WHILE 80 percent of Robert Sivek's event business these days is corporate work, the producer got his start in social. “I was a social worker, and fundraisers were a byproduct,” he says of his unusual 1970s career launch. “I was working with the youth director of a community center, and I started doing events to raise money to furnish the rec room.”
Sivek traces a long and winding career path, which brought him from small-time charity events to his 1981 founding of talent agency Events & Entertainment to the start of his business partnership with producer Deborah Borsum, CSEP, in 1983. The biggest milestone along the way, he says, had to be his and Borsum's 1991 acquisition of design firm Meetinghouse Display and their subsequent launch of event production operation the Meetinghouse Companies.
In its now turnkey-service form, Meetinghouse Companies handles 900 events annually. And while volume in itself might not pose a daunting challenge to Sivek's staff of 32 full-timers and 55 part-timers, serving the needs of today's ultra-savvy event clients does. “Clients are able to do their own research, go onto the Internet, look at magazines like Special Events and see spectacular events,” Sivek says. “And they want good value for their money.”
At the same time, the veteran producer notes, “I'm not convinced clients are budget-driven. More than ever now, the client is willing to pay for the big picture, as opposed to the line item.” Major, multicomponent events sell well — Sivek offers the example of a 15,000-participant, nighttime 10K run and party his company produced for a corporate client, complete with five national and five local band performances requiring sound, lights, staging and tents. Yet, he says, clients are looking to get more for the big money they do spend.
Fortunately, Sivek notes, he and Borsum have had the foresight to stock the Meetinghouse Companies' many divisions — floral, theme decor and audiovisual among them — with “incredible people.” Hiring well and keeping almost all services in-house has given his company “more control” and the ability to “integrate our vision,” he says.
But Sivek is experienced enough to know that simply gathering good staff is not enough to sustain a company's success in tomorrow's corporate event market. That's why he and Borsum make it a point to keep staffers current on industry trends and emerging innovations. Not only does he encourage employees to attend ARA and ISES events along with The Special Event, but, “We have a lot of industry speakers come to us,” he adds. “That way, our employees don't just get our opinion, they get a bigger perspective — they see how it is outside our company. And that's important to them.”
The Meetinghouse Companies 781 N. Church Road, Elmhurst, IL 60126-1413; 630/941-0600; www.meetinghouse.com
“What we try to do here, first of all, is educate our people that we're in business to make money. Profit is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. It's how we buy new props, it's how we get raises. The second thing is we teach folks around here that concept and creativity are worth money. They don't come free. We also say to our people, ‘Here's your left boundary, here's your right boundary. Figure out what you're going to do in between them.’ That allows creative people to remain creative.”
MIND OVER MONEY
“Believe it or not, hiring a bookkeeper was a huge turning point for our business. Every day I dreaded dealing with the financials. Once we hired someone, I could concentrate on doing more of what I did best — planning events.”
“I feel unbelievably fortunate to work in a very giving industry. I don't find many industries that contribute to charity as much as we do. I think I just fell into an industry that overall is amazing. Most of all, I love our staff. I think I've got the coolest staff in the world.”