Executive Profile: John Bolton

The BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., has been open for only 18 months but in that time has become one of the busiest arenas in the country, if not the world.

Its success, in the middle of what is sometimes derisively referred to as “flyover country,” can’t be pegged solely to its magnificent design by world-reknowned architect César Pelli, though it has a role. Nor can it be solely attributed to its affiliation with facility management powerhouse SMG, though it also has a role.

The team assembled by GM John Bolton plays the biggest part in drawing more than 1 million customers through the turnstiles in one and one-half years, a period coinciding with one of the worst recessions on record. Yet no one is complaining in Tulsa – least of all the fans.

Bolton, who has spent virtually all of his 20-plus years in the industry working in secondary and tertiary markets, has learned what works and what doesn’t. When you don’t have location, location, location you build relationships, word of mouth and deliver a product that keeps fans coming back for more.

He certainly learned the building business from the ground up. During a three-year span as a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he was director of the school’s Horizons Fine Arts Series and advanced to president of University Programs. There, he managed a $1 million annual budget and 200 volunteers before he’d even had his first “real”job as a graduate.

That was in 1990, when Bolton became marketing director of Fastix in Birmingham. Computerized ticketing was still in its relative infancy, and he converted many venues from hard-ticket, charge-by-phone operations to computerized systems that were the predecessors of those we know today.

He spent two years as a marketing director for Ogden Entertainment Services at Roberts Stadium and Mesker Amphitheatre in Evansville, Ind., before becoming executive director for RiverPark Center and Owensboro Sportscenter in Kentucky.

That got him noticed by SMG, where he became GM of the Evansville office overseeing not only the Roberts and Mesker facilities, but several other halls, theatres and convention centers including collegiate buildings. And in September 2008, he was named GM to open the BOK Center.

In that time, the BOK Centre has been nominated for Pollstar Concert Industry Awards in Best New Major Concert Venue and Arena of the Year categories. Bolton himself was a nominee this year as Facility Executive of the Year.

Click here for the PDF version of the interview, which includes additional photos.


Given changes in the industry, ticketing is an especially good background to have had.

I know how complex it is to be on the ticket side of operations and appreciate what the ticketing system brings to the table. I also realize keeping up with technology is not inexpensive. People think about all those convenience fees, but there really are hard costs associated with providing that service people have come to expect, appreciate and hate at the same time.

And it’s hard for younger people that work for us to even fathom there was a time without computerized ticketing, but that’s how it was. In one of my first full-time jobs, I went to a lot of box offices because we were converting them to computerized ticketing for the first time. I walked in to one facility and they had all these pizza boxes. Each pizza box represented an event and had the tickets in them.

There was a huge walk-in vault and every day the box office staff would put the tickets in these big pizza boxes and put the boxes in the vault. It sounds like a nightmare now.


You’ve just had your millionth visitor after just 18 months. How do you do that in Tulsa, Okla.?

A lot of different factors have contributed to our success here.

First, we have an amazing facility, designed by one of the most notable architects in the world, César Pelli. When you start with an amazing design that blows everybody away when they see the physical structure and the fact that it is wrapped in stainless steel on the exterior, it’s a game changer.

There was a remarkable vision to create an iconic facility in Tulsa and it sets us apart from your average brick exterior, common arena. It is unique.

Many times you see amazing, beautiful facilities that don’t function well and become obsolete, or need millions of additional dollars spent to make them functional after the grand opening.

As the BOK Center was César Pelli’s first arena project, it was very important that everyone at SMG made sure the operations side, the back-of-house, was designed to function well for the customers who bring us business. Everybody on our team worked hard to make sure that part of the equation was not forgotten.

On the inside, it’s very comfortable for the person coming through the front door. The concourse is very wide, there’s natural lighting no matter where you are on any of the concourses and the SMG team took the best features of other facilities and incorporated them into this design.

High customer service using the SMG Knekt philosophy of focusing on the customer experience has been vital to our success. In addition, our food service options, through Savor, have provided quality food at reasonable prices. All of these factors have really created an environment where the customer enjoys the experience.

I think one of the keys to our success is we began aggressively promoting the facility more than 18 months before we opened. Our first onsale was 10 months before the first event. I give a lot of credit to Doug Clouse [at AEG Live/Concerts West] for putting us on the routing for Celine Dion.

BOK’s assistant GM, Jerry Goldman, and I traveled to Los Angeles and convinced Doug to make Celine happen in this new facility in this relatively unproven market. If you recall that tour, it went on sale very early.We were very conscious that we would have to get the seating charts right and be ready to go 10 months before we opened.

