Executive Profile: Patti-Anne Tarlton

Download the interview with Patti-Anne Tarlton HERE

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s Patti-Anne Tarlton has a well-known relative in the entertainment industry. Her second cousin is Michael Ontkean, the Canadian actor best known for portraying Sheriff Harry Truman in David Lynch’s TV series“Twin Peaks” and his role as a disillusioned hockey player in the Paul Newman movie “Slap Shot.”

But more significantly for the concert industry, she has another famous relative, too – legendary Canadian promoter Donald K. Tarlton is her uncle. At least, when Donald isn’t boasting that she’s his daughter.

 “Donald Tarlton is my dad’s brother; my uncle. If you ask him, he may call me his daughter. That’s why there’s confusion. He’s not the one to let facts get in the way of a good story,” she explained, laughing, to Pollstar.

 With her lineage, it’s not surprising Patti-Anne at least indirectly followed in her uncle’s footsteps. But as vice president of live entertainment for MLSE, she’s taken a somewhat divergent path from Donald’s and into facility management.

She makes her home base at the Air Canada Centre but also works with Ricoh Coliseum and BMO Field, a new 20,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium, on non-sports events. All are located in or near downtown Toronto.

While she did spend several years in concert promotion, she gravitated to the accounting side of the business. After working for Donald for several years, Patti-Anne moved from Montreal to Toronto and a job at what was then MCA Concerts and eventually House of Blues Canada.

 “I kind of steered me away from the talent side and into the accounting, or settlement, side in Montreal,” she said. “But that background in promoting really helped me, certainly at Air Canada Centre, which is such a high traffic venue. 

 “So I have a lot of that background, history and those relationships.  I just switched sides of the table.”

 Her parents moved from Montreal to Vancouver, British Columbia, when Patti-Anne was a young child. But frequent family visits and encouragement from Donald drew her into the family business. Naturally, it also meant going to a lot of concerts.
 “I don’t remember my first concert, because I was too young, but the first concert I do remember was April Wine. I think Heart opened for them,” she said. 

The married mother of two daughters still sees plenty of concerts, with Nine Inch Nails and Coldplay on her schedule in one recent week.

She’s also got New Kids On The Block bringing their reunion tour to the ACC in September, which jogged a memory of their two sold-out Olympic Stadium concerts in Montreal in 1999. 

“After a show, a electric utility service truck came to the stadium and was just kind of welcomed in. It looked legit, the show was over, we figured they’re going to be pulling out lines,” Tarlton explained.  

“Sure enough, within half an hour the guys in the truck figured out where the merch bunker was, had our guy at gunpoint, and made off with all the merch money.  

 “The truck was found at the airport, abandoned, and the they probably left on a private jet or something.”

Fortunately, Patti-Anne hasn’t seen that kind of drama since coming on board at the Air Canada Centre, but she has seen her share over the years. She recently sat down with Pollstar to talk family, business and share concert memories.

Donald Tarlton casts quite a long shadow. That can be a good or bad thing, especially when you’re trying to forge your own identity.

Donald is in Montreal and remains a mentor in life. I was born in Montreal and grew up in Vancouver, where my parents moved when I was a child. Donald would always visit when he was in Vancouver on business.

When in high school, I worked for him at Perryscope Concerts in Vancouver. Riley O’Connor, now the head of Live Nation Canada hired me as a receptionist answering phones in the summers.

Donald would always be urging me, “Come work for me, come be in the business.” I lived in Vancouver and it’s a wonderful place to live. Did I want to take the plunge and move back east?

I decided to go back east after high school. I went first to Quebec City to learn a little more French, then to McGill University and worked for Donald. I stayed in Montreal and worked for him for almost 10 years. 

Sure, I had to work harder to prove myself. That also helped steer me away from the talent side and into show settlements and tour accounting. I moved to Toronto 12 or 13 years ago and worked for House of Blues Concerts before joining Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 1999.

The relationships I was able to build and my background in concert promotions have definitely helped me in my current capacity at Air Canada Centre, which is a very high-traffic venue. I’m servicing events – promoters, attractions, managers, agents – now versus promoting them yet that past experience I believe is an asset.

Toronto is not just a major city, but a concert industry hub with the presence of people like Michael Cohl and Arthur Fogel. Does it ever feel like a fishbowl?

