This transcript is from Episode 10 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/10
Interview transcript only
Tom: Jacob Weiss, thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me this morning.
Jacob: Oh, thanks for having me on.
Tom: Now, I want you to give us a little bit of background. I've already told the audience a little bit about you. But could you give us an idea of your background in the performing arts and event planning?
Jacob: Sure, and I definitely probably came to it from a different direction than a lot of people. My background before was in academia. I did my PhD at Vanderbilt University in biomedical informatics, came directly there from a computer science degree in Princeton. But at the same time, I've been a juggler since I was 10 years old, started up the student organization performing shows on campus both at Princeton and at Vanderbilt. And so I'd always been in the performing arts world but not through the formal training and not the way a lot of a lot of entertainers will start, maybe street performing or things like that. But I got into it through the campus organizations and, with that, was able to put on large performing art shows with 20, 30 people on campus because it was student-based productions.
So after I finished my graduate degree, I wasn't going to just go into academia and forget about the juggling and performing, but I also didn't want to forget about all of my focus in academia. And my work and my research was looking at, how do you connect the local communities? At Vanderbilt, I was working with the cancer center and, how do you create more awareness of all the different resources for support for cancer survivors and families in the community? And how do you connect those resources to one another who might not know what other resources are available to share with their patients?
And so with our entertainment, from the very beginning, we've incorporated a community-based component to what we do. So as soon as we started, we were doing corporate events and stage shows, but all of that incorporated an element of community or giving back in some way. And we've applied different models as we've evolved. But that's really where we come from with it.
Tom: That's fantastic because right now, corporate social responsibility is huge. Employees want to feel like they're a part of something more than just themselves. So can you talk to us a little bit about the different models that you are working with?
Jacob: Sure. Well, one model that we have applied to our corporate events is the giving back in a one-for-one model like Toms Shoes, and that was one of our inspirations. And Toms Shoes, if a lot of people have heard of it, where every pair of shoes you buy, they donate a pair of shoes to a child in need. And we've applied that model with our corporate events so that with Playing By Air's corporate event programs, every performance or program that were brought in for that will donate a performance or workshop or program to a local charity in the community, often a children's hospital, underserved school, or nonprofit. And that's something that we have partners like Ronald McDonald House. We go to a lot of different cities or children's hospitals. But then it might be that the client really wants to support a specific cause, and we'll work with them in advance on that. So one of our clients wanted to support the local United Way, and they got a theater the night before their event and helped coordinate. We did a public show as a benefit show for the United Way.
So we won't plan entire benefit show. That's not going to be feasible to do with all of our touring events in different cities. But if the client and the local partners are more involved, we can do bigger things. We'll bring the content as much as it is coordinated locally. So it might be if we coordinate it ourselves, we'll just connect with the local hospital and do something just for the patients and families that are there and not try to put on a big public benefit show. But then sometimes, the client will be more involved and will do that.
So that's something that we incorporate in a lot of our events and it really is a way to add extra value to the client because they might not be thinking of that. And they're focused on their event. But when they first start talking to us, maybe they're talking about the entertainment and what the entertainment's going to be about. And as I share what we do with the giving back component, the tone in the conversation changes to “Well, what's your availability? What's your pricing? What are you going to do for this and this?” And it changes to more of “How can we both work together to do something that we care about and we're passionate about?” And that's a really key part of the value for the…If you're an event planner or if you're in HR and you're trying to get your company on board with something, it changes to “What are we doing?” to “Let's work together on something exciting?”
Tom: That's a fantastic model. Now, as I understand it, if they are arranging a benefit show for United Way or what have you, that would then become a part of the component that the event planner would have to set up.
Jacob: Yeah, if it's more involved with something that will need to be publicized with the local community, that would be something…It really depends on who wants to take what on. When we've done things locally, where based here in Nashville, we do more of taking that on. When I was saying that we don't take it on, if we're on the road and it's something put on locally. So if it's a local event planner, definitely, it can be something we can be more involved with with planning and helping coordinate with the client. With that example, it was a client that we were traveling into, and the client put it on themselves because they had existing relationships in the community.
Tom: Well, that would be possibly one way for an event planner to pull other people from the company into the event by finding who's in charge of the corporate charity and working with them. So they're bringing those in. So that that makes a lot of sense. If you were doing it so that you were setting it at Ronald McDonald House or a hospital, how does the corporation benefit from that? Is their name brought up?
