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.

Why Events Matter

Nurturing what’s best in the human experience.

Like just about everyone I talk to lately, I am craving human contact. In fact, I am craving the jostling sidewalk crowds and weekend market throngs that used to annoy me. I want to rub shoulders with people. I want to watch tour groups move like a school of fish through Fisherman’s Wharf. I want the joy of discovering an old friend at a capacity-crowd concert.

It’s while I was thinking about this that a light came on in my head. Yes, safety comes first. Yes, we need to do our part to flatten the curve and give our healthcare system a chance to get on top of this pandemic. But I realized that the very things that I miss most about personal face-to-face interaction are the very things that make the live-events industry unique, valuable and irreplaceable. And I wonder how many people understand the extent to which the events industry is part of the fabric of America — and of the world. I wonder if they realize that the hospitality and travel industries they worry about are actually a subset of the live events industry.

Our conferences, trade shows and exhibitions serve as incubators for nurturing what’s best in the human experience. In this sense, our events are a catalyst for so much…

  • education
  • commerce
  • industrial progress
  • humanitarian progress
  • intellectual development
  • innovation
  • connection
  • collaboration
  • inspiration
  • fellowship
  • ceremony
  • celebration

I’m sure you can add to this list. And the beautiful thing is, these things are possible at a live gathering both because of and in spite of the designed programming and content. The human experience blossoms in peripheral contact with like-minded individuals who bring new perspectives that provoke unexpected connections. And when enough people start connecting the dots at these events, the picture they reveal can inspire seismic change.

This helps explain why live events have historically served as the incubator for so many tech start-ups — scrappy innovators that grew to become Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. Without the incubator of tech events, they would never have found the interest, support and momentum that new ideas need to thrive. And when we consider that this is equally true for medical breakthroughs, food technology, manufacturing, and every other business and educational sector, we begin to appreciate how critical this human connection is to universal progress — in every field, benefiting all humankind.

I worry that, right now, potential breakthroughs in a variety of areas are languishing because, thanks to the pandemic, our social incubators are unplugged. And it’s why so many of us are advocating for swift measures to get the industry back up and running as soon as possible. This is bigger than the three million workers who were directly employed in the events industry before the pandemic hit. It’s bigger than the 1.6 million companies (80 percent of them with fewer than 500 employees) who exhibit and transact business at trade shows.

It’s as big as the human experience and our potential to create positive change. It’s as urgent as finding a preventive measure for the next global catastrophe. It’s as vital as building a better world for future generations.

#EventsImpact ­­— it’s where solutions are discovered.

It’s a Small World

Expanding globally promotes design diversity.

Have you ever thought about the expression, “It’s a small world”? Typically, it’s an exclamation used when we run into a friend unexpectedly, or meet a stranger who happens to share our esoteric tastes. Technology has made the world smaller in the sense that it is easier to visit – virtually, at least – its farthest expanses. We can Snapchat with our friends in Asia, WebEx with the London office, and read the latest news from South Africa in real time.


I believe that people from diverse cultures and locations are more alike than they are different. But I also believe the differences are worth noting and celebrating. One of the serendipitous benefits of expanding into new business sectors and global markets is that it brings a unique perspective to the enterprise. No matter how well-read, well-travelled, or well-staffed we may be, the odds are slim that someone in our Ottawa branch will bring the same resources to a challenge as one of our people in Singapore or, for that matter, in Dallas. And that’s a good thing.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to visit with our teams in Sydney, New Zealand, Singapore and China – offices that joined us as part of recent acquisitions. I was totally energized by their ideas and the diversity these professionals bring to our enterprise. I learned that these APAC offices have a great mix of men and women and age groups, all tackling a broad range of client businesses with interesting opportunities and challenges. And everyone seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what we can accomplish together.

I am especially interested in how things are developing in the critical China market.  Given its size, growth potential, and importance to the long-term global economy, I’m glad we have solid people in China who can help build our resources and capabilities. Especially as it relates to intellectual capital.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, which you can download here, indicates that China is the home to “global innovation powerhouses in e-commerce, messaging, travel, financial services, and on-demand transportation.” Further, she suggests that as disposable income continues to grow within China’s vast population, it all points to burgeoning opportunity for smart marketers.

For any enterprise hoping to remain relevant in the coming years, the ability to bring both local knowledge and a wider, more diverse world view to the process will prove invaluable. The nature of innovation requires that we shift perspective – stand on our heads, change our vocabularies, and imagine new worlds in which the familiar laws don’t apply. Global expansion, and the commitment to work face-to-face with people who don’t share our list of “givens,” forces us to make the leap.

Designing for a digital world

If Apple had waited for people to demand a small, portable MP3 player, we’d still be waiting for that first iPod. And that’s the cool thing about disruptive innovations that change everything — they catch people by surprise.

Digital World

Of course, market disruptors have been around for a long time. The introduction of the English Long Bow completely changed the course of history. The invention of kitty litter allowed millions of people to become pet owners and created a huge new pet care market — as well as thousands of Internet memes.

We live in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and our biggest disruptions are enabled by digital technologies. But just as with the invention of the Long Bow, the biggest successes will come when these new product services surprise people with a solution to a problem they couldn’t articulate.

Second screen technology is already disrupting how we engage with conference audiences. And I am excited when I think about how digital breakthroughs might combine to bring other solutions to industry problems we don’t even register. 3D printing and micro-customization. Drones with cameras and sensors that talk to beacons. Smart watches that connect your biofeedback with a virtual reality experience. The whole “Internet of Me” trend. We can combine these to make experiences better, less complicated, and more personal. And we can pull better metrics to improve our game.

That’s the beauty of design thinking. If you start with the idea of solving a thorny problem, your result will be a product or service that already has a market. The digitization of the market place has accelerated the cycle of consumer demand and abandonment. But if we stay focused on designing for the needs and wants of our audiences — instead of waiting for them to tell us what they want — we win.

Remember, no one asked for an iPod. Until they couldn’t live without it.

If you want to be seen as innovative – you have to innovate.

Pretty much every company on the planet wants to be seen as innovative. But fewer want to do the hard work of actually being innovative. If only it were as easy as showing up with an Apple Watch strapped to our wrists. But real innovation involves work, risk, and even worse, failure.


Innovation is the corporate equivalent of being physically fit. We all want to have a ripped body with 6-pack abs — we may even invest in a gym membership or a personal trainer. But when push comes to shove, there are too many practical things that get in the way of our goal.

True innovation requires thinking beyond conventional wisdom and embracing change. For example, at Freeman we occasionally get push-back from conference presenters when we offer second-screen technology. They are uncomfortable with the idea of inviting people to engage with their mobile devices while they are speaking. But the truth is, people are increasingly looking at their cellphones whether or not you give them permission. Second-screen technology simply leverages the audience’s preferred channel to invite interactivity and share relevant content in real time.

Successful organizations continue to invest in technology and resources that support innovation. But this is like the gym membership. Ultimately, we just have to exercise that part of our brain that lets us innovate. Ironically, one of the things that inhibit innovation is worrying what others will think. Fear of failure can paralyze the intellectual muscles we need to keep creatively limber. That’s why it’s important to stretch ourselves – to push beyond our comfort zones. True innovators don’t worry about being one of the cool kids – they just get on with it.