Experience Creators You Should Know - R. Bruce Lankford Jr. , ETA Creative Event Producers

R. Bruce Lankford Jr. , of ETA Creative Event Producers, discusses how he honed his skills over the pandemic to now be in position to overcome the challenges that the new meetings/events landscape brings.



This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic world. 


Name: R. Bruce Lankford Jr.

Company Name: ETA Creative Event Producers

Job Title: Senior Producer

Years of Experience: 20

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I started on the technical side of event production, learning to wrap cable and understanding signal flow. This was over 25 years ago, and so I've held many roles in event and media production over the years, both as a full timer, business owner, and freelancer. I settled back into producing events with a creative / production agency as it provides me with the best opportunity to create meaningful experiences using technology and story.
How would you describe your role or responsibilities as a professional event planner?
I'm not really an event planner, as I don't source the city, venue, or transportation services for an event. However, I do play a key role in helping planners or our clients directly to decide on these factors. So much of what we do as an agency plays into space and time requirements, and there are normally more challenges than not when our clients don't take advantage of our knowledge when choosing these products and services. We generally ask to be included in asking more unique questions and ensuring our client's objectives can be met.
How do you compare planning your first in-person event post-pandemic, to planning meetings/events pre- Covid? What was different and unique? What was similar?
With every similar item came something equally unique. For the organizations that were gathering in person, there were the rules of proximity! How close could one be to another? Seated, standing, walking, indoor, outdoor.. and these seemed like ever-changing puzzles as we all received standards from the powers that be on a daily basis. Streaming became a necessity as groups tried to desperately hold onto meetings attendance, and how we could keep remote attendees engaged from hundreds of miles away was a regular topic. What could we offer to those folks who weren't allowed to come but still wanted to participate? How could we use technology to help virtual and in-person attendees network and communicate? And then there was the consideration of sanitizing EVERYTHING! Where we had all been so accustomed to trusting the cleaning professionals to do their job, now many of us were involved in types of conversations we never really considered - what types of cleaner are you using? Are you allowing adequate time for the cleaner to do its work? How are you "disinfecting" hotel rooms? How are you sanitizing microphones? How many sanitizer stations do you have, and who's paying for those? The list goes on and on. All that said, planners and producers have a tendency to be hyper-focused, and so we all became experts in our own rights in developing standards to keep our clients and team members healthy and safe - and that concept has always been one of consideration.
What challenges have you faced in your work as a meeting and event planner, when working with suppliers or sourcing a venue and how did you overcome them?

As media and events producers, we often face the challenge of managing expectations and information. Sometimes it seems as if there are just as many of our industry peers who misunderstand what we offer as there are peers who completely understand what we offer. We are called everything from "AV providers" to "I.T." and sometimes "production people". The simplest solution is often having the opportunity to work side by side with those who don't understand exactly what we offer, so they can experience it for themselves. The pros of working with a team like ours are we are experts in making the entire process easier for everyone.
How do you determine which vendors are best suited for your stakeholder's needs while also finding those providing competitive services at affordable rates?
Our primary goal when looking at any vendor is alignment. We look for partners whose values and mission align with our clients, and who offer more than a "widget" or even a service but also consider the overall program and strategy behind it. When we deal with our clients, the question we start with is why they are hosting the event and what is their end goal. We look for partners/vendors who think the same way.
Are there any key lessons or insights that have shaped your approach to event planning over the years?
I think the biggest tips I can share are these:
1. Listen first and take time to understand the "why" behind every moment and event.
2. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
3. Be human and empathetic, always willing to share and teach a client something new.
4. Remember, you can learn from anyone, regardless of their position or what team they are on.
5. Give yourself grace as you navigate what can be a stressful industry, and remember to do the same for your peers.
6. Be honest with yourself, your team, and your client.
7. Smile often and remain passionate about what you do!
With hotels short-staffed, and RFP lead time shortening, what is your advice to other planners to overcome these obstacles when requesting hotels for proposals?
Build relationships with venues before you need them. Venues are managed and sold by people just like us. Each person has a story and a life beyond what they do. The more we can build relationships with these wonderful people before we need them, the better we will be when we do. This is the hospitality industry, and so there is nothing wrong with being hospitable and starting the process early.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
I wait until I'm absolutely sure before contracting and, in the process, carve out a decent amount of wiggle room for myself and my client should an emergency arise. There are some areas in the contracts, such as cancellation policies and more, that I have taken a much harder look at since the pandemic.
What is the biggest area of improvement that you think hotels can make when either responding to your RFPs or during the contract phase of your event?
Sometimes it seems that it takes longer than it should to get RFPs back, and then when you do, they are not always accurate. So I wish the communication process during the contract phase was better and the RFPs were looked at more closely.
Due to the pandemic, our events community had to evolve, adapt, and grow. Many planners started to embrace new technologies as a result of the pandemic. What new tech are you using today in your planning process as a result?
As a seasoned events and media producer, there was probably less of a jump for me here. I had the opportunity to work as a planner for 4 years, but this was after 13 years as a producer. That said, there wasn't any new technology for me, but there were new platforms created to make the streaming and virtual events experience easier to manage. My integrated knowledge of broadcast production and event planning afforded me many opportunities to help planners navigate during the pandemic. New platforms that were incorporated were StreamYard, StageConnect and Vmix. Even to this day, many of our clients at ETA continue to use StreamYard for their webinars and we continue to use Vmix for live studio broadcasts across multiple states. For the best speaker-to-audience interaction, regardless of audience size, our preferred partner is StageConnect, where a speaker can see and directly interact one on one with an individual, even in an audience of thousands.
Since education and relationships are two major pillars in the meetings and events industry, any suggestions on how other planners can learn and network with their peers across the industry?
I believe it is imperative for all of within the industry to network across the false boundary lines of our segment or designation. I still have long-standing relationships with hotel teams, DMCs, meeting planning organizations, and catering companies across the world, even though my current focus is event and media production. But I've been able to keep my hand on the pulse of the industry as a whole because of these relationships. In as much as I encourage my direct peers to interact with meeting planners and hotel partners, alike, I would encourage all meeting planners to do the same with my current industry. Reach across the aisle to production partners who are doing things you find interesting to say "hello", and be intentional about the relationship. There doesn't need to be an event to discuss or an experience to create - but instead a relationship to build. In my own experience, if you lean into networking with the idea of fostering great relationships, it's a win for all parties.
This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic w,orld. 

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