Phil Rhys Thomas / September 3, 2019
Discovering events production via a theatre degree and a meeting with an Oscar-winning actress, Cecchetto’s background stood her in good stead for what was to come. She likens every event she produces to a perfectly calibrated performance, a way of working that’s kept big entertainment clients like the Emmys and the Oscars coming back year after year.
Why did you choose to move to California?
I’m originally from Canada and I have a theatrical and a fine art degree which I obtained in Toronto. My goal was to work as a performer, so I moved to New York. I studied at the Actor’s Studio and worked as an assistant for Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, believe it or not. She was a phenomenal woman and I moved to Los Angeles with her. I had been in New York for a couple of years. Having grown up in Canada where there is lots of space and land, I discovered that California was actually for me as soon as I hit the sunny coast. I just needed a back yard! Even though I think New York is a magnificent city and I love to visit — it’s got so much to offer and there’s so much to learn there — I felt that California was better suited to me.
When did events take hold?
I grew up in the event business indirectly because my uncle had a huge restaurant with a banquet room. I was always at this or that event, and I even worked for him. It wasn’t my intention to move to California originally. Though I continued with my acting career there, I was also working for an event production company. I say “event production”, but 30 years ago we called it “catering”. It is totally different now. It just so happened that this company had secured the first Governors Ball at the Oscars not taking place in a hotel ballroom, and I worked that event for a couple of years on the catering end before the Motion Picture Academy really scooped me up and said, “Could you come and run this event for us?” So my first job was the Governors Ball for the Oscars, which is kind of crazy. But you know, at the time “special events” was just tablecloths and flowers, whereas now it’s full-on production. One thing led to another, and because of my theatrical degree, my understanding of set design, and my experience working through my teenage years and college summers in the food business, it all came together and was a perfect fit.
So what sets you apart?
I don’t think a lot of event-production company owners can say that they have been on the floor rolling up their sleeves to the extent that I have. My origins in this business gave me a grounded knowledge and allowed me to experience all areas of event production, and respect them. If a transit box was deposited in the kitchen, I would know what to do with it. That sounds funny, but it’s true. If I had to get behind the bar, I could mix a drink, or if I had to drape a table, I could do it.
But obviously my work has grown into what the emerging event business has asked of us as producers. And that is to create an experience; an altered state for the guests and for the client’s brand, to take the guest from A through Z, to ensure that they leave with much more knowledge about that person or that product or that celebration. Because no matter how you bake it or shake it, all events are celebrations of life.
What is it like to hire Cheryl Cecchetto?
Clients are much like friends. Sometimes someone walks into your house and you have a great night and it’s a one-time deal and you don’t see them for years. Then again, sometimes someone walks into your house, and you have a connection with them which turns into year to year to year. We’ve been blessed with many year-to-year-to-years. We’ve been producing the Oscars for 30 years now, the Emmys for 21, G’Day USA for 16 and now we’re on our third Wallis Annenberg Gala. We’ve had a relationship with Westfield for over 20 years. I have produced an entire family’s wedding, Bar Mitzvahs and a celebration of life over 20 years. I know all the milestones of some of the families in my life because I produced events to support them.
How do you find your clients?
More often than not, you get a cold call. You talk about what their objectives are and you have to listen clearly to what their endgame is. I think the most important skill in any business is listening and knowing that it’s not just a one-off for a lot of these events if you can truly identify their long-term goals. So, you get this call and the most important thing is that you take time to listen to the whole story. Good client casting is very important to me. (You know, we receive prank calls in the same way that everyone receives prank emails. It’s really funny.) First, we love to spend as much time on the phone with the client as we can. The next step is meeting them in person because there’s nothing like a face-to-face. You can really figure out if it’s proper casting from both sides, because the process over the next six months or year, depending on the size of event, is quite extensive and intensive. You really have to determine, is this a person — and I’m not being judgmental — that has a product and brand that I can support and expand upon?
How do you build relationships?
We often meet with clients who are looking for the year-to-year-to-year. G’Day is a very good example. It is an event that we curated 16 years ago with the former Premier of South Australia, John Olsen. The event was created to promote the professional relationship between Australia and America. We set out to acknowledge Australian talent, food and wine, finance, business, fashion, music, sports, and put that talent on the map. It was extraordinary, and here we are 16 years later due to its success. In the first year, we actually came up with a five-year plan. We’re following that model right now with another client; an original event that was so successful that it evolved into an annual event. Everyone is promoting a brand. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a birthday or a wedding, or if it’s the Emmys or the Oscars. It’s still a brand; you’re bringing people together to celebrate a person, a milestone, a success, and usually each other.
How does the process work?
After we meet the potential client and discover we are a good match, we establish the goals, the budget, the location, the timeline and the boundaries. Then we’ll go to contract and we’ll work backwards from the budget to imagine what we can create to fulfil the vision. We have massive systems in place – we have job delegation charts, timelines, contact sheets – it’s really just like producing a film, but in the end, on the night, you only have one take! For something like the Emmys, the guest count is so large that we have three events. Two for the Creative Arts and one for Primetime, all in the same room with the exact same set-up. In that case, true, there are three takes, but they have to be perfect takes. The process is enormous. There’s a lead producer from our office assigned to any particular job. Gary and I – Gary is my Vice President – may be involved, depending on the size and scope. It’s rather like a law firm. You have your senior and junior partners. We outline the plan from beginning to end, present the plan to the client, and it usually takes a month to close the deal. That is the process. And believe me, I’m giving you such an abbreviated version. There are presentations, tastings, trials, décor boards, mood boards, a core presentation, press conferences. It’s massive. The timeline for a production as involved as the Emmys or the Oscars is 30 pages long.
