The Journal Gazette
 
 
Friday, February 19, 2021 1:00 am

Venues look toward future

Planning now for time when crowds return

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

After a two-year renovation project, the 115-year-old Eagles Theatre in Wabash opened Feb. 29 with grand plans for a year of concerts, movies and other events to show off the historic space. Less than three weeks later it was shuttered as the pandemic brought arts and entertainment events to a halt across the world.

The building is among six venues operated by Honeywell Arts and Entertainment, including Honeywell Center and 13-24 Drive-In. Eagles has been able to host several weddings and specialty dinner events in larger spaces such as its ballroom. But the core activities the building was designed for are limited during the pandemic because of social distanced seating requirements and restrictions on gathering sizes.

Touring shows provide just a fraction of Honeywell's revenue. It also operates as a regional conference center, so it was a bit of a “double whammy” to lose that income as well, President and CEO Tod Minnich says.

Though a return to full operation is going to be a long and bumpy road, he is optimistic for the year ahead.

But can he predict when things will be back to normal? Like other arts and culture leaders in the area, the answer is no.

“Your crystal ball is just as good as mine and everybody else's,” Minnich says.

Making plans

Though it is unclear what the pandemic holds for the coming months, many performance venues are actively planning shows, even though dates are subject to change.

As of early January, Honeywell had 14 live shows booked for Eagles and 25 for Ford Theatre at the Honeywell Center. When Hollywood resumes regular releases, Eagles will also show first-run movies on its two screens.

Minnich says that Honeywell is at about the same booking volume it would be at in a non-pandemic year, but the organization does not expect it will be able to do indoor shows in the spring. Honeywell is prepared to move shows to the 13-24 Drive-In, which hosted several outdoor concerts in 2020.

The drive-in will likely continue to be a part-time music venue, even after the pandemic, Minnich says. Honeywell invested in the drive-in's infrastructure to make that possible. The drive-in operated at half capacity last year with about 330 cars, but at up to six people per vehicle that still meant it could hold nearly 2,000 concert attendees. At full capacity, the drive-in can host more concertgoers than any of Honeywell's indoor venues. Eagles can hold 538 people without social distanced seating and Ford can seat just under 1,500.

When booking larger acts, Honeywell needs to come close to selling out a venue's full capacity to consider the show a success, Minnich says.

“The economics of touring entertainment aren't really designed for 50% capacity,” he says. Not to mention that the energy of a show just isn't the same if attendees are surrounded by empty seats.

For the 2021 season, Foellinger Theatre has been directed to plan for two scenarios: If the outdoor theater can be fully open and if reduced seating will be required. Both plans are in place and a lot of concerts have already booked for as-yet unannounced dates at Foellinger, says Mitch Sheppard, deputy director of community outreach for Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory and Foellinger Theatre.

Foellinger offers both “commercial shows” that are brought in by promoters who pay to use the venue and “house shows” that are booked, managed and produced by local staff.

Sheppard says Foellinger could, if necessary, go another year like 2020 where it sat mostly empty because most of its expenses are tied to shows. If there are no shows, there isn't much expense.

Not all concert venues have been sitting empty, even if there haven't been major performances happening. Some, such as Embassy Theatre, also have spaces for weddings, meetings and other gatherings.

In addition to using the time to give the space some upgrades such as beer taps, Clyde Theatre has donated its space as a venue for meetings of United Front, a cultural competency training program. It has also been used as a practice space for Fort Wayne Philharmonic's Youth Symphony Orchestra and tables were added to the Clyde lobby to offer additional seating for the Club Room, which underwent its own expansion project.

But concerts are what the Clyde is meant for. When the pandemic hit, it had a full calendar and things were just taking off for the historic Quimby Village venue, which opened in its current iteration in 2018 and planned to increase the number of shows it hosted in 2020.

That growth will be pursued again when it reopens, executive director Gregg Coyle says.

The biggest challenge he sees for booking touring shows right now is that there are different rules in every state.

He says the Clyde is lucky because of its connection to Sweetwater and local businessman Chuck Surack, who has many connections in the music world. Sweetwater-connected venues such as the Clyde and the Sweetwater Performance Pavilion have the luxury of being able to fly in an artist for a single date instead of relying on that musician to be on a tour that is passing through the area.

