events

S.2 Episode 13: Explosive Entertainment Featuring Event Legend Michael Cerbelli

Michael Cerbelli from Cerbelli creative joins us to share his experience and tips!

 

Tell us your story.

 

It all started back in 1977 as a DJ in Brooklyn, New York. I got my first paid gig on my 13th birthday, on September 10th, 1977. I had a half of a mill crate of records and I played for 8 straight hours at a block party. And the reason I know the dates so well because Labor Day weekend was September 3rd, it rained that weekend, they canceled they moved it to the next weekend and they gave me 25 bucks for Djing this party. 25 bucks. I didn’t have enough music for eight hours. So I probably played the same record six times during the course of that eight hours. And the career started from there. And then in the 80s, we met a gentleman from long island, and it may sound cocky, but we revolutionized what the MC Dj perform a market was. We were doing everybody’s events on long island. There was a company EJM entertainment that was us. And there was another company, heart to heart and some smaller companies out there. Either you had EJM or heart to heart. We were blue vest. They would red vests. It was kind of a gang back in the day.

We just owned long island, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, we were doing events for everybody in the eighties and nineties. And what always was my way of looking at things like who are we doing these events for? These are great clients, but I wanted to know more about them. And then I realized we were doing these events for captains of industry, major players in finance, major players in real estate. And they started to bring us into their corporate events too. And it was a gentlemen, that said, you’re going to do my incentive program in Puerto Rico. And I heard nothing about incentive program and heard him say Puerto Rico. And I was like, yeah, okay, let’s go. I think he gave us $5,000 to travel to Puerto Rico and we did an amazing event there and that got me into the corporate realm. Then in 2000 I took EJM, merged with another company in New Jersey, was with them 11 years and we built up another end of the business but really going more for the corporate market, understanding what that was, doing high end social look, high end corporate as well. And then in 2011 I merged with a creative agency in Los Angeles, we just parted our ways. And then in 2016 Cervelli creative started as an entity by itself. So it’s been been an incredible journey for me and I’m very lucky to say who the clients are and what we’ve done.

 

What kind of stuff are you doing these days?

 

Our business is based on high end social and corporate. So the bulk of our business is a true corporate end of the business where we’re doing an incentive program, we’re doing an opening general session. Sometimes we’re producing the whole meeting and sometimes we’re just a lane. And I think that’s something that people in our industry don’t understand. It’s okay to be a lane and that’s where we’re sort of an enigma that we are able to move into these different areas. So we were doing the social end, they brought us into the corporate end and now you’re doing both ends of it. So today, if I’m doing a corporate event for a client that I’ve had for maybe 15 years, 16 years, that were doing these events for, I may be doing the CEO’s 25th anniversary, I may be doing the son’s Bar Mitzvah, the daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. We may be doing their wedding. When you think about that, it’s amazing those bookends.

 

Let’s talk about collaboration and staying in your lane.

 

To what the latter that you just said. It’s staying there, staying there and saying, Oh, I can do it this way. It’s all right to share ideas. So if you look at this, and I think this is a big motto with me, share the wealth. So when that client calls you, let’s look at the corporate arena that may have an in house production company, maybe working with someone that’s doing their floral designs for many years, but now says, I have this incentive program. We need to entertain everybody at nighttime. We need to work together. We need to bring this wow into the event. You have this specialty so when you collaborate the right way, I could book the entertainment, I can bring in the wow, but all of a sudden I let others handle their stuff. Let’s work together with that production company. Let them handle on the back line, let them handle the riders, let them handle that stuff and we managed the process. You’re not taking away from someone that’s worked hard and maybe even been part of the program even longer than you have. Why do you have to step on toes? Let’s work together as a team. Sometimes that first experience may be, who moved my cheese because someone’s like, well, you’ve got someone new who’s over here, but if you prove to them that you want to work together collaboratively, you’ll will work a long time with those people and then what happens for them? They start recommending you.

 

Are you spending time offline with the vendors?