Jacob: Sure. Well, we can mention it to that nonprofit. But a lot of times, that's not so much the client's interest. We work with them to integrate elements of cause marketing and that and if they want to. But a lot of times, that's not as much their priority. Again, we're coming in from the event-based setting. And they're focused on their event. But one of the key values is that they can share with the people at the event that the entertainment that they're enjoying is being gifted to a cause that they care about. And so that adds extra glue and value.
One of the events that we were at, there was a gala for a nonprofit, and we went out and supported one of the schools that they support in the morning before the event. We did a few short sets throughout the gala event. And at the end, when they announced that we had done the program for this specific school and talked about what we did, the audience gave a standing ovation. Not just about our entertainment, it was about the giving back component.
And so that's an example of how it's a key value to the client who's trying to make a connection with their audience. And sometimes with entertainment, the event planner might be worried about, is the audience going to go for this? Or this is a little different than we've done. Or I want to make sure that they don't think we're being too silly if the entertainment's fun and lighthearted. Whatever the concern is, when you tie in the giving back piece, it can soothe any other concerns in that connection because that's a really nice connecting piece between the emcee and the entertainers and the audience.
Tom: Now, you travel all across the United States?
Tom: We didn't go much into your show. Would you tell us a little bit about your performances?
Jacob: Sure, and it's, like I mentioned, as coming from my background as a juggler, it incorporates elements of juggling but also a lot of physical comedy, music. And in some ways, people sometimes will say it's almost like a Blue Man Group without the crazy makeup. It's no talking. It's three performers in the touring show. We also bring in other additional circus artists for bigger productions. But yeah, it's just high-energy fun. I often will say we're on stage having fun together and sharing that with the audience. So it's not just about the fancy tricks and things that people bring us in for. It's also just that connecting with the audience, the element of fun, something different, and something that all ages and…Adults enjoy it. Kids enjoy it. It's completely clean and family-friendly. So just a really fun show overall.
Tom: You are a performing artist going into an event, flying into an event. And in a recent podcast, Episode 6, I talked about how to frame entertainment when they're going into an event. And I mentioned jugglers and some considerations that jugglers would need to have. Can you share some of the scenarios you that you've walked into that were maybe a horror story for you, where things weren't right? And what does your group need to be able to have a successful performance at an event?
Jacob: Well, one of the first things we always ask is the ceiling height, which may be not everyone cares about in the same way. And we can definitely be flexible. One of the events that wasn't a big corporate event that we did, but we did locally here in Nashville and collaborating with an improv comedy group, the ceiling was about six and a half feet high on one side of the stage. So that was interesting. We did a few things on…getting down on our knees to pass clubs and things like that. But really, it's fine. We've worked in spaces with the small ceilings, big stages, whatever. So we make it work, and we can adjust the show as needed.
But really, with juggling, a lot of times, you want to make sure if there's a band on stage that they're not covering the entire stage with the drum sets and microphones and guitar stands. And that's little things that probably a lot of variety acts you want to be aware of when you're planning multiple pieces on a stage with that act.
The lighting is always important for us where we like backlighting and side-lighting in order to see the props. The audience needs to see us and be lit from the front bright and so everyone can see that from the audience side. But on our side, we're looking up at the props in the air. And if there's no lights on the side or back, if it's in the back corner pointing up towards the center, those are great lights. But a lot of times, that's not thought of when planning the lighting for the event.
Tom: Thank you so much for sharing that. That gives us another thing for event planners to think about. Now, Jacob, I want to bring up another thing. And I hope this doesn't touch on anything that you didn't want to talk about. But I understand you have Tourette syndrome.
Jacob: Oh yes, yes.
Tom: Okay. And you're involved with that charity as well. Can you talk to us a little bit about your experience as a performing artist with Tourette's?
Jacob: Sure, and it's something that a lot of people and clients don't necessarily even know because onstage, and this is something that pretty much all performers that we've talked with shared, that onstage, you're in that state of flow where the symptoms and the tics don't show up. So it's in many ways, it's a really nice environment for someone with Tourette's performing because you can be around so many people and be free of the symptoms.
Now, backstage, in the hotel rooms, zipping and unzipping the suitcase might take a while. But it's something that doesn't show up on stage. When we get out in the community and especially when we can connect with families, either with facing things like Tourette's or anything where they think that their child might not be able to live a full, complete life, and be able to share that there are ways that not just you can do something in spite of the Tourette's, but even with that, that it doesn't necessarily have to play into what you want to do. You can use whatever you have as a strength.
