IT'S NO SECRET THAT THE ECONOMIC recession, combined with the aftereffects of last year's terrorist attacks, has hurt the venue, staging, and rental industries. Theaters, concert halls, special event facilities, and entertainment venues across the country have had to cut back on stage staff, curtail purchasing plans of new audio or lighting equipment, or close their doors altogether. In these trying economic times, keeping a large venue filled with people has become a difficult task.


The 450-seat Gem Theater in Detroit features regional and national acts of all kinds. The facility, which recently underwent a million dollar A/V upgrade, is a Motown landmark.

To meet that challenge, event venues are employing a number of strategies. For example, some venues have sought to increase their use of sophisticated lighting and staging effects in an effort to create a more compelling experience. Other venues are making an effort to market themselves more aggressively to a particular demographic group, most notably women and seniors. Some are spending time pumping up their presence on the Web. And then, of course, there are the inevitable efforts to offer more for less and to do more with less.

A Rock Classic

The Fillmore, located in an unassuming building near San Francisco's Japantown, is typical of the venues that have had to develop some creative ways to promote business in these difficult times. Home to one of the truly great rock concert halls in history, The Fillmore was the place to play for most of the late '60s, '70s and into the '80s. Then it fell on hard times and actually closed its doors for a while before being reopened by Bill Graham Presents in the mid ‘90s.

Today, in addition to housing an impressive collection of rock 'n' roll memorabilia, the facility offers a small venue on an upper floor and a main ballroom downstairs. The ballroom can seat thousands and offers a stage that has hosted music's finest.

The man responsible for running the show at The Fillmore is Joe Paganelli. Originally hired in 1993 to answer telephones for A.K.G., then the nightclub division of Bill Graham Presents, Paganelli rose through the ranks before earning the position of general manager of The Fillmore in 2000. The experience has given him the chance work through every aspect of operating a large concert/theater venue. That's a good thing, as he needs every trick he can think of to keep the tickets selling.

“I don't believe West Coast venues have suffered as greatly as some other areas of the country,” Paganelli admits. “Our numbers were pretty good in 2001 and so far we have not slowed down at all in the volume of shows.”

However, that's not to say there haven't been challenges in keeping the venue filled with acts and audiences. One way Paganelli manages to do that is to fill the hall with corporate events in addition to traditional concerts. The fact that The Fillmore resembles a rock 'n' roll museum is helpful in attracting such business.

“We have a special events division that works very hard to use our experience and resources to produce extraordinary corporate or private events,” explains Paganelli. “It is Michael Bailey's job to stay on top of the scene and maintain a good relationship with all the agents. Meanwhile, our publicity and promotions director, Michelle Lefkowitz, works tirelessly with the print and radio media to get the word out on all our shows. It's really a team effort.”

Providing good sound and lights are also important draws for today's concert-goers, says Paganelli. “Sometimes we do a light show or a video behind the bands while they play or, if they choose, in between sets,” he says. “A former employee, James Olness, created his own company called J.O.E. Lighting, and he usually brings any A/V gear necessary to do an oil show, or a video or whatever the act calls for.” More and more, both the acts and the audiences they play to are demanding a visual as well as an audio experience.

One other element that Paganelli feels will be crucial to The Fillmore's success is the Internet. “We will soon be recreating the web site and interconnecting it with all the venues we operate,” he says. “I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I believe the site is used rather heavily for calendar and showtime purposes, and perhaps used heavily overseas by those in the U.K. and other countries who are interested in the origins of rock,” says Paganelli.

Venue Gems

The Motor City is known for making two things — cars and good concert halls. One of those concert halls is located in the heart of Detroit's burgeoning entertainment district in a building dating back to the turn of the 20th century. From the outside, it looks like an historic landmark. But inside, the Gem and Century Theaters and Century Club Restaurant provide unique atmospheres for concerts, plays, and special events. Similar to the classic Ambassador Theater in St. Louis, the facility has antique treasures spread throughout the theater complex, but its audio, lighting, and stage facilities are second to none.

One of the keys to success for this venue is the fact that the adjoining Century Club Restaurant makes it possible to offer theater and dining packages, creating an all-encompassing supper club experience for audience members. In addition, the Gem's Special Events Division offers complete party planning services, catering, and beverage services. Upon request, it will do everything from arranging for matching table linens, napkins, and flowers, to creating custom invitations, banners, or flyers for an event. The goal here is to capture the lion's share of a customer's expenditures for any special event.

Nikki Mancini is the group sales manager for the Gem and Century Theaters and Century Club Restaurant. The past year has been tough for everyone in the event and staging business, she acknowledges, though things seem to be picking up.

“Beginning in the fall, we saw a drastic decline in individual and group attendance, as well as in the amount of money being spent on events,” Mancini says. “We saw a large cutback in our corporate holiday parties. People said either it wasn't in the budget or they didn't feel it was appropriate with recent layoffs to be celebrating.”

