As Encore Inflight celebrates its tenth banner year in business, its CEO talks IFE, teamwork and the importance of listening.
Even as a kid growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, I was obsessed with content. Of course, we didn’t call it “content” back then, but ever since I can remember I have been a huge fan of movies and TV shows. My taste in movies ran the gamut from soppy dramas like The Champ, Ice Castles, Love Story and Kramer vs. Kramer to Hollywood musicals like Saturday Night Fever and Grease. I was also hooked on American TV sitcoms and dramas like Mork & Mindy, M*A*S*H, Laverne & Shirley, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dallas and many more. But the one film that really piqued my interest in the world of moviemaking was Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, about one man’s fascination with a stage actress from the early 1900s. That movie sealed the deal for me; I knew then and there that I wanted to become an actress.
But when it came time to choose a major in college, my father quickly put an end to my ambitions when he told me that the only role an Asian woman would ever get in Hollywood was that of a maid. As true as it was then, I am glad to see that things have definitely changed. Either way, I majored in English and never looked back.
Though I remained a movie buff, the road to in-flight entertainment (IFE) was anything but direct. I had many jobs over the years, including as a newspaper carrier, graphic designer, journalist and even as a bartender. Everything that I am today is a culmination of the lessons learned from each and every one of these jobs. My time as a bartender, in particular, taught me about the importance of listening – something that I use daily in my current role at Encore.
“I went from wanting to leave IFE behind to wanting to come back and really change things up.” – Jovita Toh
My role model growing up was my grandmother, who lived with us. She only ever saw the good in people, and she was also an excellent listener. When she passed away 20 years ago, many of my high school classmates – some of whom I had not seen or been in touch with for decades – came to her funeral after having seen the obituary in the papers. They all remembered how good she was to them and what a great listener she had been. That left a huge impact on me. Everyone likes to talk, but not many people are willing to listen.
By the mid-90s, I was working at Dow Jones as country manager in Singapore for a publication called Far Eastern Economic Review. After two years, I was transferred to the regional office in Hong Kong. When my immediate supervisor left Dow Jones to join Emphasis Media, he took me with him. Having majored in English, my first job there was as client service director for all in-flight publications.
This was where I met Jennifer Cormie, who was a purchasing manager at Cathay Pacific. Of all the people I’ve crossed paths with in the world of IFE, she was by far the most influential for my career. Jennifer taught me the value of service, professionalism and fairness – qualities that I continue to impart to the Encore team to this day.
After two years of working in custom publishing, I was feeling disillusioned and ready to leave, so Emphasis offered me the chance to head its film distribution division instead. With no experience in the business other than watching and loving movies, I managed to turn Emphasis Video Entertainment – what had been a loss-making division – into the most profitable business in the group within three years. However, my role was eventually made redundant, and I found myself with a one-year non-compete clause. Even though I was sure I was done with IFE forever, I decided to take the year off and travel the world.
I spent six weeks in New Zealand, six more in Ireland, two in London, 14 in the US – where I covered pretty much the entire East Coast by car and then visited Hawaii – and two more each in Sydney and Shanghai. Flying around the globe, I quickly realized that the IFE experience on every airline was exactly the same. Literally every movie I watched on one airline was playing on the next and turning up in hotels or on cable TV wherever I went. That’s when I went from wanting to leave the world of IFE behind to wanting to come back and really change things up.
When I was done my gap year, I started Encore Inflight with the idea of bringing airlines fresh, high-quality content that was not making it to theaters or cable. I was sure airlines would appreciate the more diverse content mix we brought to the table, but, boy, was I wrong.
For the first two years, we couldn’t get a single airline or content service provider to even watch our screeners because there were no big-name actors, directors or producers tied to our titles. It was so bad that at the end of year two, I seriously considered shutting down the business and cutting our losses. I decided to give it another year because I still believed that there were films out there that had to be seen, and that if we spotlighted titles made with passion and vision, surely the industry would someday come to appreciate them.
Thankfully, things turned around. With newer IFE systems suddenly able to carry more content and budgets tightening, airlines began looking for more creative ways of increasing the volume of content on board. Luckily for us, many started looking for independent festival titles to add to the mix and Encore was suddenly top of mind.
When I first started Encore, I knew that I needed a strong team behind me; I was under no delusion that I could do it all on my own. But as the team and expenses grew, I became really impatient for the business to succeed and, honestly, I wasn’t a very good boss. I micromanaged everyone with expectations based on my own pace and demented 24-hour workday, not on each of their strengths and skills.
“The uniform represents that we are one unit, each of us as important as the other.” – Jovita Toh
One day, I looked around and realized everyone on my team was unhappy. They were dreading coming into work and I dreaded being angry all the time. I tried to change my management style, and went from reprimanding to teaching. Instead of celebrating company milestones, I started acknowledging personal ones. Most importantly, I followed my grandma’s lead: I became a better listener, and I started treating my team like family. Ten years on, I firmly believe that the secret to Encore’s success is our incredible team. Teamwork isn’t just a word at our company; it’s our culture. We work hard, we play hard and we even dress alike!
Sporting matching uniforms is a mainstay of our brand today, but the idea was met with some resistance early on. It wasn’t until the team realized people were genuinely interested in what we would wear each day to an event or tradeshow, that they started to understand the value of it. It has grown to the point that people want to be a part of Encore because of what the uniform represents: We are one unit, each of us as important as the other.
That sense of teamwork and camaraderie extends to our clients and suppliers. Everyone needs to sustain their business – we respect that. But if we can achieve our goals together, as partners, the whole experience becomes much healthier and more positive. If I had to make a dollar less so that my clients could meet their budgets, I would gladly do so. If we have to work a few extra hours so our clients could get their files on time or maybe pick up a few of the less popular titles to help out our suppliers, we would do it without question. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When we first heard that US carriers were canceling flights to and from China due to the coronavirus outbreak, we immediately thought it would be hard for them to justify booking new Chinese titles. The first thing we did was offer them a free extension on all the Chinese content they already had on board. When the situation worsened, more carriers were affected, but we still had an obligation to our producing partners and sales agents to generate revenue. In a discussion with the team, we looked at how Encore could cut costs to subsidize some of that content for airlines. That’s when we decided that if we canceled all of our tenth anniversary celebrations, we could help our clients for a couple of cycles.
The COVID-19 situation has hit us hard. But by understanding that we are all just one big team – each with a role to play, a business to run, a family to support and obligations to meet – we will not only survive, but also succeed for a long time to come.
“All Together Now” was originally published in the 10.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.