Nick Checota has quickly become one of the key figures of Montana’s entertainment industry.
The promoter and venue operator, a journeyman who worked in finance, consulting, and real estate before heading west about a decade ago, founded Logjam Presents in 2016, where he oversees a modest Big Sky Country empire that includes the 550-capacity Top Hat, the 4,500-capacity KettleHouse Amphitheater, and more.
In keeping with his prominent status, when Checota connects with VenuesNow on a mid-December morning, he’s just getting off another call – with Montana Senator John Tester (D), as the Senate weighs including the live events industry in pandemic relief legislation before adjourning for the holidays. (Days after VenuesNow‘s January issue went to print, Congress approved a relief package that included the Save Our Stages Act.)
“The nice thing about Montana is we still have access to our leaders, unlike places like California,” he wryly jokes. “If we want to talk to our senator or governor, we can still get a hold of them.”
(Continued government inaction “frustrates the hell out of me,” Tester said the following day at a hearing that included NIVA advocacy committee co-chair Adam Hartke. “You’ve been impacted by something you don’t have any control over … but you’re getting submarined by this damn coronavirus.”)
As a live events professional in one of America’s more remote markets – and one represented by both Democrats (Tester, Gov. Steve Bullock) and Republicans (Sen. Steve Daines) – Checota has a lens into the pandemic that differs from his more metropolitan counterparts.
The news is better than some might expect: While Montana has seen a holiday spike in cases like much of America, Checota predicts its more lenient regulatory apparatus will allow the industry to bounce back sooner, and the state has provided economic relief for the sector in the interim.
Checota connected with VenuesNow to discuss Logjam’s state of affairs, the unique challenges and opportunities Montana presents, and how he envisions the post-pandemic comeback for the Treasure State.
VENUESNOW: How did you get into the live events business?
NICK CHECOTA: I’ve always been a huge music fan and was way into the Dead in the ‘80s. When I moved [to Montana], I bought a 550-cap [Missoula] room [in 2013] called The Top Hat. We totally remodeled that room. We had some success there, but quickly realized making a living off a 550-cap room by itself was pretty tough. Then the opportunity with [Missoula’s] Wilma came along, also a historic building and venue, a 1910 theater. We bought that and did a full renovation in 2015, and started to have really good success. In 2017, KettleHouse Brewery approached me and had a piece of ground on the Blackfoot River – if you’re familiar with [the 1992 film] “A River Runs Through It,” it’s that river. We built a 4,500-person amphitheater, which is a pretty cool little spot, kind of the quintessential Montana experience. We were under construction on a Wilma-size room in Bozeman called the ELM, and have that about 95% done. COVID hit and I shut [construction] down to preserve capital. Six weeks to two months [of work] and it could be ready to go with shows.
You were also planning a mixed-use development in Missoula, The Drift, pre-COVID. What’s its status?
That was a much more grand project. In Montana, everybody drives. Three, four hours is no big deal. We pull a lot of people in for our shows. We felt by having food, beverage, lodging, we [could] create this cool little ecosystem for people [that] lets us really service their overall experience when they came in to see one of our shows. Something that Montana really lacks is an Anthem-style size indoor facility. I put about $700,000 of our own equity into that, and we’re walking away from that project.
You guys were in a very strong position pre-COVID. What does business look like now?
We were in a really strong financial position where we were staunchly independent, and we were in markets where we felt we could successfully maintain that independence. Post-COVID, it’s a pretty different picture. I’ve had to leverage personal assets with lines of credit to keep funding going, because we know we still have at least another six months of this. We’ve kept our staff on and are just weathering the storm as best we can. But we’re much more leveraged than we were going into this. We have higher debt levels. I put a lot of my life savings into the business to keep it afloat. It’s hard to take an organization that’s doing $10 to $12 million [in revenue] a year, which isn’t huge, but is something, to nothing.
What does a comeback look like for Logjam? How might it differ from larger urban hubs?
In Montana, we’re booming. People are fleeing California and Washington and Portland for a variety of reasons, so our real estate market and our overall economy – other than entertainment and restaurants – has absolutely gone berserk. Property values are soaring. Our population is exploding. There are so many out-of-state plates here. COVID has changed the complexion of Montana, I think permanently. What does that mean for me? Long run, that’s great. Montana’s a stronger market post-COVID than it was pre-COVID. Having a Republican [state legislative majority means] when [events] come back, they probably have less red tape and regulations than other markets might. We’ll probably be the arbitrator of safety and what we do more than the state will.
In March, many American venues closed before government orders came down, because they had a stricter approach than the government.
We were one of those.
Could something similar happen on the pandemic’s backend, where even if the government lifts restrictions you take a slower approach?
We’re gonna follow the industry lead. The thing about Montana is, if there’s no tour, there’s no show. We’re at the mercy of Seattle and Denver.
How were the two Lil Smokies shows that you did at Missoula’s Wilma in October?
They were awesome. It was just them, seated, socially distanced, and [we] really tightly controlled how people entered. We didn’t have bars open, only cocktail service. We had a very controlled environment. We did a full contact tracing list. People loved it. Both sold out instantly. Dinner came with the show. When you bought a ticket, you bought both the show and the dinner piece. We made our money off of food and beverage and the artists made their money off of the ticket revenue, and we had some local sponsors. Between those pieces, we were all able to make money.
It’s definitely interesting to see how people have gotten creative with modifying their business models.
For us, it’s all about finding revenue streams that cross-promote well with entertainment, that give us a diversification in revenue.
As a promoter and venue operator, what comeback challenges do you expect?
If we have to have a vaccination check or some other process at the door, we envision more staff. From a promoter standpoint, the big questions are: What do these offers need to look like? How much risk are we willing to take? How is that risk going to get shared? If I offer what I offered last year, and the customer just isn’t ready to come back, even if we’re allowed to, I’m taking a greater risk. We’re trying to work with agents to find structures where the artist can get to where they were, if the show succeeds, but if the show doesn’t succeed, we’ve shared the downside risk. But we’re lucky in Montana. Our population is probably a little bit more risk assumptive, probably a little bit more frontier-y. They’re willing to jump back in maybe a little faster than some large urban areas. The biggest challenge that we have is how do you plan for something that’s this constant moving target? We’re all worried we’re not going to have a full picture until April, May, and then we’re gonna be in a five-alarm fire situation getting ready for the season. Right now, we’re planning mid-July, we’re going to be doing shows at the amphitheater.
Do you have any holds or firm dates or anything like that for summer 2021?
Yeah. So many holds I don’t even know what to do with them all. The calendar is fairly challenging right now.
What about your indoor spaces?
It’s all gonna come down to consumer confidence. Are people going to be ready? We’re giving some thought to what shows we do in July versus what shows we do in September. I’m focused on younger people shows in July and my more mature audiences more in September – I’d rather do a Sheryl Crow in September and an electronic show in July.