The undeniably successful opening of the BOK Center has not only focused the spotlight of city redevelopment solidly on downtown, but it has also drawn the attention of the entertainment industry to Tulsa as a venue to be noticed.
And although he cites the city “team” that deflected potential problems, his staff, many hand-picked from facilities across the country, and the experience of SMG, the management company he works for, there is no question much of the credit goes to General Manager John Bolton.
In the three months since the Sept. 6 grand opening, the center has posted strong results:
? It hosted 27 events through Dec. 1 with 25 more, not including its Winterfest 2008 Celebration, scheduled in December alone.
? It drew 253,700 attendees downtown, with nearly 25,000 viewing the venue in pre-opening activities.
? Its first event, a concert by the Eagles, sold out in less than an hour, prompting a second Eagles concert, which also sold out.
? It has been nominated as the “Best New Major Concert Venue of the Year” award by Pollstar, the concert industry’s leading publication. Bolton, has already won the “Hall of Headlines” award for bookings by industry publication Venues Today, has been nominated for the “Facility Executive of the Year” award by Pollstar.
“I don’t think that Tulsa really quite realizes how amazing our opening has been, compared to a lot of facilities,” Bolton said.
In pre-opening activities, “we had 12-13 different events and receptions and private concerts, and every time we learned something about the building. So when we got to Sept. 6, you had a great first experience for people who paid a lot of money to see a show,” he said.
“We brought more people from other SMG buildings to get us through the pre-opening stuff than we did for the first couple of shows,” Bolton said. “By the time we got to the first show, we really had a lot of experience under our belt.”
Bolton said the keys to a successful opening require a combination of bringing events the community wants to see and making sure the industry is happy with the venue.
“I have two customers – the customer at the front door and the customer at the back door. The front door being the ticket buyer, the patron, (and) the back door being the event provider, the person who is putting up $1 million for ‘X’ act and hoping that they sell $1.4 million in tickets so they make a profit,” he said. “As long as we can make sure the person at the back door is making money, and the person at the front door is having a good experience, the honeymoon period will continue.
“The good news is that we don’t have the horrible problem with say, ‘Concessions are terrible,’ or ‘You don’t have a place to park,’ or ‘It took me two hours to get out of downtown after the event was over.’ We don’t have those things going against us,” Bolton said. “Those things quickly destroy a building’s viability over the long term. I think we have been able to get though those issues and pass those tests, so people feel comfortable and relaxed about coming downtown to the BOK Center.”
He said city and civic leaders came together early in the process to head off issues.
“When I first got here, I sat down with Mayor (Kathy Taylor) and said, ‘These are the things I can control, these are the kinds of things I can’t control. These things that I can’t control can destroy me.’ She put together a downtown revitalization committee and we took every issue that we could possibly think about, whatever that issue might be. The team of people that was at the table had the ability to solve every problem,” he said.
Two of those elements included the Tulsa Police Department opening night plan put together by Sergeant Skipper Bain, Tulsa Police special events coordinator, and The Tulsa Convention & Visitors Bureau volunteer “Street Fleet” ambassadors assigned to help event-goers get around downtown.
“I can’t give enough credit to Skipper Bain,” he said. “The plan that he did for our opening was better than anything I had ever seen as far as thinking through every detail, every issue, and, obviously, the Street Fleet was a part of that program.
“Everybody came together to make sure we wouldn’t have those type of issues on opening night. I think it has really paid off.”
Bringing in the Troops
Bolton also said having the resources of SMG to draw on aided in the internal operations at the facility.
“Over the course of a couple of weeks, we probably had 40-50 different people from all over the country – from Puerto Rico, Canada, California,” he said.
Bolton said they were called in to help with “our tough turnovers, quick transitions and things like helping people the first night of dealing with club seats and suite holders. Having a person who deals with that at another arena here really helped with making that transition smooth.”
The City of Tulsa hired Philadelphia-based SMG to manage the 19,199-seat BOK Center and the Convention Center, which is undergoing renovation. SMG provides management services to more than 200 public assembly facilities worldwide, including arenas, stadiums, performing arts centers, theatres and convention, conference and trade centers.
