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Special Events

10 ON 20

As Special Events Magazine marks a major publishing milestone — 20 years of service to the special event profession — we turn to 10 top event professionals with at least 20 years' experience in the business. We believe that their long-lived success deserves special attention. Here, they describe their perspectives, passions and pride.

Richard Aaron, CMP, CSEP

President, BizBash Media, New York, and president, ISES Education Foundation

20 years ago: “I was just starting with my first major event production job as an entertainment director for a PR firm, coming from the legit stage in New York City.”

Event career highlights: “Producing several Gala Awards programs at Special Events Magazine's The Special Event.”

What's changed for the better: “The incredible fabric designs and lighting innovations that allow unbridled creativity in event design, combined with the formation of ISES and the legitimization into a professional industry.”

What's changed for the worse: “The lead times have shrunk to invisible proportions, and people still do not respect the professionals who have elevated themselves with real training and credentials.”

The secret to my staying power: “A recipe that includes the desire to stretch myself in new directions, choosing to identify the new players and mentor them on my team, and a huge dose of humility to assure my balance.”

Ronnie Davis

Managing director, Great Performances, New York

20 years ago: “The same thing as now — I was working for myself with Washington Street Caterers — breaking onto the scene, trying to make some noise and getting noticed.”

Event career highlights: “The 9/11 celebration of Trinity Church [New York]. We had Archbishop Carey; it was an amazing event.”

What's better: “Access to materials, and the proliferation of great technical advances.”

What's worse: “The level of devotion to the craft has changed; people don't apprentice the way they used to. I see a drop in professionalism in the planners, and a lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer.”

My secret: “I have an ego the size of a city block, but when it comes to the work at hand, it's not about me — it's about the client. Serving others has always been my fulfillment.”

Janet Elkins

President, EventWorks, Los Angeles

20 years ago: “I was working in sales for the gentleman who owned this company. He passed away suddenly, leaving me with no one to lean on. I had to start making my own decisions, assume more responsibility and act independently.”

Event career highlights: “The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau ‘Los Angeles Premiere’ in 2000.”

What's better: “The sheer number of venues available today dwarfs what was available 20 years ago — not only spectacular hotels, but lots of venues that wouldn't have dreamed of hosting special events. This opens a myriad of possibilities.”

My secret: “I enjoy the network of people — friends, colleagues, even competitors — that I've gotten to know over the years. The industry is really like my family, and so I've always felt that if I left, I'd be losing a part of myself.”

Cathee Hickok

Co-owner, Renaissance Caterers, Canoga Park, Calif.

20 years ago: “By 1982, anybody with a Dodge van and a hot plate was calling themselves a caterer. I was working as event coordinator for Rococo Custom Catering, which was producing huge and prestigious events — Emmys' Governors' Ball, movie premieres, Super Bowl hospitality villages, etc.”

Event career highlights: “The 1984 Olympics. Rococo produced the official opening event — 1,200 guests at the [Los Angeles] Natural History Museum; the closing event was 7,000 guests at ABC Studios. We worked a 30-hour shift that day!”

What's better: “Communication equipment such as cell phones, faxes, computers, electric carts, radios with headsets — yea! — and everything that gives us the edge when that party clock is ticking.”

My secret: “Catering is just like putting on a Broadway show — the same kind of directors, divas, ad libs, scripts, temper tantrums, scene changes, curtain time, etc. Except — we do it with food, and change the theater every day. Take that, Mel Brooks!”

Doug Lane

President, Fastlane Productions, Denver

20 years ago: “Two days after graduating college, I started my DJ business out of my one-bedroom apartment, and the rest is special events history.”

What's better: “Lighting and audio equipment became computerized and robotic, and generators have become silent. This has allowed designers and production associates to create events like never before using palettes of color, and smaller and silent equipment, and has provided changes even up to the last minute before show time.”

What's worse: “People were booking and designing events with us six to 12 months in advance, and now it is down to one month — maybe. Corporate downsizing, last-minute budget changes and [inexperienced] people booking our services has been tough.”

My secret: “Being quick on my feet, overcoming site challenges and making it happen have helped my business stay in business. The other thing that has helped us stay around is our employees. You cannot grow without them.”

Renny Reynolds

Founder, Renny and Reed, New York

20 years ago: “I started in 1972. I was working as a landscape architect doing penthouse terraces, and just swung from that into the event business.”

Event career highlights: “When you really love doing this kind of thing, then it's the last event you did.”

What's better: “Special events are now recognized as more of an art form, and as a real business.”

What's worse: “Nothing!”

My secret: “Keeping your clients happy is the No. 1 thing in the whole business, and understanding that this is a service business. Also, changing constantly with your designs, keeping your eyes open to things that are new, using new materials — not getting stuck on one design or a formulaic look.”

Tom Shapiro

CEO, Academy Event Services, Los Angeles

20 years ago: “We had just launched Academy the year before.”

Event career highlights: “The Olympics in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City, along with the renovation of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and our work with the NFL and Super Bowl.”

What's better: “Twenty years ago, most events were indoors because you weren't confident you could have a quality event off site. Now, you can go off site and have a quality facility, catering, decorating, music, sound and entertainment. We have done events in the middle of nowhere. It's gone 180 degrees.”

What's worse: “It's been the loss of friends, employees, customers and vendors. When you've been in this business for 20 years, your customers, vendors and fellow workers become your friends.”

My secret: “We're honest with our clients; we give them a good product and a good value.”

Paulette Wolf

founder, Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment, Chicago

Event career highlights: “Super Bowl XXIII [1989]. The night before the game, the entire hospitality village was flooded. We stayed up all night and ‘vacuumed’ up the water. We were successful because we had such good relationships with hardworking vendors.”

What's better: “The most positive change has been the shift from a male-dominated industry to a much greater involvement of women.”

My secret: “I've actually been in special events for over 30 years, and I love it as much today as I did in the beginning. Every event — and every day — is a new challenge and a new experience, and I still learn something new every day.”

Mona Meretsky, CSEP

Founder, Comcor Event and Meeting Production, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

20 years ago: “I was just starting my own company. I started in the industry in 1973 in Detroit with a marketing agency doing meetings and shows for Ford.”

Event career highlights: “I love the party for which I won my first Gala Award, in 1990. We started the party with the guests on a C-130 transport plane.”

What's better: “The level of professionalism has changed drastically. There was no education, no textbooks, no magazines. Now it's a full-fledged multi-billion-dollar industry.”

What's worse: “In the last couple of years a lot of companies were bought out, and big companies took over. You lose the level of service when you get too big. I've had several clients who went with large companies, and then came back to me. They miss the trust and relationships that have been built.”

My secret: “We don't repeat the same event twice; it's always custom-created. If they think we will put three staff on site, then we have five. We always give them more than they expect.”

Linda Erlich

Partner, Premier Skirting, Lawrence, N.Y.

My secret: “[Husband] Paul and I are a team; that's the first step. Second thing, we started this business 32 years ago with one premise in mind — that the customer has to get the best. They have to be served and treated like raw silk. The needs of the client come before everything.”

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