 

Absolutely. We do it all the time. We’ll sit here and then, get on the phone and talk to them about it because this backline rider that they need this special equipment and stuff like that. We didn’t have that last year that was in Italy. All this equipment had to be brought in that we needed for the event. So why does the client need to know all that? They’re handling that and the it, we’ll work directly with them, knew what it was. And then we wound up finding out that we were able to share some of the shipping cases that they were going to be bringing into Italy because they said can you just get it to our warehouse. We’ll put it in our case. Why do you have to pay for this too? So it’s talking, speaking together, working things out together. We all save money. Did it cost the client any more money cause that shipping container, whether it was $1,000 for one item or $1,000 for two items, it was the same cost. So we just shoved our stuff and they’re shipping container because there was room.

 

Speak to some common mistakes you’ve seen over the years.

 

If I’m working with somebody we see someone not sharing information, not coming back to us with detail and you sort of lost. I’m very honored when I hear my team came back from an event, maybe we weren’t that lane and we work with other people that may be on this event. They almost get excited when they see us. They’re like, are you managing this event? No, we’re just doing this today. Oh okay. Cause I don’t have this information. I wish I had more information. What does this event about? And the kind of lost in the process, but it’s because of where it’s coming from. If the head is able to talk to the arm and to the feet to the legs and hands, everybody will work together as a team. Don’t take off more than you could chew. A lot of times everybody’s working on this budget. They don’t have the money, well if they don’t have the money to do what they want to do properly, the process is different. You can’t just do everything, because the client doesn’t have the money. Then you have to be able to explain to your client, this is what we need. If you want this done properly and you want this done properly, we need a team. Lots of times the biggest mistake is someone’s not being a team player and just going into the event and thinking they can handle it by themselves and they’re frantic the day of the event. We have a motto in our office, don’t panic. Here is where we get the detail done and if we’re upset, be upset and say, I wish that was there, but the day of the event, that’s when you don’t panic. That’s where you get everything done correctly. The chandelier falls, go get a broom, sweep it up and go get a lamp. When you see the person that’s freaking out at the event, that means they didn’t plan properly, plan and have a good team. That’s the best way to get through.

 

How do you make an event exceptional?

 

The surprises, the moments make it exceptional. You could have great people, you can have great food and things like that, but that little moment of what everybody enjoyed together as one, is that exceptional moment. Something that they’ve experienced altogether. Not every event has entertainment and things like that, but thinking about that, if there’s something that’s gone on, something that brings it all together, that’s something that meshes it all together. A theme that works with the event, that’s when everybody’s sharing the same experience. You could go to an event and you have people in this corner, and that corner, but when they all come together, share something together, I think that’s what makes it exceptional.

 

How do you create that?

 

We can always go into an event and say, oh, this is great. This is what you should be doing and this is it. This is the easy booking. I can’t wait to book Bruno Mars one day I just want to work with in March, we’re born in Mars is not the answer for everybody, all right? Not Everybody has $1.5 million, $2 million to book Bruno Mars, but at the same time, is there a talent that you could bring in?

If you’re going into a meeting and there’s just a constant talking head on stage and going from meeting to meeting on a multi day event. We were rushed to get food. There wasn’t enough. If you give people these moments to spend time together enjoying each other’s company, then maybe they haven’t seen each other in a year, spend time, network, talk, not rush from meeting to meeting to meeting to food. Give them of those moments, those will be your most successful events out there.

 

Tell us more about the Hot List.

 

So there’s a little story. It was 2001,I was attending a conference and a gentleman got on stage, great speaker. He took out a vase, and he put the vase on the table and he clicked the little switch on it and he took out a remote control and started pressing it and the vase started changing colors. All of us in the audience went what’s that? And he goes, this is led technology. What’s led technology? We never heard such a thing. So at the end of this little conference, I walk up to him and I said, David, you’ve got to tell me I need this. I gotta bring it to New York. Where do I get this vase? He goes, call me. He wouldn’t give me the information. He wouldn’t not share where he got the vase from. Why can’t we share the wealth? Why can’t I say this is a good idea. Use it. Maybe we could share this information. So in 2002 I started something called Michael Cerbelli’s 101 hot event and entertainment ideas in 90 minutes. And I sent 101 ideas in 90 minutes and the audience went bananas. It’s 2002 I got bombarded by my industry almost beat up. How can you share this information? How dare you, you’re giving away all our trade secrets. I said, what am I giving away? I’m sharing the information. We just did the 18th annual and now it’s called the hot list in San Diego this past January. And I’ve done four speaking engagements since January 10 an, we had over 3000 people in the room wanting to get this list that I have front of me and all it is, is the 36 ideas I spoke about and their contact information. And we do this big show. The room is packed. It’s just fun entertainment, band playing on stage. And then the next hour and a half is me rambling and bringing act sound and bringing product out. But it’s sharing information, and I don’t care anymore and none of us should care anymore that we’re telling these people out there who the act is.

