate, even such former “givens” as whether or not our kids should go to school. We’ve somehow lost the ability to engage in civil discourse; the simplest disagreements can provoke rage.

There is plenty of misunderstanding to go around and not enough empathy. No one was ever convinced to listen to a differing opinion when it’s being shouted at them. In fact, most opinions are grounded in our emotions — and an appeal to logic is wasted. People don’t like how they feel in confrontational situations. Arguments don’t lead to understanding. That’s why, as people of influence within our community, our businesses, and our families, we have an obligation to take the high road.

Don’t worry about being right — worry about being effective. Work toward unity. Act with integrity. Focus on common goals. Be productive. Inspire other people to do the same. This is the only way we can move forward as a country, a society, and an industry.
There are only two ways to deal with a landmine — you can set it off, or you can quietly, patiently, carefully dig it out and defuse it.

It it’s time to come together. The first move is yours.

Small Businesses, Big Dreams

These little success stories speak volumes.

Sudie Thorsen, an avid gardener, was trying to tackle some yardwork. Every time she’d dig in, she’d realize she needed one more tool from the shed. As with so many people who garden or simply enjoy yardwork, Sudie’s real challenge was keeping everything together. She told her husband, Robert, that she needed a pack burro; he invented one.

Robert’s organizer fits over the back of a standard wheelbarrow, between the handles. It even has a cupholder and a secure place for cell phones. The Thorsen’s adult children helped them form a company, and the Little Burro was born. Then, with high hopes, they took their new product to the huge National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. Out of 11,000 entries for new products, they won first prize. Little Burros was a hit. It became a best seller on Amazon and was recognized by multiple retailers as a favorite. It’s another American Dream made real because a family was able to put its idea in front of the right people.

That’s what trade shows do better than any other medium — they connect small, innovative companies with the vast marketplace. And this isn’t an isolated story.

OMI Gems has been a family-owned business for five generations, with a solid reputation for providing only the finest loose gemstones. They rely on face-to-face transactions at trade shows to market their finely curated stones to buyers who want the best.

Bernie Fay invented an apparatus he called the “MISIG” (Most Important Stretch in Golf); he designed it as an exercise device and swing trainer to up his golf game and prevent injury. He took it to the PGA Merchandise Show and met the “king makers” whose thumbs-up meant instant success.

The Resnick family took their idea for the UpCart, a stair-climbing, foldable hand truck, from concept to successful business by getting it in front of buyers at the National Hardware Show.

Of the 1.7 million exhibiting companies like these, 80 percent are small businesses — with fewer than 500 employees. Forty-six percent of small businesses attend at least one show annually and 41 percent consider event marketing to be their top channel for lead generation. As business people and as consumers, we tend to watch Wall Street and big corporations as early indicators of recovery. But we cannot afford to forget the small businesses who make it happen. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Google, The Walt Disney Company, and Tesla Motors all started in somebody’s garage. Phil Knight launched Nike from the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant. Michael Dell’s computer empire came together in his Austin dorm room.

I wonder what big innovations are quarantined right now, waiting to emerge from the garage or basement into the white-hot spotlight of a trade show. I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, we can advocate on their behalf. Check out #GoLIVETogether and find out how to help bring small dreams to the big market.

Whether you are a trade show organizer or an exhibitor, we’d love to hear about your success. You can share your story by posting it to our Go LIVE Together Facebook page or emailing it to stories@golivetogether.com.

The Big Reboot Starts Small

The benefits are potentially huge

In a recent post, I acknowledged that while I have great optimism regarding the rebooting of the live events industry, I understand that this cannot happen everywhere, all at once, as if with the flip of a switch. And even if the industry could magically start up where it left off, it would not be a good thing.

We have an amazing opportunity to rethink event design in a big way. And at first, that could mean that the events we design are smaller. They might also be more regionalized and more focused on specific audience needs, which helps us make them more personal. This individualized approach creates new paradigms for the industry and a chance for unprecedented innovation.

