Outlook from the C-Suite: Freeman and GES Leaders Share Their Biggest Business Concerns

March 29, 2024

How does the event industry compare against other industries? In part one of our series, we shared an analysis of the KPMG 2023 CEO Outlookthe annual survey of 1,300 CEOs of the world’s largest businesses conducted by KPMG International.

What is the current mindset of CEOs in the event industry? In part five of our series, general service contracting leaders shared what their top business concerns are now and moving into 2024, and how they and their organization are addressing them. 

Did you miss any part of our series? Catch up on critical insights from thought leaders who represent the full spectrum of industry sectors – trade show producers, experiential marketing agencies, destination marketing organizations and venues.

Find out what CEOs from RX and Informa Markets shared with us.

Find out what CEOs from Visit Detroit and Visit Salt Lake shared with us.

Find out what CEOs from Orange County Convention Center and San Diego Convention Center Corp. shared with us.

Find out what CEOs from Spiro and Sparks shared with us.

In this final part of our series, we share perspectives from C-level executives from two of the largest general service contractors in the industry – Freeman and GES.

Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Freeman

Biggest concern: Talent

People are our most valuable asset and attracting, developing and retaining that talent is top-of-mind for the events industry. There are several factors making this a priority today, from talent shortages to a multi-generational workforce to employee burnout. And on top of that, we have a younger talent pool that is completely new to our industry. 

Before we can even address these concerns, we have to take a hard look at ourselves and be honest with the talent we’re speaking with. The events industry is uniquely challenging. This is not a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday desk job. We work weekends, we travel, the grind is real. We are in the industry of live, in-person, human connections.  And those connections extend beyond event attendees themselves. It’s the entire workforce that goes into making a show run smoothly.  

So, when we think about our current and emerging talent, we need to approach it from the full employee experience – recruiting, onboarding and training, development and engagement. Culture has never mattered more than it does today. We have to combat burnout and foster a diverse and inclusive community of employees. This will not only strengthen our workforce but also develop employees who feel connected to the brand, are happier and stay longer.  

At Freeman, we begin the employee experience at the very beginning of the recruitment process and continue to engage and encourage talent throughout their entire lifecycle even when they become Freeman alumni. 

Having an inclusive workforce is embedded in our values and how we operate as a company. We have put specific programs in place, from university recruitment programs to executive and leadership training to our employee-led Business Resource Groups (BRGs).   

The BRGs, for example, are committed to all employees and ensuring that they are treated with respect and that their voices are valued. They launched to help us continue to build an understanding of and empathy for our employees and customers who have a broad range of life experiences.

In addition, we take an outside-in approach to talent recruitment through our university relations program. We view this as an investment in the future of the events industry by forging strategic partnerships with select universities, trade schools, labor unions and partners who are dedicating resources to attract, educate and retain our future leaders. It also increases the generational diversity in talent development and creates an inventive emerging talent program aimed at drawing fresh workers into the industry.  

We hope that not just within the programs at Freeman, but with our work in the industry, together we can foster a sense of belonging, collaboration and shared purpose among the next generation of event workers. A happy and empowered workforce is a critical step to retention and attracting the generation of talent.

Jeff Quade, Executive VP, Exhibitions at GES 

Biggest concerns: Workforce development and rising costs.

During COVID, we lost over 85% of our workforce. After building back since then, we are where we want to be in terms of staffing levels. There are some pockets that are hard to find — certain roles, like drivers, graphic production and project managers, entry/junior level hourly workers who are non-union, non-salary professionals.   A lot of those folks left the industry during the pandemic and have not returned. 

What we've seen coming out of COVID is the labor supply in every market is not nearly as deep as it used to be. We've got to work with our labor partners. Who's the workforce that's going to build the shows of the future?

What we've done in specific markets is work with our union partners to encourage development within the apprentice programs and support recruitment on high school campuses when they are considering college or a trade profession like electrical, welding or building trade shows. If we don't take action to address the age of our workforce, it's going to be a problem further down the road. How you fix that is partnering with the trades. We are doing that with trade groups in each different geography.

On the sustainability front, we're doing what's right, not what's required. That, to me, is extremely important. It aligns with the values of the business and the people that we brought back or hired new into the business. I'm super proud of what we've been able to accomplish in the diversity of the team. Our goal was to make sure the diversity of our employee base matches the diversity of our client base. Today, our employee base is 55% women, and 45% are ethnically diverse. 

We created employee focus groups and realigned the mission, refined our purpose and values of the employee base. Our purpose: We connect people to experiences, innovation, and one another. Our values: trust, responsibility, understanding and excellence.

We earned the silver certification for sustainability from the EIC in January, and we are the first and only contractor to get that. We have worked hard with organizers to lower the carbon footprint on their shows. For example, all of the sign substrates are 100% recyclable. On the docks, we work with all the incoming transportation companies to not idle their trucks while they wait to unload. As important, we track our performance and build plans to improve show over show.

In terms of costs and interest rates, it costs a lot to do anything right now. So does that impact marketing budgets? Does that impact people's participation in shows in the future? I don't know the answer to that, but you'd be foolish not to consider it or put it on a worry list. That’s on our radar.

Our raw labor costs, since 2020, are up over 20% and raw material costs, petroleum-related products, plastics, and diesel fuel are up 30%. Folks need to understand that. What do you do? We’ve had to focus on our lean efficiency methods and drive efficiency into every method or process.  We've had to consolidate purchasing, when possible, to get better pricing. But the third part — that no one's going to want to hear — we're having to raise prices. It's a friction point created with this unprecedented inflationary period. 

There has been labor cost price pressure for a long time in this space. It has been single-digit labor cost  pressure, but the appetite with the organizer to raise pricing was a very difficult conversation.  Today everybody understands that it costs more for a gallon of gas, a dozen eggs or clothes for your kids, our clients have been supportive to allowing us to adjust pricing to recoup these increased costs.


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