This month, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Marla Watson-Werst, CSEP, the president and creative force behind PeaPod Productions & Smashing Success Events (soon to be known as The PeaPod Group).
After graduating from University of North Texas, she began a career as a helicopter traffic reporter, reporting for some of the best stations in Dallas-Fort Worth. As she grew with the company, she made the transition behind the scenes, as a producer. After several years in radio, she made the move to television, working for KXAS Channel 5, the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate, and then went on to become a reporter/producer for AOL/Time Warner.
Marla, how long have you been a meeting planner?
I’ve always had an interest and a passion for the industry. But, officially, since 2001, almost nine years now.
How did you get started in this industry?
Well, that’s actually kind of a funny story. I used to work for Time-Warner and also at a local news station here in Dallas. As a television producer, I found many parallels to that job and producing events. Additionally, when people came through the studio, they often looked to me for any assistance with whatever event they had going on. I guess they figured if I was producing the show, I could help produce whatever they needed, as well. So I guess I kind of “fell” in to it. At the time, I felt like even though I had great educational background, I needed to become better educated in the hospitality industry. So, that is what I pursued. I attended classes and obtained my CSEP (Certified Special Event Planner) title. I am currently working on getting my CMP (Certified Meeting Planner), and should have it in the next few months. Shortly after this article publishes, I will also have my CTA.
Can you explain to our audience what the CTA is?
Sure. CTA is Certified Tour Ambassador. As a CTA, one is charged with learning all about the area he or she is in, and being available to work with groups of all sizes on anything they’re seeking about a particular area. For example, CTAs know the area’s history, cultural appeal, all of the sites, etc. We can lead tours and provide area information, things like that.
So, you’ll be a CTA of the Dallas-Fort Worth area?
Actually, I’ll be a CTA for all of Texas! I used to be the president of an organization called TXACOM (Texas Association of Event and Convention Professionals). Becoming a Texas CTA seemed like the next step to take.
Tell me about your company, which is in the process of being re-branded as The PeaPod Group.
I started PeaPod Productions as a side business, during my college years, in 1995. But, it was Sept. 11, 2001, that helped trigger my decision. I realized that life is just too precious to wait for “the right time.” So, I took a leap of faith and made this business my full-time job. I always knew I wanted to have a career in event production and be a part of the hospitality industry. So, I left the news industry and fully committed to my company. We are re-branding as The PeaPod Group, or actually, we’ll refer to ourselves as P3. This is because there are three divisions to the company now: the event side, the audio-visual and video production side, and the social networking and marketing side. Thus, P3.
Your degree is in cinematography, and you’ve worked with a lot of celebrities. What is that like?
I am truly blessed to work with so many amazing people. Being in the film, news and events industry, I have met many people. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s exciting, but they’re mostly like regular people.
Who are your favorites?
I have enjoyed getting to know so many people, but there are three in particular who have made such an impact in my life; I am proud to call them my friends. The first is the late Gregory Hines. I actually started working with him years ago. I worked on several news announcements with him, and we really hit it off. After that, we remained friends. He was very philanthropic, always giving back to many charities. I worked with him on many projects. His passing deeply affected me. He was a really great guy. Another delightful and truly beautiful person is Morgan Fairchild. I have also worked with her on several projects and still keep in touch with her regularly. She is always finding ways to “give back,” and she continues to blow me away with her inner beauty. I am also proud of my work with three-time Oscar and one-time Emmy winner Marcia Gay Harden. We are both involved with Women In Film. Even her mother is a good friend of mine.
What is Women In Film?
It is an organization of women actors, producers, directors, etc. The national organization was formed in the early 80s; and the Dallas chapter formed shortly thereafter. I joined in 1997 and was the youngest board member. I served on board from 1997-2006. The group’s mission is to empower women by educating them and to help them succeed in what was once a male-driven industry.
You’re very involved with ISES (International Special Events Society). What is your role, and some of the insights you’ve gained through this organization?
I am currently the VP of Membership of the ISES Dallas chapter. Prior to this position, I was the VP of Communications. I believe I was very instrumental in helping our chapter earn the highly coveted Chapter of the Year award for 2008-2009. It was huge honor. I believe that getting involved is important. Being a member of ISES, or any organization for that matter requires time. And, in my opinion, it deserves the best of your time. I do not believe in stretching yourself too thin. To me, joining an organization means I want to contribute everything I can.
Why would you recommend this organization to other meetings professionals?
I believe ISES is the best organization for event and meeting planners because it fully encompasses all types of events, and they have a strong focus on education. Education is so important. ISES offers education in everything they do. Everything from current issues, like green initiatives, to education that everyone needs like contract negotiations. A lot of people join organizations for networking, which is important, too. But, to me, networking and education go hand in hand.
You’re very involved in social networking. Tell me how this has been an advantage to your company and your career.
When I first got started, I never would’ve thought that sites like Facebook and MySpace could help you connect with so many people. Believe me, they do! I have connected with past, present and even future colleagues. It is an opportunity to always meet future business contacts. I have almost 2,000 Facebook friends. And, they really are people I consider to be my friends. When connecting with people, I try to provide relevant and helpful information. I find preferable methods with all of my contacts on how we should connect (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), what do we have in common, and how can we help each other. Because of my involvement, I started teaching classes on social networking, and am now a national speaker on the topic. I believe social networking is the greatest source of relationship building I have found to-date. It doesn’t replace the face-to-face; but when that is not possible, it sure is a great tool. I am a member of the group ‘Business Butterflies.’ We travel around the country and speak and teach companies of all sizes how they can institute correct social networking tools into their business.
What social networking advice you can offer?
You can use it to market your company for free! You can also connect with people you may not have been able to contact and take that relationship to the next level. Get started by at least get involved in one platform. I believe people should start with Facebook. LinkedIn is a great business tool, but Facebook is acceptable in both social and business arenas; so it’s a good and easy way to get started and “dip your toe in it.” Then, as you get better and more confident, you may be ready to take on a new one, like Twitter. I often refer to Facebook as the “gateway drug to social networking.” Getting comfortable with Facebook and Twitter is good, so that by the time you get to LinkedIn, you are comfortable enough and ready to set up a good business profile. One of the services we offer at P3 is social networking for companies and organizations that state they just do not have the time for it. Our team will do their social networking for them. We’ll manage the content, upload links and photos, invite members, and help present the image they’re seeking as part of their overall marketing strategy. It’s been quite successful.
Marla, this has been a great interview. I know many will want to connect with you. How can industry professionals and meeting planners contact you?
I say it all the time, I am a big geek! Even my Twitter handle is @ChicGeekGirl. I invite everyone to connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Also, call me at 817-489-5332 or 817-999-5701. And e-mail me at Marla@PeaPodGroup.com.
Thank you so much. I know I’m sending you my “friend requests” right now!
Thank you. This has been a blast.
Lisa Kraus is the Director of Marketing & Audience Development and a contributing writer for Plan Your Meetings. She enjoys traveling, music, reading, and is an avid cat lover. She is currently working on writing her first book, a business guide for customer service and employee management.