We sit down with the legendary Lee Cockerell, the former Executive VP of Walt Disney World, to discuss his business methodologies, discipline, and a tattooed Cinderella!
Lee has held management positions with Hilton for 8 years, Marriott for 17 years, and the Walt Disney Company for 16 years. He is the author of four books: Creating Magic, The Customer Rules, Time Management Magic and Career Magic. Make sure you listen to this one!
We sit down with the legendary Lee Cockerell, the former Executive VP of Walt Disney World, to discuss his business methodologies, discipline, and a tattooed Cinderella!
How do you make the most out of the relationships you make with people in the events world? We had Jessica Barrett and Beth Plates sit down and talk about ways that they have fostered relationships to create successful events.
We’re here to talk about relationships. You are both good at building relationships with key people, how do you define a successful relationship?
Jessica: In the industry I would define that as someone that I trust and I know will deliver. It’s on an intrinsic level, not something I have to worry or question they will pull through even if it’s crazy. No matter what it will work.
Beth: I agree I have to reiterate the trust factor is huge. You almost develop your own language or no language at all. You start reading eachothers minds. You understand that’s the direction it’s going and you end up clicking and look at eachother
Jessica: And when you can look at each other when something is not looking and figure out how it’s going to look and roll with it. No one’s looking at it like it’s your problem not mine.
Beth: Exactly, you’re in it together, you’ve got a partner that has your back.
How would someone who is newer start to develop relationships?
Beth: First of all volunteering. At events, put yourself out there. Especially if you are looking to gain experience. It’s huge to go to non profits and work their galas, golf tournaments. See behind the scenes how it works. That’s where you will meet people, like minded people that want to be apart of and support these organizations. That’s when I got my start it was volunteering and helped immensely. Professional organizations as well.
Jessica: I would agree with that. That’s one of the first things I say to people when they are looking to burst into the industry. Every gala is looking for volunteers. It gets people in the industry and gives them an opportunity to see you working and if they want to work with you in the future. If they have a job available it’s a warm introduction. You get to see people from so many facets.
It’s easier to sell yourself if people see how you work and how hard you work. They would feel more comfortable to have coffee with you. You have to be able to contribute.
Jessica: The professional organizations are key, that’s the easiest way to get into the door and talk to people without having a job. You could still be working at Caribou but go to the night of the hour and start talking to people and building those relationships before you have a leg in the door.
How are you supposed to start attending these events? Do you need a pitch and cards?
Beth: I think it helps if you have somewhat of an elevator pitch. If you are new and show passion and sincerity, people are going to understand if you don’t have it all figured it out.
What about when you are working for a venue and it’s highly sought after and everyone wants to have something to do with it, how do you develop the right relationships?
Jessica: It helps that I have been in venues for a long time. I’ve been in venues for 14 years. I had a lot of pre existing relationships before I started Machine Shop. Honestly it was integral to our success, we hit the ground running because I could reach out with people we worked with in the past before I had our website and asked them to see how it would work for them. And getting other people involved. A lot of times its people hired by clients and and we get to see them and get to know them and see if they fit. We don’t keep a public vendor list on our website because we like to match our clients with the best vendor for them.
I’ve had some vendors reach out to get on our list, it can be a catch 22. You cannot get into the space unless someone hires you and you’re not going to get hired unless we refer you. There’s other ways around that, like if we work together on something through ILEA. If you’re connected in the industry you hear about what’s good and what’s bad.
The word of mouth portion is so much stronger than being on a list. Tell me more about friendships. How do you cultivate those friendships and develop them into something real?
Beth: I believe with events, we work such interesting hours, an interesting industry. We are up at 3 am before an event or we are cleaning up at 3 am. Or sometimes both for the same event. You’re working together these long days shlepping together. Our clients are looking to us to be resourceful and as you are bonding with your person at the venue, or A/V team, or event planner you are putting your heads together to be creative and it cultivates a very eclectic relationship.
You become friends with these people.
It doesn’t really matter how good you are if your attitude sucks.
Jessica: Yeah that’s one of the things i go back to. We may book something once and get away with a lot, but if you want to have that repeat business those things won’t fly. You can only get away with that once or twice or people feel burned.
I love that in the event space there is so much competition that it forces everyone to bring their A-game. Not only are they great, but they are also great people.
Beth: I think Amy Zaroff said it well in one of your podcasts, “we’re better together.” as a group we kind of raise the bar in what we are producing.
Jessica: And putting Minneapolis on the map, I think it is really shifted in that last couple of years. That has been amazing to be apart of.
We do events all over the country and some clients go from city to city, and I keep telling them they have to come to Minneapolis. They are now starting to listen.
We have a lot of listeners asking how to do I be better. How do you do that?
