The perils of being a walk-up town 

In last week’s issue of Connect, we ran an exclusive interview with rising hip-hop star Ray J, in advance of his scheduled appearance as part of Bow Wow’s Wanted Tour lineup.

Unfortunately, the day after we went to press, it was revealed that Bow Wow and his posse weren’t nearly as “wanted” in Savannah as they would like to have thought. That show was canceled by the promoters due to advance ticket sales that some might charitably call sluggish, and others might call downright pitiful.

Such cancellations are not unheard of around these parts. In fact, over the past decade, they’ve become semi-regular occurrences — a development that not only causes frustration and disappointment among all strata of local concertgoers, but in none too subtle ways threatens Savannah’s continued viability as a destination for most big-name live entertainment.

Ironically, while many area residents —and civic leaders— clamor for the construction of a large-scale amphitheater or stadium to host major touring artists, they tend to overlook one key factor in determining whether or not such a facility makes sound fiscal sense: Savannah “enjoys” a less-than-stellar reputation among the very promoters we’d seek to attract — and depend on to keep the doors open.

Why might that be, you ask, and whom might be to blame?

Well, to be blunt, many of you, dear readers.

By and large, when compared to other markets of similar size and demographics, our audiences notoriously wait until the very last minute to purchase tickets to most any event. Our long-standing history of this abnormally high percentage of “at the door” sales has relegated Savannah to the status of a “walk-up town,” by most in the concert industry — meaning that promoters often have no clear way of determining what our true interest is for any given event.

Combine that with the tremendous amount of money required to bring even a small production to venues such as the Lucas, Trustees or Johnny Mercer Theatres (not to mention our Civic Center’s MLK, Jr. Arena), and you have a recipe for uncertainty that can easily lead to cancellation.

Marty Johnston has seen that scenario played out time and time again during her half-decade as the Director of The Savannah Civic Center. She came to this job from Athens, Ga., a town known not only for it’s thriving original music scene, but for its residents’ enthusiastic support of all types of touring performers.

She is at a loss to explain Savannah’s reluctance to purchase tickets in advance, but she knows for a fact that it is hurting our town’s ability to both snag a wider variety of name acts, and to reassure outside promoters that this is a worthwhile market for them to explore.

“Savannah definitely has a deserved reputation for this,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s because people wait till the last minute to decide whether or not they want to go, but young, old, symphony, hip-hop, it doesn’t matter.”

She says behavior of that sort is not unheard of by any means, but that our town seems to have taken it to the extreme.

“We have some promoters who have worked with us regularly for years, and they understand the unique dynamic at play. They’ve been around long enough to know about ‘the Savannah walk-up,’” she says. “They have a certain number in mind and once advance sales reach that mark, they take it on faith that they’ll have a decent turnout, but even when we explain this to some promoters, many of them are just too afraid to risk a small crowd, and they’d rather cancel than lose a bunch of money.”

While she cites a number of legitimate factors which contribute to sluggish advance sales —such as when in a given month the show falls (in regards to paycheck distribution), competition from other expenditures such as back-to-school costs or holiday gift-giving, and/or too-little advertising (or the wrong type of advertising for a given event)— in the end, Johnston says the simple fact is that years of wishy-washy attitudes on the part of prospective audience members has actually reinforced the flawed behavior.

“It’s a vicious cycle, especially in the urban music genre,” Johnston continues. “So many of those acts, and other acts aimed at teenagers, have cancelled here in the past —for this very same reason— that people wind up holding off on buying tickets till they’re absolutely sure it’s going to happen.”

Ironically, this convoluted —yet understandable— approach contributes to the problem, often becoming the determining factor that forces another cancellation.

The fact that local audiences have behaved this way for so long without seeming to understand their complicity in the problem has wound up “training” people that it’s okay to not only wait till the last minute to purchase tickets, but that it’s also reasonable to wait till the last minute and still expect to be able to nab good seats.

