Keep the vibe alive – Michael Cartwright
During the course of my interview with Michael, he reminded me that life is about doing what you love. The best investment you can have is the one where you are backing yourself and doing a job that makes you happy. Because when you do, the love of what you do simply shows in your work…
How did you get started?
I heard about this guy Brian Lizotte who was running a backstage catering company called ‘More Than A Morsel’ for rock n roll bands.
One day I was driving down Moore Park road when I spotted the ‘More Than A Morsel’ van driving into the Sydney Football stadium; so I did a U-turn and followed the van.
I managed to get there in time when Brian was getting out of his van. I introduced myself and straight out I told him I wanted to work for him. At the time I was a freelance waiter earning an hourly rate of $45 per hour.
I said to Brian – ‘I’ve heard about you and love what you do. Give me a go – I will work for free, just give me a go!’ He told me he pays his staff $15per hour, so I told him I would be willing to accept that for the experience.
About one month later he called me up – he told me they needed help with a Guns N’ Roses gig at Eastern Creek. Because of my energy and enthusiasm and my ability to work hard, that one night turned into a six-year career with ‘More Than A Morsel’ touring with over 140 local and international artists.
Brian saw my passion; how I used to transform bland looking rooms into a holistic oasis that reflected the personality of the artist we were looking after. Because of the positive reactions he was getting, he started giving me a small budget to decorate and style rooms. Eventually I moved completely away from the hospitality side of things to decorating dressing rooms and being an en per looking after the rock stars.
What was your first big tour with ‘More Than A Morsel’?
My first big tour was with Madonna in 1994 for about six weeks where I was engaged exclusively as the Ambience Coordinator on the tour. I had to basically facilitate the look and feel of her dressing room and all of the backstage wherever we went.
Because I had a small budget to work with, I still didn’t believe that was an excuse for me to not deliver the best possible room for her. So when I was given six free tickets to her concert, I used them for bartering decorating items in exchange for two tickets everywhere I went.
That experience taught me how to start wheeling and dealing to make the impossible happen.
Which room took the most amount of effort to decorate?
Elton John’s room. The theme for his dressing room was ‘Bondi Beach’ where we created backdrops of Bondi around the room. However, to make it feel as authentic as possible, we went to the extent of lining the whole dressing room with plastic, bringing big chunks of wood and elevating a section where we filled the area with 4 cubic metres of sand. To finish it off, I hired a bunch of male models and dressed them up in one-piece Life Savour marching outfits so they could walk around and serve Elton and his guests.
What would you say was the hardest part of what you did?
When two or more musicians were touring together and each of them had to have their own style. For example, when Elton John and Billy Joel were touring together, each needed to have their room styled differently; so there was twice as much work going into researching their likes and interests and transforming their rooms to suit their personalities.
Tell me about Visions In Style
After six years with More Than A Morsel and working with some of the best people in my industry, I went out on my own to create Visions In Style.
From a very young age, I’ve always had the ability to visually create something even when it was a blank canvas. I love walking into an empty room and imagining what it is going to look like and how I can use it. I love being able to style the room in my head even before I’ve had the chance to go back to my office and write the proposal for the client.
Vision is so important. When I’m standing in the room with a client who has no idea what they want for their event, it is my job to create the vision for them. I share what I see and bring them into the creation so they too get a sense and feel of the creative vision I’m aiming to produce and bring to life for them.
Another important aspect of what we do, is creating events with style. So between having a vision and styling an event, the name for my business was formed.
Tell me about your LOGO
Basically the wings represent freedom. Freedom for creativity and freedom to have a life where I can run my company how I like. After working for so many people in my life, I can’t express how good it feels to have freedom within what I do. Building my company, running my own company – I wanted to have a logo which represented everything that encompasses the feeling of freedom…
What process do you go through to style an event?
Part of the mission is firstly listening to the client and making sure they feel heard. And secondly explaining to them what I’m going to do so they can understand what I’m seeing and how I am going to bring to life what they want.
One of the first things I recommend to the client is for them to go look at the venue. When they have decided, and unless it is overseas, I go visit the venue myself. Space is important, so I don’t want to over capitalise on how much gear to put into the venue without having scoped it out first.
Every venue has its own artistic integrity and whatever the application is I have been engaged to deliver, half the job is working out how I can incorporate a theme that suits the client’s needs but also suits the venue.
Part of the process is also thinking about the comfort of the guests; how loud the music will be, the drafts in the room, working with the restrictions of the room – fire escapes, how many seats are required, how best to get food out, the lighting, the audio visual and the entertainment. I have to think creatively and logistically about the design and also put myself in the position of the guest – what would I like to see…what would blow my mind?
Overall, it is important to think about the process holistically. Create a journey where people walk into a styled room that also tells a story and simply guides them throughout the event from the beginning to the end.
What has inspired you to do what you do?
After 24 years in this industry, to still be chosen amongst other event producers, to style an exclusive event for a VIP, it is really energising and rewarding.
I am a very creative person. I love to design and bring elements together.
So to be fortunate enough to do what I love, and still have the opportunities for as long as I have, to bring someone else’s vision / dream to life is inspiring in itself. When I see that look on the client’s face that lets me know that I’ve created something amazing and I have exceeded their expectations, then this is what inspires me to continue doing what I do.
What keeps you successful?
I treat each event with renewed enthusiasm and passion.
I always make the time to listen to my clients and understand what their requirements are to ensure I produce something that always exceeds their expectation. I do this by continuously building on my knowledge of the industry and the products that bring the event to life.
I’m a strong believer that when you choose a career path or it chooses you, you need to put everything into it. For most people to find something that they love, that they are passionate about, that gets them out of bed with no effort required, then that’s the key to success.
