Behind the scenes at a Schottenstein Center concert

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From the September 4, 2014 edition

It’s commonly said where there’s smoke there’s fire. Fortunately, however, this isn’t always the case.

Early one Saturday morning in late July, Colin Thompson, assistant general manager of operations for the Schottenstein Center, was seated behind the desk in his backstage office when a crew member popped his head in.

“There’s a lot of smoke [coming from the caterer preparing the crew lunch]. Is that OK?” he asked. “I just don’t want them calling the fire department.”

After assuring the gentleman the smoke was of no concern, Thompson, a 14-year vet with the arena, which opened in 1998, returned to his job extinguishing the various metaphorical fires that flared up as a crew somewhere north of 180 people helped prepare the building for an evening performance from Canadian big-band crooner Michael Buble.

“[At this point] we’re tightening everything up and making sure communication is solid,” he said. “The front of house staff has been looking at the traffic plan. Are they going to have nightly closures on 315 that’re going to screw up inbound traffic? It looks like we’re going to get nasty weather. Do we want to do our pre-party inside? Right now it’s really managing the variables that could crop up.

“I always tell the operations staff you guys have the least glamorous job because you’ll only hear about it if something goes wrong. If you do your job perfect and all the lights come on and the air conditioning works and the toilets flush and nothing happens, then nobody says anything. And that’s the best compliment you can get: no comment.”

In actuality the planning for arena concerts — including this weekend’s performance from Ohio natives the Black Keys — begins months in advance, with the concert promoter arranging tour details with the artist’s management and representatives from venues across the country.

“The legwork starts with the act and the manager [deciding] how they want to approach the tour,” said Bredan Buckley, vice president of booking, Columbus Arena Sports and Entertainment. “They’re figuring out how they want to tour, how many dates they want to play, where they want to start, where they want to end and how many days off they want in between each show.”

From there, scheduling functions like assembling a giant puzzle, with artists, management and promoters working in tandem to locate and lock in open dates with a sprawling network of venues. The Black Keys, for example, knew it wanted to kick off the tour in Ohio, so negotiations centered on locations with enough open dates to accommodate the launch (generally tour kickoff shows require three to four extra days for setup and rehearsal). With two large-scale venues (the Schott and Nationwide Arena) operated by the same management company, Columbus is uniquely positioned to offer more open dates to welcome these types of shows, which helps explain why artists like Maroon 5, Fleetwood Mac and Luke Bryant have all opened tours here in recent years.

The action really ramps up in the weeks leading up to the concert. Arena representatives remain in contact with tour management, negotiating final details that range from creature comforts (How many dressing rooms does the artist require? What types of food/beverage will satisfy the tour rider?) to more nuts-and-bolts staging requirements (What is the rig going to look like? What are the power requirements to put on the concert?).

Meanwhile, venue staff charged with overseeing the guest experience researches concert demographics and adjusts plans accordingly. Michael Buble, for example, tends to draw a heavily female audience, so three of the men’s bathrooms were converted to women’s to accommodate the extra traffic. Final decisions on staffing requirements are also made at this point. Buble’s older, more subdued audience required less manpower than the typical rock concert, where as many as 30 security personnel might be dedicated solely to guarding the stage.

The morning of any concert, production manager Aaron Thomas is typically one of the first people in the building. He arrives between 5 and 6 a.m., and begins with a walkthrough of the dock, the floor and the backstage area to make sure everything is set up as the artist’s team requested. When the first tour trucks roll in — generally around 7 or 8 a.m. — the staff balloons considerably. For Buble, the venue employed 72 stage hands who worked to unload the trucks and set up the stage, lighting and sound equipment. The same team returned at the close of the concert to break down the gear and repack the trucks.

At 10 a.m., the floor of the Schott looked like the floor of a giant toddler’s room haphazardly littered with oversized Erector Set pieces. Metal scaffolding ringed the in-progress stage, and dozens of wires and cables dangled from beams perched 93 feet in the air. A pair of video screens flopped lazily over the lower level seats, waiting to be hoisted into place.

By noon the scene was starting to take recognizable shape. At that point the doors were locked down and the foggers kicked on to begin creating haze, a smoky visual effect that gives stage lights that extra pop. Shortly before 2 p.m., the staff started setting the chairs, beginning from the front of the stage and working backwards to the rear.

As all of this was going on, executive chef Tim Dionisio was already well into his prep work, which started in earnest around 9 a.m. in the arena’s kitchen, a well-lit, stainless-steel-and-tile dominated space that gave off a vaguely surgical air (assuming medical spaces smelled strongly of caramelized onions and oven-smoked meat).

Working with a small staff of eight, Dionisio prepared everything from smoked turkey legs and St. Louis-style ribs (for a suite that ordered the venue’s premium package) to hot dogs, which were marked on the grill and finished en masse in the kitchen’s steamers. He also helped oversee the venue’s 35 concession stands (the number varies based on event requirements), which expected to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 hot dogs, 2,500 orders of nachos and 2,000 pretzels to the Buble crowd.

Unlike Motley Crue’s early July concert, where kegs were blowing eight at a time and beer reps were on site in the parking lot with refrigerated trucks packed as tight as a Tetris board, arena reps anticipated alcohol sales would be significantly lower this day, aside from an expected uptick in wine sales. For the Black Keys, officials expect a more Crue-like 90-10 split between alcohol and food consumption.

Around 4 p.m. much of the arena went into lockdown while Buble and his crew ran through sound check. Concurrently, arena staff continued to monitor traffic using an elaborate camera system, which was installed in 2011 and is a marked improvement over the previously employed method, which involved running around the perimeter of the building’s upper level with walkie-talkies in hand.

“For an event like tonight … we have almost 9,000 people coming, so we actively manage the traffic, diverting people to different places [to park],” said Scott Dickson, director of event services and guest experiences. “We’re also monitoring the entrances. If people pile up at one entrance we can direct staff to move them down to another. These cameras give us an idea how people are flowing.”

An hour before doors opened, supervisors gathered in the main floor conference room for a brief meeting to go over final event details. They discussed what to expect during the performance (“There will be ‘booms’ [accompanying] ‘Cry Me a River’ … and 100 pounds of confetti on ‘All You Need Is Love’”), the appearances of various crew and VIP identification badges and how to handle an attendee who opts to stand, obstructing the view of those seated behind him or her (“If someone wants to stand, it’s their seat”).

Before adjourning the meeting, event services staffer Amber Louck offered one final piece of advice to the assembled crew that sounded specifically tailored to Buble and his finely attired, wine-sipping audience.

“Tonight, more than usual,” she said, “let’s keep it classy.”

Photos by Andy Downing