Exec Profile: Sean Henry
& David Kells

Country music is hot and happening, just as it’s always been, in Nashville, the city built on a foundation of honky-tonks and twang.

But Music City has been making a big push to epitomize its all-encompassing moniker in recent years, and one of the biggest advocates for the move has been Mayor Karl Dean.

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Interview in PDF format

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Dean, who made an appearance during this year’s Pollstar Live! conference, touted a strong appreciation for the entire music industry as one reason Nashville has been designated a new “it” city and one of the top five places to visit in 2013 by Condé Nast.

“When I was running for office I saw a divide between most businesses and the music business,” he said. “We needed people to know that we wanted music to thrive and we wanted more of it.

“So we formed the Music Council, which is an organization that works with the music business. We’re opening affordable housing downtown for artists. And the music industry is paying us back with education programs. We’re trying to have our public schools have the best music programs in the country.”

To that end, Nashville’s put its money where its mouth is with a massive downtown development project that features the construction of a new, $635 million convention facility, dubbed Music City Center, as well as millions in upgrades to the adjacent Bridgestone Arena that houses the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Music City Center is slated to open in May, and the Predators/Bridgestone team, which includes President/COO Sean Henry and VP of Booking David Kells, is gearing up for new programming opportunities in Nashville’s revitalized SoBro entertainment district.

Henry joined the Predators/Bridgestone more than two years ago after 11 years as executive VP and COO for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the St. Pete Times Forum (now Tampa Bay Times Forum) in Florida. Kells, who’s held virtually every position in the organization, got started as a part-time conversion tech at the arena after college, later taking on roles including event services manager, director of event marketing and marketing director.

Does the mayor’s perception of Nashville as a city for all types of music ring true?

Kells: There is that push to let people know this is a hub for all kinds of songwriters and performers across the board. On the production side there are bus companies, audio and video companies based out of here that work on all genres and maybe that’s something we’ve started to focus on more – to let people know it’s all-encompassing.

It’s not just the great history coming out of Nashville. The mayor promotes it as a creative community and a creative destination for folks across the entertainment landscape.

Henry: When you look at some large agencies that have their main offices or regional offices here, and you see what they’re managing and promoting out of Nashville, it’s not what it used to be. Everyone’s very proud of our history and it’s something we should hang on to and promote, but you also have more of a crossing of genres, whereas in the past it used to be very specific buckets you got into.

Then you start looking at what we’re doing from an event standpoint and what the Ryman’s doing and it’s really exploding in the number of shows we’re both doing and how well we’re tracking. Look at our history with Pollstar, where we’ve been in the past 10 years, and then in the past few years. It tells a similar story.

Have there been changes to Bridgestone Arena’s programming in recent years?

Kells: Nashville’s in a great spot right now and so is Bridgestone Arena specifically. The fan bases are here for all genres.

We’re selling concert tickets in great numbers for everything so, almost every major tour, we’re at least getting the call on. People know that tours can come through here and be successful so they’re routing through Nashville. We’re a destination.

Henry: Any show can play here and compete on a gross with any city in America. We’re pretty proud of that. Look at our month of March. We had Pink and Lady Gaga scheduled, Bon Jovi, Maroon 5, Eric Clapton and the men’s SEC basketball tournament – none of those would be considered country.

We can do any shows that any buildings are doing in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Miami, but we also ramp it up with events like George Jones’ final farewell concert [Nov. 22, 2013], where we get to touch our history as well. It makes us a little more unique than most.

Another unique thing about Nashville is that so many artists call the city home.

Henry: Nashville is a great place. If you have star power, you can walk out on the street and go to any restaurant, shop or hotel and not be pestered. That’s why so many celebrities choose to live here.

Tonight we have a hockey game and Starstruck Management GroupReba McEntire’s company – has a suite. Carrie Underwood also has a suite. On any given night, we’re speckled with celebrities at our games that want to be here. You’ll have Vince Gill banging on the glass, Alice Cooper performing on our stage, and Hank Williams Jr. in WME’s suite.