There’s not a dollar to me for doing this. There’s no kickback for getting booked. All we tell them, we can do two live shows a year. You got to come out in January and you’ve got to come out in June. January is the special event show and June is MPI, world education congress. I hear from people, I got a phone call three, four years later because they keep the list in their office.

 

Tell us a couple of tips for aspiring planners.

 

Start attending conferences. I was going to class. I believe that you should be networking. I believe that you should becoming part of organizations, know about all aspects. Am I the best technical director there is? Absolutely not. Do I understand most of it? Okay. I understand it. Get out there and network. Go to classes. Don’t just go to an event, a conference partying. Start learning. Attend a conference where maybe it’s not your forte. And when you go to these things, don’t think that someone’s going to just call you and say, Oh, I want to start working with you. I’m working with people that I want to work with and they’re working with people that they want to work with. We’re not working together every single day.



Episode 11: Tricks to Grow Your Events

Interested in growing your events? On today’s episode Amy Zaroff shares her experiences in the events industry and the core values of her business! Today is all about creating your business’ culture through core values to grow events. Check out Amy Zaroff at www.amyzaroff.com

How did you get going, what’s your story?
 
I always wanted to be in broadcasting and since 7th grade Ted Koppel from Nightline was my idol.  I thought some day I’m going to go to DC and I’m going to work on Nightline. I never worked for Ted Koppel but I did go to Washington DC.  I went to American University,  became a broadcast journalism major, and I worked for all the different television stations in DC and Minneapolis as well.  Back when I was a high school senior there was a show called Good Company which is now Twin Cities Live. Steve Edelman and Sharon Anderson were the co hosts and Steve was my mentor back when he gave me an internship. When I moved back to Minneapolis I started working for Hubbard Broadcasting and I loved production.
Production in any form is telling a story there’s a distinct beginning, middle, and end. And just like when you’re putting on a great show you have to carry the viewer, the attendee, the listener through the story. So there I was getting really excited.
Then my husband decided when we were twenty-five to open an authentic New York Style Deli restaurant. We had it for seven and a half years and that’s where I got the love of hospitality.  The combination of hospitality and production were what fueled me to get into event production. In 2004 we closed our restaurant and just prior to closing a woman who owned a thirty-two year invitation stationary and gift shop called Give My Regards To, contacted me. She said, are you interested in buying my business. I had no clue how to sell paper or gifts or have a retail space but I knew her customer base was an upper to mid-high clientele and I wanted that clientele. So what I did, I bought the business. I turned it into event planning and design because if they were already coming to buy the invitations I was going to convince them I could throw them a great party. That’s how I got my start.
What are you doing today?
Over the years I started with social events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, general celebrations and as the economy changed, close to 2008, people weren’t buying invitations and stationary as much as they used to, most of it was going online. I’ve always enjoyed being ahead of the trend or whats next. When you’re an entrepreneur you can feel change coming. I decided I was going to bring graphic design in-house, I was going to move away from retail space.  I was going to move into an office and industrial space where events came first, retail was second. In 2008 we made that change and moved to a spot in Edina. In 2010 we were getting ready to change the name of our company so people didn’t think of us as an invitation store.  So I paid someone a lot of money to tell me to change the name of my store to my name. In 2010 Target called and that was a game changer for me. They said, do you do cooperate events and do you do national events. And I had done national weddings and bar mitzvahs but the only corporate  I had done was local.  I said yes. They gave me incredible opportunities all over the country. Once you have Target as brand profitability that’s a good thing. I live by the mantra “all you have is your name”. I would say and they would say we stand behind everything we do.
Is it just you, you do have employees?
I do, I have a great team.  I have a team of 4 full-time employees. At some points its been more sometimes its been less. Right now we have a real sweet spot. We believe fake it till you make it doesn’t cut it. We surround ourselves with wonderful creative partners and our team grows as it has to.
You have a lot of experience, for our listeners out there, what are the things they can do to make their business a better business?
We created a core values document for our company. Our EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) facilitator, Sue Hawks, she encouraged us to put together our core values document and to hire, fire, reward, and review by it. That’s fine and well I know my team prescribes by these values. I have found it much more helpful to share with our creative partners and our up and coming event professionals so they can really understand what it means.