For too long, our industry has focused on the size and scale of our events, sometimes sacrificing the quality of the attendee experience. Through our data and insights team at Freeman, we’ve done some exciting benchmark work which shows that not all attendee profiles are created equal.

In a post-pandemic world, we can shift our focus to getting the right people to the physical events — the decision makers, influencers and brand loyalists who drive revenue for the 1.7 million businesses who exhibit annually.

We can deliver pre-qualified prospects to our exhibitors. We can foster more meaningful connections for attendees. We can incubate more powerful breakthroughs. And we can use a hybrid platform to reach more people, beyond the core, on a virtual basis.

By starting small and getting closer to our respective communities, we can also invest more in our own people. (This industry simply has the best people — I never get tired of saying this.) We can train our people to champion the new way of thinking and help people embrace the new norms.

We can also seize the opportunity to toss out the window any processes or procedures that have been holding us back. One of Bruce Mau’s favorite questions is, “what should we stop doing?” We have a unique opportunity, as we start fresh, to employ design thinking, invite fresh ideas, and innovate.

This notion of starting fresh has broad application and we can already see it playing out. COVID-19 was a wake-up call to humanity that has led to changes in behavior around social justice and the environment. It has nudged us into a place of appreciation and gratitude for what we hold dear.

In the live events industry, it has led to deeper conversations with clients, new levels of collaboration amongst competitors and partners, greater flexibility in the workforce, and the freedom of tossing away the words, “the way we’ve always done it.”

The key will be keeping those learnings when times are good again. Think big. Start small.

A Friend in Deed

Friendship takes the active voice

There’s an old adage that says, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” I’d like to amend this. If I’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we are all a bit needy at times, including me. And even as we are seeking help, we are probably still in a position to help someone else, because their needs are different than ours.

Friendship is a two-way collaboration. Our actions — our reciprocal good deeds — are the measure. Whether we join together to promote a common cause or just give someone a chance to vent, it all helps. Whether we collaborate at work or on a bowling league, it’s achieving something together that feels so rewarding.

Ironically, during this time of quarantine, I have learned not only to value more deeply the friends I have, but to discover new friends I didn’t know I had. These are people who are rallying to champion the recovery of the business events industry. Many of them are colleagues and clients. Some of them are competitors with whom we are privileged to march under the #GoLIVETogether banner. Some of them lead small businesses that are struggling to understand and protect themselves from liability issues relating to the uncertainty of next-phase planning. Although the industry is huge, 99 percent of business event companies are small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. They could use a friend right now, and many of us are trying to be that friend.

Consider reaching out to your legislators to get the word out regarding a need to protect vulnerable companies. We all want to see the return of business events when the time is right, but without a financial incentive to participate, too many small businesses will be locked out of this critical sales and marketing channel, putting them behind their larger competitors. A temporary tax credit to defray the costs of exhibiting and attending will offer this needed assistance. This will once again allow businesses to participate at events, which will help all of us by promoting economic stimulus, employing thousands of people, and driving millions of dollars to local economies.

We’ve made it easy to connect with your elected officials and ask for their support by following three simple steps. Start by clicking here to join us. Be a friend in deed. #GoLIVETogether

Don’t Wait to Celebrate

Validation helps us fight the good fight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “the Great Reset.” That’s my shorthand for everything that’s rocked our world and our industry in the last 100 days as we navigate a pandemic, fight a global recession, and come to grips with a new Civil Rights movement that is justifiably disrupting the status quo. I used to think that companies like Freeman, who have overcome every conceivable challenge and adversity in 90+ years, had seen it all. But we’ve hit the trifecta of sea change, compressed in an unimaginable time frame.

I suspect that this is what it means to live at the speed of digital, where there is scarcely time to process the significance of events in real time because they are coming at what feels like warp speed. It’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining for everyone. But baked into the formula of rapid change is inherent hope that rapid change can also bring positive transformation. And that’s why, even when we are scrambling to keep the plates spinning and feeling overwhelmed — especially when we’re feeling that way — we need to celebrate our victories.