It’s a cool place to be. The New York Times just announced that Nashville is the new “it” city.  Part of that is because it’s the music city, but it’s also just an incredible place where all these diverse industries and cultures are colliding.

Tell us about the renovations you’re undertaking at Bridgestone Arena.

Henry: We have three major renovations in progress right now.

First, we’re completely redoing our environmental capabilities with a renovation of our HVAC system, our lighting-system controls, our fixtures, plumbing, faucets and commodes.  The building wasn’t built specifically for a hockey team, but as a dynamic event center. As such, it didn’t have everything needed to make quality ice throughout the year, let alone deep into the playoffs in May and June. That’s a $7 million to $8 million renovation in progress right now.

We’ve built out a new, all-inclusive, high-end club for about 100 people. We also built out something called the Twice Daily Fan Zone. We blew a wall out on the concourse in the upper level so people can stand on the concourse and enjoy the excitement of an event or a concert. We’re changing out some of our seats and we’re giving a facelift to all our concession stands and points of sale.

The last, and probably the most public, renovation we’re starting uses the south side of our building as a pass-through from the excitement of Broadway to what I call the new campus – the new convention center, Omni Hotel, 2,500 new parking stalls and a renovated and expanded Country Music Hall of Fame.

We’re building out about 15,000 square feet of retail space with a themed restaurant, a new team store, a quick grab-and-go area and a plaza on the back of our building that’ll rival the front side of our building. We’re going to have a large-scale video board and an information ticker wrapped around the building.

Those are three pretty major projects and, in the end, it turns into about a $20 million to $22 million renovation in a 12-month period of time.

We’ve worked with our partners at the city to carve out a revenue stream to allow for ongoing renovations year in and year out. We think it’s important to put money back in the building virtually every day to touch our fans, our sponsors, our suite holders, our performers and our employees. With that, next year we’ll start the cycle again of putting $2 million to $3 million dollars into the building for a skills room for our players or new dressing rooms for our performers, whatever it may be.

The competition for top-tier concerts these days is fierce. How do you market the arena to potential tours?

Henry: I’ll insert some shameless self-promotion here: hire a guy to book your building that grew up in the industry. David started on the loading dock and worked here through college. His only career has been in this industry. There’s no position in our organization he has not fulfilled except playing on the ice or on a stage, and he’s also had the benefit of working with small clubs around town.

He was nominated for Pollstar’s facility executive of the year award in his first year in the role. The reason for that is because he has universal respect from virtually every promoter and every manager that’s in and out of this building. When David says we’re going to use our entire sales force from the Predators side and our in-house marketing capabilities to bring a show to life, they trust him and we back it up with the numbers.

Nashville seems to have the benefit of fitting into the routing between many markets.

Kells: I think we have the standard challenges that most big-name buildings do in just trying to accommodate everybody, but I feel confident that we get almost every major tour that’s out there.

Henry: We have three interstates that cut through Nashville, so from a routing standpoint, any tour that’s hitting a fair part of the country will find itself in a position that could make Nashville part of their tour.

Whether you’re going to or from Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, the East Coast or the Midwest, we’re in the middle of it. So we’re in a good spot in that regard.

But the real work starts after you book the show. How do you routinely fill a 20,000-capacity building in a smaller market like Nashville?

Kells: We work with promoters and artists’ management on traditional marketing campaigns, just like everybody else.

With the hockey team and the arena as busy as it is, we have a good number of internal assets that we’re able to kick in. Every time someone comes to an event at Bridgestone Arena, they’re exposed to everything else that’s coming up on the calendar. They’re here for a hockey game, they see that we have Eric Clapton or Maroon 5 and vice versa.

Henry: We put the resources of the organization behind every event we do, be it a hockey game or circus.

We also have an analytics department with two guys that do nothing but mine data. We hired them initially on the hockey side and then realized we needed to cross-pollinate.