I said earlier all you have is your name, so understanding the value of reputation is one of our key values. Wherever we are in the community, you’re an extension of your brand. You can be in the grocery store and someone may come up to you who recognizes you and may ask, hey did the invitations go out for our event and even if you’re in your sweats on a Sunday in your baseball cap, you have to be on in that moment because you are representing your company.  You are only as good as your last event so that means not only should it look great and be photo worthy but you have to understand what it means to work with your creative partners effectively, respectfully, with integrity all those things.  There have been times where I have lost my temper and I needed my teams and my creative partners to teach me we are all in this together but there’s a better way you can say that! I’ve learned from that.
Exhibiting confidence and expertise in all that we do.  We can’t fake it till we make it.  If you really don’t know something as a company it’s ok to say it.  As long as you say I’m not sure but I will find out for you. It’s fun when you are in a creative business to learn together. You can throw big ideas out there and see what sticks, and when you throw the big ideas out there, you can figure out how to make it work if you have the right people.
Tell us more on exhibit confidence and expertise.
When you feel like you look good, you exude confidence. There’s another thing about being confident and being an expert in something: if I tell you Sheila has the best cupcakes I’ve ever had or heard about, if I only heard about them and never met her, I’m not an expert. I’m giving you hearsay. There are many people that say I hear you’re great or I hear he is great you should use him, the only way we can know that is if we work together, then we become an expert. That’s really important too.
Hirees and partners should have the similar values as you…
Absolutely.  You have to have had the conversation. Networking can seem like a chore and cold calling people to get coffee, but it’s all about the first impression.  I’m a big believer, especially with people who want an informational interview, I’m going to pay more attention to you if you call me over an anonymous email.
You’ll never replace an in person interview.
Absolutely because you feed off their energy, we right here have had so much fun!
Let’s talk about no dropping the ball.
I love no dropping the ball.  Here’s the deal, if I tell you I’m going to get a proposal to you by Wednesday by 3:00, if I get it to you by Wednesday at 2:30 I have exceeded your expectations.  If I get it to you by Wednesday at 3:00 I have met your expectations and if I get it to you by 3:10 I have not done a great job.  I don’t want you to over promise and under deliver as an employee or as a creative partner. When I am on a timeline you are on a timeline as a creative partner.  We have to work together to understand whats up.
When I have the relationship, over the years, there’s an unspoken understanding between me and the vendor, we know how each other works.  When I have a new employee or training somebody they may not know.  I encourage my team to go meet with as many people from that organization as possible so they can have their own shorthand. I don’t want them to go on the merits of the brand but because they have the relationship. So that’s on no dropping the ball and finish what you start.  Fully deliver what you say you are going to deliver.  You will be trusted more in the industry when you do what say you are going to do and you have the integrity and you care. For me this business isn’t just about making money, it’s about creating life’s most memorable experiences.  We really need to think what that means on a much deeper level.
Keep going…
Willing to go the extra mile. I’m a real proponent of being proactive versus reactive and doing something before it’s asked.  That’s not just for my team there’s been so many times where a creative partner has just thrown something in, going the extra mile makes such a difference! If you’re loyal to others they will be loyal to you, because we’re all in this together.
I have been plenty reactive in my career over the years. Where I learned to be proactive, in the restaurant business when you are a server or a host and you see someone’s eyes come up from the table or from whom they are speaking with you know that even if they don’t raise their hand to say excuse me, they must be needing something or they’re about to ask for something. That’s when you take that proactive mentality and go and say “is there something I can help you with.”  I think that’s important.  This is a really easy skill, you have to pay attention.
I want to talk about being truthful, accountable, and no blame, if you do something wrong or you made a mistake just own it.  I’m the biggest proponent of this because I make a ton of mistakes and I have to own them. I have to apologize when I should and learn from it and move on. There are so many people from my business who have left the company and started their own business’. I do not see that as a problem I see it as a wonderful success story.  Many are female entrepreneurs so I’m excited about that. It’s exciting to teach someone and watch them go.
The last two points are be able to handle the intensity of all situations.  Sometimes with intense type A personalities passion can come across as disrespect. That is not to sugarcoat that if you’re being a jerk you’re being a jerk.  If you really are feeling it, it’s not only you feeling it, but your team too. If you can’t handle the intensity of all situations the event industry may not be for you.