“What SMG brings to the table is a lot of resources and experience. No matter what problem or issue you have, another building has had it before. Nothing is very often new,” Bolton said.
He said opening a new facility gave him the opportunity to build his own team.
“I was able to cherry pick the best people in our company to come to work here,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to sell Tulsa. It wasn’t hard to sell the BOK Center. Everybody wanted that experience, just like I did, of being in a great new arena. And it was a beautiful facility.
“I don’t think we all knew how awesome it was going to turn out – we wanted it to be that way and we planned that way and we acted that way – but you never really know until all the glass is in and the roof is on and the floors are poured.”
As a result, in its first three months, the facility and Bolton are already being singled out for industry recognition.
In November, Bolton was named the top “Hall of Headlines” winner for bookings in 2008 by trade magazine Venues Today.
The award recognizes a person within the international entertainment industry that has accomplished the highest level of success in 2008. Bolton will be featured in the December issue of Venues Today.
“This award recognizes the amazing success our team has achieved in creating a very remarkable grand opening of the new BOK Center in Tulsa,” said Bolton.
This month, the BOK Center was nominated by Pollstar for the “Best New Major Concert Venue of the Year” award. Individuals within the industry will vote, and the winner will be announced Jan. 30 at the annual Pollstar awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
“This is an award that everyone has their eye on,” Bolton said. “It takes into account not just the venues that have opened nationally, but internationally as well.”
Bolton is also nominated for the “Facility Executive of the Year” award given by Pollstar.
“We have a very talented staff that has worked tirelessly during the grand opening season,” Bolton said. “With that said, a great deal of credit goes to the Tulsa community and surrounding areas. Without their support, without them buying tickets, we would have a short-lived success.
“I think that people (in the industry) are amazed, excited, envious,” he said. “The greatest thing about this building is the more we are open, the more people see it, the more people come through with events, the more word of mouth gets out there.”
Bolton, a 1989 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in health care management, was introduced to the entertainment management industry when he became director of the fine arts division of University Programs at the University of Alabama.
“By the time I realized that’s not what I wanted to do, I already had the degree,” he said. His experience in management proved to be “10 times more valuable than just going to school.”
Most recently from Evansville, Ind., Bolton was the general manager of four venues there: Roberts Stadium, the Centre, Victory Theater, and Mesker Amphitheater. Prior to his tenure in Evansville, he was executive director of the RiverPark Center, a multiple-venue property in Owensboro, Ky. Bolton is a Certified Facility Executive (CFE) and recently chaired the International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM) Senior Executive Program at Cornell University.
Two years ago this March, Bolton moved to Tulsa, taking the general manager position “because of all the experiences I had, opening a major new venue was not one. I had opened a smaller arena, but nothing of this scale.“
Probably the greatest challenge in the opening involved the community’s inexperience with high-demand ticket sales when the Eagle’s opening act went on sale, he said.
“Ticket buyers really have to grow into having a major arena in town and dealing with a sold out show or one that sells out fast,” he said. “Because a show sold out in an hour, many thought there was a conspiracy, or something, but it was just demand.
“It was great to announce the second show of the Eagles, to relieve the pressure on the people out there buying $500 seats,” he said. “That really was refreshing and exciting to kind of stab the scalper in the back.”
Bolton said ticket sales will not be an issue three months from now as people learn the system.
“That has to be a little trying from time to time, just understanding how big places work,” he said. “You have to be a little bit more on top of your game to get the good seat and understand buying on line and how that is different than when they went to a concert when they were 24 and everybody lined up at the box office and camped out overnight. That doesn’t happen anymore. The market had to grow with us.
“Believe me, I love sellouts. That’s the greatest thing since sliced pie,” he said. “The more sellouts we have the faster the better, that’s great, because if we put a show on sale and it doesn’t sell fast, then people begin to think, ‘Oh, is there something wrong with the market?’”