We joke that it's like a superpower. And in a lot of the ways, with Tourette's, almost there's that lack of filter in the brain. The same lack of filter is what allows a lot of the creative ideas to flow through. So ideas that might pop into my head and connections that I make to put together a new act for the show are not so different than the way it feels with Tourette's and obsessive compulsive disorder, which is another tie-in to that.
So in many ways, it's something that I feel is not disconnected at all from the creativity that it takes to be a creative performing artist.
Tom: Let's get back to some of the events that you've performed. Our event planners are always looking for ideas and ways to improve their events. Is there an event that really stands out in your mind that was one of the things that you just were amazed at the quality of, at the overall reaction of? Is there something that does stand out for you?
Jacob: Sure. Well, one program that we did tying into giving back that actually wasn't just completely something we initiated, but it was the event planner that planned it for…It was a large medical conference. And for the reception, they had thousands of people. They wanted interactive activities. But what they wanted to do was make those interactive activities something that incorporated local nonprofits and charities. And so because of our connections with nonprofits, we were able to really help them find good local partners for that. And that's an example of why doing this kind of work on a regular basis and building those relationships with charities and nonprofits in the communities where you have events is because you can be an extra value to…If any client is looking for a specific type of nonprofit, you've already got those relationships. And you can be that resource beyond the other roles that you are playing.
And so we helped bring in a couple different programs and nonprofits. And they donated to those nonprofits. And then the nonprofits did activities at this medical conference that were fun, engaging. And I helped the nonprofits put together…So as an event planner, you can maybe work with the nonprofits on ideas that you know work well at corporate events or special events. And so we put that together. It was a great win for the nonprofit because not only did they get great donation to their organization, but they also got visibility with all these medical-related attendees. And they were medical related non-profits. One was for cancer support for children with cancer. And so it's the kind of thing that just really stood out as the client got it. The event planners got it. And it was having everyone doing it in a way that wasn't just spur of the moment. They had this vision. I was able to work with them very easily and genuinely because I already had these existing relationships.
One challenge that you might have if, let's say, a client says, “Hey, we want to do something with some nonprofits in the community. And if you don't have existing relationships with the nonprofit community, it can be hard to connect in because nonprofits can be very sensitive to “Why do you want to do something with us? Is this going to take advantage of the members and people we serve?”
For example, one nonprofit mentioned to me that someone who might say, “Hey we want to do this big event, and we'll give 10% of our sales for this evening to your organization.” And the nonprofit's thinking, “Our email list and advertising in our email list is worth way more than the 10% you might be giving from one night of your restaurant sales.” But there's a disconnect in that communication and understanding of how nonprofits work. So if you're trying to work with nonprofits, I would definitely recommend be involved both actively be involved in your community. But also the more materials that you have that show the types of work you've done for other nonprofits, then they can be confident when you're approaching them as opposed to you being a random company approaching them.
But this event that I was mentioning with the medical conference, it just all flowed together. We helped connect in the nonprofits. They got it and really made it work well both, like I was saying, in contributing to the nonprofit but making the flow…It wasn't like I was trying to convince them that it would be a good thing. They made it work really well with the overall flow of the event.
And then actually the next morning, they had a charity run, and we've done some charity races where we run and juggle in the race. And so we actually stayed in and had some of the juggling performers running the race the next morning at 5 in the morning as just part of making it all cohesive. So that just felt really good overall as an event because it wasn't like the entertainment was just stuck in somewhere. We were integrated in throughout the event, as well as the giving back was integrated throughout the event. And so that just felt really good and stood out to me just in the overall planning process.
Tom: That is a great example of how to take an event and really reach out to the community and bring more people in. So thanks for sharing that. So you've been talking a little bit about team building. Can we go in a little bit more about that?
Jacob: Sure. So we have stage shows where we do big corporate kickoffs, after-dinner entertainments, more mixed in different ways, like I was mentioning, in receptions and creating atmosphere. But part of what we'll do is work either at events or, before the big event, just throughout the year with a corporate client on team-building programs that incorporate the giving back element. So a lot of times, a company might have a team-building program where they're trying to get their leadership team to connect with one another, or they're trying to get a department more cohesive and more innovative. And they don't always connect that into their other departments in the company that might be about corporate volunteering and those elements. A lot of times, it can be disconnected within a larger organization. Or even a smaller organization, they don't always tie them together.