The list of industry icons that have lived in Toronto is long.

Michael Rapino, Michael Cohl, Arthur Fogel, Riley O’Connor, Gerry Barad, Mark Norman and Steve Howard on the Live Nation team, for example, spend time in my backyard. 

That’s helpful to me as it relates to regular exposure, yet I don’t always know that they’re coming to a game at Air Canada Centre. This is their hometown, these are their sports teams, this is their home arena and they just walk in the front door.

From a touring perspective, a tour doesn’t regularly start or stop in our market since it’s central. Toronto is, however, a focal point in the entertainment industry for Canada and it’s been consistently in the Top 5 of North American markets.

If someone’s going to choose to cover a date on a 40-city tour, they often choose Toronto. With that comes the ability to see countless top industry pros more often than most arenas. For example, Randy Phillips came up to celebrate the record breaking five sold-out Bon Jovi performances at ACC this spring.

In the last year or so, it appears Canada is doing somewhat better business than the U.S.

I would say that it has been for a couple of years. I believe that success breeds further success, too.
Our currency exchange has certainly helped. In recent memory we’ve contended with currency exchange rates around $1.60 and today we are working around par. Events have the ability to make more money in Canada as tickets are selling with improved margins.

The bottom line is ticket price. Even though currency exchange has improved, our federal tax on tickets has decreased twice.  Ticket prices haven’t gone down, therefore there is more money for the artists and promoters to walkout with.
We in Toronto also have a market in which fans love to see live music and sports.  The National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs are sold out to season ticket holders, Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC sold out BMO Field in its inaugural season, and the National Basketball Association’s Raptors really turned it on again with GM Bryan Colangelo.

Season tickets for the Raptors rank sixth in the league and the National Lacrosse League’s Toronto Rock is consistently in the top of that league.  These stats as well as the local theatre scene and thriving concert business are all very significant. 

What facilities do you work with?

We manage Air Canada Centre, Ricoh Coliseum and BMO Field.  Air Canada Centre, in a 360-degree configuration can host 18,000 fans, Ricoh  plays to 7,000, BMO Field seats 28,000 in the concert configuration. 

Also downtown is Rogers Centre, owned by Rogers, and the Molson Amphitheatre, owned by Live Nation.  All of these facilities are practically within walking distance.

Tell us about the Maple Leaf Square project coming in adjacent to the venues.

It’s a multi-use complex with condos, a boutique hotel, sports bar, team store, retail space and multiple restaurants including fine dining. It’s going to be a fabulous destination across the street from Air Canada Centre.

Construction is underway and the logistics of it are hugely challenging because we are right downtown. The process is going to take another year and a half or so.

So far, everyone’s been pretty patient with us, and I am thankful for that.

What we’ve attempted to do is make the industry at large aware that what they witnessed last month may not be the same next month.  We keep in touch with the touring crews on what the expectations are day-to-day with each individual event.
That said, it is not easy to stay a step ahead of this massive construction project. We’ll have a meeting for example the night before a show and say, “OK, we’re loading in a 6 a.m.,” and, sure enough, something is happening the next morning that we didn’t discuss at midnight the night before.  

The project leads have been remarkably compliant with us, reacting quickly to our demands. “Hey, we’ve got a show loading in, you have to stop now. You need to be gone! We have 24 trucks that need to get in, NOW!”

So when you talk about the size of a stage production, the guidepost is the number of trucks, not what it looks like from the house?

From our perspective, the number of trucks leads you to believe it’s going to take longer to build it the production.  As an audience member, you wouldn’t be able to judge how many trucks you’ve got packed into the venue by looking at what is hanging from the ceiling.

 One of the highlights in my MLSE career was watching the Genesis production being built at BMO Field last September. Its size, with 72 trucks worth of gear (57 of show production and 15 of local gear and ground cover), was unprecedented in our books. The stage production towered over the scoreboard at the soccer stadium.

The same time that we were building the Genesis stadium production at BMO Field, we were also building their arena production at Air Canada Centre to rehearse their North American tour.

Genesis toured Europe in stadiums and only used the stadium production in a few cities in North America. The stadium staging just knocked our socks off – it was as wide as the Air Canada Centre is long.  Even more amazing is the brilliance that goes into the load-in and load-out.