Jessica: For me, I’ve been trying to refocus on, before I do anything I isolate what are our goals and objectives in this so you know everyone on your team is working on the same thing. As long as you know what those goals or objectives are you can return to that and say “are we meeting those? Are we making choices that will lead us there?” That will always lead to being better and doing better. Be very clear about those things. People don;t think about the logistics of how you got from point A to point B.
One of my pet peeves is when people walk in the door and assume they know more about the space. It’s good to touch base with the people that know alot and come in with an open mind because there might be things that can go a lot better.
Beth: And to your point, it’s respecting the knowledge you have. That’s where I’ve see the most success with events is when you regard those individuals who are working within the space as an expert or the A/V team as the expert. You can collaborate or question but also respect that they have years of experience and a team of experts they have brought on, they may have a difference of opinion. We are there looking out for our best interests.
Jessica: Right they all want to see this be successful. No one is trying to sink your ship. There is a paranoia that someone is going to sink the ship and they are going to tighten the screws on it. I learned a long time ago with A/V companies, I never ask a lot of questions until they are done setting up because a lot of times if you get into the mix they are like “We are not done yet.” Unless it’s something that is for sure not supposed to be there. I let them do their job and usually when they are done the questions are resolved.
The point of respect was interesting. Every corner of the events business the experts you bring in you have to give them the respect that you chose them to do this and they know more about what they are doing.
Beth: The outcome is grander. Most of the time if you are hands off and let people do their best work, it’s better than you expected.
Jessica: One of the things I love about working with Beth is that when we have initial meetings you love getting input and haven’t made up your mind about every detail.
Beth: You as a venue, you have so much more access to some resources because everybody wants to get into your space, and be seen in your space. Not only are you great about putting together a great venue but you are a great resources, you are full of names and numbers of people that are creative, undiscovered and I look to you as a friend to bring those to the table.
Jessica: I love having a relationship where I can give you my options. Sometimes in the venue we see things that are similar time after time. It’s fun to bring in new elements and try new things. There’s always ideas in the back of my head. I have to convince someone to do it so I love when people are looking for options.
Talk about empathy
Beth: Taking into consideration who you are working with, your partners are not just business partners but they are humans who have things going on in their lives. You have a life outside of work. Occasionally we have that personal life that sneaks in but its recognizing it, it goes back to relationships. You realize people are putting in 100% but there are things that come in in life.
Jessica: That goes back to trust. If you trust them you know they are going to do what they need to do. You can give them the grace when they need it. We struggle with that because it has become a 24 industry, the world has become a 24/7. People expect you to have things turned around in 15 minutes and if we have a relationship where we trust each other and I send you a message I trust you will take care of it.
If you want to add to your reliability, you also need to take on more responsibility.
Jessica: With our team there’s no such thing as that’s not my job. I don’t care. I have cleaned vomit more times than I care to admit. I’ve never turned around and said clean this up. If you are the closest person there you just do it.
If you’ve taken the responsibility for something follow through on it.
We tell our guys not to tell a client they can’t help them, but instead to assist them.
Jessica: When people start out there’s a fear of admitting you don’t know something. That’s why you hire experts, even if it’s the most well oiled machine there will be hiccups you don’t know the answer to. It’s ok to say I don’t know but let me find out. Let’s figure this out together.
Tell me about mentoring, how do you find a mentor or become one?
Beth: I think a great way to mentor is to take interns. Sometimes it does require a lot of work on your part as well. If you have the right intern, some will stay on. Some interns I’ve told they will have to hire me someday when I’m too old to do events. Someday my interns will hire me. It’s a great opportunity to have a fresh perspective on something you’ve done for years. It makes you rethink the process on why you do something. It’s a way to mentor the next generation.
Jessica: It’s ok to ask, but to ask with a humble attitude, “I know you’re busy but do you have time to sit and have coffee with me.” 99% of the time if people ask to have coffee with me I’ll say yes. If you ask for an informational interview and if you click and have a great relationship that person can become your mentor.
When you ask someone, make sure you’re making it convenient for the mentor. Show up on time, bring value, and be prepared. Don’t waste the mentor’s time.
Jessica: Absolutely, those are more relationships you are forming. No matter where you end up that’s a person you have the second nature conversation.
There are a lot of great industry organizations, talk about their value they bring.
Jessica: I am on the board of ILEA MSP I am the director of strategic sponsorships which plays well into this conversation, it’s all about relationships and building relationships. It’s been amazing. I got involved 4 or 5 years ago, it was kind of transformative for me. It helped me expand my circle of people. I don’t get to spend time with people who don’t do events at my space. I got to work with caterers, producers, and one of my employees, that’s how I met her. We were working together at star Awards. Our first conversation was me overhearing what they had planned and being like “what’s that?” But now we’ve formed a relationship and when I was looking to fill a position she was one of the first people I thought of.
