Joseph Popolo took over as CEO of Freeman in 2008 — the start of the Great Recession. Three years later, Popolo, the son-in-law of Donald Freeman Jr., has steered the company through the worst of the economic storm, and it has emerged even bigger with the recent acquisition of Wheelhouse Solutions, owner of Champion Exposition Services. We spoke with Popolo about the acquisition and what's next for the industry and the 84-year-old company.

Association Meetings: How does the recent acquisition of Wheelhouse make Freeman a better company?

Popolo: Wheelhouse is made up of three companies — George Fern, Immersa Marketing, and Champion. George Fern is serving some markets that we don't, and they bring geographic diversity. Immersa is much heavier in experiential marketing and focuses on the strategy around how to extend a brand in live events. And then Champion brought a great set of customers with them, as well as great technology. While we believe Freeman is a leader in exhibitor-facing technology, Champion is much stronger in event-organizer technology.

We plan to bring our platforms together, resulting in what we believe will be the best customer-facing technology in the industry. We are taking what Champion did well and supporting it with a much deeper bench at Freeman. One of the things we have been saying to Champion's customers is that you'll still have the account team you have been working with — they will just be supported in a much deeper manner.

AM: What do you see as the biggest opportunity — and challenge — facing the exhibition industry?

Popolo: I think they are one and the same. Our customers have enormous communities that they've helped to grow and foster over the years, and those communities are looking for new ways to reach their customers.

The traditional idea of having a trade show and just expecting people to show up has changed. Our customers are looking for new ways to help their customers connect with the end user, so how do we create events and make them more user-friendly and more in tune with the way people communicate today? There's a great opportunity there. It's also imperative for us to help our customers be more strategic in terms of how they connect buyers and sellers.

AM: What have you done to foster those relationships?

Popolo: Everything from the technology we use to make it easier for exhibitors to exhibit at events to our work in social media to help our customers understand the different tools and how those tools will help them connect their buyers and sellers better.

We've also made a push into hybrid events. For customers who can't make it to a physical event or who want to connect with a community 365 days a year around a physical event, we're helping them use virtual technology to do that.

Virtual trade shows have not replaced in any way, shape, or form a live event, and I don't think they will. What you are seeing is an evolution away from the term virtual trade shows to the term hybrid events, where people use technology to build out the community year round so all of the great content that is developed at live events is available in whatever way the event organizer wants to make it available. There is a great opportunity for people to take that content and allow the conversations and relationships to take place before, during, and after an event. We see this as a new medium connecting buyers and sellers around an event and helping to build a community that at one point could almost be taken for granted.

Once, when you had a trade show, you would build it and they would come. Now event organizers have to work a lot harder to make sure that their events stay relevant and stay at the center of that community.

AM: Where do you see the exhibition industry headed five or 10 years down the road?

Popolo: I think the model will continue to evolve as people look to how technology can help them better refine the buyer-and-seller matching process, whether it's using social media, more technology at events, more audiovisual — which is one of the reasons we've invested in AV businesses.

Events will become more and more global, and you'll see a greater international presence at events. And certainly, as the younger generation moves up and people become more comfortable with using technology, you will see more use of hybrid events and virtual technology around live events.

Event marketing is a big investment, but rarely are you able to be in a place where you have qualified buyers waiting for you to connect with them. I still believe the folks who are smart about event marketing will continue to view live events as the most efficient way of bringing buyers and sellers together.

Meetingsnet.com:

  • About 36 percent of event organizers increased their attendee marketing budgets in 2011 compared to just 9 percent last year, according to the ECEF Pulse Survey, published by the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum.

  • The annual study on travel taxes by the Global Business Travel Association found Chicago and New York leading the way in car rental, hotel, and meal taxes.

  • ASAE leaders have decided not to offer a live-streaming feed from ASAE's 2011 annual meeting, as was done in 2010. Instead, sessions will be recorded and available for viewing on-demand after the meeting.

  • Exhibition industry leaders have developed a new event, the All-Exhibition Industry Summit, with the goal of developing guiding principles and best practices. It will take place sometime in October at an as-yet undetermined site.

Inside Game On!

A report out from the Green Meeting Industry Council dissects the organization's February annual meeting, Game On! The event incorporated online gaming principles to better achieve its goal — changing attendee behavior by introducing more sustainable choices for meetings and events. The report looks at where the “gamification” was successful, where it was not, and how it could be improved. Report co-authors Elizabeth Valestuk Henderson, chief sustainability strategist, Meeting Change, and Mitchell Beer, president, The Conference Publishers Inc. (for his commentary, turn to page 40), introduce readers to the concept of gamification and then take a three-pronged approach to each aspect of the meeting. The report is a must-read for anyone interested in audience engagement techniques. Download it at www.greenmeetings.info.