DECADES IN THE MAKING: With 20 years in the books, VenuesNow keeps eyes on the future of dynamic industry. (Kevin Robie illustration).
Then, Now And Tomorrow: Filling A Need, Turning A Page
The VenuesNow of 2022 is an evolution of what founder Linda Deckard launched in 2002, but as the trade journal marks its 20th anniversary, one thing remains constant: a dedication to sharing vital data, valuable reporting and communicating the best practices, successes, setbacks and personal tales of those who populate the public assembly facilities industry.
That’s been the governing philosophy throughout the two decades since Deckard put out the first issue of Venues Today, and it’s one that took on an even greater urgency during the past two and half years of pandemic disruption.
Deckard cut her teeth as a reporter and editor at Amusement Business, hired as the weekly’s first female reporter in 1976.
“They were concerned about sending women to carnivals at midnight alone,” Deckard said. “But they got over it.”
Her first assignment was to cover a meeting of Midwest fair managers — “a sea of white heads, all men, people I didn’t know,” Deckard recalled. Undeterred, she went on to chronicle the business dealings of the live entertainment industry writ large, but she always had an affinity for one sector.
“I wanted to focus on venues. I enjoy that world,” she said. “They are incredible people. The hosts with the most and I’ve gotten to know a lot of them.”
After a stint as West Coast editor, Deckard was later named AB’s managing editor and landed back in Nashville. To literally every corner of the globe, she deployed an international editorial staff that included talent and tours reporter Ray Waddell, currently president of OVG Media & Conferences.
In 2001, venues coverage was shifted from AB to Billboard, where Waddell had already transferred to lead the touring beat. So, Deckard too moved to Billboard, with the idea that she would bring her deep venue industry contacts with her.
“But those contacts were also in the sports world, the conventions and meetings world, the food and drink world, marketing and operations, people who were not of interest when you are talking about just music,” she said. “They weren’t into performing arts either. All of which is interesting because the original Billboard was about performing arts and vaudeville, it was about live traveling entertainment.”
Stories that once had a home in AB were going untold and Deckard saw an opportunity to launch a trade journal dedicated solely to the venues sector. She left Billboard and six months later launched Venues Today “to cover that world — the operations side, the brick-and-mortar (side) that’s necessary to have live entertainment, and I got a lot of support from the industry, which was lovely,” she said.
The goodwill Deckard built up over 25 years of covering the industry translated to financial backing from Mike McGee of Leisure Management International, current Norfolk Tides President and Owner Ken Young and OVG360 Executive Chairman Peter Luukko.
Deckard credits McGee, her first investor, with convincing her to take the leap, helping her to incorporate and launch the publication.
McGee said Deckard demonstrated a special interest in how venues worked and interfaced with acts and attractions.
“She was always reasonable and fair in her approach and her reporting and I felt she was a good person relative to advancing the cause of facilities,” McGee said of his enthusiastic decision to back her. “When she came to me and asked me what my thoughts were, I said I can support it and I will certainly support you. I thought it would be good to have a magazine that addressed venue issues more than other issues.”
McGee said he and his wife Barbara remain close friends with Deckard and he recalled giving her advice as she launched Venues
Today: to be mindful of the difference between what you do and who you are, to not love something that can’t love you back and to have an exit strategy when goals are met and the timing is right.
While McGee said he sees a bright future for VenuesNow, especially with the financial backing of OVG and the leadership of Waddell, who he knows well, he also thinks Deckard was wise to sell. Deckard herself said she can’t imagine how she would have coped with the pandemic had she still owned the magazine when it struck.
“I think her timing was excellent,” McGee said.
“All of those men would help me any time I had a question or a business problem or personnel problem,” Deckard said. “I had a problem at one point and didn’t know what to do and Peter’s answer was, ‘Linda, I’m from Philly. I know people.’”
“What always amazes me about Linda Deckard is how much she knows about our industry and never once worked in an arena, stadium or convention center,” Luukko said. “Her ability to create relationships is second to none. When she first told me about her idea to create Venues Today, I told her you are the right person for this job. Everyone takes your calls, you know everyone, and you know how to get to the heart of the story. When she was starting out, I told her, just be you and do what you do best. It’s amazing to see how far the publication has come and that’s a true testament to Linda’s vision, hard work and determination for the publication.”
