Executive Profile:
Kelly Milukas

For some, the term “performing arts center” conjures pleasant memories of plush velvet seats, elderly audiences in their Sunday best, Broadway, symphony and dance performances.

Around the office of Professional Facilities Management, which is based out of Providence, R.I., the antiquated phrase is strictly verboten.


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PFM VP of Concerts Kelly Milukas has spent years endeavoring to change the industry’s perception of “seated venues,” as she likes to call them.
Milukas joined PFM in 1999, back when its portfolio included just five buildings – Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC); Florida’s Coral Springs Center for The Arts and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Meyers; North Shore Center for The Performing Arts in Skokie, Ill.; and Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, Colo.
Fast forward to present day and PFM has management and booking contracts with 11 facilities. Additions include Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence; Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn.; Lyric Opera House in Baltimore; The Hanover Theatre For The Performing Arts in Worchester, Mass.; Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) in North Carolina; and Yavapai College Performance Hall in Prescott, Ariz.
PFM is a for-profit subsidiary of PPAC and its mission is “to bring a wide variety of programming to the broadest audience while maintaining financial responsibility and sensitivity to local constituency needs.”
To that end, PFM’s venues do showcase Broadway, symphony and dance, but there’s also a whole lot of rock, family and comedy shows moving through these rooms. The strategy has paid off. 
DPAC recently ranked No. 6 in Pollstar’s 2012 3Q YTD Worldwide Ticket Sales for Top 100 Theatre Venues chart, PPAC came in 18th and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall No. 33. 
Milukas chalks up PFM’s success to a “great, talented team” that shares her vision that seated venues needn’t just be for the arts.
You sat on a panel called “Full Service Performing Arts Centers” during this year’s Pollstar Live and you announced at the onset you were renaming the session “Full Service Venues.” 
I think I ripped up the piece of paper, didn’t I? (Laughs) We don’t get a gigantic audience in the PAC panel. I’ve got to do what I can to draw some attention. 
It’s coming slowly. About five years ago, major agencies started to lean in and look harder at – and I hate to use the word performing arts centers, because I don’t like it – seated venues as another way to take an artist up through sizes of venues and back down through sizes of venues. If agents are predominantly dealing with promoters and flat floor spaces and arenas and amphitheaters, they don’t really know the composition and philosophy of our seated venues. 
The perception is they’re stiff arts halls – that they won’t take a date six weeks before a show, they have to have it on their season brochure, they won’t let people stand up and drink beer or take vodka drinks to their seats. So it’s a long demystification process. 
Yes, we have fixed seats but we can still have Morrissey and Bon Iver! Two nights ago Mumford & Sons played at PPAC. Obviously, no one sat in their seats the entire time, but nobody jumped up and down and broke the beautiful red plush seats. 
It’s about informing the agents, and especially the managers, because they’re picking the play space based on perceptions. We’re proving the band can still have a really amazing experience even if there are seats bolted to the floor. 
So how did you get started in the seated venue business?
I come from an auto working region – definitely a Midwestern, Michigan life, with a great family, fishing, hunting, and heavy sports play, but I always had an artistic side of me; music was a big part of our family life. I was in theatre, I drew and played a few instruments, including guitar. 
I had to put myself through college, though. The creative side got put on hold for a full-ride basketball scholarship in Oklahoma, but it didn’t suit me and Oklahoma really didn’t suit me. So one night I got a map of the United States, closed my eyes and said, “Wherever my finger lands, I’m moving.” My finger landed on Maine. I applied to go to college there and moved. 
Portland, Maine, is a really creative town. It was there that I headed in the direction of the arts and ended up getting my degree in sculpture. But in doing so, I lost a full-ride basketball scholarship and had to put myself through college another way. 
I did that through the hospitality industry, and then found my way to Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, which was the only live-music game in town except for the symphony hall and the underused arena. It was a national touring nightclub in the ’80s, and we had music three to four nights a week. I worked my way up from being a drink-slinging staffer to heading the bar, to helping run the joint. 
Soon after, I got approached to get on board to open up the State Theater. It was a historic vaudeville movie palace that had been shuttered for about 20 years and had fallen to great decay. 
