Ravinia Wraps Summer with Improvements in Mind

14 Sep

MetraPark officials in Billings, Mont., had their work cut out for them when the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena was gutted by a tornado less than eight weeks before the start of the annual MontanaFair, which took place Aug. 13-21.

A tornado ripped through Billings on June 20, Father’s Day, and hovered over and swirled inside the Rimrock Auto Arena for at least 12 minutes.

“The grandstand is in perfect order, but it spent 12 minutes scouring the inside of the arena,” said Sandra Hawke, marketing director for MetraPark. “It just broke through the roof and sat there for 12 minutes.”

The bones of the building remain intact and most of the soft seats are salvageable, but the roof was ripped out and other damage was done to the interior.

“Not a soul” was on the grounds June 20 and no one was hurt, although people nearby had video cameras and images of the tornado ripping off the arena’s roof can be viewed on YouTube.

The community rallied to help pick up the debris and 1,500 volunteers showed up instead of the requested 500.

“Once we came out and said, ‘We are not canceling the fair, we’re going to move ahead,’ the community gave us kudos for that quick and definite response,” Hawke said.

The community also showed support by attending the fair at almost the same rate as the year before, with the final number ending up at 232,657 compared to last year’s 233,015.

The loss of the use of the arena for the fair meant finding a place to hold the event’s three large opening weekend concerts, so Hawke contacted Tim Kohlmeyer of Theatrical Media Services in Omaha, Neb., who set MetraPark up with an outdoor stage on the track of the grandstand. Insurance covered most of the cost of the outdoor staging.

Jason Aldean opened the fair Aug. 13 with tickets costing $45, $35 and $25; the Scorpions played Aug. 14, $45, $35 and $25; followed up by Hinder with Finger Eleven on Aug. 15, $35 and $25. The budget for the entertainment buys was $350,000 plus production, Hawke said.

The grandstand has a capacity of about 6,200 and the concerts all averaged about 5,600, so the loss of the arena’s extra seats was not a problem, Hawke said.

Those were the only concerts planned for the fair; however, Hawke had booked Celtic Woman for the day after the fair closed. That show could not be converted to an outdoor production.

Hawke called the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman, Mont., which picked up the Celtic Woman concert. Hawke also had to cancel concerts by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who already were routed to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Ticket sales were under way for those appearances; a concert by Rodney Carrington was about to go on sale and did not. Carrington now is playing the Adams Event Center in Missoula, Mont., on Nov. 18.

As to what it will cost to repair the Rimrock Auto Arena, “Let me first preface that by saying we are insured up to $121 million, and we’re probably in the vicinity of half of that, plus a little money for lost business.”

Since 1904, the Ravinia Festival has provided a forest sanctuary for music lovers in Highland Park, Ill. Despite climbing artist fees and a dismal economic forecast, Ravinia has managed to book superstar acts, add new improvements to its facilities, continue its community outreach, and keep people coming back for more.

“We have been very fortunate. We think we’re going to hit our goals from a ticket sales point of view and a fundraising point of view, which in this economy is cause for maybe not jubilation, but at least relief,” said Welz Kauffman, president and CEO of Ravinia Park. Although official numbers will not be available until later in the fall, Kauffman explained that current ticket sales are hovering around the venue’s annual average, which is between 550,000 and 600,000 tickets sold.

Ravinia has seen artist fees climb for the past 10 years as recording revenues drop and the competition from other entertainment venues in the Chicago area increases. The casino market has burgeoned in the past couple years, particularly in nearby Indiana. “It’s just one more place where artists can play, and the more places they have possible to play, the higher their fees,” said Kauffman.

This summer, Ravinia Festival presented 92 acts. Popular performances included Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Earth Wind & Fire, Sheryl Crow, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Sting, whom Kauffman dubbed the biggest artist Ravinia has had in its 106-year history. Sting performed to a sold out crowd in Ravinia’s 3,200-seat theater, the Pavilion, as well as attendees on the lawn, which fits approximately 14,000 people.

At four Chicago Symphony concerts this summer, Ravinia offered seats on the Pavilion for $25. Normal symphony seat prices can range from $50 to $90. Other popular promotions that Ravinia has been offering are special dining packages that range from $35 to $60 and include a meal, parking and performance ticket, and $10 seats in its 450-seat theater, Bennett-Gordon Hall.

After summer is wrapped, the Ravinia staff will get started on restoring the grounds and preparing them for the cold winter months. The staff drops from 500 to 50 from summer to off-season months, but Kauffman explained that the Ravinia staff continues to work hard after the music stops.

“We do a lot of prep work so [the grounds] can kind of hibernate,” said Kauffman. However, the large project expected to be completed by spring of 2011 is a new, handicapped-accessible, 42-foot pedestrian underpass that will connect the main parking lot to the Tyler Gate entrance on the festival grounds.

Because a train company constructed Ravinia as an amusement park in 1904, the train still stops at the front door of the park. This new pathway will pass under the train tracks, which have proved problematic for festival goers that park in the main lot, and have to wait as long as 30 minutes for trains to pass before being able to cross. “There have been some waiting issues, and it’s a real customer service problem. So we’re investing quite a lot of resources in building this underpass. It will be the major off-season project,” said Kauffman. The project, which has been in the works for the past eight years, will cost $5 million and will be privately funded by Ravinia.  — Linda Domingo


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