Coyle says the Clyde is also lucky to have The Club Room at the Clyde, which has been able to operate with live local music for a portion of the pandemic. A Saturday night can see about 350 people come through the doors to dine and listen to music.

Its connections to Sweetwater also mean the Clyde isn't in the same strained financial situation as some independent venues. The Clyde has joined the Indiana Independent Venue Alliance to lend its voice and support to the cause.

The alliance's mission includes providing relief for independent music venues in Indiana and supporting efforts of the National Independent Venue Association. Other area members of the alliance include The Brass Rail, Piere's Entertainment Venue, The Muse on Main, Blue Gate Theatre in Shipshewana and Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw.

Booking shows

Memorial Coliseum has some great shows lined up for the third and fourth quarters, though they haven't been officially announced yet, says Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager.

Unlike some venues that operate as rental spaces for concerts, the Coliseum co-promotes its shows. Ticket sales matter whether that be to a concert, sporting event, consumer show or other event. Rental dollars for events such as weddings are also part of the Coliseum's bottom line.

The Coliseum is part of the Venue Coalition, a booking consortium that pitches its buildings to agencies representing artists.

Working with agencies has changed during the pandemic because some don't have as much staff due to cuts or furloughs, so the coalition has taken over some tasks such as routing for the artists. Routing is basically a tour's itinerary, which Brown says has been made challenging by the fact that there is little consistency between counties and states on pandemic protocols.

Brown says the first questions agencies have been asking venues are “What are the pandemic stats in your market?” and “What is it going to be like in June?” Indiana has been known as a hot spot for part of the pandemic.

Honeywell is an in-house promoter and does its own talent buying, as well as offering services to other venues in the region such as doing talent buying for Veterans Memorial Civic & Convention Center in Lima, Ohio, and doing marketing for Paramount Theatre in Anderson.

Minnich says that as Honeywell has been talking to booking agents, there are a lot of acts that are starting to confirm dates for later this year as well as trying to decide if they should do arena or amphitheater tours.

Brown says he believes there will be a lot of product after the pandemic because artists are itching to get back on the road.

But how much product will be too much? There are only so many expendable dollars to go around, so even if people have been saving up by not going to concerts for the past year, they aren't suddenly going to be able to buy tickets for every show that is offered, Brown says.

A challenge some venues might face is that many of 2020's shows were postponed to this year, meaning a lot of touring talent is already booked and won't be available for venues looking to make new bookings for 2021.

When touring does resume, some types of performances will be easier to start back up than others, Minnich says. A comedy tour, for example, is just a couple of people going from venue to venue. Acoustic bands and music groups that only tour on the weekends will have an easier time making arrangements than bigger-name artists that travel with a caravan of equipment and crew.

Touring Broadway productions will probably face the steepest climb back to touring. They require large cast and crews, and their business model requires booking weeks of nonstop performances.

Musicals can't just cut characters to reduce cast sizes, says Carly Myers, chief marketing officer at Embassy Theatre. Large crews are necessary for the lavish sets that are part of the experience audiences come out for.

Travel is also a struggle for big productions. There isn't a lot of room on a touring bus to begin with, Myers says. Crowding in with other performers and staff runs counter to protocols during a pandemic.

Like Foellinger, the Embassy works as both a rental house and programs some of its own events. Myers says that even though bigger shows might sell out more often, smaller acts might make more money for the Embassy because of things such as bar sales.

Alternatives

While they wait on a return to full attendance at indoor concerts and other tours, some venues and organizations have been exploring alternatives.

The Coliseum had several shows in its parking lot in the fall, and Brown says those went well. More could happen in 2021 when weather is appropriate for outdoor events.

The hot market right now is youth sports, Brown says. The Fort Wayne Komets have also begun a new season at the Coliseum.

Working last year with Civic Theatre on its performances of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and “1776” was a new experience for Foellinger, but one that could possibly be repeated if necessary, Sheppard says. The venue operated on a shoestring budget during those performances and was able to recoup the barest of its expenses.

