Christina Wong: From Pope to DNC

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Politics and religion usually don’t mix, except in Christina Wong’s world. In less than 12 months, Wong, vice president at ESM Productions, has helped produce both the pope’s historical visit to Philadelphia as well as events surrounding the Democratic National Convention. Only 10 years ago, she started out as a production intern at ESM Productions, a full-service production and corporate events company in the City of Brotherly Love.

Wong_2Wong flew up the ladder at ESM, going from production assistant to production coordinator and then production manager, and recently accepted a promotion to VP with the company. Along the way, she has worked on large-scale local events, such as the Phillies World Series Championship Parade & Celebration in 2008 and Philly 4th of July Jam, as well as programs all over the country.

“I always hear it’s unusual for a millennial to be at one company for so long,” says the now-30-year-old, who admits she saw a lot of people come and go in her first few years with ESM. “The job sounds cool at first, but production and planning is tough. It’s a lot of hours, and you have to be flexible. I’m one of the ones who geeked out over all of it.”

When PIDC (Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation) announced ESM had the exclusive opportunity to manage private events at The Navy Yard during the 2016 DNC, we rang up Wong to see what her team had planned for the coveted space. After all, it’s one of the largest and closest venues to the convention floor that can be rented publicly. Oh, and we asked her about being a double minority, working with unions and Mark Wahlberg too.

How did you win the bid for The Navy Yard from PIDC?

We’ve worked in a lot of PIDC’s spaces and we know the city. We’ve done unimaginable events throughout Philadelphia and have made a great name for ourselves over the last 20 years [helping clients] do whatever [they] want in any type of space [they] want. If there’s not a space, we can make you one.

The Navy Yard is expansive public grass that holds up to 10,000 people, and that is our niche. Give us a blank canvas and we’ll make it into what you’re looking for.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 9.06.37 AMHow do you create something amazing from an empty space?

We first envision how we would tent it out, and by that I mean we would create structures because tents aren’t really tents anymore. We construct tented hard walls and bring in air-conditioning and hard floors. Then we diagram how the space could be a cool concert venue one day, and then a breakout space for a keynote speaker the next day, and then flip it again for multiple sponsor activations and incredible F&B.

What F&B are you planning for DNC events?

We’re partnering with Vetri Family for all DNC events. Marc Vetri is a James Beard Award-winning chef and well-known nationwide for high-end Italian food. However, we’ve talked to Vetri about having a wood-fired pizza food truck. We know millennials like food trucks and food in general. Most of the clients we’re talking to want to attract millennials to their events. They can also do logoed food items for clients, while others want to host a dinner during the DNC. Vetri can do fantastic plated dinners for several hundred to 1,000 people. Millennials don’t want to be in ballrooms. They want something cooler.

The papal events were predominantly outside as well, right?

Yes. ESM produced all the events in Philadelphia for the pope’s visit—basically everything on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Independence Mall for the Festival of Families. We booked all the talent acts, produced the full broadcast for major TV networks and worked closely with Secret Service on movements. We designed and built all the structures and the 40 Jumbotrons around the city.

We were the first ones out there dropping the ground protection and the last ones to leave when they picked up the port-a-potties. That’s as big as it gets, but we apply those concepts to everything we do. Whether it’s a private association board event for 200 people, we scale the same concepts. We even did the scriptwriting.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 9.01.37 AMIs scriptwriting a service you offer for other events?

Yes, we do this often. For instance, Mark Wahlberg hosted the Festival of Families. While we knew he’s great at memorizing scripts and speaking in public, it was important to him to say the right thing and not make a misstep with the pope. We also kept his script simple, as he is a simple guy. We wanted him to sound like himself, so we didn’t have any complex lines.

We do the same for our government clients like the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce; we recently executed the Paradigm Awards for 800 of their attendees and scripted a lot of it. We’ve seen so many presentations and speeches, so we can help craft what will fit their audience and reword it so everyone will get the message.

How do you make these big events feel personal?

We definitely make the effort toward that in preplanning. We wanted [the papal visit] to feel intimate, especially when it came to the Mass. We also look at the event from an entertainment aspect; to other people this is an intimate religious experience. You can make it personal and intimate with the cameras because if you’re standing there with tons of people, you want to see [the pope’s] face. If he looks like a dot, you may as well have been at home.

So many conferences and events use live streaming now. What did it take to pull off that broadcast feed?

Those feeds were all hardwired. We didn’t want to take the chance on wireless. We ran cable from the main stage and built truss cable bridges so cars and foot traffic could run over and under the cables. It took a couple of overnights to put them down when traffic was at a minimum and we had police escorts. Around 75 percent of our events have a camera element, whether it’s an IMAG (image magnification) or live feed. It’s important to have the right lighting and colors, and for whoever is onstage to realize they’re talking to two different attendees: those who are there and those who are watching digitally.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 9.05.03 AMNow that you’re VP, do you want people on your team to get their CMP for monster events like these?

We don’t have our people study for the CMP because our job is meeting planning and production. [Instead], we send people to OSHA 30, and there’s risk management training for large events. We also put them through certification for severe outdoor weather, like Skywarn Training.

What is the events industry like in Philadelphia?

Our last mayor [Michael Nutter] was in office eight years and made Philadelphia more of an international destination than it was [before]. The demographics of the people who come here have changed. It’s a younger, cooler place to be. Traditionally it was a very male-dominated, older events industry in Philadelphia because of the unions. In the beginning, I was always the young person at the table and the only woman. Oh, and the only minority female on top of that! So I’ve been an advocate to have a younger woman’s perspective at the table.

Not every planner encounters unions. What’s it like working with them? 

With unions, you have to check with them on everything out of courtesy. When we handled the pope event in September 2015, we employed 3,500 people on our payroll, almost all union workers. Since I started, we’ve recruited some great talent and most of our company is female and young, and we’re into the tech and production of it all. Now, we’re the ones on-site directing these guys. It’s empowering to train women to handle themselves.