Richard Aaron and his BiZBash crew set the standard among event professionals for what works and what doesn't. They should know — they're invited to thousands of New York parties each year. And they let everyone know about the good, the bad, and the absolutely spectacular.
CMI: How did you get involved in corporate meeting planning?
Richard: Actually, I came to New York as a Broadway hopeful. I graduated with a master's degree in acting and directing. I spent eight years acting in New York and on Broadway. One of my highlights was acting in Candide, which won a number of Tonys, and Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel. I then produced my own show and toured the Catskills and places like that. That show took me into the corporate world.
I met Mallory Factor (president of Mallory Factor Inc., New York, NY, an independent merchant banking and investor relations company), who wanted me to head his company's events division, which was great because it offered me the chance to build the division from the ground up. At the time, it was strictly events, and we eventually added the meetings component. Plus, Marilyn, my wife, and I had just had our second child, Marissa, and Marilyn said I couldn't go out on the road for 12 weeks at a time anymore.
So with Mallory Factor, I laid down roots and headed out on a new raceway. I was with Mallory Factor for 18 years as president of the meeting and events division.
CMI: What were some of your first experiences?
Richard: A lot of sales meetings. We'd theme the client's entire meeting: morning, noon, and night. I learned a lot about the importance of content and creating excitement.
Within two or three years, I was working on major productions — 3,000 to 4,000 attendees instead of 200. I had to think on a new scale and add “Wow!” Today's business climate is a bit different. Company events are a metaphor for how well it can treat its customers.
CMI: Tell us about SEARCH, the Special Events Industry Aid and Response for Care and Hope Foundation. (SEARCH assists in obtaining health services and support for individuals with full respect for their confidentiality.)
Richard: Helping to found SEARCH is one of my proudest moments. It really began five years ago, when a member of our community contracted AIDS. I felt — a lot of people felt — we had to do something. With his help, we built the foundation, hoping to engage him mentally and physically. Which it did. But its focus isn't strictly on those stricken with AIDS; it's there to help anyone.
It's starting its fourth year. It's become the heart of the events community. As a former chairman, I'm always involved, always helping, always recruiting.
Now I'm involved with ISEEF [International Special Events Education Foundation, a part of the International Special Events Society], which is a scholarship program for young professionals. And we're a young industry. So it's a good fit for the company and me.
CMI: You were instrumental in leading the name change from Meeting Planners International to Meeting Professionals International. What prompted the change?
Richard: I first got involved with the Greater New York Metro chapter of MPI, and was involved for years. I was appointed to the International Marketing Committee, and the name was one of the first changes we were to make. We met with a lot of resistance at first, but we were able to give a rationale for the name change. Half of our membership were suppliers who support meetings, but were not literally planners. To represent all our membership correctly, the name was changed.
Another hard sell was putting the CMM [certification in meeting management] into place. A lot of people thought, we have CMP, why do we need another second tier title? We had to prove that this was a more strategic title, and one that would make meeting planners more respected to their team. It helped people get promotions and respect.
But maybe what I'm most proud of are talks I've presented to eight chapters of MPI and ISEEF. I discuss the craft and how the two organizations might collaborate. I try to elaborate on why a meeting planner should hire an event planner; and vice versa. I try to be the ambassador to both sides, creating synergism between them.
CMI: How have things changed since you made the transition from Mallory Factor to president of BiZBash?
Richard: The switch has been a challenge in terms of learning new technology and new media. I always want to stretch; learn new things. In a way, BiZBash is a pioneer. First, to reach a point where we're able to get access to all these great events and meetings, and then to be able to get the information out to people so quickly.
It was hard to get invites at first, but now we're getting slammed with invitations. Our editors are very savvy. They cover 20 events — private and public — in a week, reporting on three or four, covering the food, the invitations, whatever is exciting and different.
We were founded about 18 months ago, and we've been live online for about six months. Every Wednesday we send subscribers a newsletter, and on Monday a calendar of events: New York events and national events. We're also a portal where people can display their services. We have 150 customers who do this, and they all seem happy.
CMI: How has BiZBash weathered the dot-com storm?
Richard: We've got a great management team; a great senior team with a lot of experience. Our CEO, David Adler, was the head of public relations at Primedia. His brother Jonathon published real estate guides. And Jane Shapiro, our VP of operations, has been invaluable. Also, we brought all of our technology in-house and own and operate all of our systems.
We also didn't hire a PR agency. We just put on different hats. Hard belt-tightening reduced our burn rate. Our venture capital company, Milestone Management, Ed Goodman, and Todd Pietri, stood behind us. We have a superior board of directors who continue to support us.
CMI:. Tell me about winning the 2001 Meeting Professional Award, and Events Solutions magazine's Visionary Award.
Richard: The MPI award was honestly the highlight of my career. It's even just an honor to be chosen as a finalist. The selection process is kept so secret, you don't even know who the other finalists are.
It was so great to be in Las Vegas, with a record crowd, and to look over and see so many familiar people. And it was wonderful to be able to share this with Bobette Gorden (founder and president of NewInformation Presentations), who was chosen as supplier of the year and is one of my dearest friends. That made it even more memorable.
And the Visionary Award was a real award show. It was an “envelope opening” ceremony, which I've never been a part of. I had my family on speaker phone on my cellphone. It is so important to me to share these moments with my family. They're the ultimate glue.
CMI: How has the industry changed most in the last few years?
Richard: The industry's growth has been huge. With special events, we now have standards and measures. With meetings, we've seen a growth in globalization. Now there's no one on the planet that wouldn't want to host a meeting.
Technology, too, has changed all the rules. E-commerce will be entrenched in some industries in terms of RFPs (request for proposals) and RFQs (request for qoutes). It has proven to be a major research tool. It is an efficient time-saver; planners can make inquiries or view options by cyber tours of properties — and so much more. The use of automated registration systems to craft data into nametags and seating charts and beyond. The information age has blossomed.
CMI: Where are we headed?
Richard: We'll have more options. In the future, people will be more connected. Communication will be more fluid. And wise meeting professionals are learning how to get their businesses ready. But we're not there yet. Senior executives need to learn about this technology and grow with it. The younger generation is fluid with new technology. And they'll expect it.
How will it shape our choices? Many hotels have no interest in connectivity. But they have to get up to speed; get their staff up to speed. They can't be left out. Younger people demand it. Not lip service, either. They need to be online. And I'm only sharing this because I'm repeating what I've seen. We're living in the “experience economy.” Where will we be in 10 years after we've seen and done it all? We'll see events that focus on touching the heart.
CMI:. What do meeting professionals need to remember every time they plan an event?
Richard: They need to remember that they're the most important element in that event's success. They need to tap into their creativity and have true vision. They need to bring the best of themselves to the event.
Many times, professionals are too focused on the logistics of the event. They're important, but the meeting professional has to have confidence in his or her vision and knowledge and creation. It's really such a simple thing, but it's often so hard to embrace.
What a great industry we're in. We are charged with creating happiness, and we really do create happiness. We're “memorologists,” creating crystallized moments for people. If you do it right, you've created happiness.
Before the events of September 11, BiZBash had planned to host The Fresh Idea Show on Oct. 11, to showcase the New York events, meeting and business marketplace. The show was to take place with event partner, the Jacob Javits Center. As of press time, BiZBash was awaiting word from the Javits Center regarding New York's further support needs. The center became a staging ground for emergency personnel during and after the tragedy.