Adventures in Event Production
by Ziah Ali McKinney-Taylor
posted July 11, 2013
I’ve been producing belly dance events and shows for 12 years now; I produce events so that teachers and attendees can have a humane, fun event that will fill their brains past endurance. As a dancer who has traveled for many years to teach and study, I have regularly encountered a lack of consideration for meals, rest, and money on the part of the event producers.
My philosophy is that dance teachers should make a living wage, be well fed and rested, and then, they will give you a great product as a result. Attendees should have a place to stay that is near (or in) the venue of the event. Events should be reasonably priced, and affordable food should be available nearby. Simple, right?
Well, philosophies are grand, but they do not do leg work or networking for you. Last year, I had two (count ‘em: 2!) key venues sold right out from under me. It almost meant the end of the well-established tribal dance conference I had been producing for eight years at the time, called TribalCon.
When I found out I was going to lose the Decatur, Georgia, hotel for our TribalCon venue, I was just going to quit the whole thing! To me, TribalCon was that location. It had everything I thought made an event affordable for attendees:
- you didn’t have to rent a car,
- anything you needed was within walking distance, and
- it was on the train line to the airport.
The hotel was sold and being upgraded. They were putting so much into it that they needed to make a lot more money — more than they could make on a bunch of artists and performers. The hotel could make more during one Friday evening wedding reception than they would make on us for the whole weekend. The price they were asking was ridiculous for us to consider, especially when the staff response time was below par and full of attitude. (You wouldn’t even want to know how sticky the floors were backstage in the food service area. …ick!)
My students expressed dismay at the idea of TribalCon’s end. It is hard to imagine that I even thought about that now. However, there have always been times when I wished secretly for TribalCon’s demise.
Please don’t get me wrong: I am terribly proud of TribalCon. It has been innovative in spotlighting thought-provoking lecturers like Donna Mejia and in putting such an emphasis on live music. However, each year I say, “I hear TribalCon is a great event; I’d love to go someday!” because I don’t get to experience much of its loveliness from behind a laptop in the staff room.
Event production on that scale involves a whole lot of time sitting in front of the computer year ‘round, and this means less time actually being a dancer. Also, as an introvert, the networking of walking around at events asking, “Have you heard about TribalCon?” can be pretty stressful, but this publicity is 100% necessary.
So, when I said, “Okay, fine! There will be no more TribalCon,” it was actually the hotel that encouraged me not to stop and said, “No, no! There will be plenty of other hotels that will want your business.” So, in one way, the hotel was uncooperative and discouraging about the whole thing because they didn’t even want to consider having us back (I felt heartbroken and my daughter was actually crying because she had grown up running in the halls of that venue) but also they were helpful to us by setting up meetings with a few hotels. Even other event producers in the sci fi and steampunk realm were encouraging by putting me in contact with their venues.
My search ended quickly. It was the third hotel I met with –I knew it was the one. The layout was exactly what TribalCon had needed all along plus they really wanted my event and they were willing to meet my price. Surprisingly, it didn’t turn out to be hard at all.
The best part was, and though I know this may seem silly, at this new location there were actually places to sit down! There were these cute crescent-shaped seating areas everywhere, including around the edge of the ballroom. Being a “convention” means that people should be convening and talking all weekend; suddenly, I had a venue with conversation areas.
We also had extra class space to hold a full track of lectures, a restaurant that was open all the time, free parking and a shuttle to the airport train station — not to mention that this venue had working elevators!
The old venue had one elevator that broke down every year, and every year I asked, “Okay, has the elevator been fixed?” and they would answer, “Oh yeah! They came out and completely gutted it and put in a whole new system.” Nevertheless, each year the same elevator would break down, and they would say, “Oh, well! It’s probably just the volume of people using it.” (However, TribalCon is not that big–compared to some of the large corporate events they held.) Luckily, we never had anyone stuck in it for more than three minutes, but I refused to ride in it!