Our chapter here in MSP is super active we won for the 5th year, Chapter of the Year. We are are hosting ILEA live next year which is really exciting. It’s been all over the place but it’s coming here in August.
It’s been interesting when we are talking with the ILEA live board of governors, they were really surprised to hear how much sponsorship we have here. They struggle with that other places. We have such a robust industry of people who are willing to give and have an excitement for that.
You can contact Jessica Barrett at
You can contact Beth Plates at
Meeting Minds by EideCom
In our fourth episode, we meet with Becky Harris & Lauren Segelbaum of Event Lab. Since 1994, Event Lab has been your one-stop-shop for everything event decor, event planning, and event management. Whether hosting a small social event, planning a wedding, or getting ready for the biggest corporate meeting of your life, they will make your event unforgettable! Becky, the Founder/Owner, & Lauren, their Senior Event Specialist, share where to get the biggest impact for your budget (hint: it’s not silk flowers!), and other tips/tricks for giving your attendees a memorable experience!
Contact: BHarris@eventlab.net, LSegelbaum@eventlab.net, or for more information go to www.eventlab.net
HOW DID YOU START THE BUSINESS?
Pretty much by accident at home. I was doing a lot of volunteer events and meeting people in the industry. Pretty soon I turned it into an opportunity to make money. I was doing everything, but owned nothing. Pretty soon I had 50 glass vases in my garage and then props, big and small. So I had to get a warehouse space and some people!
WHERE ARE YOU AT TODAY?
BECKY: Today, we are one of the largest event companies in Minnesota. We have probably 18-20 full time staff members, lots of part time staff, and our event staff that are all independent contractors. And today I am part owner. I sold part of the business, because I didn’t want to stay up at 3 am worrying about everything.
LAUREN: I’ve been there for almost 12 years and have been in the business for almost 22 years. I was burnt out in my old career and decided to become an event planner. I have worked for non-profits, another agency, and then I started at EventLab part time and now 12 years later I am the full time Senior Event Specialist! We bring all the pieces together for the host to make the event as seamless as possible, so they can be a guest and be thankful at the end of the night that they were able to enjoy their event.
HOW DO YOU GET THE CLIENT’S VISION AND TURN IT INTO REALITY?
Every one of our Events Specialist is creative. When we interview for new event staff, you have to have a really strong right and left brain. Be creative and logistically capable to do the job with excellence.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH THE VISION?
A lot of the time they have some idea, whether it’s a theme or something like that, and then we ask the questions. Like, what has worked and what hasn’t? What’s your goal? What’s the profile of your attendees? Often when we get a theme, it can be subjective. So we have to ask the question, “What does this mean to you?” So we help them find their vision and then we transform a room based off that vision. If budget is an issue, then we ask, “Where do you want to have your ‘wows’?” At EventLab we all have our skill set. Some of us work better with big spaces or tabletops, but we aren’t just a design and decor company. We do a lot of off-property interactive experiences. People do not want to just sit anymore. Every dinner has to have an interactive piece, like auctions or wine-pulls, mystery boxes, etc. Entertainment is key. Not just a band on the stage but conversation entertainment, roaming entertainment, outside or in the pre-function entertainment.
SO HOW DO YOU HELP CLIENTS WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT?
We send renderings all the time! People are way more visual these days. So instead of sending lengthy proposals, we are using mood-boards using Photoshop. Like we do custom bars, but everyone wants to see what that would look like with their logo and branding, so we send that over to the Photoshop team, then to the client, then back to the Photoshop team to edit it.
IF SOMEONE CAME TO YOU SAYING, “I HAVE A LIMITED BUDGET. WHERE SHOULD I PUT MY MONEY FOR THE BIGGEST ‘WOW’?” WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
That is an excellent question. It depends on what their goal is for the event. It could be the entrance or the stage. If they’re going to be watching a show or be in a theatre style setting, it would have to be on the stage.
WHAT ARE SOMETHINGS PEOPLE CAN DO TO GET THE BEST BANG FOR THEIR BUCK?
I think that is where you guys come in (EideCom). Lighting has taken on a whole new trend. Lighting elements and all you can do with it is amazing. The one thing I always notice at an event is how great (or bad) the lighting is. Whether it is patterns moving on the wall or it is stagnant. That is probably going to be the best bang for your buck.
CHARLES’ TIP: When we are doing an auction, we make the room super dark while the auctioneer is talking, so it requires the attention to go right to the stage, but when it is time to start the bidding the room lights up and it gets people excited. We create lighting cues.
WHAT ABOUT FLORAL? PEOPLE EITHER SEE IT AS A NECESSITY OR THE LEAST IMPORTANT THING ON THE LIST.
