We talked to Dan Hirsch, founder of On Board Experiential, about experiential marketing, and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dan Hirsch: We’ve been holding up. My daughters are both in college right now. The oldest is doing well and still living college life as if not much has changed, but my youngest only started this year. She missed her final months of high school, graduation, prom, and now the beginning of college. It’s been really hard on her and this group of kids. My wife and I are finding new ways to keep motivated—lots of RV trips and chasing some powder around Colorado until we get back into the office, hopefully, this May.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded On Board Experiential.
Dan Hirsch: After college, I lived in a van and drove around the country with my best friend. We broke down in Steamboat, Colorado, and decided to stay and get jobs. I landed a job working on the race crew for the ski mountain and didn’t know at the time, but this experience would go on to define my career. I went back to NYC after being a ski bum, and I got a job at a music booking agency. We represented the biggest names in pop and the emerging hip hop scene. I signed a few groups from the Wu-Tang Clan to Onyx and worked booking our roster of artists from Run DMC to Marky Mark and Vanilla Ice. After about five years in the music biz, I wanted to get back to my passion for snowsports. I left the agency to start On Board Experiential (OBE), which was the first company to combine action sports and music. With pro snowboarding competitions on the mountains and live rock bands playing at the base, we built snow sports festivals that grew quickly.
How does On Board Experiential innovate?
Dan Hirsch: As experiential events transitioned online during the pandemic, we quickly and aggressively adapted our approach in order to meet the ever-evolving demands of this new environment. In 2019, we created over 100 in-person activations, but in 2020 we executed over 600+ remote production shoots as well as a diverse range of virtual events, digital and interactive experiences, live streams and webinars, and social media and influencer campaigns. If you asked us in 2019 what our business was going to look like, this was definitely not it.
Moving quickly has been most critical in unprecedented times like these—the speed at which we’ve been able to adapt and execute. If we can share one piece of advice for other agencies or entrepreneurs that want to be prepared for whatever 2021 might throw at us, it is this: set yourself, your team, and your business up in a way that enables you to shift, pivot, and perform. The pandemic has proven that business agility is key to survival and success.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business?
Dan Hirsch: As a live event business, the pandemic was devastating. We watched an entire slate of events get canceled over the course of three weeks. We thought we’d be back within a few months, only to realize that it would be much, much longer. But, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, and I think this is still the case. We were forced to really dig in with our clients and innovate, building virtual skill sets and adding new services quickly. Within two months, we had already gone live on our first virtual events. We then proceeded to shoot over 700 remote pieces of content over six months. Coming out of this, we’ll be well-positioned to not only take back the live business that was once the core of our company but also enhance our projects through streaming, virtual and content creation.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Dan Hirsch: In the past year of uncertainty, we definitely had to make difficult choices. From an HR perspective, we used our core company value of “People First” as our north star. We were able to keep layoffs and furloughs to a minimum; this was due to the willingness, versatility, and sheer grit of our employees to pivot by acquiring new skill sets. Once we gained visibility into upcoming project work, we brought back the majority of our furloughed employees. While our typical employee health and wellness benefits had to be pulled back, we were able to implement monthly opportunities for employees to take advantage of fitness, wellness, and mental health programming, which has been particularly important during this time. In addition, we’ve supported our internal departments with training and development opportunities. This leads to our biggest lesson: no matter what challenges your business is facing, the best investment you can make is in your employees’ growth, both professionally and as human beings.
How did your business evolve? Do you use any specific new tools to be efficient?
Dan Hirsch: There are very many apps, tools, and software available to virtual event producers, but the most effective tool while working remotely is clear communication. Your “comms” plan and strategy are vital to the success of the show. This includes ensuring you have a system for communication between your client, talent, and production teams. In some cases, you might want the client to have a direct line to the talent. In other cases, a one-way channel where people can only listen in may be useful. In the end, it’s about finding what works for your team, which brings me to perhaps the most effective tool of all: a committed team that is aligned on your process and works together to accomplish the goal. If you have this, you can do just about anything.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Dan Hirsch: Yes, we took full advantage of the PPP programs, and honestly, it really worked. Without it, we would have likely cut more staff earlier on without visibility to what the future would hold. By keeping that staff, we were able to pivot, maintain morale and start our recovery sooner. Our business still took a massive hit this past year, but we were able to maintain about 85% of our staff while many of our competitors were not so fortunate. We are ready to scale quicker now as a result and able to weather the storm.
Your final thoughts?
Dan Hirsch: Once again, as an entrepreneur, you realize your greatest assets are your people. We have built a culture based on teamwork, grit, and mutual respect. This paid off big time during a time of crisis. Our team bonded and gained strength from each other. Most of the ideas that propelled us forward did not come from myself or my partner Deb but from the team themselves. They dug in, came to us with the ideas, and then executed them flawlessly. I’d say that is what I am most proud of. When the chips were down, everyone came together and raised each other up to succeed.
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