Sheppard says she wouldn't be surprised to see calls coming in from other organizations about using the theater if social distanced seating is still a requirement during the outdoor venue's operating season.

Because of reduced capacity at its home theater in Arts United Center, Civic Theatre also produced a show, “Annie,” at Embassy Theatre. The Embassy has worked with other organizations including Three Rivers Music Theatre on its cabaret series and Cinema Center on its Hobnobben Film Festival. It has also been programming some live streams of local music acts from its stage.

Partnering with local organizations and supporting local artists is part of the Embassy's mission, though that will become slightly more difficult when touring shows pick back up and promoters block off large chunks of the Embassy's calendar. The venue's staff will be working to find a balance between touring and local productions, Myers says.

Opportunities like Embassy Theatre has found to partner with local organizations to host or co-promote events really aren't available in Wabash, Minnich says.

Honeywell is banking on being able to return to business this fall and has an aggressive outdoor plan for summer, he says.

Public confidence

Minnich says his friends in the touring performance industry are ready to get back on the road as soon as the economics of touring works for everybody. But a big part of that is audiences being ready to buy tickets and come out to a show.

Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has begun, but Allen County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter told The Journal Gazette last month that it is too early to tell when herd immunity could be reached or when audiences might be able to be seated at local events without social distancing or face coverings.

Venue operators say that even after health officials give the go-ahead, it won't be like flipping a switch where suddenly everyone in the public will be OK with sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers again.

Coyle points out that there are things that health officials say are safe, then there are the things that customers actually want. Even when restaurants were able to increase capacity, the Club Room never went above 50% because that's what customers were saying they were comfortable with, Coyle says.

The Clyde, which can be set up for standing or seated shows, will likely do more of the latter as it eases back into concerts, Coyle says. That will help keep people distanced and stop them from roaming as much.

Coyle says he thinks people will be eager to get out and see concerts when the pandemic is over, but that means everyone from the band to the crew and the audience will have to have been vaccinated. That's out of the hands of talent buyers and the Clyde staff, Coyle says.

What venues can control is how they approach safety protocols.

Brown is a past chairman of the International Association of Venue Managers and has been giving presentations for national groups on how the Coliseum is doing events during the pandemic. With a number of sporting events, concerts and consumer show bookings in place, the Coliseum is ahead of its contemporaries in cities such as Columbus where large venues are not currently doing events.

Though there has been some discussion in the concert industry about requiring proof of vaccination or negative tests for concertgoers, Brown couldn't say what it would take for the Coliseum to implement procedures like that. Most likely interest from booking agencies, artists and promoters.

But the Coliseum has its own guidelines in place such as asking for cellphone numbers from patrons to aid with contact tracing if necessary. It has also put in touchless payment systems for concessions and is working on making credit card payment available in the parking lot. There is a UV lighting system to sanitize the escalator rails and ion cleaning on the air systems. It is working toward being a cashless venue if that is required in the future.

Brown says he knows that the latter wouldn't be popular with all patrons and the Coliseum doesn't want to put barriers in place that would keep anyone away. But many visitors seem to have accepted paperless tickets. At a recent wrestling event, the majority of tickets were sent to smart phones instead of being printed.

Sheppard says increased sanitizing and providing masks are things Foellinger can keep doing as long as it needs to. But shows going forward with reduced seating inventory is what would hurt the bottom line of the venue, Sheppard says. Just because a show has reduced capacity doesn't mean there is reduced cost.

But she believes that when health restrictions are eased and public confidence in safety returns, “you're going to see concert attendance like you've never seen.”

One of the things Sheppard says she enjoys most about her job is the look on people's faces when they are watching live entertainment.

“In my line of work, ... we do not sell widgets, we sell experiences,” she says. “And once you have acquired an experience, it is yours forever and no one can ever take it away.”

And though many of those experiences are on hold at the moment, Sheppard is confident the time will come that we can enjoy them again.

cmcmaken@jg.net 

About this series

This is one of several Weekender stories that will explore issues affecting the local arts and culture community as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a pandemic approaches in March.

The stories are part of “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip,” a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.

Other stories from the series can be read at https://on.jg.net/CaughtInTheGrip.


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