We were certainly put to the test because it was BMO Field’s inaugural concert on its synthetic surface, rather than on typical weight-bearing ground, and staged the weekend after the Central National Exhibition. 

Not only were we contending with statutory Labor Day holiday and extraordinary weight on non-weight bearing surfaces, but also the logistics of the simultaneous load-out of the national exhibition and the load-in of Genesis at BMO Field as well as the rehearsals at Air Canada Centre.  

This effort was not for the faint of heart.  If it was not for the tenacity of Steve Howard of CPI and the will of Jim Steele, our director of event operations and production, the show would not have happened at BMO Field. 

We were re-engineering the stadium build to support the production as details of the production solidified and the show re-engineered the production to fit the Field, and alas the rain held off on the concert night!

The Air Canada Centre was built out almost 10 years ago on a historical site, but we understand more changes are coming. 

Air Canada Centre was built on the site of the original Canada Post Building that for some 100 years was their main mail distribution centre.  The north and east façades remain on this heritage site and the building was built to its current state in 1999.

We are going to be 10 years old in February and will go dark next summer for some significant capital projects. At that point, by my calculations, we’ll have done more than $70 million of improvements, including an expansion to the west side of the building.

A benefit of being in the heart of downtown is that we’re right on the subway and commuter train lines, yet we have a pretty tight footprint. This doesn’t allow us to expand too much, and it certainly hasn’t given us a pile of room in the back of house.
The purpose of the west expansion is to build an atrium that is brighter and more expansive and that will attach the Air Canada Centre to the Maple Leaf Square complex.

We really look forward to enhancing our amenities. With the building being 10 years old and with as much traffic as we enjoy, we want to keep the facility looking fresh and current.

What is a typical week for you, if there is such a thing?

Is there a typical week? Not really.

When the teams are in season, we’re often open five out of seven nights a week for public events at Air Canada Centre, and we fill in the gaps with private events and so on.   I expect to cover at least three or four events and my fair share of meetings.

The market is large enough and the interest is deep enough that you could see two sold-out events at two major concert venues in addition to a major league game or two and have multiple choices in theatre productions on the same night in downtown Toronto.

Have you seen a lot of changes in facility management, given the increased emphasis on sponsorships, VIP packages, suites and other ancillaries?

Those areas are more challenging every day. The business continues to grow and to fund things like the expansion of the arena every area needs to be maximized. We want to see benefits to all sides of the business, and the sports and entertainment audiences.

A large part of what allows us to do what we do is the revenue we make on the sports side and through corporate sponsorships, food and beverage, etc. 

We have  commitments to these clients, who also have expectations. With our premium seats, for example, there are expectations and contractual obligations that give them first right of refusal to purchase their specific seat location to any announced public event that comes through the building.  

We want to maximize the advertising and promotional campaigns of the event at large, while balancing the demands of the our premium facility fan base. 

We have witnessed a swell of multiple events in the last couple of years that I am thankful for because they could have chosen a bigger venue. Our premium customers have worked through these advancements as well.

When one event rolls into multiple nights, we don’t have the logistic ability to offer presales to these clients and we’ve successfully worked through that dynamic with the premium seats holders to the satisfaction of these fans and of the concert industry for the most part. 

I think we’ve found that balance at ACC and that’s why we’re able to enjoy so much traffic. The shows walk away after selling tickets and making money and want to come back, and we can reinvest in the venue.

Food and beverage service must be a serious consideration in a world class city like Toronto.

Yes, and all of our food and beverage operations, our restaurants and concessions, are managed in-house. It speaks to the expectations of both sports and entertainment fans.

We have invested in three different restaurants in ACC and renovated one of them already. At the time we renovated the Air Canada Club, which overlooks the arena, the building was only seven years old.

We’ve almost completed the renovation of a second fine dining restaurant onsite, the Platinum Club, and that’s to keep it competitive with what’s available in downtown Toronto.  A fan could choose to dine somewhere else and arrive just in time for the show. With the added amenities for the fan we can say “come early and don’t miss a note.”

We find we are pushed to the high end because the fans in Toronto are expecting that. It’s been and asset for the high-end concert business, too.

