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Art of illusion Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002

Bob Leon had seen everything. At least that’s what the president and owner of Colortone Audio Visual Staging and Rentals thought before he was hired in 1995 to stage a program for News America Corp. on Marco Island, Fla.

After all, Leon had toured as a roadie with the Allman Brothers Band and Billy Joel during the 1970s, where he experienced first hand the chaotic rock and roll lifestyle.

“One of my jobs for the Allmans was running out on stage between songs to pour shots for the guys,” he recalls with a devilish smile.

If you look closely at Leon, past his gray-streaked, short-cropped hair and businesslike manner, you can steal a small glimpse of his rock and roll past. And, if you’re willing to press hard enough, the energetic and engaging Leon will grin and finally tell you, “I lived on a bus during those years. We did a lot of wild things. Looking back, it wasn’t my idea of fun.”

But even the most raucous adventures Leon experienced before turning in his backstage pass for a corporate job with a New York audio-visual firm, didn’t prepare him for what happened in Florida.

“It was the last day of the conference,” Leon recalls. “We’d come down to Marcus Island with the Big Apple Circus to stage News America Corp.’s team building exercises. At the end of each day of the conference, the company’s employees were broken up into small groups and worked with the circus performers —clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers.

“They were learning things like building pyramids, walking tightropes and playing sonatas by rubbing the edges of water glasses. And on the last day of the conference, a Saturday, the company execs took all the employees out on a dinner cruise.”

The employees, Leon says, didn’t know their destination was a deserted island just across an inlet bay from Marcos Island.

“While they were out on the cruise, we were supposed to set up a circus tent on the island and run generators because there wasn’t any electricity available. They provided us with some pontoon boats to get the equipment over there.”

Shortly after the first boat left — filled with clowns, circus rings, trapezes and other circus props — a storm hit.

“We’re loading the pontoon boat with all our electrical equipment and listening to the radio,” says Leon. “And we hear the clowns on the first boat tell us they’re passing through the inlet bay and taking on water. They say the water is extremely rough and they’re not sure if they’re going to make it. So I look at all our electrical equipment and my staff and say, ‘No way, we’re not taking the chance.’”

Meanwhile, the dinner cruise was slated to dock at the deserted island in a few hours, so Leon improvised.

“We scrounged up a 65-foot yacht, quickly loaded up the equipment and cruised over to the island. Half our crew never made it to the island. The clowns helped us set everything up.”

When the cruise ship finally docked, the tent was set up. And, as they say in show business, the show went on.

“The employees got a real treat that night,” Leon recalls. “The Big Apple Circus performers put on their show, then the employees dressed up in the clothes of the groups they worked with all week and performed their own stunts in front of the rest of the employees.”

Such is the life of Leon. His company, Colortone, is in the business of creating illusions for its clients in the form of business conferences, symposiums and events. Put another way, Leon develops and presents experiences for his clients’ clients, who are the ones the events are designed to impress.

In the five years since Leon bought Colortone from its New York-based owner, he’s yet to face anything quite as daunting as that Florida experience. He has, however, built a growing upstart company, which raked in more than $3 million in revenue last year and is on pace to eclipse that by year’s end.

Along the way, he’s developed a laundry list of rules, three of which Leon swears are necessities in the event staging business.

Maintain good communication between your office and the client

“We’re in the miracle business,” explains Leon. “You can’t pull off a miracle unless you know what it’s supposed to be.”

That requires constant communication among everyone involved — Colortone, the client, catering managers, drayage companies and contact people at the location where the event will be held. “Without a doubt, good communication is the most important thing.”

Conversely, bad communication can kill an event. “We did a house tour for Owen-Corning in October,” says Leon. “They gave five houses a $100,000 makeover with some new products. An ad agency in Chicago hired us to do the unveiling of each house.”

Leon’s team designed 20-foot-high towers with big pink drapes in the front of each home, then awaited Owens-Corning’s tour bus, filled with 80 vendors.

“They were going house to house showing off the new products. The plan was that when they pulled up, stopped and got off the bus, we’d drop the drape,” he explains.

The first house unveiling went off as planned. The bus pulled up. The vendors climbed off. Colortone dropped the drape. But there was one problem: the ad agency — Colortone’s client — never explained Colortone’s staging plans to its client, Owens-Corning.