We gutted the main floor to make a tiered flat floor space, a la the now Fillmore, Miami, etc.  We could do standing rock or put down seats and tables for MOR music, or classic arts. So we made it this somewhat seated, multi-use venue that was pretty cutting-edge for the early ’90s. 
The GM that hired the opening team was let go and I was asked to take over in every way – running it, and taking all the risk. I ended up kind of having to mortgage my life, my house and my relationship to keep this building open and bridge a gap financially. I founded a 501c3 nonprofit and developed a board of key people in the community. So I burned a lot of money in a paper bag and we got the building to work. 
It was going great, but we didn’t own the real estate. Unexpected major structural damage impacted the venue, the building had to close and there was nothing the “new” nonprofit could do about it. So I kind of lost everything. But I look at it as a learning tool. I learned a lot about how to start a theater business, how to run one and what not to do.
PFM has certainly branched out from its beginnings in the Northeast. How many territories is the company in now?
We’re in five territories, and tied into conversations with routes starting in the West, East and South. If you’re just in one building or one territory, you’re not tied into that whole conversation. 
It makes great sense, from an info and awareness standpoint, equivalent to what an AEG or Live Nation has because we’re all over the country. 
We’re working with all of the big agencies, but there’s only two of us on the concert buying end of it – myself and a great partner, Amanda Bonafine. We’re promoters of concerts, not just venue renters. Many of the buildings are profit-driven concert halls and Broadway houses. 
What do you think your buildings have to offer that other venues might not be able to match?
We are staffed to reach deeper into our communities. Oftentimes we have better marketing relationships, and we definitely have better relations and interactions with our fans. If your angle is to do current, one-nighter concerts and comedy, if you’re trying to get all generations into your building, if you’re trying to do development act, cutting-edge rock and if you’ve got the community to support it, then you have to have the marketing, branding and PR to support that as well. 
In our venues, we do. Durham would be the perfect example. That building has gone from a parking lot in 2007 to the No. 5 seated venue in the world by Pollstar stats for 2011. We didn’t do that by doing just Broadway and MOR concerts. 
What do you think were some factors that contributed to DPAC’s success?
We were very actively involved in every aspect of the construction of that building, and able to influence a build that is intimate, even at 2,700 capacity. Then, it’s the customer experience. People often and actively respond to our customer experience surveys with what they like and don’t like, and it just keeps bringing people back for a higher percentage of returns annually because they just love the experience no matter what it is.
What’s the breakdown of shows you book into the venue?
PFM produces and promotes more than 1,200-plus shows annually. DPAC averages 175 to 200 performances per year and 70 of those are concerts, comedy and special events. We went from DPAC not existing to more than 11,000 subscribers in five years for Broadway, an unheard-of number that quickly. 
Duke University heavily supported the build of DPAC to host their American Dance Festival, one of the top dance festivals in the country. It anchors the summer when a lot of outdoor music is happening at the amphitheatres. 
Do any of PFM’s buildings have exclusive promoter relationships?
For Broadway yes, they are exclusive. You have to do that, because Broadway’s sort of the last bastion of subscription. A Broadway series in a building is anchored by its subscribers, and that’s how you know if you can do a week, two weeks, three weeks or a split week. You can’t have different promoters splintering those efforts. 
For concerts, everybody has relationships that are stronger or weaker than others and everybody has territories that are stronger or weaker than others. We like to say we’re Switzerland. We do a bulk of the buying out of our office here in Providence for our venues, but we have great independent promoter relationships, and with bigger regional promoters like John Valentino of AEG in Florida, Darin Lashinsky at NS2, Bob Duteau at Live Nation in Boston and the team at the AEG New York touring office. 
Sometimes, when it’s a hot act, being the queen of Switzerland isn’t any fun. Sometimes three promoters will call me about the same act in the same day. You just have to be truthful. “OK, you’re the third person who’s called. This is who called first, this is who called second and we also have an offer in.” That’s often the case.
It’s better in my opinion to be upfront than to play games and lose relationships. For me, it’s all about maintaining and growing any relationship so there’s more content in every building. Sometimes it’s painfully tricky, because we all want the shows.
