During two decades at the helm of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, President/CEO Jerry MacDonald saw the 16,500-capacity venue in The Woodlands, Texas, become one of the most successful amphitheaters in the world while navigating through the pandemic, a rebuild after 2008’s Hurricane Ike and several infrastructure improvements. With Feb. 29 marking the end of his tenure, MacDonald reflects on his time at the venue and his next chapter.
Before joining the Pavilion in March 2003, MacDonald had served more than 20 years in senior management roles at multiple venues, helping to open three buildings: Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Florida; Miami Arena and The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. He also served as vice president and general manager of the Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland, Florida, and the Summit (later known as Compaq Center) in Houston.
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion ranked No. 3 on Pollstar’s 2023 Year End Amphitheaters chart on sold tickets with 457,324 and No. 4 in gross at about $30.6 million.
VenuesNow: The announcement about you stepping down at the venue noted it’s gone from being $10 million in debt when you assumed the role to funding an endowment that tops $50 million. What do you attribute to that success?
We have a good working relationship with Live Nation. We got a little more aggressive with our booking policy with them and our partnership with them. We’re a top 10 market in Houston, so we have the opportunity to play most every tour that comes through here and we’ve had some great promoters that we’ve worked with; Louis Messina, Bob Roux and Randy McElrath. Since I’ve been here we’ve spent about $50 million on renovations and it shows in our People like coming here.
What can you tell readers about the market?
The Woodlands is a great place to go see a show. It’s turned out to be a destination. We’re right in the heart of The Woodlands (subdivision) of Houston, which is an upscale, residential and business destination. So, people come here and they’ll see the show and then stay overnight. We’ve got several hotels and upscale dining and shopping, all walkable from the venue.
After Hurricane Ike hit the area in 2008, the venue underwent reconstruction that included a new roof that increased the number of covered seats. How did you approach that project?
We could have built it back like it was at a cost of about $3 million. We had a canopy that covered 2,700 seats and then we had about 2,000 uncovered seats and about 10,000 on the lawn. We thought it would be advantageous to have more covered seats, so we designed a rebuild at a cost of $10 million to cover another 4,000 seats. We took the covered seats up to about 6,500. You get a higher ticket price if you have a covered seat vs. an uncovered seat and it also gave us the opportunity to do half-house shows where we don’t open the lawn, and that’s worked out really well for us.
Another significant project was building the Pavilion’s Event Center.
We built The Event Center in conjunction with the township of The Woodlands. That’s proved to be a huge asset for us, because we use it all the time for concerts. We open up the event center and it’s a fully air-conditioned space. We have a full food and beverage service and offer merchandise sales. We open it prior to opening doors to the amphitheater, so we get people out of the heat beforehand. It’s open during shows. We have direct feeds in there with large LED screens.
We can divide it up into two 4,000 square-foot rooms or one large room. Most touring shows now require some type of VIP space. It’s nice that we have that to offer the artist for their VIP so that they’re not worried about having to put up a structure or a tent in the parking lot. We built a VIP Club for our season ticket holders. It’s a huge amenity. It’s the nicest private club attached to any amphitheater in the country.
Along with reopening The Pavilion after Hurricane Ike with a show by Dave Matthews Band, what are some other performances that have stood out to you over the years?
One of the first shows I did in 2003 was a Stephen Hawking lecture, which was huge. Everybody in the surrounding area wanted to come and listen to Stephen Hawking.
Bruce Springsteen was a special show that played here in 2014. He plays very few amphitheaters; we were fortunate to get him. Elton John has played here a few times. He’s always special. Van Morrison is one of my favorite artists. He played in 2010. He also plays very few outdoor amphitheater dates. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga was [another] special night in 2015.
We’re also the home of the Houston Symphony. We were built as a performing arts facility, as a nonprofit and we do a lot of performing arts events. One of my favorite Houston Symphony shows was the movie “Matilda” starring Danny DeVito and he was on stage the whole performance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra narrating “Matilda.” The conductor that night was David Newman who wrote the score for “Matilda.”
One of my favorite shows we did in December 2015 was Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. The exciting thing about that show was President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush came up. They brought their whole staff with them and had their Christmas party and then came over to the concert. That’s the only time we’ve had a president come to our venue.
What’s next for you after your tenure wraps up at the Pavilion?
I’m 71 years old. I’ve been doing this for about 50 years, but I’m not saying I’m retired. I may still do some consulting down the road if something comes up. I’m keeping my options open. I want to do what I can to help with the transition once my replacement is named.