Cause for applause came from a surprising quarter last week when Forbes officially included Freeman on its annual list of America’s Best Employers for Women. This unsolicited accolade from such a credible source served as validation that when we act with intent, live our values, and refuse to accept the lazy, ingrained habits that excuse discrimination, we can affect positive change. The Freeman manifesto states that all employees can expect a “career experience to promote an enriching life of learning, creativity, growth, and fulfillment.” We are committed to the relentless work of ensuring equity in the way people are hired, compensated, and afforded opportunities for promotion — regardless of age, gender identity, race, or any other point of differentiation.

We are not ready to declare absolute victory in the fight to ensure diversity and equity at Freeman. But as an organization grounded in design thinking, we know that diversity is critical to success in an industry that demands innovation. This affirmation encourages us to push harder. And on a larger scale, it is a welcome reminder that the seemingly thankless task of tilling the soil today may bear fruit sooner than we think. Until then, we would do well to stay focused on promoting growth. And let’s make time to celebrate each green shoot.

Compassion, Compliance, and Continuous Improvement

Better design means better for everyone

Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities act was signed into law, declaring that people with disabilities could no longer be denied access to jobs, school, transportation, or to public places. The need to design our conferences and trade shows to be ADA-compliant may have been met with resistance by some and compassion by others, but today we can see that by transforming events to be more accessible to those with limitations, we made those events better for everyone.

In the United States alone, it’s been estimated that one out of five Americans has some form of disability — 48.9 million people. Add to this the graying of America, the fact that the percent of the population over age 60 is dramatically increasing. When we consider how many total people are grappling with issues related to personal mobility and impairments that affect vision, hearing, and cognitive ability, we realize that being inclusive is just good business.

That’s a fact we cannot ignore. Harder to prove, but even more compelling to me, is the notion that inclusivity expands our intellectual capital. Consider, in the 30 years since ADA has gone into effect, how many people with disabilities have been empowered to contribute. Whenever we increase accessibility, we increase diversity, which is an indispensable aspect of innovation. Continuous improvement as a species demands that we leverage our combined brainpower.

Today, we are called to transform the nature of live events in response to a pandemic. Compliance is in everyone’s best interest, and because we are designing for a space that we control (a big, empty ballroom) it’s not that hard. The members of the Go LIVE Together coalition have voluntarily set, and will comply with, health and safety protocols developed in accordance with guidelines from the CDC, WHO, medical and scientific professionals, and local health officials.

Further, the Events Industry Council, through its global APEX COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force, has established a platform for curating, cultivating, and communicating the accepted practices across the global events industry. The prime directive is to enhance safety at in-person gatherings and fuel recovery efforts. And we’ve already begun to imagine what future events could look like. It’s all pretty inviting; you can take a virtual tour here.

To be sure, as an industry, we are getting a great start on the post-pandemic reboot. But we can do more. Consider the lessons of the ADA-era. We must raise the bar and design for expanded accessibility. Even as we manage the size and scope of attendees at live events, we can reach broader audiences by streaming live content for people to consume wherever they happen to be.

And we can surround live events with meaningful, engaging, interactive virtual content that unfolds over time, before, during and after the live event, to contextualize the experience in a robust way. Hybrid events give us new avenues through which to personalize the experience for discreet audiences, wherever they are on their journey, whatever their ability, and whatever their level of commitment or interest.

When we cultivate experiences that enable individuals to learn more, achieve more, and contribute more, we gain more as a society. Compliance is where we begin. Designing the platform for constant design, and continuous improvement, must be the goal.

No Blind Passing

The view on the other side of the hill for the live events industry

Most of us have experienced the frustration of being stuck behind a slow driver on a two-lane highway. If you’re on a hilly road, or one with lots of curves, you simply can’t pass them, because you can’t get a clear view of oncoming traffic.

Blind passing is illegal for a reason — it endangers everyone. But once you have a clear view of what’s ahead, you need to commit. It’s no time to be timid. You need to respond quickly, accelerate, and maneuver to make the pass. Otherwise, you’re stuck.