It really worked for us and we didn’t have any problems opening the facility. Luckily, a lot of the people who were involved in the design were also the ones who helped with our seating manifest. It was a high-ticketprice event but it made the point that Tulsa could be an amazing new stop for a lot of people. The show sold out quickly, nobody really balked at the ticket prices and it sent the message to agents and managers that something special was building in Tulsa.


It seems like a feat considering you opened just in time for a global recession.

We are geographically blessed because the economic downturn kind of began in the East and West Coast and worked its way toward us in the center of the country. A lot of the business in our area is oil- and gas-related so the economy was humming along in an amazing fashion.

And people love live music in this area. There was a yearning for something like the BOK Center to come into this market.

I work for SMG and, from a facility standpoint, I had an amazing opportunity to cherrypick some of the best talent in our company to come and be part of our team in Tulsa. There was a lot of interest in becoming part of an iconic project like this.

Tulsa to me doesn’t fit the stereotype of what people think about Oklahoma. It’s very green, so people are surprised when they come here to see that it’s not the tall grass prairie. The Arkansas River flows right through town.

There wasn’t a large interest in Tulsa in the beginning. I remember having to beg people to consider putting us on their itineraries and getting the Bob Rouxs of the world to get excited about Tulsa, which is in his region. It took time.

We targeted what we thought were 60-70 people in the industry who were going to determine our success and bugged the hell out of them. Every month, they got something about the BOK Center whether it was a gag gift, something about Tulsa or something about the building.

We were relentless in promoting the building and every success that we had, every time we had a sellout or every time we got on a tour. We were constantly trying to position ourselves as one of the best buildings in the nation. That was and is our goal.


It does feel like the BOK Center has been open longer than 18 months.

Our goal for the first show was that everyone who walked in the building should think this building’s been open for a year already.

The back-of-house was great, load-in was great, the show had a good experience and the promoter had a good experience. Our team was ready to settle the show.

None of this happened by accident. We had some dozen pre-opening events and we were blessed to have a pre-opening team of SMG employees led by senior regional VP Joe Romano that made a huge difference leading up to opening night.

We did the right job of marketing, getting the insider clubs and our databases built up. We were recruiting fans, going out to the neighborhood meetings and introducing them to the BOK Center. We were engaging people to be a part of it. It was a long process but it has really paid off for us.


How do you market the BOK Center with other competitive facilities in the region?

There were a lot of questions about whether two arenas in Oklahoma – the BOK Center in Tulsa and Ford Center in Oklahoma City – could be successful. We worked hard to develop our market area in a way that wouldn’t cannibalize the Oklahoma City market.

Both SMG-managed venues had to find their own markets, and we couldn’t rely on either market to make the other successful. We focused hard on northwest Arkansas and Missouri and the areas north, east and west of us and created a market of people who don’t need to go from Fayetteville to Little Rock. They can go from Fayetteville to Tulsa now.

Through all of our outreach we really treated the media from our outlying markets the same way we did our local media. Getting the word out early about what we were doing and the great events that were happening at the venue paid off.

People learned that it’s pretty convenient to come to Tulsa. They learned that parking isn’t an issue, the venue is amazing and is doing awesome things.

We’ve been able to capitalize on our regional market rather than just the citizens of Tulsa to support us. This is a 19,000-seat building. Early on we focused on that, and it was our goal all along to bring those outlying communities into our network.

The Intrust Bank Arena, which SMG also manages, in Wichita just opened. It’s not that far from us but because it has a different state behind its name it’s never been a factor in our market. That’s how we think about Oklahoma City and we’ve really tried to create two separate markets here.

What we’re seeing is the crossover of people coming from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and vice versa is only about 4 percent. The question for an artist isn’t which one do I play, but how do I play both? That’s what we’ve tried to create for both markets to be successful.

We also realized that we had to take advantage of the positive goodwill of the opening of the facility in creating some long-term annual events that would continue to set us apart as well as generate extra thousands of people visiting the venue annually.

So, just a few months after we opened, we created an outdoor 30-day Arvest Bank Winterfest that attracted some 35,000 people the first year. The second year of the festival, attendance grew to more than 100,000 people! To celebrate our first year anniversary, in addition to the concert by Paul McCartney, we also created a four-day Rock N Rib Festival that was an immediate hit.

We now have a special events department that looks for events to create as well as works on bids for sporting tournaments and major unique events. Everyone at SMG realizes the value these extra efforts have not only on the arena, but how they contribute and add to our clients’ efforts in creating a revitalized downtown.


Now that you’ve carved out your own market, what routing challenges do you face?

There are amazing choices in our region from Dallas to Kansas City, New Orleans to Little Rock, Wichita to Oklahoma City. Most agents and managers seem to focus on our immediate area of Tulsa, Wichita, and Oklahoma City. The truth is, an artist could do a tour with stops at all three and there’s no major impact.

