As part of our on-going "5 Minutes With" series, every month we’ll introduce you to a new member of our Disney Meetings team at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Disneyland Resort in California or Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii. Whether they work in our Disney Convention Resorts, Theme Park Operations, Catering and Convention Services, Sales, Entertainment or dozens of other event-support areas, these Cast Members and their teams are responsible for creating magical experiences and unforgettable events for meeting and event industry professionals, and their important attendees and guests, every single day.
Let’s meet Richard Szadek, Art Director and Designer at Disney Event Group at Walt Disney World Resort:
Hi, Richard. Tell us about your role.
As an Art Director and Designer for Disney Event Group, my primary responsibility is partnering with Producers and Show Directors to create, design, and fabricate themed event décor, sets, props, and branding opportunities for our many clients. During the creative process, I will collaborate with a team of designers, writers, costuming, creative media, and floral. At the Disney Event Group building, these various talents are all under one roof, which ensures we have the ability to implement cohesive and seamless events for our clients. It’s an awesome place to work. There’s really no place like it… and the floral shop smells wonderful!
Can you tell us about a typical day at work?
We work on multiple events weekly, and every day brings a new opportunity. Our projects can vary from small, themed décor installations to stage sets for meetings and conventions with complete, visual client branding packages, to completely immersive environments. That’s one of the wonders of this job – every day is different.
Once the planner chooses their event theme, we begin the design phase. This can include concept sketches, 3D renderings and engineering. After the overall project has been approved, I oversee the construction phase. We have two fabrication shops with a wide array of talented artisans, and 95% of what we create, we build in house. We are lucky enough to have a wide net to cast when engaging talented trades and specialists. It’s all about relationships and partnerships in the event business.
Another daily responsibility for me is working with my designers to ensure they have a defined direction when working on event components. I love contributing to their creative process and watching their vision become reality. As the “old man” of the team, I still create renderings placing pencil to paper. My team’s digital expertise has taken our efforts to a whole new level. I’m incredibly proud of my small, but mighty team.
How do you and your team work with meeting and event planners?
Typically, the event consultant becomes the liaison between my team and the meeting or event planner. Our products are already built and ready to be utilized in an event, which is a very cost-effective route when planning a themed event.
Or, we can also create semi-custom events utilizing existing product, manipulating it, and adding a few custom pieces and client-specific branding. By simply altering a product with paint or other tweaks and adding the clients messaging intent, we can offer a pretty specific look that matches their individual needs.
Finally, when a complete custom build is required, we can really pull out all the stops regardless of the size of the end product. We work with the event planner to determine if their client wishes to retain the product after the event. With that knowledge, we can build a durable product that can travel with the clients to their next destination or even back to their headquarters for “display” purposes as we have done in the past. We once shipped a six-foot dimensional doughnut back to a client’s home base.
Can you describe one of the most interesting or unique challenges you’ve had to overcome in your role?
On the design side, a challenge I face is engineering the modularity of the set pieces to work within the limitations of transportation and access to venues. This also includes storage of assets between events. Sometimes, when the project calls for it, you’ve just got to build “bigger”! That’s when we really need to design large scale sets in a modular fashion with emphasis on size and weight of each piece.
When we fabricate new décor and sets, our rule of thumb is… the pieces must fit through a double set of doors and have the ability to be easily maneuvered through busy backstage areas. All of our venues are different, and all have their own set of operational challenges. No matter the final size of the stage set or room décor, it takes many assembled pieces to create the finished product that clients will see when they enter the space.
Can you describe one of your best Disney memories related to your position assisting a convention/meeting group?
This is a tough question because I’ve had so many wonderful events over the past 25 years. We’ve created a full-scale, two-story residential structure on a stage complete with grass, landscaping, and telephone poles. For a retail client’s holiday line roll-out, I designed a larger-than-life product display with gift boxes and bags 15 feet tall. Many of the boxes opened to reveal a new product or even an executive presenter. Recently, I worked with my Show Director to create a cooking show stage set, a la “The Chew” to support our client’s theme of “ingredients of success”.
If I had to choose just one, it would be a Haunted Mansion-inspired event we created that completely immersed the clients in every way. We chose to build the ballroom scene and the graveyard scene based on the attraction. For the graveyard, the room was surrounded in expertly painted cemetery backdrops. We fabricated crumbling stone walls, crypts, and headstones.
Fantastic lighting was essential in highlighting the scenic and transporting the guests into another realm. Our scent machine (yes, that’s one of our secrets!) emitted a light “earth” and “must” aroma. Very subtle, but perfectly effective. A soft soundtrack of wind and night sounds played. And the final “icing on the cake” was a complete ground cover of actual fall leaves that our amazing Floral team provided. The leaves crunched under foot which was so cool! Each of the five senses were addressed. I wish I was a guest attending that event! By far one of my favorite installations to date.
What is your favorite part of your role?
Collaboration is certainly one of my favorite parts of being part of Disney Meetings. At Disney Event Group, we truly work as a team on every event. For example, I love working with our Floral experts. We discuss the style, color, and feel of both the floral arrangements and the overall table scape, including linen and seating to ensure we are creating a cohesive look with the scenery.
The same goes for Costuming. We work hand-in-hand when creating new events as often costumed actors will directly interact with the scenery around them. Our in-house Creative Media team has more experts I often work with. As I am developing the scenic theme, we meet to review the overall look of the graphics and scenery as they relate to each other. Again, this cohesion is the constant in our events. We have a saying here at DEG, “Surround yourself with the experts.” I believe that’s one of the keys to successful collaboration.
What challenges/inspires you every day?
As corny as it sounds, I literally learn something new every day, even after so many years in the industry, and that’s truly inspiring. I learn from my co-workers, partners, consultants, and trades people daily. I’ve also learned so much from working with our clients. There are many nuances with each relationship.
Financial institutions tend to be a bit more “buttoned-upped” when it comes to theme and entertainment. Retail clients lean towards large branding packages. “Less is more” usually does not fit their style; they prefer to see their branding on a large scale. With Tech and Internet companies, you can open up a little more creatively, even whimsically at times. Innovation is often the key with these groups, so the events tend to be bold and utilize exciting technology. With that said, on the flip side, sometimes the clients surprise you and want the opposite of what you assumed. Perhaps a Tech company wants a more theatrical, scenic-driven experience. This is why extensive initial discovery with the client is so vital.
Tell us – How does Richard’s story inspire you? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn using hashtag #DisneyMeetingsBlog.
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