And lastly for our company, we live by insanely high standards.  If there is a seam in a back drop we are using that’s not going to photograph well and we can’t have the seam. The fabricator may say you have to have a seam, well guess what we are going to seal the seam, make it look good, no one is going to know the seam ever existed. Those details matter, we are in the business of details. If you expect great things, great things should and can happen.
What do you tell someone who’s listening who’s thinking I don’t like intense situations, any tips?
It’s important to note it’s never personal. It’s not a personal attack on you the person, it’s the concern about the event in the moment. If you can understand that you are part of a larger mechanism to make something great for someone else and that you’re part of building an experience then you’ll go about it as exciting work. It’s not that I would say don’t join the business if you can’t handle intensity but it is a million miles a minute. There is an innate characteristic of someone in the event industry.  They don’t care about being on their feet 16 hours at a time, they don’t care they may miss breakfast, lunch, and dinner and have to go through the Burger King drive-thru at midnight.  There’s a whole bunch of things.  It’s not a sexy business.
How do people develop core values for their own business?
Every organization has either a mission statement or a value system which is why you’ve been attracted to work for that company. As a leader, a planner, or a designer or anything what matters to you and what value can you add to the company. What can you bring to the table, what can others bring to the table, and where do you see common ground.  Start with 3-5 things, what makes you tick in your business, share that, you’ll find it will resonate with the rest of the team and spark conversation.
How do I deal with team members that don’t line with the core values?
That’s a great question the book you mentioned by Gino Wickman called Traction, talks about there being a visionary in an organization, an integrator, and the leadership. One of the tools he puts forth is putting the right person in the right seat. If you don’t align with the majority of the core values and you’ve been reviewed by your leaders on whether or not you align you may be the wrong person.
It’s important to show these in the interview process.  That will allow the person being interviewed to say do I fit?
What about someone on your team not adopting the core values?
As far as buying in, you lead by example. If the culture is such that everyone is following these values it’s going to just be.  If you don’t subscribe to them you’re going to feel like an outsider. The mechanism that’s in place through the EOS, with this people analyzer it’s part of the review process.  If you follow along with EOS and do what you’re supposed to do it does work. If you’re hiring, firing, reviewing, and rewarding by the document it will work.  You have to be sure every 90 days, if you tend to have new hires, that you are referring back to it. And I would ask the question to that person, how do you feel about how these core values are resonating with you after being here 90 days?
What about making sure your customers are a good fit?
It’s on my website. These core values are on the website for a reason. I want people to know.  If you read this you know there’s no BS, she really means this. Showing who you are and what you stand for speaks for itself, there are times you aren’t the right fit.  Sometimes you have to divorce yourself of a client or the client of you. Fortunately that hasn’t happened in a long, long, long time.  It did happen in the beginning of my career on both sides. I was just learning what I was doing, I was getting my feet wet. I owned an invitation store that happened to do parties, that was over a decade ago. When it does happen, be honest and say we may not be the best fit for you and suggest someone who may be.  That doesn’t mean you think less of the person you’re referring it means you know their core capabilities and they really would be a good fit.  That’s trust.
What other pieces of advice for the early on entrepreneurs?
Education, our community has many great organizations that people can be apart of.  They can be apart of ILEA (International Live Events Association) the wedding community, the audio-visual community. Getting your face out there and meeting as many people as you can, informationally interviewing with people as much as possible.  I see a ton of young women in the wedding space popping up because they’ve either attended an event, helped their sister plan her wedding, or really feel like they are very organized and can handle multiple tasks simultaneously. That does not make a great event planner.  What makes a great event planner is the knowledge of function and form coming together seamlessly and if you don’t truly know what that means get out there and start asking people.
I love meeting with the newbies.  I do not want to do wedding planning.  I will tell you all the tricks I know to make you a great wedding planner, I’ll happily tell you.  Go out meeting, learning, getting educated, follow people on social media. You have to get out there see and be seen in the early days especially.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t later in your career as well, you have to stay relevant.
You can reach Amy Zaroff on social media as @amyzaroff
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