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.

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.

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.

Authentic Empathy

Staying true to who you are says it all.

If you follow my blog (thank you) you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about how leadership, in the best of times, demands integrity and authenticity.  And in darker times, we also need to be mindful about meeting people where they are — especially if we know they are feeling threatened, frightened or abandoned.

This has been a challenge for brand marketers who rely largely on mass media channels. One after another, brands with highly-targeted, award-winning campaigns have pivoted their messaging to something more pandemic-appropriate. It explains why we are seeing so many look-alike ads on TV these days — with meditative piano music, stirring images, and a trusty voice over assuring people that “Brand X is here for you.” The intentions are sound, but it starts to feel generic.

There’s got to be a better way — one that’s brand-authentic while still being empathetic. This timely Progressive Insurance ad gets my vote for best-of-season, because it is 100 percent on-brand and stays true to who they are.

Instead of playing the same sad tune as everyone else, they have a little fun by showing their quirky sales team experiencing the kind of epic Zoom fails that are emblematic of the new normal. With so many of us working from home, helping kids with distance learning, and wishing grandma happy birthday on Skype, it’s totally relatable. It’s funny. It creates empathy. The message is authentic.

We can all learn from this as we plan how to move forward, especially those of us in the live events industry. Regardless of whether we all meet in a conference hall, connect via streaming digital, or interact using a new hybrid platform, we need to approach people with empathy and authenticity. We have to acknowledge that they have experienced many, many changes in the last few months. And we have to be honest about setting expectations for even more change as we learn to interact in ways that are socially responsible and that mitigate contagion. Ultimately, it’s change for the better. But we are growing weary of constant change.

That’s why we need to lean into the one thing that shouldn’t change — who we are and what we stand for. If people trusted you before the pandemic and you have stayed true to your core brand values, they will trust you going forward. So ask yourself how can I, my brand, my company, my business, my association, solve some of the problems my customers are grappling with? How can I make them glad they chose to work with us? What gesture of appreciation can I offer them, beyond mere platitudes? Start with authenticity: say what you mean and act on it. That’s all any of us really want.

Designing LIVE — Our Better Angels

There are inherent advantages to the self-policing nature of live events.

One benign outcome of the pandemic is that is that people have become more comfortable with the various technologies that let us connect virtually. Further, I suspect that as people spend more time connecting through social media, they are gaining both an appreciation of and a wariness regarding how it contributes to the larger conversation.

I am a huge advocate for integrating virtual connections into live events. But for me, the isolating nature of the pandemic has underscored the irreplaceable nature of face-to-face. In considering what we value most about “LIVE,” Bruce Mau finds it revealing to compare it to the most ubiquitous marketing channel, social media.

“Imagine social media in the light of day, without the sinister dimension of unbridled, anonymous nastiness,” Bruce says. “LIVE is governed by our better angels, by etiquette and conventions of social conduct.”

Certainly, the anonymity afforded by online platforms brings out the worst in some people. These are avoided in LIVE events, whether they are conducted virtually or face-to-face.

In LIVE, not only are there consequences for bad behavior, but there are ample rewards for those who contribute in meaningful ways. Events transform the experience from merely a place, at a moment in time, into a custom experience where people choose to gather with purpose. They attend conferences, expositions, and branded events because they hope to get something back. They seek new business solutions. They build their network of experts and influencers. They investigate best practices. They feed their curiosity about new innovations. They find inspiration. All of these things are more readily available to those who walk in the door with an empathetic mindset, eager to collaborate and open to the ideas being shared.

Some of this correlates to a sense of accountability that doesn’t always apply to virtual sessions. It’s easy to become distracted and lured away from a screen, but one positive outcome of the global crisis is that people have been forced to adopt habits that let them become better about focusing and contributing in live-but-virtual situations. We are learning to treat participation in live virtual engagements with the same respect we give face-to-face meetings, where we have invested time and money to attend. In reality, anytime we commit to being with people — in person, on the phone, or through a web platform — we have skin in the game. It’s called “building relationships,” and we can’t do without.

