When Freeman brought its global sales representatives together at the Omni Fort Worth and Fort Worth Convention Center on Nov. 17–19, it was like a well-established chef inviting his friends and family over to enjoy a meal — if you layered on the fact that each guest was also responsible for marketing his or her restaurant to diners.
After all, this was Freeman, which provides integrated services for face-to-face marketing events. And while the meeting had major objectives — to thoroughly familiarize the 600-plus sales-team attendees with its growing variety of services and recent acquisitions, and encourage them to network and learn from each other — it also had to serve as a living example of Freeman’s capabilities. It had to “truly be an incubator of innovation,” said David Gauthreaux, executive vice president for global sales of FreemanXP, Freeman’s experiential marketing agency. And the meeting had to be executed in a way that enabled the sales team to present those ideas as solutions to clients.
A tall order, yes. But as Freeman CEO Joe Popolo said: “We are in the event-marketing world. Shame on us if we are not eating our own cooking.” Convene was on site to see how the event-marketing company whipped up its own marketing event.
Shaping the Design
Freeman’s Global Sales Meeting came together in a matter of months, a turnaround not unfamiliar to the company. “The timelines that our clients present us with sometimes are challenging,” Popolo said. “We’re good at quick.”
A “renaissance team” of designers, salespeople, project managers, and leadership brainstormed about the meeting design, said Dan Hoffend, FreemanXP’s president. In addition to having diverse backgrounds, renaissance team members “were open to lots of ideas,” Hoffend said. “And then we got it down to the right mix that would make the most sense for our community.”
We are in the event-marketing world. Shame on us if we are not eating our own cooking
The meeting’s ultimate objective, Hoffend said, was “to connect people in meaningful ways” — which meant connecting attendees to each other as well as to concepts. Specifically, Freeman wanted the sales team to grasp the company’s various capabilities, and to come by that knowledge experientially. “Everybody wants to learn through experiences,” Gauthreaux said. “They don’t want speeches. They don’t want training sessions.”
Attendees also want to be “surprised and delighted,” Hoffend said, “because if I predict it, then I am not as apt to connect emotion to it.” In other words, elements like Freeman’s OneFORUM, held in the ground-floor exhibit hall of the Fort Worth Convention Center, would have to be a significant departure from the traditional exhibition.
‘The World Has Changed. Have Your Events?’
As Freeman sales professionals entered OneFORUM, they were enveloped by subdued mood lighting, with dramatic cobalt-blue uplights and bouncing gobos on the floor. In the center of the huge space were two pods with sleek, white, circular seating and device-charging stations, and an intimate theater made up of a small stage, a large screen, and several rows of cube seats.
On either side of the room, a half-dozen high partitions rose up, with brightly colored borders along their diagonal edge identifying a particular focus, such as “Sharpening Your Business Acumen” and “Customer Insights” — “12 distinct areas for [the sales team to] get smart about everything that we bring to bear,” Gauthreaux said. Behind each partition was a room with its own look and feel, flowing into the next. Company subject-matter experts demonstrated technologies, such as a 3D printer spinning out an exhibit display, or explained how their specific service would work for a particular group or event.
In this way, Gauthreaux said, the sales team “participated in learning in a way that we internalize and actually practice. It’s incredibly immersive.” Hoffend characterized OneFORUM as having a “museum-type atmosphere,” to foster a different kind of learning — “more seek, find, and uncover,” he said.
Large type on smart walls conveyed key messages. One in particular — “The World Has Changed. Have Your Events?” — summed up OneFORUM’s intent.
‘Shark Tank, but a Bit Nicer’
On the meeting’s first day, participants were free to explore OneFORUM, to “stay in one area to absorb it completely, or zip from one to the next to get a little bit of everything,” Hoffend said, because “getting lost is part of the fun of the museum.” They could also choose to listen to “Moth Talks,” short updates presented in the theater about different parts of Freeman’s business.
To facilitate interaction and learning, attendee badges were equipped with Poken NFC (near field communication) tags so salespeople could download each other’s contact information by bringing their devices close together, as well as content about each business unit.
There was more of a structure to the OneFORUM experience on the second day. That morning, the sales team was presented with scenarios of four different customer segments and their challenges: “things like generating attendance, creative sponsorships, leveraging social media, brand-building in competitive marketplaces, going global, and aging membership,” said Carrie Freeman Parsons, Freeman’s vice chair. The group was then “broken into teams to spend the rest of their day going through OneFORUM with the intent of creating their plan for addressing those customer issues,” she said, by “reaching into the resources of the organization to answer those needs.”
On the third day, representatives of each team presented “their best thinking to a panel of judges — á la ‘Shark Tank,’ but a bit nicer,” Freeman Parsons said. “The goals were, of course, to learn our depth and breadth of services, but also how to scale them to various customers, succinctly explain our value proposition, and determine the commonalities with customers.”
It was, said Freeman President and COO Bob Priest-Heck, “the best way to help our customers, by getting the sales teams to think about using all of the inner resources to solve the customers’ business problems, and in a lab environment as opposed to a ‘talk-to-them’ environment. We could have done that standard meeting where we have a bunch of talking heads, but we decided we would do what we are always coaching our clients to do — to take risks and try new things.”
For his part, Popolo didn’t see a downside to the OneFORUM format. The “very non-traditional design of the event reflects what is happening in the market,” he said. “We know from our own research that most people like to digest information in small bites. A lot of us are visual learners. So if you can see it graphically and not just hear it, you are more likely to retain it.”
Popolo added that the Freeman culture also made the experimental nature of OneFORUM less of a risk. “We know that when we get our employees together, they are going to have fun and learn from each other,” he said. “I think the concern that any CEO would have is, is there an ROI on delivering hard business knowledge that they can use to help them do their job better — and to benefit the company?”
While ROI is a long-term proposition, the first step along that process might be called ROE — return on experience. On that front, the Global Sales Meeting delivered. “Everyone really loved the environment,” Popolo said. “They were wowed.”