City of Key West looking at venue management for amphitheater
A few weeks ago, the Keys Weekly broke the news that Jimmy Buffett and his booking agency were in talks to solidify a spring/summer concert at the Key West amphitheater. Not only did the news of a major Key West concert set off a firestorm of excitement among parrot heads — it also revealed a pressing need for a management company to run and operate the 3,500-seat facility.
As of today, the (yet to be named) Truman Waterfront Theater has already accepted applications for shows and concerts, recently inking a contract for an upcoming country music festival. And while the initial process had many gray areas for commissioners to preside over at the last commission meeting, the long-term goal is to partner with a management company that handles everything from trash and parking to booking and ticket sales.
“Anyone can apply, as long as they have the insurance and money to hold an event there,” said Alison Higgins, sustainability coordinator for the City of Key West. “And the hiring of a venue management team and the RFP will be going for commission approval within a month.”
Although the city has operating guidelines for an amphitheater (a lengthy 18-page report filled with recommendations on everything from booking acts to managing traffic and sound), the executive summary of the Waterfront Amphitheater Report states, “Many well-intentioned amphitheaters failed for lack of active management.” However, if cities are best served by staying out of the concert and event business, then just who should be in charge and what should the contract entail?
Bill Muehlhauser and his company, Rams Head Group, have been an independent concert promoter for 20 plus years, having managed the famed Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore from 2006-2016. Muehlhauser has lived full-time in Key West for the past decade and the Rams Head Group has been behind the recent mainstream music movement at the Key West Theater —booking such acts as the Gin Blossoms, Lee Ann Womack, Big Head Todd, Edwin McCain, and Dave Mason.
“People warned me no one would pay for a ticket to see music in Key West, and I was almost convinced,” said Muehlhauser. But sold out shows, out-of-town ticket holders and a growing resume of national acts have proven Muehlhauser’s naysayers wrong. In fact, many argued the Key West Theater proved to be an accurate stepping stone for a larger venue during the debates surrounding the approval for the Key West amphitheater.
Rams Head Group has keen interest in managing the new theater, given its experience running both bar venues and “boutique” amphitheaters. The Baltimore amphitheater seats 4,300 and Key West will be 3,500, meaning the types of acts, community events, food and beverage sales, ticketing, parking and other management elements are extremely familiar to Muehlhauser and his company.
“You have to remember, no matter who is awarded the management contract for the amphitheater, they will still have to use an agency to book mainstream acts,” said Muehlhauser. “We have 30 years of experience running bars, all with live music, and large concert venues, which means we cut out the middle man. We are the booking agency and I can tell you that not just anyone can just pick up the phone and get through to the larger names in music. They will likely be using us or a company like us, and I would rather keep it local,” he said, smiling.
Muehlhauser, who is typically reserved, said that while he respects many of the people who will likely be bidding for the potential RFP, he also fears an inexperienced person or group could pigeon hole one type of entertainment or cut off opportunities that a seasoned agency like his brings to the table.
“What I really want is a flexible space for the community,” said Muehlhauser. “And there is so much more to the amphitheater than just concerts. It’s a wonderful venue for dozens of community events throughout the year, which all deserve professional attention.”
In addition, Muehlasuer stressed the need for the city to examine all facets of a managing partner, noting that even the type of entertainer and bands can often dictate the type of visitor and patron the community will be attracting.
“There is so much more to consider when booking [acts],” he said. “For a city like Key West, you not only want a considerate music goer, you also want them booking rooms, spending money in our restaurants and contributing to our local economy.”
Just in the last two years, Rams Head Group has booked acts such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Gregg Allman, Santana, John Fogerty and Third Eye Blind at Pier Six. With each act, Muehlhauser said, a great deal of strategic planning goes into the marketing, production and community impact — all with a specific target market in mind, something he hopes to continue in his hometown of Key West.
“We gotta put our toe in the water and see how people respond, which will definitely regulate how we move forward,” said Muehlhauser, who is well aware of the community issues facing the potential effects of large concerts.
Either way, the largest hurdle has been cleared for the amphitheater, which is just a few months shy of completion. From there, commissioners will seemingly decide on a managing partner, which will certainly play a large role in the immediate success of the southernmost amphitheater in the United States. (Hey, that sounds like a great name!)
“For many, the business of running an amphitheater is a completely different world, with its own language and customs.” executive summary, Truman Waterfront Amphitheater report
Open Venue Model: In the open venue model, the venue operator does not take the risk of the success of a concert or event, but will be paid a fee for the rights to use the venue. The promoter will be responsible for managing and paying for the talent, advertising and promoting the event, stagehands, load-in and -out and paying for the security and ushers. Venue operator can still be associated with a single promotion company, but could not limit other promoters from hosting events.