So we offer programs that are team-building combined with giving back. And our initiative that we do with our giving back, it's called Creativity Moves Kids. Often, we'll do, let's say, for example, with the juggling exercise, learn-to-juggle team-building exercise where we get the attendees connected. They learn different patterns and moves that they do as a group, individually, with partners. And so we use that as a way to tie in messaging for the company but also just getting people to have fun together.
And after we do the team-building with the company, they can then be volunteers for us to do that same workshop with kids in the community at a nonprofit. So we always try to think of ways that you can do something that has the value for the company, and it gives back at the same time.
One of our partners on Creativity Moves Kids has created a tutu-making workshop where the attendees can make tutus, and then they give to girls in the community at one of the local nonprofits that we partner with. And it's fun activity. They can make one to take home to their kids or grandkids. But then they also make one to give and donate in the community.
Build a bike, it's an example that a lot of events will use and where it's a team building, putting the bikes together that then get donated to the community.
So there's a lot of ways to think about it both and putting something that can be given as a specific item to the community but also an experience. And that's a lot of what we do with the entertainment is create an experience for the event and the company but also create that same experience in the community that they otherwise would never get to experience.
So that's something that we try to think about, whether it's a stage show or team-building. You're creating an experience that brings people together. And what types of programs beyond your internal company would really get value from being brought together in a way that they never have before.
Tom: I absolutely love that, especially the tutu. That's hilarious.
Jacob: When we first started incorporating that, we weren't sure what it what it would be like. Everyone runs around them in the community. And the adults enjoy it too. Even if you're not into the fashion element of that you can create different patterns, with different color sequences, and so anyone can really have fun putting that together.
Tom: That's great. Now, Jacob you are very innovative in this area because most corporate entertainers that I know don't have a set program like this. Are there other events service providers that do this? And how would someone find them?
Jacob: Right now, there's not a really easy way just to find anyone. But pay attention and ask the vendors that you're working with if they have any giving back or charitable contributions. And more and more, these days, a lot of companies, even small businesses, will have that. And you can look online and their website, if they have it, the more that they have really on their website and in their materials, you can be more confident that that's what they do more in general. It's not just something they could add in if you ask them to. And that's again important because if you're making connections with the community, it's important to know that the partners that you're working with are genuinely there connecting, and it's not as much on the superficial level.
One of the things that we talk about, in how you can incorporate giving back, you have to do it in a genuine way, not just because it can be an advantage to your business. The key is you don't ignore the value it can add to your business. But you also have to be, first and foremost, genuinely interested in contributing to a certain aspect or cause in the community.
And so really try to get a sense of it. Some companies do where they give 10% or some percentage back. And that's not a bad thing. But you can even look for, do they do anything that really gets them actively involved in the community? And so it might be something with the caterer. Do they volunteer doing something food-related out in the community. There's a lot of need for food, food advocacy in local communities where a lot of people have food insecurity, and they don't have access to fresh fruits in their community. Maybe even the caterer doesn't do it already, but maybe you could come up with ideas that you can partner on, and you might be of value to that caterer. Give them an idea that they can incorporate into their business that will be good, straight to that relationship and why they want to do good work and add value to your events.
Tom: Well, I've got to tell you, Jacob. You have really opened my eyes today to what this is all about. And I'm going to actually start giving some serious thought as to how I can incorporate this in my business. And I'm sure that our listeners are going to start thinking about how they can incorporate it into their events that they're planning and actually reach out beyond what they're doing to influence and help the community around them. So I greatly appreciate everything you shared with us today.
Jacob: Oh, well, I'm happy to share. And like I said earlier and as we've been talking before this call, anyway that I can be a resource, happy to share and give ideas either informally…And, again, we also do beyond our event work, consulting more on experiential marketing and cause marketing and corporate volunteering with clients throughout the country. So that's something that always I'm happy to share more about and work with people on.
Tom: Well, fantastic. And how would our listeners get in touch with you if they wanted to?
Jacob: Sure. They can find our corporate touring event programs at playingbyair.com. They can reach me directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And then you can learn more about more of our giving back components at creativitymoveskids.org as well as creativitymovesevents.com, which talks more about our experiential marketing and incorporated cause marketing programs in the community.
Tom: Excellent. And I'm also going to, if you don't mind, include a link to your Facebook page because you've got a great number of videos there and all the events that you're doing. And they just amazed me. And I'm sure that that will inspire our listeners as well.
So, Jacob, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I appreciate you being here.
Jacob: Thanks for having me.
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