That’s the analogy I see for the live events industry. We’ve spent months responsibly moving forward, uphill all the way and straining for a clear view of the road ahead. I’m beyond ready to get back to the business of designing and producing live events, amazing moments that unfold in real time for large groups of people.

And despite the reality of pandemic-forced shutdowns in the conference and expositions industry, I am more convinced than ever that Live Events answer an essential human need. It’s a need for both social fulfillment and commercial exchange.

I expressed this optimism recently, in an interview for The Dow Report with Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. He asked me what I’m telling clients when they seek advice. And here’s my response in a nutshell…

Let’s not squander this opportunity.

Collectively, we are well on our way to solving for the most critical issues. There is unanimous agreement that the health and safety of everyone at any live gathering is of utmost importance.

Fortunately, because events and exhibitions take place in controlled environments (as opposed to the mass gatherings we see at parades, festivals, and fireworks displays) we can control attendance to regulate flow and social distancing.

We can design to ensure that the latest CDC standards and official health guidelines are maintained while actually improving and personalizing the experience for attendees and exhibitors.

It’s a reinvention moment.

While as an industry we didn’t have a choice to have a pandemic, we do have a choice to use this pandemic as an opportunity. By incorporating small changes to event strategy, technology, and design, events can become more intimate, meaningful, and personalized. As an industry, we can emerge with an even greater value proposition.

At Freeman, our designers have been storyboarding the attendee journey, considering things like customized learning paths, a choreographed show floor, and re-imagined exhibits that naturally support social distancing guidelines.

Helping exhibitors focus on generating more qualified leads, as opposed to merely attracting big numbers, is another strategic choice that is good business and good health practice. The essential thing is to make each live engagement matter more than ever.

And the integration of hybrid solutions needs to be part of this formula. I agree with Marc Mattieu, who leads transformation at Salesforce.

He shared this perspective with us in a webinar series Freeman sponsored with SISO, in which he remarked that, “While digital connections have brought about increased efficiency, they do not enable starting something new / dreaming bigger / or the non-pre-programmed. That, ‘happens in live.’”

We like to say that live events, experienced face-to-face, have deep reach — we can connect with people in significant ways that engage all the senses.
When we layer in live internet-based elements, leveraging the latest digital technologies, we gain broad reach — we can easily grant access to constituents around the world and benefit by their interaction.

When done well, virtual events are designed as digital experiences, not simply content we watch online. When we truly connect virtual communities, they are here to stay.

At Freeman, we’ve delivered over 1,800 online event sessions with nearly 8,000 presenters, reaching over 187,000 attendees since March. We see hybrid events as the future. By engaging live remote and live in-person audiences, bringing them together through a single platform, events will be able to reach and impact people on a global scale.

The timing of when to launch will naturally be different for specific shows, associations, and corporations. It won’t happen with the throw of a switch. Some can move more aggressively than others, based on their market, audience, and unique mission.

That said, our industry is reaching the crest of the hill and pulling out of the curve. Now is the time to have your plans in place. Understand what’s at stake. Understand the opportunity.

And as soon as you have a clear view of the passing lane, don’t hesitate. Make your move and make it count.

Unity in Times of Crisis

When we’re separated, we need to get it together.

Remember the good old days when we used to worry about the distant future, instead of what’s going to happen tomorrow?

I’m only being a bit sarcastic. The truth is, when we are worried about the future, instead of panicking, we make a plan. But when the next few weeks are looking a bit wobbly, there’s a temptation to do anything to fix it, right away. Especially when we are feeling isolated from our colleagues and worried that no one is doing anything. That misdirected energy invites all kinds of mischief.

Here are two observations (among many) that we’ve realized during this pandemic:

First, it is more unsettling to worry about the present than it is the future. Of course, when something you can’t control starts squeezing your revenue stream, the sense of urgency can be crippling. But beyond that, I believe that it’s unsettling for most executives to worry about the present because we’re in uncharted territory.

