Debra Owens knows a thing or two about event production. Most of it she learned on the fly.
Owens, who the St. Louis American Foundation named one of the 2018 Entrepreneurs of the Year, began her career in events in 1995 as an assistant at America’s Center Convention Complex. Fast-forward 24 years and she now runs her own company, Premiere Production Choice, which produces weeklong events for more than 30,000 people.
Her journey in the industry included several different roles at America’s Center, then more than a decade working at a couple of large audiovisual services companies and at St. Charles Convention Center.
When the economy tanked in 2008, Owens was laid off and had some decisions to make. At the urging of a friend and with promised support from potential clients, she began PPC. Owens says she hasn’t looked back.
She says that once she launched her own company, purchasing equipment was a learning experience.
“I already had the relationships after being on the sales side for so many years,” Owens says. “I just needed the gear to bridge the gap and make it work.”
As a business owner, she needed to understand the technology behind the projectors, lighting and sound equipment, plus how to budget for expected repair costs. Owens learned along the way and hired a team of freelance technicians who specialize in each element of production.
Together, they have produced gatherings for the St. Louis Business Journal and Ascension and weeklong conventions for Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Every four years since 2008, Owens’ team has also produced the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s weeklong quadrennial General Conference.
As a production vendor, Owens says she has to think on her feet. She says it’s not uncommon for clients to request equipment during rehearsals that wasn’t included in initial plans or proposals.
“Thankfully, we’ve been able to be flexible and help them,” Owens says. Though her team proactively packs extra gear, she has stories of racing through a city to find a specific piece of gear 90 minutes before doors opened or coming up with a piano at the 11th hour.
Thanks to her well-maintained relationships over the years, these last-minute needs always get met.
She recalls a challenge her team faced on-site during a conference in Philadelphia. The client requested five monitors for the event the following day. Owens and the PPC team had driven only tractor-trailers and 26-foot trucks from St. Louis, so she had to get creative in finding and transporting monitors through the city at the last minute.
“Luckily, I called on some friends I knew in the area, and one of them happened to own a pickup truck and knew where we could get monitors,” she said.
Owens says she enjoys the relationships she’s developed in the industry. Her advice to clients is to research potential host cities carefully before signing contracts.
“[I tell them to] make sure they are aware of union rules and regulations. Not every city has a union, so it’s important to research,” she says.
Looking ahead, Owens predicts that event technology will include more LED lighting, laser projectors and digital audio. Her future in event production is certainly bright.