Spectra Contracts Alerus Center

After shakeup, Spectra takes on management, food services at Grand Forks’ Alerus Center

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: July 11, 2017

Things are settling down at Alerus Center, Grand Forks, N.D. after a timultuous year.

Following a tumultuous 2016, the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D., has selected Spectra by Comcast Spectator to provide venue management, food services and corporate partnership services for its conference center and 13,500-seat arena that is home to the University of North Dakota football team.

The deal was announced July 11, with Spectra taking on hospitality services as well at both facilities, with a focus on bringing in new dining options, new long-term business partners and delivering a high-quality customer experience.

“During the process, we were able to really connect with them and, like any other facility, they want to see more events in the arena, more concerts, better customer service and an enhanced experience for all the patrons of the facility,” said Tim Murphy, Spectra’s Regional Vice President (Northeast) overseeing the account for the 16-year-old building. “When we looked at it, we thought we could certainly enhance the arena bookings and build upon what they’ve already done at the conference center and increase the quality of bookings for our client. The city of Grand Forks has invested a lot of money into it and our Director of Facility Audits, Tim Landis, is working on a capital program for the remainder of 2017, but also 2018 and beyond.”

As part of its commitment to the venue, Spectra has brought in a crack team of more than half a dozen of its most experienced integrated services staff to help bring the facility in line with the company’s protocols. The list includes Landis, Pam Plageman, regional VP, (with a specialty in the food space); Laurie Kemmit, VP, corporate partnerships; Kendra Ziler, regional human resources director; Rick Hontz, (regional VP, Midwest); Murphy, Riley Simenson, director of marketing; and Cole Johnson, box office manager.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAlfAAAAJDlkYTVmYzhhLTIwZTktNDU1MS1hOTcxLWRlZjA2YWJlNmRjZA.jpgAnna Rosburg, the new GM at Alerus Center, Grand Forks, N.D.

Among the other experienced staffers brought on board is Anna Rosburg, the venue’s new GM, who comes to the job from a five-year stint at the three-decades-old Casper Events Center, Casper, Wyo. “I’m excited to have a new, beautiful building that the client has done a great job maintaining and that gives us a lot to grow on by working through our resources,” said Rosburg, a native of Minnesota who said the job is like coming home again to the Midwest. “It’s nice to have such a multiuse facility with a large arena with a wonderful tenant, suites and premium seating and a high-capacity opportunity on the booking side. Versatility is key in this area, and it gives us options to bring in a lot of events.”

Alerus has gone this route before with two previous management companies — Venue Works and Compass — and Julie Rygg, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau said after five years of the city-owned facility going it alone, they weren’t sure they wanted to go back to a management deal. In November, Mayor Mike Brown fired former executive director Cheryl Swanson (following the firing of former assistant facility director Bob LeBarron) amid charges of a hostile working environment and questionable expense reporting, which set off a plan to use a search firm to find a new executive director. “The search firm asked if we would consider a management company, and we weren’t sure we wanted to go down a one-size-fits-all route again,” said Rygg.

But after a request for qualifications was sent out and the city began talking to a few companies, Spectra wowed them by doing an “amazing” job on their homework and bringing several staffers out numerous times to meet with the community, tour the building and find out what the city was looking for in a management company. “When Spectra came in they knew what we were looking for and what we needed,” she said.

The clincher was Spectra’s sales and marketing approach, something the city was interested in given their knowledge that during tight fiscal times marketing budgets are typically the first to get cut. “The city and commission wanted an emphasis on sales for conventions and corporate sponsorship and suite sales,” she said. “Spectra came in and met with us, and they got that on their own. They came in and gave us ideas on how we can improve that with the promise that that is where their focus will be.”

Rosburg said the building’s employees had to reapply for their jobs in the move from a city-run to privately-managed facility and the “majority” of the staff members were kept on for their deep knowledge of the market and their history with the facility. “I got to experience first-hand in Casper how we provide integrated services, so my priority is meeting with the client and becoming immersed in being a good community partner,” she said. For now, Rosburg is also busy working with Kemmit hiring for a few key positions — Director of Corporate Partnerships, Director of Conference Sales and Marketing, an office Administrative Assistant and HR rep.

According to Rygg, Alerus had around 20-25 full-time employees and 220 part-timers, with the majority getting rehired, save for three employees who were not offered positions and one who did not want to renew their contract. “We were very concerned about the dedicated people who work here and our priority was for people to not end up worse off than they were and with the same, if not better, pay and benefits,” she said. “Spectra did what they promised in that area.”

With more than 300 bookings a year between the arena and conference center, Murphy said Spectra is confident it can grow traffic in the building even as staffers such as Plageman work with Alerus’ food services department to assess potential improvement in the arena concessions, upgrades to the catering and dining experience in suites, premium areas and conference center and bringing Spectra’s culinary expertise to the banquets area. “We’re taking a good operation and adding more resources and giving it more options,” he said, noting that he believes that better food services options will help increase revenue.

As for what the overall revenue increase could be with the food and beverage makeover and added bookings, Murphy said his team is in the process of working up budgets right now, with no way to estimate yet what the per caps might rise to with the new options. “In every place we’ve been, we’ve been able to take the existing operation and generate more income through the power of network purchasing, added resources and our good management experience,” he said.

Given that Spectra just took over the management in July and the next fiscal year doesn’t begin until January 1, Murphy said there’s a six month “stub year” cushion for the company to get situated, with no 2018 budget completed yet while the company does its due diligence. “When you look at what we do as a company, this venue fits perfectly into that portfolio with our network of integrated services,” he said, adding that a goal of increasing revenue by as much as $100,000 a year by 2021 is “attainable.”

With a stable arena tenant in the Univ. of North Dakota football team and capacity for up to 22,000 for concerts and variable sizing for family shows and sporting events (in addition to 14 luxury suites and a club lounge) and more than 160,000 square feet of convention and trade show space at the adjacent convention center, plus a 30,000 square-foot ballroom and 100,000 square-foot trade show floor with state-of-the-art acoustical design, Murphy said the building blocks were already in place for a successful partnership. No major renovations are planned for the building, though the arena was already scheduled to shut down for about a month before the football season kicks off at the end of August for an already-planned project to install an extensive LED lighting system and new sound system. A third already-in-the-works project to upgrade the building’s WiFi is close to completion.

For now, there are no plans to pursue any new naming rights deals, as the deal with Alerus runs through 2020. “Activating partners who are already here, particularly in food service operations — we’re looking to brand some concession stands we already have and take those that are here and enhance the experience — and working closely with the University to enhance their corporate sponsorships with the athletic program and make it work for any tenants to grow the level of business is a priority,” Murphy said of plans for increased activations and sponsorships in the building. While Murphy could not give a figure on potential growth, he said for a lot of Spectra’s accounts they’ve been able to grow business by 20-25 percent. “Here we think that’s achievable in a short period of time,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good people here, and we were able to take a good core staff and make them better by supporting them with good corporate resources. We’re taking a building with a fair level of success and moving it up a bit. This is what we’ve done as a company for a long time, and these are the kind of challenges we’ve excelled in. It’s our sweet spot.”

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: July 11, 2017