On the other hand, this lackadaisical attitude toward confirming seats as quickly as possible once they go on sale also contributes to what Johnston terms one of the stranger complaints that she and her employees at the Civic Center are forced to deal with from time to time: People who wait an inordinate amount of time to purchase tickets to a high-profile event, who are then irate when told the show has sold out, or that the best seats are already taken.

“There are people out there who are literally in shock. We’re on a gospel play circuit, and those productions are very popular here. People constantly assume they can get a good seat at the last minute, and when they can’t, they’re upset with us,” she laughs.

“It’s a fascinating thing to me. It really is. I literally don’t know how to combat something like this. I keep saying to people when this happens, listen, you have to buy your tickets in advance. You’ll usually save a few bucks as well.”

Up till this point we’ve mainly been discussing music and theatre, but for those of you reading this who aren’t particularly interested in shows of that nature and still fail to see a correlation between a reluctance to buy tickets to an event as soon as they are made available and Savannah’s floundering reputation as a bankable market for major attractions, Johnston offers an interesting anecdote.

“There was a guy who called me earlier today who was upset to learn that the Champions On Ice show had been cancelled. He thought it had only been advertised once in the newspaper, which was not exactly accurate,” she explains.

“But you have to understand — Champions On Ice always operates in the same way. They start their tour not too long after the Olympics. They have all the Olympic skating stars, and they promote the tour nationwide. They go to all the venues and do what’s called a soft sell. That’s because the majority of people who are interested in that sort of thing know that it always comes around right after the Olympics,” she says.

“Now, their ticket prices are expensive. Once the Olympics happen, they get their roster, which is usually made up of the top skaters not just from the U.S.A., but from the entire world. They put a bill together, put all the cities on sale at once and they look closely at the ticket sales for a short period of time. Then after about 2 weeks, they cancel all the venues that do not show brisk ticket sales immediately,” she says.

“That’s what happened here. Before people could sit around and have their usual slow Savannah discussion of “Well, maybe that might be a fun event to go to,” the promoters had already decided that the town wasn’t interested enough to warrant bringing the show here. They determine a ‘magic number’ and they don’t want to waste a lot of money trying to convince a small town to come out and see this, when they could spend a small amount in bigger cities and sell out a giant venue.”

Johnston says she sympathizes with the folks who are sad the Champions On Ice show will not take place as planned, but she’s also disappointed in the community’s response to such a desirable booking.

“A market the size of ours gets a chance to host an event like this once every four years when the Olympics happen. That tour will continue for a long time, but it will only appear in major markets where they know there are enough people to support it,” she says.

“You know, it really upsets me that people won’t appreciate how rare a chance this is, and simply get in here and buy a ticket to see this kind of an event. People complain all the time about those sorts of thing never coming to town. But then, when they do come, they don’t make a show of their support by buying a ticket right away, which makes it even less likely that a show like Champions On Ice will even consider Savannah the next time around.”

Still, despite the implications of the topic at hand, there are —from time to time— concerts and special events which do sell plenty of seats in advance, such as the annual Savannah Music Festival, which increasingly enjoys brisk sales from the very day tickets and passes are available.

And yes, even Jerry Seinfeld — arguably the most popular standup comedian in North America — who sells out virtually every room he plays, packed enough folks into the Johnny Mercer Theatre for Johnston to term his most recent appearance “ a virtual sell out.” Yet, even that show was a late bloomer compared to almost everywhere else in the country.

“Seinfeld can go into most any market in the U.S.A. and sell it out in two days. He does not do that here. As the time got closer, we sold it out, but what happened with that show is they thought they could wait till three weeks from the night of the show and still get a great seat. (laughs) You can’t! Then they complain about their ticket in the nosebleed section, but they got it seven days before the show!”

In the end, Johnston offers these words of advice: “People think they can wait, and they’ll still get a good seat. They can’t. And it might not even happen. So, don’t wait!” ƒç

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Jim Reed

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