Also stepping in during a second round of funding were Frank and Sally Roach, he of touring attractions and the University of South Carolina and she formerly with the Los Angeles Coliseum and later executive director of Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina, as well as Damon Zumwalt, CEO and founder of Contemporary Services Corporation.
“The industry needed a credible source of factual and timely information,” Frank Roach said. “Producing it required someone in whom the industry players had confidence and trust. Venues Today was designed to fill a gap in industry reporting, and Linda had the experience and credibility to understand what needed to be done and how to do it. I don’t know anyone else that could have pulled this off at the time.”
Support also came from people like current IAVM President and CEO Brad Mayne, Barbara “Mother” Hubbard of Las Cruces, New Mexico, concert business fame and Paciolan founder Jane Kleinberger.
Deckard also credits her staff with helping shape the journal’s coverage, saying, “They had great ideas, and we launched them. All my staff were advisers to me.”
In addition to launching conferences and seminars of her own and in conjunction with others (see page 32), Deckard continued to support events like the Event and Arena Marketing Conference, a key industry event for a younger set of venues professionals.
“Not only did she thoroughly report on industry trends, profile pieces and conference roundups, but she was also a pioneer for women in the live entertainment industry. Linda created iconic awards such as GenNext, recognizing young professionals in the industry, which she presented at EAMC each year. Her industry awards evolved and are thriving today,” reads a statement from the EAMC Board of Directors, which lauded Deckard’s efforts to professionalize and noted that she was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and earned its Gigi Award of Excellence in 2019. “The industry did not have a digest or publication about current issues after Amusement Business got away from covering it and eventually ceased publication,” Young said of his early financial support. “I felt Linda’s idea was a good one and at that point I think I knew Linda for 20 years. She had ingrained herself in the industry and had been mentored by Tom Powell at AB. She had passion, knowledge and contacts to make Venues Today a success. I backed it because I felt it would be good for the industry and at that point I had been in it for 30 years. It was a form of giving back.”
Deckard and her team of writers, sales and marketing staff — including Brad Weissberg, Dave Brooks, Sue Nichols, Natasha Emmons, April Armbrust, Jessica Boudevin, Rebecca Nakashima, Nazarene Kahn, Jay Nguyen, Karmen White, Rob Ocampo, Rich DiGiacomo and Samantha Le — made good on the mission “to report the news behind the headlines, which are always made by the sports athletes and the performers on stage,” Deckard said. “Behind those headlines is a whole world of people that are making things happen.”
Like Deckard, Waddell, who had been in the Billboard family for 30 years and had built a reputation of his own for breaking industry news and forging relationships across the live entertainment universe, saw an opportunity to turn the page to a new chapter in venue coverage.
“Back in 2016, I had been in the Billboard family, Billboard magazine and prior to that Amusement Business, for a combined 30 years, and had specialized in touring and live entertainment and the venues business for most of that,” Waddell said. “In fact, I broke the story of the launch of Oak View Group with Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff and had covered both extensively over the years. Tim and Irving told me what they were trying to do at Oak View Group. Tim made an offer to come run Venues Today and build a conference in the live entertainment space. I felt like I had accomplished a lot at Billboard in establishing the touring beat and launching the Billboard Touring Conference. Ultimately, it was the opportunity to align myself with two of the most visionary executives in the history of the live entertainment industry that inspired me to make the move from Billboard and embark on a new journey at OVG.”
“Venues Today is the voice of record for our industry and a key acquisition for OVG in bolstering our media portfolio,” OVG CEO Tim Leiweke said when announcing the acquisition of Venues Today. “Linda is an icon in this business and has built an incredible brand and with Ray now at the helm the potential to grow that brand and its reach is unlimited.”
Waddell’s idea was to take what Deckard had started and evolve the title to meet the challenge of covering a rapidly changing industry.