A lot of the work they do is to find out within our single-game buyers and our season ticketholders – who should we be targeting to come to Kid Rock, or Carrie Underwood, or Pink?  As you know the earlier and faster you sell a show out, the more attention you get in the industry. We’ve challenged those guys to help us get there faster.

Does social media play a big role in your marketing strategy?

Kells: Yes, very much so. We recently updated all the cellular capabilities inside the building so fans can tell their own stories while they’re here much better.

Years ago it seemed like any time you went to a large gathering of people, you weren’t able to get out a tweet or send out a text.

We’ve worked with our partners at AT&T to improve the infrastructure of the building, so now when there is a sold-out game or a sold-out concert, you can still post photos or send messages to friends.
It lets the fans do a lot of the word of mouth, because it’s fun to say, “Look what I’m seeing! Look where I am! Look at this great experience!”

They help tell the story for us.

How do you stay connected post-show and build fan engagement with the arena?

Kells: After every event we send a follow-up survey and thank-you email to every customer. It’s general information – how was your experience? Where did you park? What did you like? What didn’t you like?

We do that for every event and we give the fans the opportunity to tell us directly. Then we quickly follow up with them. We don’t just put that in the corner and forget about it. Our event services department reaches out to the fans that specifically have questions or additional concerns.

Henry: Adding to that, we touched on social media and it’s irresponsible if you’re not connected to your fans now because you can hear things immediately.

Instead of waiting for the follow-up survey, the night of an event if someone says, “X, Y and Z is wrong,” or “This is great,” we can jump on it.

Kells: The guest services team follows what people say about the arena live during events, so if someone is complaining about a sticky section of the floor and they post that on social media, we can immediately respond to them and let our housekeeping folks know, “Hey, this place needs attention.”

Sometimes it’s just fun questions, like fans wanting to know which concession stand has our bacon on a stick, and we’ll respond in the same way.

Bacon on a stick! I bet that’s a popular item at the concession stand.

Henry: It’s very popular. We have a lot of fun with the food and beverage side.

It’s almost like a state fair. You sell things people can joke about and laugh about, whether that be a chicken-and-waffle stand or bacon on a stick. If you want to see a great picture go to Dave’s Twitter feed. I think he has bacon on a stick before every show.

Kells: Every other Saturday.

Does it ever get tricky coordinating the concert schedule with all those Predators dates? Or, in the case of this past season, the lack of hockey dates thanks to the NHL lockout?

Henry: We coordinate our NHL schedule very closely with David Poile, the GM of the Predators. It used to be that there was a team staff and a building staff. Now, it’s all one. The team has the benefit of managing the arena. With that, we have a good partnership throughout all facets of our business.

To do the CMAs we have to push our team out of the building for two weeks. To do the SEC tournament, we have to push the team out for eight days. That causes some problems. One, they’re going to be on elongated road trips, and two, they’re going to play more Tuesdays than the preferred Thursday, Saturday cycle.

So you’ve got to measure that. But we also know that the more Thursday, Friday and Saturday pods we open up to book future concerts, the better it’s going to be for us.

For the most part we try to look at our overall calendar and go every other weekend. Right now, we have 70 dates on hold for next year’s hockey schedule and as you begin building it, those 70 holds turn into 41 dates.

When someone calls and says, “I really need this date,” and it’s showing as a hockey hold, David will walk across the hall to Predators GM David Poile’s office, they’ll draw the week together and we’ll get that date back.

It’s something that David cultivates and manages virtually every day. I can’t think of the last show that we lost because David wasn’t able to manipulate the calendar in some way. Everybody works as real partners throughout the whole organization. 

Are there any artist’s teams with which you enjoy a particularly close relationship?

Henry: We have a rehearsal hall that we’ll open up for those that have performed in our building or will perform in our building.

We’re doing three Taylor Swift shows in September and she just used our rehearsal hall for almost two months. Her crew used our basketball equipment over at their warehouse for a couple months. The more you see people, obviously, the better chance you’ll have of building relationships.

Kells: Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney were here last year before their stadium tour went out and Martina McBride’s crew is here regularly.