Says Leon, “They (Owens-Corning) hated it. And they cancelled it on the spot. We did that first house and that was it. Bad communication is always a terrible thing in our business. Especially when you consider that everything we do is unique. Every time we go out there, it’s to try and do something with an event that’s never been done before.”

Remain calm

As anyone who’s ever been in charge of an annual conference or overseen a symposium knows, putting on an event can be a stressful job. It’s not uncommon that somebody’s neck is on the line for the success —or failure — of the event.

“And more often than not, we deal with meeting planners who aren’t really meeting planners,” says Leon. “They’re receptionists, assistants and sometimes managers who are booking space.”

That’s why it’s important for Leon and his staff to be professional and maintain level heads, no matter what problems crop up. If, for example, the keynote speaker’s microphone fails, or the video you’re supposed to show happens not to have any sound, it’s easy to let the entire event fall apart rather than think quick on your feet, says Leon.

“We’re very good at remaining calm,” he says. “Part of that is the relationship we build with the client. If they’re comfortable with us, then we don’t stress out when something doesn’t go exactly that way it’s supposed to. We just find a good solution.”

A good show, explains Leon, is the one where no one even realizes Colortone is there.

Be prepared

That ability to stay calm makes it easier to be prepared for anything, says Leon. Like the time a few years ago when the company staged Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year awards conference in Cleveland and everything that could go wrong did.

“We set up and rehearsed all day,” recalls Leon. “Everything worked fine. Then, we opened the doors.”

As the award winners, finalists and other conference attendees walked into the room, a sudden power surge knocked out half the video system and all the sound equipment. Says Leon, “The emcee goes up to the podium to speak, and the front speakers aren’t working. We look at the screens behind him and realize the cameras have lost their balance as well. It was too late to do anything then, so we ran a video.”

While the attendees dined, Leon and his staff hurriedly went to work behind the scenes. They had brought enough back-up equipment — wires, cables, microphones, duplicate video units — to replace the bad parts. They quickly rewired the entire sound system, tested it, then plugged in new video equipment to replace the components which were fried.

“By the time dinner was over, we were up and running,” Leon says. “Nobody was the wiser.”

The near-tragedy became a running joke between Leon and Ernst & Young.

“They told me they expected to be redeemed for the mix-up,” he says. “About a year later, after we handled four other of their events, I got a message that said, ‘You’ve been redeemed.’ I keep that message on my wall.”

Leon claims it’s that unique ability to hide the mistakes that sets his company apart from the competition. “We’ve never had a show crash,” he maintains. “That’s about the closest it’s ever come.”

Last year, Leon’s efforts caught the attention of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee, which contracted Colortone to stage the worldwide unveiling of the 2001 Winter Olympics mascot.

That spurred Leon to open an office in Salt Lake City, which in turn led to other business opportunities in the West. Besides the unveiling, Colortone Utah has staged numerous events over the past 18 months, including a conference for 12,000 people at the Delta Center, a medical conference for 1,500 in Dallas and a 5,000-person event in San Francisco for the Direct Marketing Association. He operates a five-person staff in Utah that complements his 20-employee operations in Cleveland.

The Olympic Committee was so smitten with the success of the mascot unveiling that it contracted Colortone for two other jobs. The first covers 68 separate small meetings, at which Olympic Committee officials pitch potential corporate sponsors for the 2001 Winter Olympics. Colortone has been handling the meeting staging, including wall-to-wall screens and a full-scale presentation for the corporate prospects.

The second job is more expansive.

“We’ll be projecting images of the slalom, giant slalom and speed skiing events at Snowbird Resort,” he says. “It’ll be a direct feed during the event, so people at the resort can either watch the guys coming down the mountain on the giant screens, or watch the guys outside.”

More recently, Leon’s company has branched off into once-familiar territory — staging concerts. It’s an outgrowth of some of the larger business conferences he’s staged, where entertainers were used.

“We use a lot of color and sound,” he says. “That attracts attention and creates excitement. We’ve taken that theater philosophy that we use to stage business conferences and applied it to the entertainment field.”

The irony hasn’t been lost of the former roadie.

“It’s kind of fun to be working again in the entertainment industry,” he mused a few months ago. “I’ve learned a long time ago not to be surprised by anything that happens. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I’m off by a long shot.”

How to reach: Colortone Audio Visual Staging and Rentals, (216) 741-9600 or www.colortone.com

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.