However, she says, “The one group of people that the economic downturn hasn't seemed to have affected is our senior audience. Operating on a fixed income and not afraid of losing jobs, they have enjoyed that we've discounted tickets and packages and continue to come out quite regularly.”


photo courtesy of the Reno Hilton.

Reducing prices has been a key strategy for beating the slow-business-blues. “We have brought down ticket prices — most local theaters have — and made meal/theater packages less expensive,” she says. “An all-inclusive brunch buffet and theater ticket on Sundays goes for only $35.50, while a lunch and theater package is only $30 on Thursday afternoons.” With that and some serious marketing efforts in newspaper and radio, things are starting to pick up. But it's still not easy.

“An unstable economy creates tight-fisted customers,” says Mancini. “Ticket prices need to come down, but the costs of putting on a high-quality production never do. A big challenge for us at any time is that both our venues are small. It takes quite some time to recoup costs when you've got only 192 to 400 tickets to sell per performance. Bring that ticket price down and you make it even more difficult to break even, let alone make money.

“With events, we have to be a lot more flexible than we would normally be,” she continues. “We waive rental costs, clean up costs, and give additional time for final counts and payments to come in. Whatever we can do to make our facility more appealing than another, we'll definitely do.” In addition to a mega-dollar stage lighting and sound system of its own, the facility offers its special event clients video monitors, VCR's, LCD projectors, and more via several local A/V rental agencies.

Mancini is active when it comes to searching out and using new ideas to attract new customers and increase ticket sales. She has a few favorite promotion or marketing ideas. “For groups, I like it when a venue hosts an open house to present upcoming shows and events. What we do here is offer a complimentary preview performance to our group organizers and agents. It gives them a chance to see what they'll be selling and it makes them feel special,” says the sales manager.

Naturally the Internet is of growing importance to Mancini and the Gem facility. “We've been online for maybe a year now, so we definitely weren't first to it, but it's been very helpful and added to our efforts. We've been able to get information out quickly and less costly to our patrons by using email. However, we do still use phone calls as our primary form of contact,” she says.

In addition to open house previews and web pages, Mancini feels industry associations have an important role to play. “Detroit Women's Travel Organization (DWTO) and the Michigan Employee Services and Recreation Association (MESRA) give us an opportunity to network with other local organizations,” she says. “DWTO gives us contact with tour and travel agents and organizations interested in travel and tourism. MESRA gives a monthly mailing opportunity in which companies offer information and specials to other MESRA members.”

Mancini's advice for others in the staging and events industry? “Don't give up, and keep at it. I hope that despite the latest trend, everyone will continue to support the fine arts as much as possible.”

As for Paganelli, his two words of advice are even more simple: “Stay sane!”


Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a freelance writer and entertainer living in Northern California and Maui, Hawaii. Visit his web site at www.tompatrick.com.

Sidebar


The Innkeeper's Viewpoint

The Reno Hilton Resort and Casino in Nevada is more than just a hotel; it's a destination. With more than 500 rooms and three show venues under one roof, it hosts some of the area's largest concerts, meetings, and special events. SRO sat down with two of the Hilton's top people, Denise Banks, executive director of meetings and conventions, and Rick Chapman, vice president of sales, to discuss how a top hotel and event facility is coping in the face of the current economic downturn.

SRO: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks last year, has your concert/convention business seen a decline in bookings, size of events, etc.?

Chapman: We have not seen a decline in association meetings booked, but we have seen a slow down in the decision process. Convention groups are taking longer to make decisions on long-term bookings. We have seen a significant decline in corporate and incentive business. However, government groups and fraternal organizations are booking steadily. Convention groups this year are spending less. We have seen a 20% decline in catering and audio visual budgets.

SRO: What are you doing to address this decline, and when do you see things turning around?

Chapman: We are focusing on our strengths as a value destination with 24 years of experience in the industry. I have doubled the travel this year for my staff. We are spending more time in face-to-face meetings with our clients. The meetings industry will follow the economic recovery. That appears to be two to three years away from the levels of 1999.

SRO: What associations do you belong to and/or plan on joining and why they are important?

Banks: We belong to all the major industry associations. ASAE, PCMA, MPI, IAEM. They help us network with others in our industry and provide the hotel and hospitality industry with representation at various governmental levels.

SRO: Do you have any advice or suggestions for others in your industry?

Chapman: Customer relationships are the foundation of how we do business. Maintain a positive perspective on the current economic condition and adjust your marketing and selling strategies accordingly.

SRO: How important are lights and A/V technology to today's event planners?

Banks: The audio visual technology used is very important to our business for conventions, meetings, and entertainment. We rent everything — from a microphone to a concert PA sound system or from a slide projector to a three-camera, image-magnification system — from local staging and A/V rental agencies. It's all to give both the hotel guest, the audience, and the event giver a truly special occasion.
— TM