Seated venues are often tied to nonprofits and boards of directors. Have you ever found it difficult to strike a balance between the artistic mission of a board and your desire to bring more current shows to the buildings?
It’s important to point out that Providence Performing Arts Center and the Vilar Center are both nonprofit venues, but they have a much more contemporary take on what should go into a building. 
A lot of the buildings we run are commercial entities, just like an amphitheatre, arena or a club. The mission side of them is to absolutely integrate into the fabric of a community and support local arts. 
I think it’s pretty safe to say everyone – any board member, city council member, anybody that’s affiliated – wants their favorite band to play and everybody has a different favorite band or favorite comedian. 
Our job is to take all the volumes of information, research it and communicate back to the venues what’s possible and what isn’t. “How come we can’t get James Taylor at the Vilar Performing Arts Center for 550 seats if we can get Ringo Starr?” It’s my job to push through that in a really transparent and informative way, then drill down on a chase or a pass.
We’re lucky. PPAC wholly owns this management, promoting, booking, buying company, PFM. Some of the directors have sat on the board for 34-plus years. I’ve been here for 13 years, many of the staff for 20-plus years, and our CEO has been here for 30 years. The process started a long time ago to educate and work collaboratively with the founding board to have them understand what is needed to sustain a viable live entertainment facility, constantly react and grow.
So we kind of never had that high-art handicap. And P.S., I love high art. We support everybody else in our communities doing it in our facilities because it’s important to have, but it’s not what we focus on. We focus on bringing funds to the bottom line so we can support these other organizations. So we’ve got this really fun, sometimes challenging, bridge that we walk between those two sides. We let the folks that do high art do it really well and we do this other thing. Together, the two worlds come together quite nicely. 
Going back to the Vilar Center, that is pretty impressive. How do you get Ringo Starr to play a 550-seat theater?
Vilar Performing Arts Center is a really sweet venue. Everyone looks at that theater and says, “Holy shit! How does this 500-seat theater do what they’re doing?” 
The economic strata that makes up that community gets what they have. VPAC can afford acts that play 3,000 seats in other parts of the country and the ticket-buying base of patrons will support it and pay for the ticket.
We just had Ringo Starr in the room, Diana Krall and Sheryl Crow played, plus so many A-listers. The fans know seeing them in 500 seats is really special, but VPAC also does a heck of a lot of fundraising to make sure that it happens.
Do you think there’s an idea that persists that these types of venues are sweet paydays for artists?
There is no black-and-white answer to that question. Everything is a gray zone. A ticket price is relative to the level of act and the desire in the market, and the specialness or averageness of the venue it’s playing. 
Is there perceived value of Mumford & Sons coming into Providence Performing Arts Center on a Monday night and selling it out in 12 minutes, versus going to the 10,000-seat shed down the road? Yeah. But then the band did the right thing and kept the ticket price low. 
Does somebody come in that’s more affluent, on the upper scale of the economic strata and say, “Well, this artist could play a cut-down arena, but we’re going to bring them into seated venues, and because of the specialness of your venue, we want P1 to be higher and we’ll sell them.” 
Part of the research you do before you make the offer is, OK, this act could play more seats. We’re going to probably end up paying close to what it would be for them to go to that larger size venue, so the economics mean that, yes, there are those 500 people who will pay a little bit more. That gets the artist and the promoter and the venue out faster.
Every single show is evaluated on its own. We don’t have a template. There is no, “Well, if you could do it for this act, you could do it for this other act.” That doesn’t work for me. It’s absolutely 100 percent individual. 
What role do you think seated venues can play in artist development?
I’d like them to play more. It also helps to be in a wired, music-head environment to be an artist-development environment. Durham is our flagpole relative to being a prime, development-act market. Forbes.com gives the region props for most wired, fourth most educated, and it gets awards for tops in creative work force. It’s a music scene on every level. The cultural makeup of that community is such that every major nationality is represented. With Duke and UNC and the tech community, the abilities to bring really any kind of music there are really exciting. 
Right now we’re working on this initiative to share audience profiles for the acts we’ve had in the building, and to inform – it’s OK, we’re not going to make anyone sit down. We’re not going to keep them in the two square feet of space in front of their seat. We don’t have a no-dancing rule, we don’t have a no-drinking rule. The managers and the agents – especially the ones that have been around for a while – just don’t know that. 