“At first I felt like we could compete and ultimately surpass Pollstar, both on the media and the conference front,” Waddell recalled. “At Billboard, the Touring Conference had grown tremendously and very much narrowed the gap with Pollstar Live! and I believe would have eventually been the leader in the live entertainment conference space. Of course, all of that became a moot point when OVG acquired Pollstar within a year of my coming to OVG, so the objectives changed.”
Not only has Pollstar Live! set records for registrations and sponsorships, but the VenuesNow Conference has quickly built a reputation for premium content and exchange of ideas, Waddell notes.
Having the support of Leiweke and Azoff gave Waddell the license to begin executing on his vision for the trade journal.
“I learned very quickly that Tim Leiweke has an ‘anything is possible’ mentality, which is inspiring and drives us to do things we never thought possible,” Waddell said. “We’ve made great strides on all fronts. The reporting at Venues Today was always solid, Linda knew the business like few others, and was a solid reporter. We freshened up that brand in evolving to VenuesNow, we completely overhauled the magazine, website and VN Pulse and launched the VenuesNow Conference in 2017. We also wanted to broaden the definition of what a venue is in our pages, beyond PACs, convention centers, auditoriums, amphitheaters, arenas and stadiums to also include festivals, alternative venues, clubs, and wherever else live entertainment is presented on a regular basis. They all face many of the same challenges and opportunities that we cover.”
A big move early on was incorporating Pollstar data into VenuesNow’s charts and reporting, “which is the gold standard for tracking box office for 40 years,” Waddell said.
“Like all of the industry, we were hammered by the pandemic shutdown, but we still managed to provide ongoing coverage and much-needed intel, as well as present two Pollstar Live! conferences, and VNC in Seattle for last year and Austin this year. Since we started, we have produced two VNCs in LA, one in New York, and last year’s in Seattle, and they all have been exceptionally well-received, with growing attendance every year, strong sponsor engagement and superior content to any venue conferences I’ve ever attended.”
To the value of VenuesNow for anyone operating in that segment of the live entertainment space, Waddell said, “You simply get coverage, insight and analysis that you cannot find anywhere else, all underpinned by Pollstar data.”
The data and charts in VenuesNow are tailored specifically to venues and can’t be found elsewhere, he said.
“I’m very proud of the team and where we are going,” Waddell said, “but more so I am excited about where we can go in the next 20 years. We are in a golden era for the venue industry, with exciting projects in development all over the world and new technology and operations models that are changing the way people experience sports and live entertainment. With its conferences and media, VenuesNow is perfectly positioned to ride this wave of growth and evolution, but only if we continue to provide the tools that can make all venues and those companies that serve them successful. To do that, we must continually engage with the entire industry, listen to what they tell us, and work hard to serve their needs.”
As for the role that VenuesNow, Pollstar and their respective conferences played during the pandemic, Waddell said he and other company brass felt it was crucial to present a face-to-face gathering for the industry for both titles.
“This is a relationship business, and people needed to gather and see each other to exchange ideas and just catch up,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, and I give all credit to Tim Leiweke, the unstoppable force. Tim was bound and determined to make these conferences happen, and they did.”
Adds Luukko, “VenuesNow is an essential publication for our industry that truly tells the story the way it needs to be told. It uncovers the story from the groundbreaking to the ribbon cutting and from the booking to the closing of the show in a way that you can’t find anywhere else as told from those in the trenches. It’s must-read material for anyone who runs a building, considering building a new building, or taking a show on the road.”
“It’s all about the value proposition and providing the industry what they need to do their jobs better,” Waddell said. “That may be an oversimplification, but everything we do is focused on serving this business, on playing a role in the betterment of the live entertainment and venue industries through information, data, analysis and shining a spotlight on social issues and the executives who are leading us forward.
“While so much has changed since I started covering the live thing, certain things have not changed at all, it’s just the way you get there that is different. People want to gather to see something they love and share the experience and the passion with others. It is incumbent on those in the business of live entertainment, whatever they do, to keep it safe, affordable, entertaining, exciting and engaging, and to make a profit doing that. For venues, that encompasses all the things that VN covers, from parking to concessions to tenant relations, tech, security, premium, operations, and so on. There is no business like it, and we are proud to serve it.”