Henry: Everyone that tours through our building in one form or another has used it. We also use it to test sound equipment, so then you’re building a relationship with the crews as well.

I will say that as an organization we enjoy a pretty nice relationship with Carrie Underwood, who is married to one of the Predators’ associate captains, Mike Fisher. She comes to every game when she’s not on tour and that adds something.

Vince Gill doesn’t miss many games and he performs on our band stage 15 to 20 times a year during intermissions at hockey games.

We really bring the musical element into our hockey games. Other performers up there last year were Alice Cooper, Wynonna Judd, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, and Carrie Underwood.

Do you have any tips for tour managers? What can they do to make things run smoothly at your building?

Kells: Everything starts with a great advance on the tour side. Then it’s working with the promoters, working with us and giving us all the current information.

It’s pretty much what everybody does already. At the arena level, you get the professionals and the veterans who have been around the block a couple times. They make it easy, they do their job and they do it well.

Henry: David is being a little bit modest. As he said, the whole day starts with a nice advance, but the day also starts with making sure coffee’s hot in the morning and is waiting for people when they walk in the door.
It also goes a long way when the guy booking the act is there in the morning to greet them and builds a relationship and checks on them throughout the day.

In a lot of buildings that doesn’t happen and I’m not sure why. David takes that burden on and he enjoys a nice relationship with them because of it. Problems get addressed and they don’t blow up 12 hours later or worse, six months later when you’re working on the next show.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Fairness In Ticketing Act that Tennessee legislators have been considering. What made you want to get involved with the measure?

Henry: We’re one of the original coalition members of Fairness in Ticketing. Virtually every act, every manager and every venue in the state is now part of it. It doesn’t really attack scalping, as much as it would be fun to do that.

So many nights, an experience for an individual, a family, or a couple is ruined because they bought a counterfeit ticket or they’re told they’re going to get a meet-and-greet, their parking included or food and beverage and it doesn’t happen.

Sometimes they think they’re buying from us, but they’re buying from a scalping site that was made to look like it was Bridgestone Arena or the Nashville Predators, and they’re buying on a presale that never existed. Beyoncé was a great example of this recently. There were about 1,500 tickets on the secondary market two weeks before any presales ever occurred.

Fairness In Ticketing is really about building in some disclosures for the buyers. It’s forcing anyone who’s going to sell tickets on the primary – us – or the secondary level – even if that’s Ticketmaster -– to disclose who they are, what the face value of the ticket is, and whether or not they already own the ticket.

Any ethical person that wants to sell tickets on the secondary market should not have a problem with what we’re looking for. The buyer is more protected and that’s what we all want. We want to make sure the fans have the best possible relationship with us and with the talent that they can have.

Can you name some highlights during your tenure with the arena and things you’re looking forward to in the future?

Henry: I’d always heard about the CMA Awards, which we have an opportunity to host, and the CMT Awards, and I’d always thought from afar, “That’s probably just another event. Who cares?”

Then you’re part of it and the production and the quality they put into it -– not just to make a great TV product, but a great live arena product -– to me it was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.

We also enjoyed the SEC Tournament, which in a big college hotbed like ours – it is the biggest – it builds toward an unparalleled experience.

Then from a hockey and music standpoint, I’ve never seen anything like this mixture between sports and music before. It’s absolutely incredible. On a concert night, you have a hockey vibe, and then on a hockey night, you have concerts breaking out all the time.

Kells: I went to high school in Nashville and I’ve been here a long time. The big thing is just seeing how downtown has changed since Bridgestone Arena opened.

Last year we celebrated our 15th anniversary and did some retrospective pieces with different community members and business leaders about the changes they’ve seen downtown since the arena opened. It’s remarkable.

On any event or game night, all the honky-tonks on lower Broadway, which used to be kind of seedy, are packed. Now it’s bachelorette parties running from Tootsie’s to Roberts to Honky Tonk Central. It’s fun, it’s accessible and it’s a great destination.