In this era, there’s so many of us trying to say we’re another option. We’re a fantastic option, we’re an intimate option. We have off-the-charts loyalty. We’re not Terminal 5 where it’s just a blank, open canvas, but we can feel like that because we’re not going to make anybody not do anything, except no aisle running. So that’s actually a very strong initiative of mine – to get our venues considered when there’s consideration to go to a smaller club. The managers and the band say, “We want a club experience, we want a flat floor experience.” It’s our job to keep giving the reasons why we can make it feel the same way.
How about the fan experience? How do you engage with customers and keep them connected to the venues?
You’ve got to stay connected to your fans in every way you possibly can. You either bite onto the social spinning wheel – drink the tech cocktail – or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re not going to connect with a large percentage of your fans. So, engaging them with commentary begging chatter, interactive video content, and being on all the major social sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, all that kind of stuff.
From the very beginning we’re capturing the customer’s data, largely email-based, and sending an opt-in survey after every single show. And it’s really tiny – just a few questions. The response and feedback we get about the sound, the seats, the customer service, the parking, the concessions, the acts, is amazing. It’s a safe engagement platform that encourages free opinion.
And then you don’t just sit there with the information. There’s a follow-up and a really human communication that goes back out to those people who want to share with you, such as, “thank you very much for your comments,” or, if there’s an issue big or small, a customer service contact from the venue immediately addresses the concern. 
The fans feel like they’ve been heard, and isn’t that what we all want? 
What do you think it takes to be successful in the concert industry?
You have to be open-minded, relevant and willing to work crazy hours of the day and night, every day of the week. You have to be a sponge and carve out time to learn something new every day. You have to be accessible to the agents, the promoters, your staff, and you have to love the core of what you’re doing. 
You need the “live fan juice,” too. I get the juice when I go down and stand in the audience chamber. You need to keep that juice. So much of what we do is with a headset and a keyboard. We’re on the computer all day long. You’ve got to get up and walk away from your desk, get into the experience and be a fan – see what it’s like to be at a great concert and at a mediocre concert.
We have access, if we find a way to let it into our mental filing cabinets, to a gigantic amount of data, music and charts, people patterns and profiles. So the big work is filtering all that information and making good use of it. What to chase and what not to chase and how to grow your market musically with all this information is a real challenge. It’s a whole area of focus for us and we’re having to do a major renovation of our technology toolkit, and how we get and use our massive external and internal data. The time is now to figure out how to accurately use this to benefit everybody – the venues, the acts and the fans.
With so many options for entertainment and people pinching their pennies in the current economy, how do you stay competitive?
I always like to say it’s content that drives everything. It’s the act; it’s the interest in the music, the Broadway show or the comedy. 
It’s up to us on the venue promoter side to keep messaging how sweet the live entertainment experience is. There’s a generation of people that was raised going to the theater – that’s part of the fabric of their lives. That’s the Broadway generation and the symphony and the ballet. They had more time to do this and it was part of their family structure.
Now we’re all running at the speed of light and there’s so much information and opportunity coming at you to be entertained, so it’s fostering and propping up and making that fan experience special so it becomes something they need in their veins. The struggle is, there’s all this choice and media coming at you. How do you suggest to someone that they go to their first concert so it’s in their veins? I don’t have a good answer.
Perhaps you just need to start young?
That’s certainly the well-rounded promoter mantra! When we do shows for knee-knickers and above, they see it’s not just on TV anymore, it’s not on their computer screen, it’s not just on the iPad. The kid is sitting there in a seat looking at and hearing something live onstage. 
I have a five-and-a-half year-old. I’ve been taking her to shows since she was two-and-a-half, and, I admit, watching how she engages with something live on the stage. Now, she’s making the connection! She’s the perfect case study, and she wants to go see anything really, but when she shouts the bands by act, like, The Fresh Beat Band, begging, “Mommy! Is this coming to your theater? When can I go see this show?” The marketing and branding is working; her iPad comes to life!
The more we get the kids from the screens to the stage, the more it becomes a part of their DNA, and hopefully we keep growing new audiences.