Interviews with Planners - Justin Hersh

Justin’s first exposure to creative production began at age seven, helping his father – a composer – set up a multimedia system for a concert. Over the past 30 years, he has designed and produced large-scale events and trade shows for heavy hitters such as Apple, Virgin Galactic, Medtronic, Applied Materials and Novellus Systems, as well as major museum installations including the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium and the Bishop Museum. As the founder of Group Delphi, Justin’s theatrical training was infused into the company’s DNA from the beginning: people work collaboratively to create engaging experiences that always have a special flair to them. Today, Delphi designs and builds experiential initiatives for companies around the world.

What is the best advice you have ever received as a planner?
The show must go on. Before starting Group Delphi, Justin and Tony Erpelding (who later became Group Delphi’s SVP of Creative Services) worked on a project for production company, Aid N Comfort 2. With thousands in attendance for the sit-down dinner and concert, the rain came down just as the concert began, and equipment started blowing up before their eyes. Recognizing that the show must go on, Justin and Tony did their part to make it a memorable event with guests staying the entire 3 hours. And it’s been their motto ever since.

What is the most unique location you have ever planned an event at? What was great, what was challenging?
Launching a rocket. When Virgin Galactic wanted to introduce the universe to the world’s first commercial manned spacecraft, they chose us. Challenges? How about creating an event for 800 people in the middle of the Mojave Desert – including VIPs like founder Sir Richard Branson and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger? Of course just your average 800-person event wouldn’t do. This was history in the making. Our challenge was to pull off something as awe inspiring and visually arresting as the spacecraft itself. It was a monumental moment in space history and Delphi was there to make it happen. Oh, and did we mention we had 2 months from start to finish?

We started with a hand-picked a team of exceptional internal designers, producers and project managers, and external technical and hospitality partners who together, through precise design, coordination, planning, and management, would execute this huge event. The centerpiece was a transparent tent that could house all the amenities, entertainment, food, drink and audio/visual elements. It took more than 5 miles of cabling to supply the power. Next came the runway which the spaceship would parade down. Scaffolding, lights, projections, music – we planned to really put on a show when revealing this incredible craft. And then on top of those main pillars of the event, we designed and managed all transportation for the guests, service during the party, catering, heat, press availability, and more.

The desert being the desert, something was bound to not go according to plan. Except at Delphi, we always have a plan. We were constantly monitoring the weather as the party progressed and when high winds were forecasted we wanted to play it safe. In a matter of moments, we loaded up the guests in waiting busses. Not long thereafter, 110 mph gusts descended on the Mojave, destroying some of the structures and knocking out power. Of course, by then, we had safely returned everyone to the comfort of their hotels.

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What advice would you give to someone entering the business today?
Understand how you plug into the broader marketing mix. This will make your efforts more relevant and raise the visibility of the work you do within the wider organization.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of being a planner, and how do you overcome that challenge?
Among the challenges of being in the events industry is chasing every new trend, simply for the sake of it. This is especially true when it comes to technology. At Group Delphi, core to our work with clients of all sizes and across industries is ensuring we are starting with the “why” behind every event...and every event tactic.

How do you think our industry will evolve in the next five years?
I believe we will see a resurgence of experiential and event activations by brands of all sizes seeking meaningful face-to-face interactions with their constituents, even as the digital arena continues to evolve.

What makes you successful as a planner?
A singular focus on connections, and creating events and settings that help people engage in meaningful ways.

In your opinion, what is the best and worst industry trend of the year?
I think the best trend is the use of story-driven experiences wherein a visitor participates in a memorable narrative or otherwise immersive experience. This is a level of sophistication that trade shows and events didn’t use to have (to wit: here’s a booth, check out our widget!)

The only bad trend I have seen lately is the overuse of some faddish materials that make for a superfluous architectural style. Needless flourishes of clear materials, charred wood, and other trendy materials.

What is the best industry book that has helped you as a planner?
Events and experiential are constantly changing and evolving, so savvy planners should block out time regularly to read books, online articles, trend reports, etc. to be at the top of their game. Event marketers also should look to the wider realm of marketing for novel ideas and opportunities to develop their omnichannel approaches. For instance, everyone should read and AdAge and Adweek.

Justin Hersh
CEO, Group Delphi
Phone: (800) 536-4545

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