“If we ever have a drink, there’s a great story about Elton John I could tell you,” says Michael Cerbelli, CEO and president of Cerbelli Creative. During his 40 years in the industry, Cerbelli has produced events created for and/or attended by Hollywood’s biggest celebrities (Billy Joel and Robert De Niro are only examples). But in the meetings and events world, Cerbelli is one of the biggest names. In part, that is because he is a star-maker through his annual Hot List, in which Cerbelli takes center stage at an annual event to spotlight innovative acts, technology and trends event planners should know about.
The Hot List is once per year though. Otherwise, Cerbelli stays behind the scenes producing meetings, incentives and events for the likes of USAA, ADT and H.J. Heinz. While he can’t help but dominate a pre-conference meeting with his large personality, the Brooklyn native is the first to acknowledge his job is to make clients look good. But he looks good doing it, too, always sharply dressed for any occasion. In that regard, he still resembles his 13-year-old self: a DJ ready to take the Big Apple by storm (which he undeniably has).
Cerbelli thrives on the ability to be different things to clients depending on circumstances. Name a corporate event he’s planned and you’ll likely find an attendee or executive who’s in turn hired Cerbelli to run a family member’s bar mitzvah or wedding. And even if Cerbelli loses out to another planner on an RFP, he’s often hired to help find talent for the same event’s opening reception. No matter how you know him, it’s hard to deny Cerbelli’s incredible influence on the events industry. Connect sat down with him to get the scoop on being a star at making others the star.
Can you describe the evolution of The Hot List?
It started in 2002 as Michael Cerbelli’s: Hot Event and Entertainment Ideas. At the first event, in Miami Beach, Florida, I went in front of the room and spit out 100 ideas in 90 minutes. Back then, there was no Google, and LED lightbulbs were the next technology. I got beat up by many industry colleagues asking how I could be giving away this information. Now those people are sharing ideas to get on my list. It’s taken on a life of its own.
Where did you come up with the idea?
I was frustrated going to conferences and hearing people talk about what they did but not share how. For instance, one person took out a vase that lit up. He refused to say where he got it. With The Hot List, we not only share ideas, we give away all the contact information.
What’s the process of assembling The Hot List?
We get about 12 ideas sent to us per week. Some are silly, like a cloth with red stripes. Others wow me. My team gathers all the ideas we get in October or November—by then we have about 500. Of that list, I might see 72 ideas that really impress. I’m not [presenting all of those] because we don’t have time in a 90-minute session. So I present the top 36 ideas.
What’s an example of you using an item from The Hot List to elevate your own events?
There was an act out of Las Vegas called The Skating Aratas that reached out to me one week before The Hot List in January. They do the most death-defying things on roller skates. They ended up closing my show. I’ve used them on two events, including one with another act that came to me called Deadly Games—a knife-throwing act that will be on next year’s Hot List. We had an Aladdin theme for one of my big clients and put on a show where [the audience] felt like [they] were in a genie’s bottle. It got a standing ovation.
Do you prefer being onstage for The Hot List or planning events?
They are two different worlds. With The Hot List, I turn it over to my team and I am the talent. I host the show, making fun of myself. On the other end, there’s Michael, the event producer. I’m lucky to be known as a personable, nice-looking guy that’s fun to be at meetings and dresses well. I come in with style and with flair, but I like being behind the scenes. I like both avenues.
How do you foster creativity?
If you ever stop by my office in New York, there’s not a whiteboard hanging on a wall—the wall is a whiteboard. You can write on about 75 percent of the surfaces in my office. If I draw something on the wall and you see something you want to add to it, go ahead. I love taking that cocktail napkin idea [and making it] an actual event.
You’ve done events across the world. What venues stand out?
We did an event at Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, which was Vladimir Putin’s summer home. To be in that room where kings and queens danced and [bring in] a band that did Paul McCartney’s wedding goes a long way.
How about the World Economic Forum you helped plan in Switzerland?
I always tell people the way to get to Davos, once you land in Zurich, is to drive straight up. It’s an experience you’ve never seen before. I’m not exaggerating—there was 20 feet of snow on the roofs. It was stunning, and cold. We were told to have an extra saxophone onstage in case Bill Clinton decided to [come up and] play, and sure enough, he did. Chris Tucker was the emcee. Richard Gere was having drinks and Angelina Jolie was talking to the king of Morocco. Holy cow! I don’t think there’s another industry [in which] I could have these experiences.
Is it hard not to get overwhelmed working with the stars?
I could tell you I’ve done everything from entertainment for Paul McCartney’s wedding to Heather Mills and incentive programs for ADT. But when I see people list names of clients on websites, that’s not what impresses me. What impresses me is years spent together. Anyone can say they did an event for AT&T or an event for Verizon. We all have.
You really get to be part of a company after so many years, don’t you?
With a lot of clients, I am not only doing their events, but I’m doing private events for people in that company—someone’s 50th wedding anniversary or a bar mitzvah. I’ve started on the social events side and that’s blended into corporate events.
How did you transition from family events to corporate meetings and incentives?
I started in 1977 as a DJ in Brooklyn, and I did the biggest social events in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s when I realized I was doing events for captains of industry. There’s a gentleman, Stuart Baritz, who worked at [now-defunct] Shearson Lehman at the time. I’ve done his wedding anniversaries and his kids’ weddings, and he swears I’m going to do his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. In the early ’90s, Baritz asked me to do his company’s incentive program in Puerto Rico. At the time, I didn’t know what an incentive program was. I just heard Puerto Rico and said OK. It made me want to look at meetings and understand the production side.
What do you attribute to your lasting power?
I’m not just a corporate guy, I’m not just on the social side and I’m not just an entertainment guy. I’m sort of an enigma. That’s how my career has flourished.