It depends on the demographic of the group and who is spearheading the event. There are some planners that love floral and we love planners that love floral. Floral has changed. I think people are wanting more natural elements, like just picked or garden-style flowers. MYTH: You are not saving money by purchasing silk flowers. We use silks when things are high, like if it is from the ceiling or up on a column, because you get a bigger bang and you don’t have to worry about wilting or drooping. An event should satisfy all of your senses. One client of mine wants a wellness room, a place for her attendees to relax. So we are bringing in massage therapists, we have massage chairs in our inventory, and lots of eucalyptus. Very spa like. We are a jack of all trades. We do hospitality suites, transportation, and so much more.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO KEEP AND WHAT TO THROW AWAY AFTER AN EVENT?
We reuse everything! Say you wanted a carnival themed party, we already have the tents, the custom toppers, etc. We make sure everything looks like we just bought it. We have a lot of furniture, that is a trend that is not going away. People now what creative alternative seating. We are constantly getting new stuff, and having to remove stuff. Our warehouse is a revolving door. Sometimes we try to see if another company wants it, sometimes it goes Craigslist, sometimes people just take it home! We’ve noticed new trends in furniture, where it is no longer soft, white, lounge pieces, but Mid-Century Modern styled. We have to constantly be turning over our inventory at our warehouse in Eden Prairie.
WHEN IT COMES TO BUYING NEW STUFF, DO YOU BUY FOR A SPECIFIC OCCASION OR WHEN YOU SEE SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NEED IN THE FUTURE?
Usually for a specific reason, but lately we’ve been buying in bulk if it is something we notice we are using over and over again. The warehouse is only so big so we have to be mindful of that always.
WHEN IT COMES TO DECOR, WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THE BEST BANG FOR YOUR MONEY?
Since we inventory so many linens, it is easy to do that. But it really depends on your budget and what you think is important. Some people are fine with hotel linens and others want that to be the statement piece. I think color really makes an impact, whether that is in your linens or chair covers or whatever.
COULD YOU GUESS HOW MANY LINENS YOU HAVE?
Thousands. Every color of the rainbow and in several different sizes. If we don’t have the color or shade you are looking for, we will find it.
HOW ARE YOU BALANCING BUDGETS?
Everyone has a budget. So we try to figure out their range. We don’t come in and say here is the fee for us to produce your event. We bring in a mood board and share the price. Then they can say, “oh I don’t want chair covers” or “I like this but can we do it for less?” And that is hard. Sasha Souza says, “It’s not my responsibility to pay for your event,” and that is very true. We are in an industry that brings a bit of a sticker shock for people who haven’t done this before, like weddings, but most corporate clients have a pretty good understanding of costs. The best thing about working with an event professional is that the client might have a vision but we can work through all the logistics. You need to work with professionals that know how to bring in the right elements and still achieve the vision you have.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE IF A CLIENT COMES TO YOU WITH A BUDGET, YOU CAN BETTER HELP THEM MAKE THE MOST OF IT?
Definitely. Since we have so much in our inventory and we have a great selection of big and small props, we are able to adjust, improvise, and even throw a few things in here and there to make the event better than they expected.
HOW DO YOU HAVE THAT CONVERSATION WITH A CLIENT THAT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND BUDGET OR COSTS?
It goes back to, “Where do you want to create your ‘wow’?” We could do a great stage design or entrance and use the hotel linens or whatever. But we have to be honest and tell them we can’t do it all with that budget, so find out what’s important to you. We try to educate in the most polite way possible, but sometimes we do have to be blunt.
DO YOU EVER HAVE CLIENTS YOU THOUGHT HAD A GRAND BUDGET AND THEN COME TO FIND OUT THEY DON’T?
Oh yeah. Especially with the big conventions that come to town. They used to have great budgets, but now they are cutting back a lot. I’m surprised by how little the big Fortune 500 companies here in Minneapolis will spend locally.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD SOMEONE COME TO YOU SAYING, “I DON’T CARE HOW MUCH IT COSTS, MAKE IT AWESOME”?
Yes! It was at the International Market Square building for an audiologist conference and the more I’d suggest, the more they loved it! They wanted every room to be decorated and tons of entertainment. Two different bands, a lady swinging from the ceiling, a gospel choir, and more!
WHEN IT COMES TO THE FUTURE OF EVENTLAB, WHERE ARE YOU HEADED?
That’s a good question. We have goals of growing, but we aren’t aggressive about it. We are looking to do quality, fabulous events for each company. Each client gets an individual design team working with them. So we want slow growth with quality. We have a team we are really proud of, from the delivery staff to our President of the company. We are very invested in our clients and we care about who is entering into our client’s business. Whether we are entering Aria or the Hilton hotel, that is someone’s home and we want to be respectful if it.
FINALLY, WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND YOU?
Meeting Minds by EideCom