Like many special event professionals, David Merrell started his career doing something entirely different. But the winding road from insurance underwriter to catering executive led him where he knew he was meant to be — in events. Today, the founder and head of Los Angeles-based AOO Events can look back at a career studded with Gala Awards (with four nominations now, see page 29) and ahead to an evolving industry
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: Your company has changed its structure over the years, from offering an in-house catering department in 2000 to a leaner organization today. Why?
DAVID MERRELL: In fact, I started in the industry in 1989 as a caterer and grew into decor and full event production over the years. But I realized I really didn't like the food side of the business and struggled with a way to get out of it. It was 9/11 that provided my way out of it. Because of the major struggles that everyone in the industry went through, along with an overhead that was no longer supported by incoming business, the decision came easily for me. I took that opportunity to get rid of my largest overhead headaches and maintain the income that allowed me to operate on a shoestring budget to survive that period. During that time I completely redefined myself — the best move that I have ever made in my almost 20 years in business.
SPECIAL EVENTS: The economic forecast for 2008 is still unclear. How are you seeing business shape up?
MERRELL: As far as I can see, corporate event budgets haven't been reduced. Even though the economy seems to be getting tougher, I think it's become more and more clear to corporations the importance of marketing and corporate events. The decadent spending of the late '80s and early '90s was corrected years ago by the corporations. I think corporations have adjusted their budgets to a responsible level nowadays, and this is why we haven't yet experienced a change. Socially, I do think that there is a tightening of the personal pocketbook. But the fact that the rich keep getting richer means the wealthy are throwing bigger and more decadent parties, and they are moving in the opposite direction of the rest of the social industry. God knows that things could change on a dime if the U.S. does go into a recession. But as much as the media loves to throw around the “R” word, the economy seems to survive and thrive despite itself. I think that our industry would have a much bigger problem if there happens to be another 9/11-type incident. Because of this possibility, it's important to stay diversified in the business product that you offer and diversified in segments within the industry that you offer serv-ices to.
SPECIAL EVENTS: What are going to be the big trends facing the special event industry in 2008?
MERRELL: For AOO and those offering the same type of product, we are going to have to start outsourcing more locally. There will be a continued movement as there is in all corporations to being more “green responsible.” This means corporations that take their vendors wherever they go are going to put more pressure on them to reduce their carbon footprint. Don't truck stuff in that you can get closer. Don't fly and house labor that you can pick up locally. I already see this type of corporate mandate being handed down to in-house event companies.
This fact opens some doors and closes others. It opens doors in that more and more planners and producers are going to have to connect with local event companies to produce something that they would have in the past brought in a semi-truck. Reaching out to vendors all over the country is going to become more and more necessary. It's going to be important for me to prove to my clients that I can still give them the quality of the events that they are used to, while at the same time doing it more with local vendors and products.
SPECIAL EVENTS: You seem to have a balance of left brain/right brain abilities.
MERRELL: When I was starting my college career, my dad said to me, “Go into accounting and/or business administration — once you figure out what you want to do, that background will come in handy.” I remember thinking to myself, how am I going to tell my parents that all the money they spent on me for college went toward me throwing parties? But he was right; it paid off! Thanks, Dad!
AOO Events, 5850 W. Third St., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323/467-2111; www.aooevents.com