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Great expectations

Freeman CEO Bob Priest-Heck shares some perspectives on navigating today’s challenges. The interview first appeared as an original instalment from the Turning Point series created by SISO and mdg.

What advice would you give your fellow industry leaders?

We need to meet people where they are right now. The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that our employees, customers, event participants, venue workers - everybody - are the same people they were four months ago. It’s going to take a while before people feel safe about large public gatherings. We need to ease back into things and take measured, consistent actions to make people feel safe physically and emotionally.

What project have you launched because of the pandemic that you are proud of?

The Go LIVE Together coalition, which focuses on advocacy for the live events industry. We began with 84 founding members and now have 1,700 and gaining momentum every day. People are eager to join us, because it is a validation of our work. The pandemic has put the livelihoods of so many at risk, and without a movement like this, they would be disenfranchised.

Tell us more about the coalition.

Those in the movement share a common purpose, which is centered around:

• Enabling the safe re-opening of events and tradeshows, once stay at home orders are lifted. That will happen by following essential safety guidelines that adhere to the best, medically and scientifically backed practices.

• Raising awareness among government officials, so that they understand the true impact events have on economies and job creation.

• Supporting legislation to rebuild the industry in a way that serves to accelerate economic recovery.

Your tips for staying safe, sane and positive?

We’re all surfing the sine waves of emotion right now, and while I am a positive person in general, I don’t have a perfect record here. Since the pandemic, I have been working around the clock. My three daughters gifted me ‘mindfulness’ cards that I could act on, and I draw one every day and focus on that action. It’s important that we all remind each other to practise self-care.

What would you say to someone looking to move a live event online?

Many clients are moving from a live to a virtual platform right now - which is why we’ve created a new tool to help them. Keep in mind that you can’t just pour the content from a live event into a digital format. You need to design your content to take full advantage of your format, so a virtual experience should leverage all the tricks of the trade we’ve seen in broadcast events and live gaming platforms. Arrange your messaging into digestible chunks, consider parsing some things out to specific audiences and scale hosted events to create a more intimate feel. Also, there’s nothing to keep you from scaling for global audiences - in sequential bursts of live streaming targeting different time zones and areas of interest. And of course, you can record everything, make it available at a later date and arrange for sponsorship of content.

When you think about the future of the events industry, what do you see?

Although people have an innate need to connect in a live, full-fivesenses way, I don’t think it will ever be like it was. I think it will be a better experience, because it will be designed around the express needs of the participants. The return to live events requires a cautious, phased approach as we introduce new standards for hygiene and safety that everyone in the industry must adopt. I embrace the notion of hybrid events that leverage a live platform and expand virtually to be more inclusive and interactive. We have more options than people are considering now. I think this will evolve as a sea change in which omnichannel marketing eventually becomes the expectation. We need to start with, ‘what will make people want to engage with us?’ and then design accordingly.