Tech Giants: Encore CEO Ben Erwin Changes With the Times

August 11, 2021

What used to be a regular sight gathers some attention during an interview with Encore President and CEO Ben Erwin. Namely, an employee is seen in the background walking down the hall. Slowly but surely, Erwin is calling in the troops for some limited office work. It may never be five days in the office again, but the blending of physical meetings with Zoom calls has begun. Hey — that sounds a lot like the events industry.

There is no company touching as many meetings, events and trade shows as Encore. 

Having announced major partnerships with both Cvent and Intrado Digital Media, Encore will almost surely remain an industry mainstay as events move toward a world of face-to-face gatherings mixed with digital experiences. 

As we enter this brave new world, Encore is still gently reminding the world that it is no longer PSAV. The new name, the key part of last year’s rebranding, seems ideal for this time. When executed well, virtual and hybrid events produce content worth coming back to. Yet there is more to the new name’s meaning than that, as Erwin explains in this chat about the future of events and leadership through a time of crisis.

What’s it like bringing work back to the office?

I am completely biased in what I want to believe but I think this industry attracts people that like the energy of face-to-face that extends to their work environment. You get time to put your feet up around the table and it does make certain things a lot easier to just connect because you don't need to find an hour in the schedule that no one has. You can just grab them as they're walking by. I think it will take a little getting used to, but I'm hopeful most people will see the benefits. Not every day. But a number of days.

As a leader in the tech space for years, what do you make of the explosion during COVID?

Hybrid events have existed for a decade, they just tended to be kind of reserved for the largest, biggest-budget citywide — you'd have a medical congress and bring doctors in from around the world using it. So, the technology was there, it just was less comfortable for a lot of people to consume. What the last year has taught us is that even my parents can schedule a Zoom meeting. That comfort factor has allowed a number of organizations to expand the people that they can reach.

Now that there’s a race to return to face-to-face, how important is it to reinforce that added dimension with digital?

We believe in-person is a superior form of meeting. But if you restrict your message just to those that can be there in the room, you will have a smaller audience than if you can find ways to creatively open it up. That's where the remote attendee piece comes in. When we say “hybrid” that's what we mean. We're going to have larger audiences in multiple locations. It's still at its core an in-person experience but don't let the messaging and the power of that event stop at the ballroom.

How does planning evolve as we move (hopefully) out of this pandemic?

You're seeing in the planner community a generational shift take place where you know folks have had to learn new skills, but you're also introducing more people to the value of meetings and events, which for all of us in this business should be a great thing. It’s going to mean meetings and events are more important. The returns should be larger than they were before because they'd be needed in person, but now we've realized there's a whole different format to reach really different audiences. But I think the planners are trying to figure out the exact design that solves for that. And in some ways, last year was easier because you only had to solve for the virtual event. Now you've got organizations and planners trying to decide where on that pendulum they want to be in terms of in-person needs and thinking about that remote attendee audience.

Why partner with Cvent and Intrado Digital?

We have our own platform timeline, which we're very proud of, and one a bunch of our customers have used. It actually came from the in-room experience, so it's kind of a second-screen audience engagement tool. It’s very important to us to make sure that we are making planners' lives easier, and that we are bringing all of the solutions to them. We have planners that either had their organizations make a platform decision before we talked to them, or for their event design, a different platform is the best solution. We want working with Encore to be seamless. What we want to be able to do is tell our planners that we have the right solution for you. Our focus is making you and your event successful.

Is it possible that the industry is innovating a bit too quickly?

I would say we're in a mode of experimenting right now. I think what you raise is an interesting question. We've all been in this sprint for a year and a half, and there is an element of “Whoa.” We got a little ground underneath us now, so let's just slow it down and take stock of where we are. We want to use this time to experiment with our customers around different event designs or different technology solutions that could be useful because I think we will coalesce around fewer choices.

Why rebrand, especially during a pandemic?

It’s kind of a signal that this restart comes after what the industry has been through —  this incredibly destructive period. I do believe we're coming out to our next great act. But how can we signal to ourselves and our customers that we're turning the page to something new? It’s a helpful signal to turn the page to our next great act.

Second, we had a bunch of brands that had good brand recognition. But for a customer, it was a little confusing who you were working with. And so our ability to rally around one global brand has made life easier for our customers and also internally.

Third, PSAV had an incredible brand reputation and brand recognition, but it was seen as AV. It limited us to in-house or in the venue. What we realized was that we anchored our customers to a subset of what we could actually do for them. The rebranding was an opportunity for us to signal to our customers and remind them more of our production capability and creative capability.

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.