The biggest challenge we face is not just about location. When it comes to the amphitheatre season, it seems like those tours are going to play those 28 or so amphitheatres. But there are 25 other plays within those surrounding areas that would easily make sense.

We’ve had the benefit of having some of those shed tours play us during the summer and we’ve always had great success.

The model is there. In the future, when those shed tours are put together, I think people should consider not only amphitheatre runs but also arena runs during that same period. It surprises me that people are not quite getting that a lot of great viable arenas are sitting there during the summer.

I know it’s an old argument but the reality is there’s a lot of money sitting there. And if you’re not right next to an amphitheatre like we are, the money’s still sitting there.

People will go to arenas like they do in Houston, Dallas and other cities that also have amphitheatres. It’s trying to convince an agent that when you put that offer in for your 30 amphitheatre dates, “Why don’t you play 20 arenas, too?” We’ve got to get to that point because the market is really there.


You still have 19,000 seats to fill. What do you do to bring people through the turnstiles?

We focus heavily on Facebook, Twitter, our insider club, and the people we are converting from buying one ticket a year to four or five tickets annually. We have an opt-in texting program. We’re constantly trying to find ways to communicate with our customers and keep them engaged and interested in what’s happening.

If you love country music, you may not be interested in AC/ DC but you’re interested in the facility. And that’s what we’re trying to get people to buy into. Someone may not be into to Hank Williams Jr. but they might want to go see a WNBA or arena football
or hockey game. Or the circus. Whatever we might be offering.

We’re always trying to increase the network of followers who are interested in us because people in tune with what’s happening in our venue are more apt to buy tickets.

We also happen to think that people have an amazing experience when they come to our venue and that’s really been key in keeping our honeymoon from ending after a couple of months.

The seats are a little bit wider than most, the concourse is wider and parking is not an issue. Those things are helping us keep customers coming back. They don’t say,“I went to that place once; it was terrible and I’m never coming back.” A lot of new venues fall into that trap. It becomes an awful experience so that you might want to see an act but don’t want to go through the headache of an hour-long traffic jam trying to park blocks away from the venue.

When you’re paying the ticket prices that most major concerts are charging, you want to have a good experience, not be sweating or freezing or being rained on. It’s different when you’re paying $20 to sit on a lawn and you know that whatever happens, happens.

We have a great network through the SMG Sports and Entertainment Division that is always on the lookout for more content for Tulsa. It is certainly a winning combination that will continue to provide great returns for everyone.


Do you find social networks span all demographics you’re trying to reach?

My mom was on Facebook before I was. That’s one of the things I don’t think people quite get. People know how to buy stuff online no matter what age they are.

At first it was youth-oriented but now it’s everybody. If you ever go out of town and you need a hotel room, rental car or a plane ticket, you almost have to do that.

You can’t just pull out the phone book. It doesn’t work anymore.

I look at my own parents and they are online all of the time. My dad probably shops online, buying fishing tackle and surfing for new boat ideas, more than anybody I know. Things have changed so dramatically.

Our venue has 38 suites, 20 loge boxes and 680 club seats, and it’s not the 19-year-olds that have those products. Those in their 40s, 50s and 60s have them and are now probably going to more concerts now than ever. A former mayor of Tulsa said she hadn’t been to this many concerts since she was 19 years old.


Sponsorships, VIP packages, suites and other ancillaries are important pieces of the pie after the artist gets his take. What do you do to maximize what’s left?

Every day, we’re trying to find new revenue sources, sponsors and ways to market and sell more product. I don’t think that will ever change. I wish we had more premium product to sell. I wish we had more loge boxes and club seats. Every product that was offered when we opened sold out almost instantly. So would that be the same today as it was four or five years ago when all those products went on sale? I don’t know.

The good news is that most of our contracts are very long term, averaging nine or 10 years for our suites. People are going to be plugged into what’s happening here for a very long time.

The key is to bring in people who are new to the facility and don’t fall into the exclusive sponsor category that was sold to the founding sponsors of the building. I don’t think that job is ever done.


How do you manage a full concert schedule and three sports teams in the house?

We have a Central Hockey League team, arena football and now a Women’s NBA team. The WNBA is new and they kick off their first season in mid-May. That’s 17 more events in our facility that will happen this year that didn’t happen when we first opened. We have easily 60 events between those three teams.

Normally venues work hand in hand marketing-wise with many concert and family show content providers. What I had noticed over the years is that many venues that aren’t managed by a team tend to not communicate or focus on ways of using the leverage the venue has with marketing the sports events in our facilities.