Pitfalls to holding events in hotel ballrooms is that there is very little ambience when it comes to a show. In the top picture you can see the ceiling and boring wall. Luckily we have an amazing backdrop so what most of the audience sees is what you see in the April Rose picture below. Severe side angles like shown in the above photographer’s picture unfortunately reveal what we cannot cover up. Hopefully the audience will forget about the lack of theater space and focus on the lights, backdrop, dancers and music as seen in April Rose’s lovely photo! Both photos were taken this year- 2013.
So, TribalCon’s “forced move” turned out to have a silver lining after all, particularly in terms of customer service.
I’ve come to realize that having a well-managed venue with great customer service is just as important as in which area of town your event is taking place. To have the staff respond to what your customer requests, right when they need it, is worth its weight in gold. It comes down to this: when you ask them for something, do you hear an “Oh sure, I’ll go figure that out,” or do you hear a ‘huff’?
A lot of times belly dancers can only afford to go to one out of town event for the whole year. If they have a bad time because of poor customer service, it is unfortunate and discourages them from attending in the future. I’ve had plenty of those experiences. The problem is that you can’t really tell how well-managed a venue is until your event is in full swing. To make a well-educated guess, you can read online venue reviews and talk to other event producers, but you never really know until you’re in the thick of it.
For instance: Crossroads & Origins Fusion Festival, the other event I mentioned that had its venue sold right out from under it, had a lot more bruises than TribalCon in its first year (just last summer) and it is tiny–compared to TribalCon. Its venue was a small, casually run theater. It worked out great because it had a theater and dance studio all in the same space, which is just incredible, and exactly what you want.
Of course, anytime it’s your first year at a new venue there are going to be bumps. There were things they didn’t think to tell us about, such as:
- the location of the light switch for that really huge light or
- how to turn on the sound system (after the burlesque dancers who were in there rehearsing the night before switched it around, and now you can’t start your first class in the morning until you’ve figured it out).
With all of those first year debacles fleshed out and its inclusive layout, I would have loved to use that venue again. However, the building was sold and kept switching owners repeatedly because it was actually just one property in a large portfolio of properties.
Therefore, the theater people didn’t know what their life expectancy in the business was going to be. They said, “Well, we can book you six weeks ahead of time, but we can’t book you nine months ahead of time.” They did end up having to move out of the building just one month before “Crossroads & Origins”. We would have been scrambling for an event space at the last minute!
Therefore, last summer, I was forced to find a new home for Crossroads & Origins; awesome, just what I love to do in my free time! I really wanted the show to be in a full-theater setting and the classes to be in an actual dance studio, like last year.
What I didn’t want to end up with was a mini-TribalCon with a stage set up in a hotel ballroom; I wanted it to be the opposite of TribalCon.
I looked hard for a venue in the uptown areas my attendees are accustomed to going to for events, but I couldn’t find anything that was affordable. Finally, Aziza Nawal, an Awalim Dance Company teacher and principal dancer, had the idea to use the studio in which she teaches as the venue. It just happened to be directly across the street from an intimate live-music venue with a small stage and a performance space; so even though it’s situated north of the city in a busy area, it seemed to be a great fit.
The best point about our new space is that, last year, I had to split attendees up into two tracks due to the small rooms and cross my fingers, hoping that half the dancers would go to one class and half of them would go to the other, but our new venue has a much larger dance studio, so I’ll be able to have everyone in the same class at the same time.
The live music venue is very happy to have us, as we have started working actively with musicians here in town — plus many of our dancers have picked up classic instruments and started learning to play Arabic and Turkish music. They will be able to strut their stuff! Of course, at the time of writing this article, Crossroads & Origins is still a few weeks out; so I don’t know if I chose wisely yet. As they say: “The proof is in the pudding.”
So, the moral of my story is: don’t be afraid of change and don’t be scared to venture out to an area that isn’t necessarily your first pick. Sometimes, that huge pitfall that makes you want to throw your hands in the air and scream, “I quit!” could actually be a blessing in disguise. Do your homework, pay careful attention to online venue reviews and try to be open-minded about outside-of-the box solutions whenever necessary. Happy planning!
The old venue, a highlight vid from 2011 …with a clip of John Compton talking about the old days
Author’s bio page – also where you will find info on these festivals!
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