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Swanson eyes consistency for Alerus Center

Back in the mid-1980s, at the beginning of his career in events center management, Anchorage, Alaska, was not on the concert industry map, said Roger Swanson, the new executive director at Grand Forks' Alerus Center.

Roger Swanson
Former Alerus Center Manager Roger Swanson (Herald file photo by John Stennes).

Back in the mid-1980s, at the beginning of his career in events center management, Anchorage, Alaska, was not on the concert industry map, said Roger Swanson, the new executive director at Grand Forks' Alerus Center.

"Alaska was a no-man's land and a musical Siberia," he said. "It was hard to get artists to come there. 'What? I gotta play there? Is that where my career is going?' "

By the end of the '80s, he said, the William Egan Civic and Convention Center was regularly getting big names. He remembers, at one point when he'd become general manager of the building, hanging out at the bars with ZZ Top three nights in a row and taking band members fishing. Grand Forks isn't quite the Siberia of music -- Black-Eyed Peas, Neil Diamond, Aerosmith and Kiss have all played here -- but getting concerts like those have been a challenge for the city-owned Alerus Center the past several years.

Swanson's goal is to reverse that trend.

The consequence of a continued dearth of concerts, Alerus Center officials have long feared, is loss of advertisers and suite holders, revenue that the building would definitely miss, even though its convention business has been growing rapidly.

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It ended last year in the red by $225,000 in unaudited financial results and, in the first quarter of this year, it has lost $90,000. The budget says it should be in the red by only $40,000 at this point.

The first quarter results came out Wednesday, the same day Swanson was formally introduced to his new bosses, the Alerus Center Commission. His last job was director of development and marketing at VenuWorks, which has the contract to run the Alerus Center.

Start small

So what are the relevant lessons from Anchorage?

In Grand Forks as in Anchorage, Swanson said, the strategy must be to rebuild the habit of going to concerts in town and not some other city.

He's advocating a tactic Alerus Center staff has been mulling, which is to start small, with lots of smaller shows, and rebuild to big time artists.

The nice thing about smaller shows is mistakes are easier to recover from, he said, and, if there's one thing he's confident about after 25 years in the industry, mistakes will happen. Even large, world-class promoters will stumble, he said.

One example: AEG Live was the promoter for Britney Spears' first and second North American tour. The first tour sold out every venue; the second one, not so much. The Alerus Center, which had somewhat disappointing sales, sold more tickets than venues in much larger cities, such as Des Moines, Iowa; Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta and the Detroit area, among others.

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Another tactic that reduces risks is to spread them among many partners, Swanson said. In Alaska, he used to call up night clubs, bars and radio stations seeking sponsorship. Radio stations would get free tickets, and bars and clubs would run buses to the Egan Center.

The attached Canad Inns, already a partner on the convention side, has bars and restaurants. Swanson said he thinks it could be a partner with concerts, as well.

Geography

One lesson that Anchorage can't teach is dealing with geography.

Anchorage, with a metropolitan population of 375,000, is the largest city in Alaska and home to more than half the state's population. Grand Forks is North Dakota's third-largest city and it's not a very long drive from larger markets such as Fargo-Moorhead and Winnipeg.

Swanson acknowledged the challenge, but he said building strong relationships in the industry can really help; he used to cultivate the agents in Nashville when he'd visit with a suitcase full of smoked Alaskan salmon.

Concert promoters are willing to come to smaller markets as long as they feel they can make a profit and are protected in case they aren't, he said.

That sounds a lot like the $750,000 to $850,000 guarantee the Alerus Center offered to Spears' promoters to bring the star here last year. That's how much in ticket sales she was guaranteed to make with any difference made up by the city.

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Swanson doesn't deny that deals like that might one day need to be made -- new city policy, though, would require the City Council to approve such a guarantee -- but he doesn't plan on doing many like it.

His goal, he said, is consistency. It's better, he said, to have many smaller concerts throughout the year than to have one big show.

When the Alerus Center succeeds with the little concerts, Swanson expects the big ones will follow. He seemed to be able to see it in his mind's eyes as he talked about how much he enjoys seeing and feeling the excitement of a big crowd on the night of a concert.

"I want to get back to the times when everybody's slapping one another on the back," he said. "'Wasn't that a great event?'"

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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