Ironically, the incursion of digital marketing into our personal and professional lives underscores the meaningful and uniquely sensory connection that is only possible through the human medium of LIVE events. And the beautiful thing about LIVE events is that they can easily embrace digital technology to expand through virtual connectivity — including audiences who are unable to attend in person.

By designing LIVE with our better angels in mind, and including enhanced virtual participation from the beginning, we can reach beyond our immediate audience to connect with more people than ever before. In this sense, LIVE becomes the platform for launching new, hybrid solutions that allow us to be more inclusive and diverse, while leveraging the benefits only LIVE can offer.

I miss the energy that I can only find on the floor of a LIVE event. And I can’t wait to get back to the important work of designing events to be even more inclusive, more broad reaching, and more personally relevant. That’s what’s possible in the new era of LIVE.

Reconnecting in the 21st Century

Is the fight between face-to-face and phone time legitimate?

The need to connect with our fellow human beings seems to be hardwired into our DNA. The popularity of social media, combined with the ubiquity of mobile phones, feeds this basic need. Ironically, our addiction to the very devices designed to keep us connected often gets in the way of more meaningful face-to-face encounters or life experiences. This is the premise espoused by many and clearly articulated in a Forbes article last July.

We’ve all seen examples: people preoccupied with taking selfies at the Grand Canyon instead of actually enjoying the view; kids playing video games at the dinner table instead of talking to the family; teenagers so absorbed in their text-life that they’ve lost the inclination to converse with the people around them. It’s annoying. But let’s put this in context. When I was a kid, adults worried that my generation watched too much TV. And their parents probably thought they listened to too much radio. Edgar Allen Poe’s father warned him not to waste all that time scribbling stories and poems. So it goes.

As the father of three amazing, uniquely gifted young women, I would never underestimate the importance of on-the-go connectivity in their lives.  They grew up with it. It helps them navigate the world. They may be dependent on their phones, but they aren’t obsessed.  And to be honest, as a busy executive who needs to consult with colleagues and clients, review plans, answer email and make important decisions every day, I have learned to treat a simple Lyft ride to the airport as golden work time with my phone.  When my colleagues glance at a text message or email when we’re together, I understand that the ability to conduct digital triage is precisely what has let them make time for me in their busy schedules. And they know the same goes for me.

The problem, clearly, is that some people can’t put their phones down long enough to interact with the people around them — people with whom they could be sharing a live experience. It’s now routine to announce before a play, lecture, concert, worship service or other collective experience that people should silence their phones. A number of educators and performing artists require students or audience members to bag their cell phones before the event starts, to remove the temptation to disrupt the experience. I think this is great — if only because it sets the expectation that we don’t do that here. It’s understanding the expectation that is important. Our standards for social etiquette need to catch up with technology so that people recognize what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior. The best way to do that is to validate the right behaviors using social media, not dissing it. (#SocialProof)

As a marketer who has spent most of his career in the business of creating opportunities for face-to-face connection on a massive scale, I am committed to the power of live engagement. I have seen how an idea can be amplified, expanded upon and embraced by thousands when people share the experience of walking through an expo or simply network in the hotel bar. But I refuse to dismiss the mobile phone experience as unwanted competition. In fact, I see this as an opportunity. I want to create brand experiences that are so engaging, so relevant, so inspiring that people actively participate in them and then capture and share the moment on social media.  Instead of telling people not to bring their phones into the General Session, I want them to solidify the connection by inviting their questions and comments using second-screen technology. Instead of shoving paper at people, I want to give them information digitally, so that they can comment, search and share it all from that shiny little rectangle they take everywhere.

Do people need to spend more time exercising their social skills than their social media skills? Many do. But instead of complaining about it, or shaming those caught in addictive behaviors, we can present an enticing alternative. When we design irresistible, inspirational brand experiences —and give people a better reason to pull out their smart phones — everyone wins.