What about the most important thing – the seating plan?
Here’s the deal. If I was producing your wedding — let’s use that as an example — I would create a layout of the space and you would say to me, “I’ve got 200 guests.” I’d say, “Fantastic.” Then you’d say to me, “I have 20 guests that must be in the most prominent seats.” I’d say, “Terrific.” Then, you have kids; you want to put them in this corner. I’d say, “Perfect.” I would create the layout (a very detailed floorplan of the visual structure), and demonstrate how we would construct the seating plan, but you personally must decide, because you know who those 20 people are. I’ll sit with you and we’ll figure it all out. With organisations such as the Emmys, the Oscars, G’Day, etc., there are political and business considerations with regard to the clients’ comprehensive, entertainment-industry guest list. Out of necessity, the client needs to seat their guests, not me. I need to come up with systems, checks and balances on their behalf. A lot of establishments want to manage their own invitations and RSVPs because they know that so-and-so is a supporter or sponsor, and so they must sit beside THAT politician who must sit beside THAT celebrity. I use the wedding example for simplicity. To be sure, you know better than I which aunt doesn’t get along with which uncle, so you’ll separate them. It’s all about political placement.
What are your favourite locations?
California is the best place on earth for events because we have such a wide opportunity in the calendar when we can hold weddings outside and enjoy the sunsets and weather. And talk about décor — you have the beach, or you’re on a mountain. For the Emmys last year, we ventured to the top of the LA LIVE deck above the parking structure, and we celebrated both inside and outside of a massive tent structure. I built a clear wall on one end, so when guests arrived up on the outdoor deck, they were still very much included in the festivities inside the tent. Guests who lingered outdoors could readily view the dramatic LED light display on the inside ceiling of the structure. The winner’s circle was also positioned outside, and we created an incredible outdoor sponsors’ village including a champagne, wine and cocktail bar. We designed an outside, satellite stage. The dynamic was so stunning that we’re going back up there again this year before the venue is torn down for new development. Speaking of locations, LA is home to some exquisite restaurants, pool decks, outside-inside areas, allowing us to really utilise the fact that we’re in California.
What makes a great event?
I love this question. A great event reflects the time and energy that have been put in from pre-production right through to the guest experience, from the celebratory tone of the invitation all the way through to a departure amenity at valet, perhaps an offered cappuccino or a bottle of water. Every inch of space and moment in time has been thought through. I envision an event as an altered state. You arrive and experience a number of transitions that somehow change your mind, your emotions, your life; an experience that you will speak about for a long time afterwards. A great event demands that services are efficient and ample; that there is space, there is energy. Events today must embody a transformative personality. People work very quickly with technology nowadays, therefore events need to offer a sense of freedom, escape, transcendence, even play. And they also have to be cast correctly. There’s a 20-year-old, perhaps, who wants a stand-up table, who doesn’t even need a bar stool, who just wants to keep moving. Maybe some guests prefer that lounge feeling, to hang back with a glass of champagne. There are the sponsors or VIPs, on the other hand, who may need to feel acknowledged, and who will prefer a sequestered area and a more formal setting. The guest experience needs to very much evolve. The colours and movement of the lights, the evolution of the music played, and the food served are all conceived and managed. A modern event can no longer be static, it is a managed series of evolving experiences that come to a climax.
When you enjoy a good run of your television series, you don’t want to end it when the ratings have already peaked and then come down. You want to end your series at the apex. That’s when you end it because you know it will be around for the re-runs. It’s the same thing with an event. You want to make sure you deliver to your client and guests an experience that exceeds their expectations; that surprises your guests with the absolute unknown, with the unexpected – that surprises them with wonderful detail, and a crescendo to a terrific finale.
Guests need to know there is a different experience around the corner, to their left side and to their right. Varied experiences get people moving around, a surprise dessert station, a secluded lounge around a corner, a sudden view of the skyline. You want guests to be encouraged to mingle and socialise. Some clients get a lot of business done at events. It really depends what the event mission statement is. What is the purpose? Ultimately, as producer I must ask myself, are we all on the same page, and have I seen it all the way through so that long after the guests have left, their experience is still ringing in their minds, in their bodies, in their souls? Then they will pass on the brand positively in one way or another.
As for the entertainment, I love mentorship and finding opportunities to give back. I love finding new talent for all aspects. I often bring in young theatrical or musical students who welcome an experience in the event world. Combining those who are super-experienced with those who are not adds terrific energy and synergy to the project. Two years ago I brought in a dance troupe. Half were professionals, half were students. We peered them together and the choreography was completely intermingled. It was an unforgettable experience.
A great event is about creating and managing those key, chronological moments including the food, the beverages, the look, the textures, the arrivals, the departures. All of it. It’s surprise after surprise after surprise.Back