Recently, at the Professional Convention Management Association’s 2011 Annual Meeting: Convening Leaders, Exhibit City News sat down with Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman, to discuss current trends in the industry.
Popolo is the son-in-law of Donald S. “Don” Freeman, Jr., chairman of Freeman. He joined the company as assistant treasurer in 1997. He became president in 2001, when Don Freeman asked him to move to the operations side of the business and was named CEO in 2008.
Popolo holds a master’s degree in business administration with concentrations in economics and finance from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and an undergraduate degree in finance from Boston College. Popolo, along with sister-in-law Carrie Freeman Parsons manage Freeman’s portfolio of businesses.
Exhibit City News: What is your take on the changes at McCormick place?
Joe Popolo: We are very happy with them. We were very instrumental in working with the MPEA, the Illinois Legislature and certainly a lot of our customers who have events in Chicago, to help provide information and support to steer the process to a point where we are partnering with the labor community to find solutions that are reasonable for everyone.
Labor has taken these changes in the spirit in which they were meant, as everyone had to give a little. We gave up a lot of revenue because exhibitors can do more in their own booth. We are happy to be able to provide electrical services, which should both help to reduce exhibitor costs and improve service.
We understand that these changes are good for the city, good for the exhibitors and they make Chicago more competitive. For the most part, our union partners have been great at adopting the new rules and moving forward for the benefit of the entire meeting industry in Chicago.
ECN: With the recent success they have had signing conventions; do you see other facilities adopting similar rules?
JP: Chicago, because of its long history of unionization and the number of different jurisdictions involved, probably had the most complex labor environment in the nation to begin with. But, I think every city in America watched what happened in Chicago, and to that extent, if other cities can make themselves more hospitable they will have an opportunity to win more business.
Freeman is ready, willing and able to work with our partners in the labor community, at facilities, with bureaus and anyone else who can help continue to lower costs and make exhibiting less of a hassle. If event marketing becomes too expensive or too much of a hassle, we all lose.
So, even if it costs us some revenue out of our pockets in the short run, we are all much better off. From our perspective, one of the biggest issues in the industry is still cost. Event marketing is still very expensive, so the industry needs to make sure that we are providing a premium, hassle-free product to our customers.
ECN: It seems a number of events have been co-located in the past year. Do you see this practice continuing as the industry rebounds?
JP: Well, we have had co-location throughout the history of our industry. It is always going to make sense for our customers to look at their customer base, as well as other customer’s attendees and exhibitors, to see if there are opportunities for one plus one to make more than two. This is a very dynamic industry, and it continues to evolve, so you are going to continue to see smart folks looking for opportunities to co-locate or partner with other groups.
ECN: Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. What changes in the industry, brought on by the recession, do you think will make the industry stronger in the future?
JP: I think everyone across the board had to look at every process and the way they did business and make changes to adapt to the new economy. We have been through a tough time. I think the industry as a whole has done a great job of resetting to the new normal and hopefully we can all grow moving forward. But, I think folks are going to be cautious about making significant additions to their teams until everyone is comfortable that the underlying economy is improving.
ECN: Are there any adaptations that Freeman made during the downturn that have become standard operating procedures now for the company?
JP: Coincidentally, with the downturn we had been looking at lean, a waste elimination methodology, in order to be more efficient and to be better partners for our customers. Thankfully, our employees have embraced lean, and we have seen some major operational improvements. The downturn certainly solidified the need for lean practices in our minds and caused us to put more resources toward it than we may have otherwise.
We are also pushing forward on a lot of process enhancements to help improve our services and lower costs. Through our integrated ordering platform, exhibitors can order all of the services through one portal.
Our Concierge Elite and CE Mobile tools are empowering exhibitors to do more online and without having to walk to a service desk. They can now complete all of their work and check out of the show without ever having to leave their booth.
Throughout the downturn, the one area we decided to not cut back on, at all, was customer service. In fact, we put more resources behind it. The ability to provide best-in-class customer service is one of the key differentiators for us in this industry.
ECN: It seems the environmental movement has made it to the tradeshow industry. Have your clients been requesting environmentally friendly events?
JP: Yes, more and more of our customers want to know what we are doing from a sustainability perspective and how we can help them make their events more sustainable.
Many people feel a moral imperative to be more efficient and not wasteful. It really just makes sense; if we can save money and be better corporate citizens at the same time.
ECN: What does Freeman offer as far as green events and exhibiting?
JP: When it comes to our day-to-day operations, Freeman actively engages in green practices; from recycled supplies, recycling our carpeting, to motion-sensor lights in our offices, we have a major focus on being environmentally conscious. In particular, we have been putting a lot of emphasis on waste reduction through our company-wide lean initiative.
We also partner with our clients to determine what best suits their needs; we ensure that each option we give them is responsible economically, as well as ecologically. We’ve developed multiple digital platforms, such as Freeman Online and Concierge Elite, which eliminate large quantities of show floor paperwork and order forms.
ECN: What is it about this business that still excites you in the morning when you wake up?
JP: Initially, I was really taken aback by how dynamic the industry was, how cutting-edge the industry was and how someone can touch so many industries and have so many experiences in this business.
I think there is still so much growth opportunity in this industry for our customers to be successful. Ultimately, everything we do comes out of the marketing dollar and I think there is a way for events, exhibits, corporate meetings and product launches to take an even bigger share of the event marketing dollar.
We have so many great and interesting customers with different challenges, and it is fun for us to help them solve those challenges. No two customers are the same; they all have different needs, objectives and concerns. It is our job to take all the knowledge we have to help them solve those problems.
Interview with Joe Popolo – Part 1
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