Our marketing team has retreats with the teams and constantly tries to incorporate ways we can help them and they can help us. Instead of an atmosphere of pitting the building versus the team, we treat them like we would another client for another show rather than just saying, “Oh,we are not involved.”

We actually place media for our hockey team. We’ve tried to let all of our staff be part of that team’s success. We realize that if we can influence 500 more people to attend every game for 30 games, that’s a lot of extra people coming to our venue every year helping the financial viability of the team and the venue.

We’ve tried to use the leverage the venue has. We spend so much money with media, our teams are really handcuffed sometimes on the amount of money they have for marketing. It’s not a perfect process but it’s something we realized early on that we have to take an active interest in. We’ve got to be a great partner. We’ve got to help each other.


Celine Dion had the 10-month advance onsale, but the Eagles did something unusual, too.

Eagles were the first to play the building. Celine Dion was the first show to be announced, the first show to go on sale, and the first show to sell out.

But the Eagles came on as our first concert in the venue and then came back three months later and played again. It sold out both times, so we were happy.

The first show was received so well and the demand was so high, all of us knew we could support a second – it was just a matter of who was going to be the first to suggest it.


The Eagles are also trying out dynamic ticket pricing. Is that appealing to you?

I learned a lot about dynamic pricing many years ago when I went on vacation in Prague and was amazed by the number of live events in that city.

People would go to see a live symphony as often as they’d see a movie. But the ticket prices were all over the place. You could really afford to go.

At some point the question becomes: “What is the customer really willing to pay?” Some customers are willing to pay $500 a ticket while others are only willing to pay $20.

I think dynamic pricing is getting the model close to people who are saying,“I’m a casual fan and I’ll pay $20 to see that act, but there’s no way I’m paying $79.” That’s why I like that model. I think it gives people ways to plug in and see shows they think they may or may not want to see.

When I’m going to New York City and seeing a Broadway show that I’ve heard is really awesome, I’m going to try to get the best seat that I can. But if I don’t know, I’m OK to try the half-price stand or try to find the cheapest seat.

It just makes sense that, when we have these large venues, rather than playing to 10,000 people, let’s play to 15,000. Price 5,000 tickets at $17 and bring in all these new fans.

It gets down to what people are willing to pay for the ticket and based on the number of fans in a market. When you go to a market like Tulsa, or Omaha, or Jacksonville or Peoria, there are just so many fans willing to pay $79 to see some acts.

But there may be another 30 percent of fans who are willing to pay half that if that opportunity was given to them.

I think dynamic pricing is such an important tool. Instead of discounting or having to resort to the 2-for-1 offer to sell your last 500 tickets, the market’s going to tell you what the demand is.

I get frustrated because I know a Saturday night is more valuable than a Tuesday night, but the concert ticket is almost always the same price.

On a Saturday, you’re going to have more demand because the fan has more time in their schedule to see a show and enjoy it. On a Tuesday, you usually have to live in that same market because you can’t go out and get a hotel room and be back to work the next morning.

I’m not a huge fan of discounting and reduced price packages because I think the product is just being devalued. There’s better ways of doing it that doesn’t irritate the entire market and make people that pay $30 really ticked off when they find out the same ticket is now $15.

You want that kind of Target store guarantee that if you bought that dishwasher today and it goes on sale tomorrow, you can go back and get the difference.


And discounting has the potential to hurt onsales, if fans wait to buy cheaper tickets.

I’ve always felt, as a building guy, that every time we have a show that sells out we promote the hell out of the fact that we sold out. That makes fans think,“Next time,I have to get my tickets in advance.”

Sometimes the marketing plan stops once a show sells out. But you’ve still got to put that sold-out banner across the marquee just so people will know to start thinking,“I cannot wait next time.” It’s really critical to train that market not to wait until the last minute.


Is there anything that just really annoys you about this business?

It is ironic that a lot of promoters want to have 30-day protection windows for country artists but that doesn’t apply to summer at the amphitheatres. But it’s the same promoter that’s doing the shows in the amphitheatres that are doing them in the arenas the rest of the year. How can the philosophy be totally different? It’s just an ironic little thing that amazes me sometimes.


And what makes you happiest?

A lot of us worked seven days a week to make this a reality. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding to see the end result of what you put together.

Tulsa was of interest to me because I’ve been a GM for a long time but never had the experience of opening a major new facility. The opportunity to come in and create your own team is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Normally we walk in to an existing arena and the staff is already there. You’re just the new leader.

It was a tremendous gift and opportunity to be able to do that and I wonder a lot if I’ll ever be able to replicate the fun and team building we’ve done here in Tulsa for SMG. It’s been an amazing ride.



Click here for Executive Profile Archive