David Merrell founded AOO Events in 1989. As one the nation’s most respected and sought-after award-winning design and production firms, AOO provides innovative event design, cutting-edge stage and logistics production. The company designs and produces movie premieres, corporate events, private parties and various milestone celebrations throughout the nation and internationally. As a former ISES LA President, Merrell continues his involvement as an industry adviser, expert and advocate. His leadership, achievement and dedication make him a true Mastermind. Continue reading for the details on Merrell’s journey to become an award-winning event designer and producer.
An Interview with David Merrell (Part II)
Founder, AOO Events
By Paula Estes
Q: What about the diversification of what you were doing? You were growing into different areas…was that profitable versus specializing in one thing?
A: I was doing the whole thing when I was catering. We went in as a full package when we decided to make the change. I had to redefine myself strictly as an event décor and production company. There was a transitional period of time where I didn’t even say I was a production company even though I did it because I knew it was going to take longer for me to establish myself as a producer. This was the time when I had just started working with Cindy Wiedenheft, who’s a past president of ISES as well. We met when I was president and she was on my board. We became friends through that and then a year or two later, just before 9/11, we started the decor division because that was actually gaining a lot of speed and there was a lot of money there in addition to catering. When 9/11 happened catering went (whew) and so did everything else. So I thought…you know the decor seems like an easier way to make money in a longer scale so I stayed with Cindy and grew the event décor business. Cindy did all the design at first and I was just basically managing the entire process. Didn’t take long before I realized that I actually had a flair for design and I quickly learned the Corel computer program. I do all of my drawings on Corel Draw and that’s how we sell to the clients and how our design process begins. But I learned the decor side of it and Cindy and I decided to part ways. And I became the designer I am today.
Q: So, when you first started, you didn’t feel your inner artist? Would you say it….was something that blossomed in the course of time?
A: Yeah, I didn’t really realize that I had it. I mean I went to school, University of Dayton, Ohio and I was an accounting major…I was definitely a left brain person. I was schooled as a left brain person not as a right brain creative person. (God I hope that’s right…but you get the idea.) I developed the business side of my mind in college, and marketing out of college through the school of hard knocks, trial and error. And then the creative…I just kind of discovered it later. I was always creative in other ways, I was a singer, you know. There were other things that I was doing and other artistic genres for years.
Q: So, how else did ISES relate to your growth and development?
A: When I was looking to make a transition from Orange County to LA, (and I was a caterer) I was really making a presence or trying to make a statement within Southern California at that time. Because. I thought that ISES would be a good way for me to get some exposure and learn a little bit more about the business. So I started going to the meetings and it wasn’t very long before I was recruited to be on the board. I think I was on a fast track, I only did one year as a vice president and then I was immediately president, so I didn’t even do a four year stint, I was right at the top. And that was before I knew it, I was like, “OMG what, I’m president?” I sought ISES for one reason and that was to get exposure and to get leads and clients and what I got from ISES was something very different.
I learned a lot in my years of the presidency and the past presidency because you are still involved. Leadership and inclusiveness and all these things that are extremely valuable in my business, things that I probably would have learned over time in my business but, working with different people, different mentalities and different industry expertise taught me a lot about inclusiveness and patience, and all of these things that you need to be a good leader. What ISES changed for me was when I decided that I wanted a bigger picture in my career. I wanted a national or international presence so I decided to get more involved in ISES on a national level. And I didn’t get too involved because I didn’t want to go through four years of being national vice president, I was involved in a lot of boards like Search, and I got on advisory boards for Special Events magazine and BizBash but the big thing was speaking because I had national and international aspirations, speaking was a ticket for me to be known to a wider audience. So the first time I spoke, I spoke with a couple of people at TSE which made it a lot easier to swallow because I was nervous as hell. And now I’ve developed myself as a speaker and now I speak probably once a month in some city around the country. I’ve been all over the U.S., to South Africa and all over Canada. And every time I speak at one of those and I speak directly from an education standpoint. In fact the events I typically show on my seminars are my lesser ones because they are the ones that have to be clever, so I’m showing I’m showing off my bag of tricks! Usually someone sitting in my class becomes a client almost every single time. And that’s what’s taken me from local recognition, which ISES helped me in, to national recognition through involvement in ISES, staying involved in the industry and becoming a speaker. That’s how I became known around the country and around the world.
Q: What about topics? Do you deliver the same topic or is it….
A: Yeah, it’s generally based around design. The one we are doing now is called Top 10 Things You Need to Know About Event Design…which you saw… that’s a really popular one, so I’ve been doing that one for a while and I am planning to do a top ten things about event production. The one before that was called Secret Shmecret….let me tell you some stuff that the big guys do and it was about event decor and design, things like that. We’ve had one called Walking the Tight Rope between Creativity and Profitability; how do you balance giving enough to have an amazing product yet still make money on it? So I probably have over ten seminars I’ve done that I can pull out and do for anybody, at any location now.
Visit the ISES LA Blog Tomorrow for Part III of Mastermind: An Interview with David Merrell.