Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Local venues adjust to survive COVID-19 era

Staffers are learning to be flexible with acts


Dean Jackson

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 5, 2022

Like the saying, “the show must go on,” event organizers at area venues are learning new ways to make that happen in the COVID-19 era.

And almost without exception, they have been going on, just as planned.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 era, one theme emerges: adapt and adjust.

Officials at Memorial Coliseum, Embassy Theatre, Wabash’s Honeywell Center, and Van Wert Live — the organization that runs the Niswonger Performing Arts Center — say audiences are back with shows and artists are ready to tour.

Almost to a person, each says directly or as indirectly: Be flexible.

While the situation is not ideal, they are doing OK, thank you very much.

The only sticking point has been keeping ahead of safety and implementing protocols as COVID-19 and its variants linger.

With a servant’s zeal, even with restrictions, it’s all about giving the customer and event planners what they want.

“In almost every case, promoters lead the way on what standards they expect,” said Nathan Dennison, Memorial Coliseum’s vice president of marketing. “The way we are handling COVID protocols is the promoter/organizer of the event can set the conditions for their own event/space. (They) obviously take the lead of the artist and what they want to do.”

Adhering to Artist Wishes

Each act is allowed to set its own guidelines, as long as they meet government health guidelines, which leaves a lot of wiggle room.

So far, it’s working. There have been a few cancellations and some postponements, but in almost every case, shows that postpone say they will be back.

Van Wert Live Executive Director Tafi Stober said it’s all in writing long before events arrive.

“We understand their safety requests prior to the contract being signed and (we) accommodate their specific needs,” Stober said. “This may include the crew wearing masks or undergoing a rapid (COVID) test the day of show. Of course, our standard protocols adhere strictly to hand and surface sanitizing and certified air filtration and ventilation systems in all areas of our facilities.”

Stober’s organization coordinates events at Niswonger Performing Arts Center, Fountain Park, and the Van Wert County Fair Grandstand.

At Embassy Theatre, Chief Marketing Officer Carly Myers points to just one event that has been cancelled: A large dance group simply could not operate technically under the early social distancing limits.

Van Wert Live had similar cancellation at Niswonger Performing Arts Center.

Memorial Coliseum lost one concert in the fall of 2020. Dennison says the promoter intended to wait and reschedule, but in the end, refunds were given rather than rescheduling.

One of the sticking points is assuring that acts’ protocols are followed. At Memorial Coliseum, when contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle kicked off her national tour, managers asked that all staff members working close to tour workers be tested regularly.

“That was a unique situation because it was the first date on their tour restart and it included two rehearsal days in the arena before the show day,” Dennison said. “So the crew, band, and artist spent significant time in our building and near our staff. They needed to be sure testing was taking place.”

It’s not that different with other acts and groups.

The main question that came up with the Daigle show is determining the logistics of how that daily testing requirement was going to be fulfilled and the all-important question of who was going to pay for the cost of the tests and the staff to administer them.

“Those things are ultimately a cost that show absorbs,” Dennison said.

Clearing Hurdles

Vaccines and masks remain a hot topic operationally and sometimes ideologically.

At the Embassy, promotors and tour managers have had varied responses, some concerned with the lack of a local mask mandate.

Myers says in general, the specific mandates are well-received. While a few guests express displeasure or admit they aren’t in a habit of wearing them, they don’t need much convincing.

On the other side of the debate, one country singer has been adamant, saying he won’t perform anywhere masks are required.

“It’s really about being flexible,” Myers said. “We’ve learned to focus on what is possible, on what we can do.”

For venues like Wabash’s Honeywell Center, they are finding national and international tours. However, keeping shows on schedule is a significant hurdle.

“It is challenging to realign our calendar with the artist calendar, as well as the calendars of many other venues to make the performance happen,” said Ann Harting, Honeywell marketing director. “We have been fortunate to make it work in most cases and have had very few cancellations, mostly just postponements. Concertgoers have been very supportive.”

Generally, most area venues are boasting 75%-80% of their pre-pandemic event bookings.

Sometimes that means smaller crowds. Van Wert Live’s Stober says her indoor auditorium is ranging from 35%-95% capacity.

“The audiences we’re encountering at our venues are happy to be back in a theater enjoying live performances again, in addition to being enthusiastic about the programming,” Harting said.

Artists are making it work, too, according to Harting.

“From our experience, artists want to keep their fans, their crew, and their band members safe. But the response we’re seeing from both the performers and the audience is that they’re all happy to be reunited again.

Working Together

No matter the venue or its size, they have all faced similar issues. They’ve been able to develop strategies for most, if not every, situation.

The Embassy’s Myers says it comes down to relationships. Having an established relationship builds trust and having a can-do attitude has made it work.

Dennison said, “We communicate regularly with venue managers from all over the country to find out what is happening in the concert industry in other places. We share ideas and learn from each other.”

Even so, each event is unique.

“The biggest takeaway from all this communication is that there isn’t a consistent method for dealing with restrictions and/or protocols,” he said. “It depends on the region, size of the market, the political make-up of the municipality, the ownership structure of the venue and then add the promoter and artist to the mix.”

Stober said there is a price to pay for added safety measures, which will likely be passed on to the consumer.

“Popular national touring artists’ fees are at an all-time high, thus driving ticket prices higher,” she said. “If the local markets can bare the increase in ticket prices, the presenters will survive.”

The greatest risk is being absorbed by the presenter buying goods in an industry of inflation. The hope is this market dynamic will settle by the end of 2022, when true market demand and ticket revenue will dictate market prices.

Stober said the industry is recovering.

“Shows are back and patrons are back, the industry is back, but it is different,” she said. “The adaptations will take industry partnerships, alliances, and business acumen to continue fulfilling the mission to provide the live performing arts.”

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