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At a glance
Allen County War Memorial Coliseum
•More than 1 million visitors a year, including about 63,000 visitors at the popular Vera Bradley outlet sale every spring
•Last year’s Elton John concert grossed more than $1.4 million
•Coliseum uses representatives of local nonprofit organizations to sell concessions, novelties and T-shirts; the facility’s commission share is given to those same groups; last year’s donation was $100,000
•Approximate operating fund profits:
2010 – $93,000
2011 – $65,000
2012 – $46,000
2013 – Undetermined
Source: Memorial Coliseum
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Coliseum event planners include, from left, Nathan Dennison, coordinator, marketing media services; Bryan Christie, vice president, operations; Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager; Michele Remenschneider, ticket office manager; and Andrew VanDeweghe, Aramark general manager.

Team behind Coliseum success

Many hands help venue put on events, which boost area economy

When the rock band Kiss performed at Memorial Coliseum in the 1990s – the band has performed in Fort Wayne 10 times – facility employees discovered at the last minute that a large video wall could not be moved and the stage could not be properly rigged.

“We had to move 300 people from the seats they had purchased and find them other seats,” said Bryan Christie, who has worked at the Coliseum 45 years and is now vice president of operations. “Of course, they wanted to know why we did not plan better, but it just could not be helped.”

Being flexible is one of the keys to the Coliseum’s success, said Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager.

During recent interviews, Brown and his staff talked about the work involved in ensuring the Coliseum remains a competitive entertainment venue.

From booking and marketing to luxurious guest services to literally setting the stage, the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum staff executes a well-choreographed dance to attract a plethora of events throughout the year.

And it’s working, according to recent financial and tourism data. More than 1 million people visited the facility last year – fewer than the previous year. But the economic effect of those visitors was $116 million, a nearly 17 percent increase, Brown said.

Looking for additional revenue, Brown acknowledged last week that naming rights have been shopped around for years but will pertain only to the arena within the complex, not the complex itself, he said.

Still, the 80-acre county-owned complex is among a small percentage of similar venues that made a profit last year, netting about $46,000, he said.

Some venues are not as fortunate. According to the Evansville Courier & Press, the Ford Center in Evansville listed operating revenue of $1.58 million in 2012, but when taking costs into account, the arena’s deficit came to $281,293 for the year. Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis lost $10 million last year.

This year’s numbers are up in the air, but any time part of the Coliseum is shut down for renovations, as it has been this year, profits will not be as great, Brown said.

“In that case, we just do not want to lose money,” he said.

A prime site

Home to the Komets, the Mad Ants and the Fort Wayne Derby Girls, the Coliseum complex also hosts other sporting events, national concerts, family shows, trade shows, business and consumer events and private celebrations.

After 10 years of calling the Coliseum home, the IPFW men’s basketball team will return to its on-campus arena to play its home games this coming season.

If IPFW’s team makes a switch from its Summit League to the Horizon League, as speculated, it will again be playing at the Coliseum because the on-campus site is not large enough, Brown said.

“The Horizon League has a stipulation that there must be seating for 5,000,” he said.

But IPFW games were never a money-maker for the Coliseum, he said.

“It was in the best interest of the community, so we just did it,” Brown said.

One type of money-maker is the concert of a popular entertainer.

This year’s big-name concerts included Kenny Chesney, Journey, Winter Jam, Kid Rock, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood and Barry Manilow.

As part of a national booking consortium, Brown emails about 150 to 200 promoters every month, offering a list of open dates for the next six to 12 months.

The Midwest location is ideal, according to Brown, because many base operations are within six hours of Fort Wayne, such as in Nashville, Tenn.

The ease of getting in and out of the building is another plus, ticket office manager Michelle Remenschneider said.

“We hear that all the time,” she said. “We have a good reputation.”

The industry backs up that claim.

For 12 consecutive years, Memorial Coliseum has been named a “prime site” by Facilities Magazine.

It was recently ranked 13th in the world for ticket sales among similar-sized venues in the industry’s leading publication, Venues Today. The ranking was based on concert and event grosses from June and July 2012.

During that time, the World Wrestling Entertainment “RAW Supershow” pulled in more than 8,000 people in one night. That event itself placed 11th in the publication’s “Hot Tickets” ranking.

Making it happen

The scheduling is top secret until Brown has finalized the deal and confirmed the date – well, sometimes.

Occasionally, the staff finds out that a particular concert is coming to the Coliseum after it’s been prematurely posted on that entertainer’s or band’s website, Remenschneider said with a laugh.

Either way, once it’s official, the staff goes to work.

Along with Brown, Christie and Remenschneider, other key staff members include Andrew VanDeweghe, food services manager, and Nathan Dennison, director of marketing and media services. Together, the team has more than 100 years of experience as Coliseum employees.

