Smaller Markets Stay Proactive in the Quest to Book Events

3 Aug

REPORTING FROM HOUSTON —  Smaller venues in non-major markets can have a difficult time attracting high-grossing shows and events, but with some creativity, hard work and a little promoter hand-holding, venues of any size can develop events that serve their communities.

During the International Association of Venue Managers conference, a July 24th panel titled “Finding Affordable Events and Artists in Small Markets” brought together five facility professionals to discuss programming in tertiary cities.

“There’s a new person every day who wants to bring a show to market, but they don’t know the business. They don’t know how to make an offer, or what media to buy, or where to purchase sound and lights,” said Yaijara Flores from the McAllen (Texas) Convention Center, which has found filling dates with concerts and MMA matches.

Working with new promoters can mean negotiating offers directly with an agency, or bidding out sound and light contracts; even pushing them towards sponsors, said Leah Beck from the Ryan Center, a Global Spectrum-managed arena in Kingston, R.I.

“If I think a show isn’t going to break even, I’ll help them generate revenue through local marketing,” said Beck. “Our goal is to have them come back again and again.”

Of course, not all promoters are created equal. Todd Hunt from the BancorpSouth Arena in Tulepo, Miss., said capitalization is critical when working with any promoter — after he determines that they have enough money in the bank, Hunt looks at market appropriateness and future potential.

“We have to go out and develop these folks as best as we can. If you have the ability to take risks, then I suggest you do that when it makes sense,” he said.

For those who can’t buy shows, the five panelists had plenty of advice for developing content that met community needs. Hunt said BancorpSouth hosts an annual event for Honda motorcycle riders, a kinder band of bikers that “ride to eat and eat to ride,” which is a perfect match considering the facility is partially funded by a restaurant tax. Flores said her facility works with the Mexican consulate for a Mexican Independence Day event, and has attracted several theatrical productions that stopped touring Northern Mexico because of security concerns.

Tom Richter from the VenuWorks-managed Swiftel Center in Brookings, S.D., said his facility has found success with a wings and beer tasting event sponsored by area restaurants and beer distributors, while Beck said her Rhode Island arena loves cheerleading competitions.

“They’re high maintenance and sometimes I get yelled at by local hospitals for all the EMT calls, but they make a lot of money and generate a lot of food sales,” she said.

The BancorpSouth Arena generated $40,000 its third year of operating an ice skating rink with skates it bought from an out-of-business ice rink, while MetraPark, Billings, Mont., hosted a successful two-day cowboy roping contest that attracted over 6,000 teams and a sponsorship with Wrangler Jeans, said Bill Dutcher, the building’s GM.

As for attracting national shows, “you have to be realistic about what will sell in your market,” said Hunt. “Will Jimmy Buffet sell in your market? Probably, but if you only have 8,000 seats, the math won’t work.”

When talking to promoters and agents, Hunt said it’s important to be realistic about what the market is able to support.

“Don’t waste their time chasing things that won’t work,” he said.

“And be honest. If they call about a show and you don’t think it’s going to work, tell them that. It can be painful at times because these events might look glowing to the community, but if it loses a promoter $100,000 to $200,000, that promoter is never coming back.”

Flores said her team focuses on selling the market to promoters and agents rather than selling the facility. Afterall, as a city employee, her job is to get visitors to spend money in McAllen.

“Sell the buying power of your community and make lasting relationships with the agencies, and always call back,” she said. “Ultimately we want to sell the market and even if an event doesn’t make sense in our facility, it might make sense in a smaller facility. Don’t be afraid to spread the love.” — Dave Brooks

Interviewed for this article: Yajaira Flores, (956) 681-3814; Leah Beck, (401) 788-3220; Todd Hunt, (662) 841-6573; Tom Richter, (605) 692-7539; Bill Dutcher, (406) 256-2400

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