Business: 20 Years Of ESTA


“ESTA provides the umbrella under which the industry can come together to…” is the phrase we often use to describe the Entertainment Services and Technology Association's function in the industry. As I think back over the 20 years since I helped found this association, I believe it truly sums up what ESTA is all about. It seems simple enough, but if you dissect it, it offers insight into how ESTA serves its members and the industry at large.

“ESTA provides the umbrella…”

The association provides the structure — the shelter — for the industry to come together. ESTA's status as a nonprofit trade association means that direct competitors can come together in a neutral environment to talk about and work to solve common problems. All levels of the distribution chain can have frank discussions leading to a better understanding of issues. Similar businesses with different product focuses can learn more effective ways of running their companies from one another. Customers at every level can provide feedback on the quality of service they receive. Information on a variety of topics can be gathered and disseminated.

ESTA's umbrella has certainly grown larger over the years. The association was founded in 1987 as the Theatrical Dealers Association (TDA) by a group of 25 dealers from across the country that had an inkling of the potential benefits to be gained by communicating more openly and working toward common goals. In 1994, a group of manufacturers approached the association's leadership about starting a Technical Standards Program (TSP), but there was a caveat: If they were going to devote the resources to making the TSP a reality, then they wanted to be full partners in the association. Recognizing the value of technical standards not only to their businesses, but to the industry as a whole, dealer members overwhelmingly embraced the concept. As a result, hand in hand with the creation of the TSP came the evolution of the TDA to ESTA.

“…under which the industry…”

The change from the TDA to ESTA not only signaled the inclusion of manufacturers as full members, but all companies supplying a product or service to the industry. ESTA's umbrella now also covers production and rental companies, designers and consultants, manufacturer reps and service companies, labor unions and producing organizations, and a host of others who serve this increasingly diverse industry.

ESTA's leadership has always kept in mind the larger view of “the industry.” Many of the most important initiatives were undertaken with the knowledge that they would benefit the entire industry. ESTA's members don't operate in a vacuum. For their businesses to be more profitable and their employees to be safer, it was clear that some fundamental, industry-wide changes needed to be made. Technical standards, certification, fog testing, and market research are a few of these programs. After 20 years of attending board meetings, I still never cease to be amazed at how most board members manage to leave their personal agendas at the door and put on their “for the good of the industry” thinking caps as they enter the room.

“…can come together…”

This is the key to everything that ESTA is and that it has accomplished. That's because ESTA is its members, who have come together for their own personal betterment, the betterment of their companies, and the betterment of the industry. ESTA has a remarkable volunteer culture. Hundreds of people are actively involved on a daily basis, writing standards, creating certification exams, planning seminars and training, conducting market research, improving communications, and myriad other activities.

Networking is an often overused term, but that is exactly what is going on before, during, and after all these meetings. It's what goes on at the ESTA dinner and in the ESTA lounge and hospitality suite. Anyone who has been at all active in ESTA will tell you that “coming together” is the single most important benefit of belonging to the association. It's how relationships are built, both personal and professional. It's how reputations are built, both personal and professional. It's how business alliances and business deals come about.

That umbrella I spoke about earlier also allows for a larger coming together of the industry. ESTA has become a facilitator, often bringing together people and organizations who have never sat down at the table with each other before. It happens all the time in the Technical Standards Program. There is nothing more amazing than walking into a working group or task group meeting and seeing direct competitors and their customers at work creating a standard. The chemistry that exists in the room during Certification Council meetings is truly remarkable, as people who normally sit across the negotiating table from each other look forward to sitting next to each other to create a program they all believe will lead to a safer workplace.

I often find that people tend to know others within their own discipline. The lighting guys know the lighting guys, and the rigging folks know the rigging folks, but they don't generally cross fields. ESTA provides that introduction to people who do what you do, but in a different discipline, which generally leads to very open and productive business discussions.


This is actually quite a long and impressive list of accomplishments for a relatively young organization. It includes the Code of Conduct, the Technical Standards Program, Entertainment Technician Certification Program, The ESTA Foundation, Fog Testing Program, Market Research Program for Manufacturers and other industry research, Product Stewardship Program, Customer Service Surveys, business seminars and roundtables, Credit Reporting Program, and Protocol, to name a few.

Every one of these programs came about because a member said, “I have a need,” or, “Could we do…” so the future of “to,” and therefore the future of ESTA, is up to its members. As the entertainment technology industry grows and changes, what new programs and services will members need, who will they need to know, and with whom will they need to work? ESTA is supported by a very small and dedicated staff, but we don't drive the bus. Our job is to help make members' visions become reality. Under the ESTA umbrella, those visions will shape the industry for the next 20 years and beyond.

Lori Rubinstein is the executive director of ESTA.

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