FreemanXP is an experiential marketing agency that helps brands create personalized, innovative and immersive experiences. Event Magazine named the company the 10th-best brand experience agency, and their big-name clients—like Visa, Salesforce, Microsoft and Google—speak to that accolade.
Last year Event Farm's CMO, Alexandra Gibson, interviewed FreemanXP's VP of Special Events, Richard Toscano, as part of our Future of Event Marketing online series. They discussed everything from the specifics of catering with comfort food to the broad, overarching strategy of creating on-brand and immersive experiences for attendees. We've included highlights from their conversation below—to access the entire interview (and 11 other recordings with industry experts), register for our Future of Event Marketing series here.
Alexandra: I read an article you wrote that talked about how special events allow creative and strategy to come together in unique and imaginative ways. Can you give us a few examples of events that have fulfilled that mixture of creativity and strategy?
Richard: I think it's really important to mention that, in the special events space, events can really take on their own creative vision because you're not confined to the four walls of a general session conference room. You can come into a space and really create a very unique and, I think, iconic way to interact with a brand that's different than what you'd typically see. Maybe it's through an architectural piece that you develop, or maybe it's through the music you implement into the design space—whatever it may be.
How we've done this in the past with our clients is that we take them outside of the convention center and into maybe a public space where we create mapping on buildings, where the environment feels like it's coming alive. We have implemented some inflatables along a street where you come in and you're fully immersed in this unique setting that's different than four walls of a building. I really feel like the special events space is a place to really be playful and innovative and message differently than you sometimes message on a general sessions stage.
Alexandra: Would you say you look at the space first and say, "How can this come together and work with what the client's needs are?"
Richard: Correct, and we ask how we can be different with the brand experience. It becomes something that's more three-dimensional and less of a one-dimensional on-screen or on-stage experience. You become almost totally immersed in the brand because it's easier to work. There are no constraints, really.
Alexandra: Absolutely. On top of that, your event portfolio is incredibly diverse, from the Super Bowl to Cisco Live to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival. Let me first touch on the major conferences: How are the Cisco Lives and the Dreamforces—the major conferences—staying relevant and evolving, and why do major conferences like this make sense for companies like Cisco and Salesforce?
Richard: A lot of what's driving creative right now is live engagement with the digital landscape, and how we experience reality is evolving. It's evolving into a virtual reality space. It's evolving into a digital landscape, and it's a faster-paced experience and a more self-directed experience of a live event. We are seeing clients come in and ask for VR experiences, so we're taking them live through a 360 experience of their space. Or, we're really transporting them into an entertainment experience through the virtual reality platform where they've never gone before.
Maybe now we're able to have a roller coaster experience sitting in the middle of an event, or have an experience where you can actually go into the engine of a plan and see what that's like. It's a whole different reality right now, and it's coming quickly. We're seeing more and more requests for that.
Alexandra: Touching on that, if we're talking more B2C, let's talk about the food and wine festival route and the experience there. How are festivals like the South Beach Food and Wine Festival keeping up with expectations of the 2016 or 2017 festival guests?
Richard: There are very diverse needs. I think there is still a lot of trends with farm-to-table, and there are a lot of requests for comfort food with a twist of gourmet.
It's about artistic expression and architecture, but it's more about the taste and comfort food brings because food really connects you to the senses in the body. It's sight, it's sound, and it has to be approachable, I think. A lot of clients want more approachable and comforting experiences—things that have depth but are not too over-architected. That's the kind of trends we're seeing. Food is becoming more and more accessible, but people's expectations are also rising on the simple things.
Alexandra: Absolutely. In talking about the scale of events, when does it make sense for organizations to go really big, and when does it make sense for them to participate in something more niche?
Richard: I think companies go big when there's something big to say and share with audiences. When they go niche, my experience has been that it's when these companies want to embark on a new way of doing things or a new idea, so they keep it a big more contained.
Alexandra: How does budget play into that? If you're a company that wants to do events but you don't necessarily have a big budget, what would you recommend?
Richard: Leveraging the digital landscape to get your messaging out there is one area to investigate and invest in... Also, having more potential gorilla marketing campaigns that could infiltrate into communities, or into smaller events that you might be able to produce, and also looking for potential opportunities where you can take things out-of-the-box.
I would look at the marketing budget and understand where you are really going to get the biggest bank for your buck. Where are the places that are so crowded that, in order for your brand to really stand out, you're going to have to go over the top? Should you be going to South by Southwest? If it's getting overcrowded, look at what's next.
Alexandra: Getting a little bit to the data and metrics: Which metrics do you pay careful attention to for events? In other words, how do you sell the expense of events to the CFO?
Richard: Basically, it's crafting these creative design experiences that align to measurable results and business goals. We have a clear set strategy at the beginning of the production process because that strategy is what we align to. That is what drives the creative, that's what drives the guest experience, everything. Have a clear strategic map that production aligns to, and then find ways within that experience to measure reactions, measure data—make it playful, make it different and make it fun.
Alexandra: What are the biggest changes you see taking place in event marketing in the next few years?
Richard: I think that having self-directed experiences are definitely on the rise. People want to make choices within these environments and be able to manipulate their experience. Attention spans are shorter and shorter, so story lines have to be shorter and shorter to keep up with that kind of mindset.
It's about you engaging with some sort of environment on your own. I think this whole culture has changed because we're looking at these phones all of the time. Having the interaction with a handheld device in an environment will allow you to engage with the digital environment and the physical at the same time. How do we do it in artful ways? How does that digital landscape transform into an architectural anchoring piece in your event, that shows real-time data or real-time reaction in an artful way?
To listen to the full interview, and to learn from other industry pros, check out our Future of Event Marketing online series.