The fact is, we usually have the here-and-now figured out, so that it’s just a matter of executing the plan. We have people to do that and they’re good. Conversely, the need to rethink current business plans and operations, when we are used to strategizing for the future, just seems wrong. And that’s the nature of a crisis, isn’t it — something that disrupts our here-and-now.

The second observation is that the importance of unifying our leadership teams increases in direct proportion to the difficulty of making it happen. Thanks to all of the live video conferencing apps available now, it’s relatively easy to invite everyone on your team to check in on a regular basis. We can even design custom Zoom backgrounds. The hard part is acting with intent to schedule regular conferences and make them mandatory.

This may feel pedestrian, but failure to communicate creates a vacuum that people will rush to fill. In the absence of unified direction and continuous recalibration, many people will invent their own narrative to fill the void. Others will get antsy and try to take action. Even those acting with the best of intentions (to say nothing of the paranoid) will busy themselves with work that may be redundant, counterproductive or completely at cross-purposes to the part of the plan someone else is working on.

In both cases, uncertainty is the enemy, and the best way to preempt that is with intentional, proactive orchestration. Make sure everyone is playing in unison, that they agree on timing, and on who is playing which part. Discuss and ensure agreement on what the final composition will be when everyone does their part.

Speaking for my own executive committee, we are absolutely confident that the future holds incredible opportunity for our industry and our company in particular. What keeps us up at night is the constant plan-revision process necessitated by today’s business uncertainty.

On some days, it can feel like trying to climb up the down escalator — it’s hard to see meaningful progress. That’s when alpha-dog leaders are tempted to just take things into their own hands.

But good intentions can have bad outcomes. That’s why we agree to make our weekly check-in call a priority. We can evaluate progress, offer encouragement or insight, and help course-correct the plan as necessary.

It’s vital as leaders that we don’t let physical separation pull our teams apart. Be intentional about finding the right cadence to keep the team connected. Keep the roles and goals clear. And be sure to orchestrate so that everyone performs at their personal best. Then, insist on unity.

A Poorly Kept Secret

It’s all about people.

Today closes what has been the toughest week the people of Freeman have faced since the industry shutdown during WWII. The pandemic has hit the Live Events industry especially hard and our people have been heroic in their efforts to support our customers and strategize a way through. Ultimately, with the cancellation of all large public events for the balance of the year, an industry-wide reset is unavoidable; we have scaled accordingly.

I know we’re not the first to do this and we won’t be the last. Our customers are facing equally challenging decisions. There is no “us” or “them” here — if anything, there is a sad but comforting sense of solidarity as we try to plan for what comes next.

It’s a poorly kept secret that, in my opinion, the success of Freeman, its secret sauce, has always been our people. Our “killer app.” Ninety-plus years of sharing a culture that is grounded in integrity, empathy, and innovation has pretty much weeded out the weak players. It’s been awesome knowing that we work with the best in the business…until we have to part company. Then, it hurts.

During this time of deep uncertainty, I have had the privilege of working with people whose number-one concern has been for customers’ businesses. Even as they could see their jobs going away, their professionalism overruled self-interest. I have taken calls from colleagues impacted by our cutbacks who want to make sure that some detail of a client commitment is fulfilled. I have been briefed by account leads who want to make sure “their show” will be in good hands when it comes back. I have been humbled by the graciousness and professionalism of those who are grateful for their time at Freeman and who want nothing more than to see it succeed well into the future.

Our plan to go forward is an implicit promise to everyone who has ever worked for or with Freeman: employees, customers, and partners, all stakeholders.

No doubt, the Live Events industry has taken a hit. No doubt, it will return — changed, but better designed for the shape of the future.

Here’s what will not change: Our pledge to support each other in moving forward. Our commitment to customers to ground our success in their success. Our ability to act swiftly and decisively on behalf of our clients the moment they are ready.

Our allegiance to all who make up the Live Events community is steadfast. Speaking for Freeman, and for any business determined to bounce back, this much is certain: success is assured only when our people insist on it. When it’s their culture and their legacy to do the right thing, they will accept nothing less.