If you’re booking venues for bands, you already know how vital relationship-building is in the touring industry.
In this article, we’ll delve into some tips for ensuring a smooth process when working with a mid-size theatre or concert hall.
Heather Wilton has been Director of Programming, Booking, and Marketing at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts for the last five years. She’s been with the organization for an impressive total of 23 years, spending six years in marketing, then 12 years in programming before moving to her current Director role.
Portland’5 is the fifth largest performance center in the United States. The organization runs five venues in three buildings in downtown Portland, ranging in size from the 200-seat Brunish Theatre to the 2,992-seat Keller Auditorium.
Portland’5 venues host everything from Broadway touring shows to comedy to ballet to concert tours.
Heather works with tour agents, managers, and promoters to get Portland’5 venues booked and ready for showtime. We recently asked Heather to share her top tips on working harmoniously with venue bookers.
Solid relationships with bookers are valuable throughout the tour planning process. From venue selection to marketing, to advancing a show and day-of troubleshooting, Heather has best practices for every phase.
When picking the right venues for your tour, there’s tension between choosing too-small spaces that’ll leave ticket sales on the table, and too-big houses with tons of empty seats. There are also factors like the surrounding geography, transportation and parking at the venue, and the cultural nuances of each venue’s extended community.
The typical tour planning timeline means you might not get to be familiar with the material your artist will be touring with during the venue selection phase. Particularly with newer artists, it takes experience and creativity to know which venues in which markets will be the perfect fit.
Fortunately, venue bookers can be your partners in this tricky process. While they won’t be as familiar with your artist as you are, they are experts in their venue, neighborhood, and local market.
Approaching your venue bookers in this way will set the tone for your relationships to be collaborative and partnership-based from the beginning. It will also increase the chances that each stop on the tour will be well-suited to your artist.
For example, Heather will sometimes book a band at a smaller Portland’5 venue if she thinks it’ll be a better fit than the one they’re reaching out about.
“We have a 2,776-seat concert hall, and a 922-seat theatre that are both great fits for lots of groups. The money is obviously lower in the smaller spaces, but if the artist fee is in the right range it can work well in those spaces.”
Ultimately, everyone benefits from landing the right act in the right room, so trust your bookers’ expertise as people who have seen countless acts come through their spaces.
Go beyond researching where bands similar to yours are playing. There are many examples of venues seeking bands that will help expand their audience reach, which means it’s okay if your band doesn’t fit in perfectly with their past events calendar.
When booking a band at a Portland’5 venue, Heather shares,
"I’ll definitely consider a show that has a lower sales history if they’ll bring in an audience that doesn’t usually come to our theatres.”
So if a venue hosts mostly rock bands, and your band is pretty firmly in the folk realm, reach out anyway. Especially if you think the band’s previous sales history isn’t reflective of their potential draw in that market. Even when a venue promotes itself as within a certain genre, they might still be looking to expand into others to diversify their audiences.
There’s a lot to say about how to successfully market a tour, and the marketing landscape is always shifting. One constant, however, is that it always pays to be a good marketing partner.
“If I’m considering a show that I’m not confident in selling, seeing great marketing materials can make the difference between my offering and not. Those are what sell tickets!”
Venues will vary regarding the size, budget, and approach of their marketing teams. The type of support you can expect from each will differ. But providing well-designed marketing materials that come already optimized for various platforms (everything from texting to TikTok to newspapers) will always be welcome.
For Portland’5 Centers for the Arts,
“Most of our marketing spend these days is on social and emails, though we do some radio and TV for the larger shows. Having great marketing materials is super helpful! And video tends to do better for us than photos in social ads.”
Check out our interview with experiential marketing innovators HELO for some outside-the-box marketing inspiration.
You’re probably not in this role if negotiations terrify you. Maybe you’re even one of those people who love to negotiate.
That said, it’s worth taking a “never stop learning” attitude. Even if you consider yourself great at it, you’ll only get better by opening up alternative perspectives, including from those outside the industry. Take a class, or read a book.
Make a point of seeking out negotiation techniques you don’t agree with and learn about them. You’ll either expand your own thinking or educate yourself on where someone you negotiate with in future may be coming from.
Closely related to your negotiation skills are your consultative skills. As a tour agent or manager, you’re tasked with handling frequent sensitive conversations.
Say ticket sales end up being much lower for a given show than expected. Or maybe a venue is uncomfortable with an artists’ behavior toward their staff at load-in. You’ll need to be able to have these conversations in a way that leaves everyone feeling heard, and the door open for future collaboration.
When we asked Heather about what makes a great agent or manager, she said,
“I think open communication is the key.”
Nurturing your communication skills should be an ongoing practice.
Most venue bookers are deeply familiar with the realities of touring. They know you’re juggling holds at multiple venues simultaneously. They know you’re advancing complex shows from a chaotic airport or tour bus. As a result, they tend to be very understanding when things go a little sideways.
Heather, for example, builds some flexibility into the timeline of advancing shows at a Portland’5 venue show to accommodate for delays.
“I try to get the rider before confirming just to make sure there are no red flags between tech needs and the room. It’s nice to have the contract prior to putting tickets on-sale but that doesn’t always happen which is understandable. The TM might send an updated rider closer to the show date, which is great.”
If you’re feeling caught up in the urgencies of touring, try to remember that everyone, including your venue, is on your side. They’ve seen it all, and troubleshooting day-of disasters is routine.
“There are always unexpected things that come up, but they are almost always manageable,” says Heather. “We do try to get everything covered during the advance but we understand that we’re working with PMs or TMs who have a whole bunch of shows that they’re advancing simultaneously, so it’s understandable if some things get missed.”
Chances are, if you’re in the role of booking venues for bands, you’re already a detail-oriented, organized pro. Remembering that your venues understand where you’re coming from will help you keep a cool head even when challenges arise.
“There are a lot of genuinely great agents and promoters out there,” says Heather. “Working with them is one of the favorite parts of my job.”
Heather told us that before she books a band at a Portland’5 venue, she’ll talk to other venues they’ve played at as part of her due diligence. Taking care to leave positive impressions will have an exponential impact.
Prioritizing venue relationships means building your band and agency’s reputation with the venues you directly interact with. You’ll also be reputation-building more broadly.
If you’re working with new or emerging bands, great relationships can be the deciding factor between two similar bands that are looking for the same slot.
Many thanks to Heather of Portland’5 for sharing her wisdom with us. Be sure to check out Portland’5 Centers for the Arts when planning your next tour.
For more great tips on tour planning and producing meaningful, popular events, check out our post based on our interview with Kevin Lyman, founder of Vans Warped Tour.
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