It has enhanced the fan experience for concerts such as Barbra Streisand , Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli to name just a few.

What are the challenges to doing high-end concerts in a hockey arena?

We’ve done a fair number of high-end concerts, the toughest ones of course are the quiet ones. It’s pretty challenging to think you can create classical concert hall acoustics in a full-sized arena, but the economics of the talent guarantees and fan interest bring on the demand. 

We make the best of the room we are working with. Air handling, concession and restaurant noises are our biggest challenges yet we make special efforts to have our staff pay keen attention to the individual audiences.

Like many other arenas, we have a theatre set-up as well. Ironically, for us, we haven’t used it very much in the past few years as tickets are selling through to full capacity. We maximize the look of the full-size arena with curtaining as do the majority of modern facilities.

Growing up in the industry, you’ve seen a lot of shows. What was your most memorable?

One that stands out would be Guns ‘N Roses at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, when Axl Rose said from the stage, “We’re fuckin’ outta here,” and the crowd began to riot in and outside of the venue.

That incident, of course, was caught in my memory when House of Blues proposed a GNR date for Air Canada Centre.  We were on the leg of the tour that was to open at GM Place in Vancouver and the fans rioted at the when Axl never showed up.
As you may expect, I was biting my nails as I had witnessed firsthand a riot with GNR fans and was feeling a little bit different now that I worked for the venue itself.

Gluttons for punishment, we’ve since done another GNR date at Air Canada Centre with Live Nation and Axl arrived at the venue at 11:40pm.

After years of working with one another you put trust people that are handling the event and you’re in it together. There’s risk in anything.  You calculate the risk, take steps to mitigate it and move forward because you know you’re working with industry professionals.

 Also seeing the industry unite around music is extraordinary.  For example, the swell of emotion that filled the room at the Music Without Borders concert in the aftermath of 9/11 was unprecedented at Air Canada Centre.

Working near the U.S./Canadian border, do visa problems pose a concern getting some artists to their gigs?

It does go without saying that if somebody’s got a record, it’s going to be hard to get them in. We have always had that issue. It really does come down to relationships between those that are applying for and those that are receiving the application.

The local promoters all have personal relationships where they can call the border and say, “So-and-so is coming through; please keep a lookout for them.”

Speaking with Ken Brault from Live Nation the other day he said he was working on The Warped Tour immigration for some 900 people. You try to get all the facts on one spreadsheet, but there’s 23 pages. You know just looking at that sheet that at least 100 people wouldn’t be getting across the border.

Having worked on both the talent and venue sides, what advice would you give people on the other side of the table?

Look at everything as a partnership. It’s not us versus them; we’re in it together. 

 I do have the benefit of being able to judge expectations pretty successfully as I know what the expectations were when I was on the other side of the fence. I’m not looking to take more than my share of the pie because we both need each other to stay in business. Respect that.

 What I work towards in promoter/venue relationships is for the venue to focus on the care of the front of house and the promoter to take care of the needs of the talent in the back of the house. And each side helps the other enhance their service levels. 

I will surely facilitate last-minute hospitality needs and the promoter is there with answers for the venue to use in defense of show-related fan concerns. 

This partnership approach, I believe, has helped us manage through and recover from the inevitable hiccups that come with even the most meticulously planned live events.

With two young girls at home, how do you integrate work and family life?

I wouldn’t say I think of business first or family first. I try to have my cake and eat it, too.

 I do separate family and business. The girls are still young enough that they’re not asking to come to “Hannah Montana” or anything like that on show nights. 

My husband’s not that interested in coming to business functions or events and I am okay with that. He’d prefer to stay at home and take care of the kids than to get a babysitter and come rub elbows downtown, for example. 

I do love getting away when I can. We found a cottage a couple of years ago and that’s our retreat. Granted, I’ve got Internet so I am still connected, but at least it allows me to step away from the office. That’s been a real benefit for us.

Having literally grown up in the business, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

The challenge of trying to bring the entertainment level up in a very successful and sports ambitious organization has been my contest for most of the last decade.

We’ve seen some great results in the last several years and I look forward to the Air Canada Centre’s revitalization efforts and added interest in Maple Leaf Square.

I’m enjoying myself today.  10 years from now I hope to still play a part of milestone events, memorable fan experiences record setting performances.