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Q&A: Freeman CEO shares his views of the industry

Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman

Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman

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: Describe how the struggles of the industry over the last few years have affected Freeman.

Joe Popolo:
They have affected us certainly in terms of revenue, just like everyone else. We have had to look at our entire operating system and figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense.

We are spending more time with our customers to figure out what they value and don’t value and are looking for ways to be more efficient. This is not just from a cost perspective, but also from a green perspective.

The downturn has made us realize that the current revenue streams we have may not always look the way they do now. So we asked ourselves, ‘what are the new emerging revenue streams and solutions that we can offer our clients?’ As a result, we have made some alliance announcements, investments and acquisitions. Additionally, we have pushed more deeply into the creative and technology portion of our business as well as making it a point to do more work globally.

ECN: What are some of Freeman’s goals for the next year?

We are looking for every opportunity to stay close to our customers and we want to continue to push the customer service side of our business. We want our customers to think of us more and more as a creative and strategic partner, not just a supplier. We want them to ask us ‘how can we collectively come up with value-added solutions?’

We would also love to see some additional top-line growth and we’re always on the hunt for new solutions and new partnerships.
Basically, we are pushing on the product front, the customer front, the service front and the cost front. So, we have a lot of irons in the fire.

ECN: Will Freeman be actively seeking acquisitions in 2011?

Absolutely, we are always on the look-out for acquisitions. We have been blessed over the years, as Don has managed the company conservatively and thankfully we have a healthy balance sheet. If there are opportunities to provide our customers with additional solutions and the best way to do that is through acquisitions, then that is the way we are going to proceed.

For us, on the acquisition front, in addition to it making financial and strategic sense, the culture side is so important since we are a family and employee-owned business. We only want to partner with firms that share our service-oriented culture and our vision for the future.

Frankly, acquisitions are tough and they are expensive. Freeman looks at a lot of them, but we only make a few that we think are going to fit perfectly for our customers and our employees.

ECN: As far as the recession is concerned, what do you think 2011 will bring for the tradeshow industry?

I believe we are going to see growth in 2011. We are already seeing it in the corporate space; in particular on short-term corporate meetings and in our creative and audio/visual departments. They have rebounded quickly.

On the tradeshow floor, I expect to see some growth, but that growth is not quite as robust as we are seeing in the corporate market. We are receiving RFPs from corporations we never thought we would have the opportunity to work with, which is a great sign.

ECN: Is the corporate side usually the quickest to come back after a recession?

Yes, I think you are absolutely right. This cycle feels a little different to me, in that overall the industry is coming back more slowly. Having been through the last downturn around 9/11, it went down and came back up. I would say within a year to 18 months we were back up. This time, we are 3 years into the recession, and are just now seeing growth.

ECN: What trends do you see emerging in the industry right now?

Certainly, a much deeper adoption of technology to enhance and extend the value of live events is one trend. Freeman continues to see a shift toward more focus on branding, and that is why we got much deeper into the agency side of the business. This way, we can help our customers not only extend their brand from a creative and strategic level, but also help them execute it. We continue to focus on new creative solutions and ideas for customers to achieve their objectives through live events.

The tradeshow floor continues to evolve, and the exhibitor community continues to become more professional in terms of how exhibits look with the use of technology and fabric structures.

ECN: A lot has been said recently about the battle between face-to-face marketing and virtual meetings. Which way do you see the industry shifting in that regard?

I don’t see a shift away from live events. The folks who tend to be on the front edge of adoption are looking very hard at using a virtual component to enhance the live meeting. Virtual is not going to replace live events, because there is certainly a dialogue that people want to continue beyond the life cycle of a live meeting.

When you talk about virtual, it really is all about the content. The virtual component is all about continuing the discussion and delivering content. There is only so much you can deliver in a three-day period and a great way to enhance a live meeting is to put that content online.

ECN: How is Freeman preparing itself for the virtual element?

JP: As you may have seen, we have formed an alliance with InXpo. From our perspective, InXpo is the premier online platform. We are pushing hard to educate our sales force and get them out in front of our customers. We think it is a great tool, and we want to talk to as many customers as we can about how to use this great new tool to make them even more valuable to their customers.

In part two of this interview, Popolo discusses the changes at McCormick Place, how the recession has affected tradeshow sustainability and what excites him about this industry moving forward.



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