Focus on ROI, brand-building

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Don Freeman is chairman-CEO of Freeman, a Dallas-based company that plans, manages and executes events. In January, Freeman was given the Distinguished Member Award by the Professional Convention Management Association, which recognizes outstanding overall industry achievement. Freeman, who was named the company president in 1972, spoke with BtoB about his career and the future of the event business.

BtoB: What's the core of your business?

Freeman: The core business is exposition service. Our customers are exposition organizers or trade show sponsors, or professional societies and the exhibitors that participate. Our responsibility starts out by planning the full event, the traffic flow through the whole event and working on the overall logistics of setting up a trade show and taking it down. Working with a facility, including the move-in of all the material, the overall decorating, the carpeting and graphics to directing people in and out of the facility, is another responsibility.

In addition to the general services side, we also have an audiovisual company, AVW-TELAV Audio Visual Solutions. Similarly, their core business is working on exhibitions that would involve projection, lighting and sound-staging. We have a division that produces the creative part [of our event planning], such as an awards ceremony or a speaker back-up.

BtoB: What is the most significant issue b-to-b event marketers must face in the industry today?

Freeman: Determining ROI of face-to-face marketing. There are several new services which rely upon new technologies designed to give more accurate measurement of the ROI in meetings and exhibit participation. I believe it will be necessary for event marketers to use these services to substantiate their event marketing budgets with more credibility.

BtoB: How has the industry changed?

Freeman: The interesting thing is that, in the past, most trade associations' and professional societies' and show organizers' events were pretty much the same from year to year, and the servicing of them was somewhat simple—you make a list and check tasks off to make sure it's all done. But the events have become so sophisticated today that our efforts are much more focused toward working with a customer on what their overall organization objectives are, what their event is doing to support those objectives and what we can do to support an event that supports their brand.

For example, many of the national events move around the country from year to year. Originally, if they had a convention in San Francisco, the entire show decor and theme would center around the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, they are trying to brand their event, so that it becomes the premier event in their industry. There are far more elements of branding in the event decor, layout and physical components, so it has some consistency from year to year. In other words, the event look and feel involves more than just a logo, but an entire culture. That trend has developed over the last five years or so. As a result, our salespeople become consultants, and not just creators of "to-do" lists, when partnering with clients to produce an event. Tactical logistics are still very important, but we are far more involved in the creative aspect of branding the event.

BtoB: What do you do to stay current?

Freeman: Being active in the associations. Also, I like to go to events. You go to network and establish relationships, but I feel there's a tremendous value in going to the meetings and finding out what the customer's problems are, what they're faced with. A big issue in the last several years has been the visa issue—a difficulty in people getting visas so they can attend the conventions and trade shows. I enjoy going to the sessions at these meetings and reading the trade journals help me to stay current.

BtoB: Are there any key trends you see developing in the next few years?

Freeman: I think there will be continuing emphasis on branding events and promoting the value of events. Events are going to become more and more sophisticated—certainly, when considering the effect of the Internet. We went through a period where everybody was worried about people going on the Internet instead of going to shows. It's pretty obvious that the Internet is enhancing trade shows through supplementing the programming and making it available online. I think there are … a lot of interesting things now on measuring return on investment and trying to determine the value of trade shows. The technology side of the business is going to continue to be very interesting.

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