Quantity X Capability = Exponential Possibility

#20 Design the Platform for The Power Double Double

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Human history is rich with moments in which massive change was made possible because an innovation that improved our capability coincided with a social movement that engendered increased quantity. For example, the English longbow gave England a decisive advantage during the Hundred Years’ War, but its use in battle was only possible because various English kings had encouraged their citizens to take up mastery of the challenging weapon for sport.

A very different type of bow — one perfected late in the 18th century by Francois Tourte — was embraced by violin virtuosi of the day. Its added length enabled the long, lyrical phrasing that made violin solos possible and popular. Its strength and balance better suited violins for concert hall performances. As the popularity of longer bows swept Europe, it supported a shift to the kinds of string-centric orchestral music we still enjoy.

Today, a similar effect is happening at an exponential level — which explains why even dramatic disruptions seem to gain acceptance overnight. It’s what Bruce Mau refers to as The Power Double Double.

“We start with putting two concepts together. One is the exponential growth in the sheer quantity of people…. the second is the doubling in capacity,” Bruce explains. “Over the last century, we’ve had a double double population. In other words, we started with about 1.5 billion people on the planet in 1900, we doubled to three billion, and then we doubled again to six… it’s the single biggest fact of the last century… we doubled and doubled again the number of people on the planet.”

Next, Bruce invites us to consider that the capability of each of these billions of individuals has seen a similar doubling, thanks to technology that allows people to connect, innovate and collaborate on the design of new solutions in ways previously unimagined. Think about how much we rely on our smart phone apps to accomplish the tasks we now consider routine — tasks that previously would have required us to be in a well-equipped office, or in a tech lab, or in a pricey film-edit suite, or even in another country.

“That’s what makes it a Double Double,” Bruce says. “The fact that the quantities are doubling and the capacities are doubling. So, we are literally producing millions and even billions of people with the capacity to change the world….This is a cool idea and very relevant to our business because it changes the people who show up at our shows…. they come with a new set of expectations; if we don’t meet those expectations, we fall short and we look outmoded, outdated and irrelevant.”

In other words, even if the “same” people come to our events year after year, they are “different” each year, because their expectations have changed. The annual doubling of technology across a vast population means that innovations that seemed mind-boggling at first — such as personal assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google — quickly become normal, price-of-entry features. And the people who rely on them come to our live events expecting that we will take it to the next level.

This prospect may seem intimidating, but the possibilities are incredibly exciting. Especially for those of us engaged in creating live brand experiences. Think of how many products, services, ideas, concepts, medical breakthroughs  and business practices we help to launch into the world. Think of how many people we reach and from how many regions of the world. When we design the platform for The Power Double Double, there is an implicit obligation to make it count. As design-thinkers, we must create our conferences, trade shows, exhibitions and events in ways that harnesses this vast power for a higher good.

Here’s an example that features a Freeman client: the people at IFT (The Institute of Food Technologists) are actively working to elevate the industry they represent and the career outlook of professionals in the field of food science. At their show last year, organizers created an incubator to showcase, launch and even sell new food technology businesses — right from the expo floor. Even more impressive, they are leveraging the The Power Double Double to help solve for the challenge of how to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Understanding that the new culture of food technology is a distributed culture, they have redesigned their IFTNext sessions to highlight the stories of individuals and institutions making a huge difference in solving for things like global food security, sustainability, and reducing carbon footprints. As a result, participation in these breakout sessions has tripled. More people attend; more people leave inspired and equipped to feed the expanding global population.

We are privileged to work in an industry ideally positioned to advance massive change, solve thorny problems and create prosperity for people everywhere. And as Bruce points out, it drives a fundamentally optimistic outlook: “That’s The Power Double Double,” he concludes. “It’s super exciting. This is the best time in human history to be alive.”