It takes time to make something perfect but when you love what you do, when it feels like an extension of you, then success will happen naturally for you.
I’m also a strong believer in being flexible and having a sense of urgency in everything that I do; understanding that despite some jobs having absurd stringent timelines, I must deliver my best at all cost. I get one chance to deliver the best possible event or room transformation and if I don’t understand the sense of urgency required to pull it off, if I can’t be flexible and drop everything else that I’m doing when I get a phone call for a job, then I won’t succeed.
Do you have a business plan?
No, I’ve never felt the need to. It’s been totally organic. I concentrate on one thing; doing the best that I can and making as many clients as happy as I possibly can. Being an owner/operator I’ve held the reins for 24years without a plan. As long as I felt I was growing then I didn’t need a business plan.
What is the hardest thing about being your own boss?
I have to always be the first person and the last person to the leave at most of the events we are producing. This is so I can ensure nothing is left up to chance and everything is accounted for.
How do you stay motivated?
The business is an extension of me; my motivation comes from loving what I do. Being able to create and build a playground / a circus and bring it all together to play on a massive scale is an achievement in itself.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The diversity; that every day is a new challenge for me to overcome and deliver something new. I also really enjoy helping bring a dream to life and exceed expectations each time.
What’s been the most challenging experience for you?
One particular event that comes to mind is when I did the launch for SBS Broadcasting; I was engaged to do the national launch from analogue to digital for SBS. Since it is a government company, there are different divisions where each department does its own stuff and no head of department was allowed to tell each other what to do.
My job was to oversee the decision making for all the departments and ensure that when they finally switched to digital, there would be no delay whatsoever because they were recording live.
To do what they thought would be impossible, and because it was a very technical job, I knew I had to hire experts in the industry to achieve the switch with no delay. It was incredible that we were able to do it.
Tell me about one of the most memorable events you have produced
I styled a Ferrari Ball in Melbourne which was a Vodafone / Ferrari partnered event for the Grand Prix in Melbourne.
There were 600 guests and although it was a challenge, I provided 600 costumes for each of them. I created a Venetian Palace which was a masquerade theme with guests getting to the venue via gondolas and ferry down the Yarra.
When the guests arrived, there were 12 coachmen holding lanterns all the way down from the pier to the venue to greet them whilst they walked past.
Once inside it looked amazing – I had draped the venue into a Venetian set with beautiful antiques everywhere. I had also created this art installation which was a 6m by 3m gold ornate frame, and in it I had a live model lying on this chaise lounge wearing this beautiful mask.
I had these two caricaturists in French coachmen outfits wearing masks, life drawing the model, and at the same time encouraging the guests to come life draw her.
I remember when the client walked in, she started crying with joy. I had exceeded her expectation with so much detail and beyond her imagination. Knowing how it had affected her was priceless – at the end of the day that is the goal.
What has been one of the biggest gigs you have delivered?
It was the inaugural launch of Virgin Atlantic coming to Australia. That was massive. We set it up for Richard Branson at the Patrick Stevedore Container terminal down where Barangaroo is being built – I turned the venue into a party for 1600 people.
We built an inflatable nose cone of a 747 plane. People walked up into the nose cone of the plane where it was set up like a first class environment. There were these stairs that took you down into an arena where there were bars and entertainment and food. The whole thing was under this balloon which was held up by air.
We had this huge arrival area themed as Hong Kong because it was the first leg from London to Sydney. We had projections of planes flying through, we had satellites and we had some amazing artists perform.
One of the best parts was actually seeing Richard Branson personally welcome 1600 guests as they arrived on the red carpet.
Tell me about the most eccentric party you have done
It was with three friends of mine during the 2000 Olympics. My job was to transform the National Museum on College Street into a Gladiator event and everybody had to come in full theme. You couldn’t get in if you weren’t in costume. One of my friend’s was an ex-Olympian so he had a lot of pull getting people like Michael Klim, Susie O’Neil and Ian Thorpe to attend.
You could only get in if you were an Olympian, or if you had won a gold medal or if you were given a gold medal to come.
We did a lot of pre-production the night before because on the day of the event we were given only three hours to set up the room.
We had these Olympic Body Builders in gold lap laps, spray tanned their bodies with studs and they would pull people on chariots.
We had opera singers, gladiators that battled with each other, international DJ’s and harem dancers.
We had this huge pit and as part of the night we had people sit around it; we had this massive grand stand over looking where Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe were sitting up on these big chairs. We hired all these models that were dressed in Toga’s to sit around them and we even had cages that the gladiators would get pulled in. And then the gladiators would begin to fake battle. It was very dramatic but great entertainment with the audience roaring with cheers.
It was literally the most talked about event I had created – we really tried to make it as authentic as possible.
What stands out for you when you hire staff?
Enthusiasm. No matter how little or how much experience you have, the person with the most enthusiasm I know will work hard because they want to be there. Enthusiasm is ‘a money can’t buy thing’ – if you have it, if you live your life with it, then you will succeed.
Do you have any tips for someone who wants to take the path of event producer?
Learn as much about hospitality as you can. Learn about theatrical design and the production elements about how things come together, the safety about putting design together. Do an events course, learn about how to write a proposal and understand what resources you would need.
Do your research on venues in the city you are working in, do your research about resources you can use, do your research on your client to produce something new and authentic to exceed their expectation.
Invest your time wisely. This industry is demanding, you don’t get second chances, its cut throat and there are a lot of people doing it. Work with initiative, be super enthusiastic, deliver on time and always have a sense of urgency.
Be able to account manage, be able to make your client understand what you are saying to them. Build trust with your client.
Most importantly, be the Maestro so when you are orchestrating the whole event, be sure to learn how every piece works in order to deliver and always have fun.
Want to know more about what Michael and his team do click here3