Fireside Chat: Gary Pagano, Vice-President of Viacom Special Events
February 18, 2016

The following post was written by sophomore, and Tisch Center social media assistant, Camille Aké. Camille will graduate in May 2018 with a B.S. in Hotel and Tourism Management, and a minor in Food Studies.


The opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ with major industry leaders and top professionals seems like it would only happen to a lucky few, but thankfully the Tisch Center’s endless network of connections allows up to 60 students twice a semester to hear in person these leaders’ journeys to success during a ‘Fireside Chat’. Previous Fireside Chat speakers include Laurens Zieren, the General Manager of the Hilton Midtown, and  Jonathan Segal, the CEO of The One Group. For the third installment of the Fireside Chat series, the Tisch Center invited Gary Pagano, Vice-President of Viacom Special Events, to bring his insight on ‘knowing your demographic and producing engaging events to reach your audience.’

Gary Pagano’s presentation started by bluntly getting to the point: “Being an event producer means you’re the ultimate control freak.” Gary is the VP of Viacom Special Events, the entertainment brand reaching 700 million viewers and home to common household names such as MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and many more. He name dropped events that he’s worked on such as the MTV Movie Awards and the New Now Next Awards, it’s not hard to imagine that Gary Pagano would require the ability to ‘ultimately control’ many aspects of the event production.

But before Gary told us how he does what he does currently, he detailed to the audience how he got into the events industry in the first place. In college, Gary studied theatrical design and fine art. Once he graduated, he went into the restaurant business and started out as a cook, but kept moving up in positions. Eventually, he opened up his own catering company. From there, he wound up working in a museum for 12 years! He ended up working in their museum education planning programs. All of these experiences helped Gary develop a mind for planning, and an interest in design. His skills were put to the test when one time, he was working for a 5000-person party in Bryant Park, and an event manager was a no-show, and the staff were all freaking out. Here comes Gary to the rescue: by mentioning his previous job experience to those who would listen, on-the-spot he filled the role and helped save the event. From then on, the rest is history.

At the Fireside Chat, a huge focus of the conversation was knowing the demographic of your event and finding out ways to reach them. Gary mentioned how, “times have changed.” Meaning, the audiences being reached for events today are much more varied than the homologous demographic they were say, forty years ago. Audiences today are younger, more ethnically diverse, and now the challenge for event producers is to know how to appeal to them to make this demographic respond and react to what you produce for them.

“But how do you go about actually knowing your demographic?” asks one student. Gary then recounts the many ways he and Viacom learn what the audience they are supposed to reach wants. One method is using focus groups through the research department at Viacom. The focus groups ask certain questions to random people who fit the demographic and the researchers record their responses. Do they react positively or negatively toward the question? That helps determine what will ultimately appeal to the event attendants. Additionally, the internet is a great resource to see what a demographic likes. Even simpler, just ask the client what they’d like to see and that will generate the most authentic answer!

The question and answer session kept moving smoothly and eventually transitioned into a conversation about sponsorship. “Sponsorship is very important,” says Gary. He explained the purpose of having sponsors at an event: “They offset our costs and help create a great and engaging environment.” What happens is, sponsors pay to be on air, and they also input ground activations. An activation is when a brand increases consumer knowledge and awareness by having the consumers interact with the brand via experiences and connections. For example, having a VIP area that’s named the “__Company Name__ VIP Lounge”. Essentially an activation occurs when a normal activity or location has a brand name associated with it and that name will be ingrained in the consumers’ minds. Choosing the right sponsorship is just as important as knowing the demographic because the two have to have the potential to connect with each other. Different ages, genders, and other demographics all will react differently toward different sponsors; it is important when deciding who to let sponsor your event, that you envision what kind of lasting connections they can bring to the consumers.

The conversation then turned back to Gary and his personal event producing experience. When asked if he ever gets stressed, Gary tells the audience, “There’s no other job I’d rather do,” then he jokes “…after the event is over!” Gary uses event producing as a creative outlet by looking at each event as a unique opportunity to get creative. He works with cool designers and has a creative team to draw upon culture and experiences to create a special moment. Despite working for Viacom Special Events for 16 years, there are still things Gary doesn’t understand, like social media for example. Since social media is always changing, Gary has a digital team to come up with ways to not only learn more about their target demographic for an event, but to analyze the social media data to see how well an event was received.

If there was one main point Gary wanted the audience to leave with by the end of the Fireside Chat it was the following: “Events are always about the end user. It’s about hospitality, so make them happy.”

For more on Viacom, please visit their website.