With country music star Kenny Chesney, the staff worked closely with Chesney’s manager and promoter, Louis Messina, who is also a promoter for Taylor Swift, George Strait and Reba McEntire.

“Whenever Louis called, everything stopped,” Brown said.

As with all events, Remenschneider worked on the pricing and seating for ticket sales, while Dennison began drafting a marketing and media plan. Christie worked to ensure the stage, lighting and equipment coordinates adhered to Chesney’s preferences.

Most of the entertainers and promoters are great to work with, the staff said.

They talked to Elton John’s promoter almost daily before his concert last year, Remenschneider said. “We became best friends,” she said.

That was John’s second concert in Fort Wayne.

At the first concert in the 1990s, John was reserved and quiet, preferring to stay in the background, Brown said.

At his second concert, the ice was broken after staff presented him with a personalized Komets hockey jersey for his toddler son, Zachary.

“He was very outgoing and friendly and just great to work with,” Brown said.

Catering to celebs

VanDeweghe is the general manager of Aramark catering, the Coliseum’s present onsite caterer. It is his job to find out the performers’ favorite foods and beverages and plan food service accordingly.

One of the food services offered includes a “craft table” – shelves of requested goodies and snacks along with local newspapers and publications.

“We have to find out if there are food and alcohol preferences or if there are food allergies,” VanDeweghe said.

Sometimes, when specialty food items and alcohol or beverage requests are not standard fare, the staff must visit two or three grocery stores or, in cases where the items are not available locally, have the items shipped to the Coliseum, VanDeweghe said.

While others cater to the artists’ proclivities, Remenschneider builds the event – emailing clients the arena layout and seating diagrams and working with them and Ticketmaster on pricing and selling tickets.

The most popular concerts are country, followed by Christian and classic rock, Remenschneider said.

“Tickets for a well-known country singer will sell out in one day,” she said.

Arena set-ups can be tailored to crowds of 6,000 to 13,000.

The artist and promoter set ticket prices – not the Coliseum, Remenschneider said.

Rocking the clock

Christie heads up the mechanics of the event – rigging, lighting, and setting up stages, runways, or band or orchestra pits, if requested.

Even though artists and event promoters supply their own stage or technical crews, the Coliseum also hires outside help such as stage hands, dishwashers, security, runners and riggers for a big event.

The Coliseum has 22 full-time employees and about 500 part-time staff that is scheduled as needed, depending on the size of the events, Brown said.

Along the way, Brown and his staff keep a meticulous paper trail so they can later be reimbursed for expenses.

Christie and his assistant operations manager, Eric Lonsbury, are a constant presence during most events. Christie has been known to work 50 hours straight during a busy weekend. Three shifts of workers are present during back-to-back events.

If a hockey game is going on in the arena for instance, it will be over and the floor will clear by about 11 p.m., he said.

“We have about 25 minutes to clear the floor and arena and get ready for the next event,” he said.

Typically, the staff is coming out of a hockey game and preparing for an impending basketball game, Christie said.

If a concert is scheduled the following night, he and Lonsbury will find themselves working through the night, Christie said.

Wild, wild West

One of the most exciting times takes place before a concert or game, Brown said.

The crowd is in high spirits, full of anticipation and some have enjoyed a few alcoholic beverages.

“When we open the doors and until everyone is seated, it’s the wild, wild West,” he said.

And it’s not just the audience who loves to have a good time. Brown had heard from other venue managers that a female singer, whom Brown declined to name, sometimes liked to remove her blouse or shirt while performing – the same singer who was scheduled to perform at the Coliseum.

Brown made sure to caution her promoter that she could not remove her top because the act might not have the desired effect in the conservative Midwest.

“She did not, but she urged the women in the audience to take off their tops and enjoy the concert in their underwear and of course, some did,” he said, laughing.

Because Brown and his staff check with other venues on what to expect from particular entertainers, they found out before he performed that controversial, heavy metal vocalist Marilyn Manson liked to wrap himself in a diaper made with an American flag as an encore act.

“I explained to him that we are called the War Memorial Coliseum and it would disrespectful to veterans,” Brown said.

Manson was “as nice as could be and complied,” Brown said.

Expand, adapt

The Coliseum is in the midst of a $2.3 million renovation of two food courts and eight restrooms on the upper-level arena.

Future plans include a $12 million expansion of the expo center, which will be enlarged to 130,000 square feet, an increase of 22,000.

The facility, like its staff, must be adaptable.

“This is a fluid business we are in,” Brown said. “Inflexible venues do not get return business.”

He credits his staff with understanding the need for adapting to an ever changing business and clientele.

“We have an excellent staff who always tries to exceed expectations and go the extra mile,” Brown said.

vsade@jg.net

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