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Cornerstone Entertainment Concepts' Don Saytar

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As the executive producer for Cornerstone Entertainment Concepts, Don Saytar is a self-described "Jack of All Trades - Master of All": creative visionary, strategist, marketer, guru, visionary, chief bottle washer, accounting supervisor, and all-around general bon vivant.

How did you end up in the entertainment and event industry?

It was a total fluke, quite honestly. Back when my sister was getting married in 1985, I needed a band for her wedding, so I called an agency that I used to book bands from back in university. In the end, I didn't book a band, but I did end up working for them and that was my entry into this profession. Previously, I had worked at PriceWaterhouse, but I couldn't fathom another second in a career that was a mismatch from the very beginning. I think that organization and detail orientation are just an innate part of my being.

How would you define the event industry?

At some point, I am thinking of writing a book entitled, "Surviving Amongst the Walking Wounded, a Sane Man Survives the Event Industry." That could be one way to characterize our industry. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the public, regardless of their age group or demographics, has no clue what the event profession is. Even if you try to explain what we do, people just don't get it! They seem unable to visualize that a person or team of persons is responsible for making events happen. Sadly, organizations like the International Special Events Society have done nothing useful to educate the public.

How do you guide clients to landing at the best possible event outcome?

We do our best to give clients the benefit of our advice and years of experience. However, at some point, we take the approach that it is the client's event, not ours. As long as the client is not choosing an approach that is dangerous, illegal, or puts their guests at risk, we try to go with the flow even though it might be creatively stupid or a bad spend in terms of resource allocation. We do our best, but some clients just don't want to be helped.

What changes would you like to see in the industry?

There is no question that I would love to see our industry adopt a business paradigm in which we are charging for proposals and asking for and getting respect from our clients. So many people in our industry are pleasers who will do anything just to please their "masters." Often times, doing so is detrimental to their financial success. Sadly, there are far too many "warm and fuzzies" in our industry for our own good.

What is your dream event/client?

A dream event would be a client having a budget to produce a mega superstar, like Elton John, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt or Barry Manilow. I think that would be really interesting! I think producing a really kick-ass awards show, like the Academy Awards, would also be an incredible rush.

What is the best event you have ever done?

There are two events that I am really proud of—one was a national sales meeting for which the original producer was fired one month prior to event. We were hired to produce a 4,000-person event with sets, staging, lighting, and entertainment. It was really intense since I didn't have any staff at the time. The end product got nominated for an international award! The other best event was a 16-minute sports theme show at SkyDome, which won both international and Canadian awards.

What are your thoughts on the internal politics of the industry?

It is all so useless and counterproductive—it's like a big "Who cares?" In the past, I was heavily involved with international associations and over the years, I have seen all the internal politics, the conniving, and the pettiness. In retrospect, when I look back on all the people who were most heavily involved with politics, they weren't the big players in the industry anyway. The real superstars in the business are only worried about their businesses and doing great work for their clients.

Who is your mentor?

My first mentor back in the mid 80s was Wayne Thompson, then the manager of The Nylons, Tanya Tucker, and Harry Belafonte. He took me under his wing, we socialized, and he taught me the ropes of working with celebrities. For that, I am forever grateful. Aside from that—there have been a lot of "anti-mentors"—from whom I have learned what not to do!

Who do you admire most in the industry?

I admire certain qualities in many people. For example, I admire Tom Stulberg of Fireworks Marketing Group in Vancouver for his intellectual intensity and his creative vision—I think that man is a genius on that level. I also admire Jeffrey Roick for his courage and determination in making Carlu happen.

What can you say about the state of the industry after SARS?

SARS was a crisis time for the event industry as revenue streams largely dried up. Sadly, there was no tangible response from Tourism Toronto or our industry associations. Collectively, they just focused on hotels and tourism, bringing in bus tours, packaging hotel rooms with restaurants and theatres, but nothing was done to help the meetings and event industry. Our business owners were totally left abandoned. Governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like Tourism Toronto fundamentally breached their responsibilities to our industry. The response by industry associations, like ISES and MPI, was no better. Their attitude was that they had to play nice, they couldn't lobby, and that everything would be all right. They just danced around the toadstool and gave themselves group hugs and air kisses. They didn't lead in any useful way and certainly didn't lobby for the interests of our industry. It was truly a sad state of affairs.

It made me even more cynical and disillusioned about the business practices and the lack of common sense of our industry leadership. Nobody got the fact that there was a big problem and that there was a huge public relations disaster on Toronto's part. The whole experience certainly soured me on volunteerism and being an active participant in the leadership of our industry. I learned that I could only rely on myself for my company's well being. Thankfully, things are so much better now. We are now solely focused on servicing the needs of our clients and attending to the best interests of our company. The rest will take care of itself.

— Robyn Small

Posted 12.01.04
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