Bob Seger performs May 16 at PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte, N.C. New LED videoboards replace old projection technology at Live Nation’s amphitheaters. (Don Muret / Staff)

Sports architect Dan Meis developed a plan that packages improvements for every part of the operation, from premium spaces to the back of the house

Live nation is investing millions of dollars to renovate its 50-plus amphitheaters over the next five years. The upgrades touch all aspects of operations, from parking to concessions, restrooms and technology, said Tom See, the company’s president of concerts for U.S. venues.

Reserved lawn sections, improved premium spaces with communal boxes and VIP clubs, plus back-of-house renovations to better accommodate touring artists, are part of refreshing the outdoor music venues, See said. He declined to give the precise amount that Live Nation is spending on the work.

It’s a daunting process, considering the vast number of amphitheaters across Live Nation’s portfolio. To help manage the process, the firm hired sports architect Dan Meis to develop a comprehensive plan for renovations. 

“I asked Dan to give me the ‘art of the possible,’” See said. “We have over 50 amphitheaters and he was up to the task. He did a real cool plan for one of the venues and I said, ‘Let’s go’ and try to figure this out over time.”

Meis, among the original designers of Staples Center, contacted Live Nation after attending a Mumford & Sons concert a few years ago at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, where he lives. Looking around the venue, which is owned by the city of Los Angeles and run by SMG, it occurred to Meis that there was an opportunity overall to elevate the premium experience at amphitheaters. 

The timing was right to reach out. Live Nation officials had been discussing extensive renovations, according to Meis. In making contact, Meis discovered Gary Ehrlich, formerly with Fox Sports Enterprises, was now Live Nation’s executive vice president of physical plants and venues. They had a business relationship dating to when Meis did some work at Dodger Stadium. Fox Sports Enterprises owned the Dodgers from 1998 to 2004. 

See worked at Universal Studios and The Walt Disney Co. before Live Nation hired him in October 2015, and his strength lies in the hospitality piece of the entertainment business. Over time, he has had to learn the concert side and what’s important for the fans and artists.

Together, See and Meis formed a road map for improvements across all the amphitheaters.

“We started the work with the idea of doing an ‘experience audit’ on all of the venues,” Meis said. “There wasn’t really much differentiation in the seating product … nothing like we’re seeing in the arena and stadium market in terms of suites and loge boxes.”

Fans can buy reserved lawn seats for a $20 to $30 upcharge as part of Live Nation’s effort to upgrade the amphitheater experience. (Courtesy Live Nation)

“Obviously, the amphitheater market is different,” he said. “It’s seasonal and outdoors. It’s not so much a season ticket market but more of a per-event customer, which led us to think differently about what those products could be. It’s largely a younger generation market, and they look for a different VIP product than we might see in an arena.”

The upgrades address feedback from Live Nation customer surveys gauging fan experience. In many cases, patrons pointed out the lines were too long at entrance gates, concession stands and restrooms, which led to Live Nation increasing its point-of-sale ratios by up to 40% to help resolve one part of the issue, See said.

Taking a cue from its festival partner C3 Presents, Live Nation has equipped some amphitheaters with Sanitrax toilet structures, a design upgrade over typical port-a-potties. The units flush directly into the venue’s sewer system and have helped Live Nation increase its restroom facilities by 25% at its biggest venues.

“Imagine an airplane restroom … where you feel like it’s cleaner than a Porta-John,” See said. “It gives the fan a much upgraded experience. We can bring them to other locations for bigger shows. Depending on the market, they’re in place at the venue for the entire season.”

Meis said permanent bathrooms at the amphitheaters are undergoing some subtle changes with color and graphics and lighting to make them “not just feel like a concrete box with toilets and partitions in them.” 

The areas outside the restrooms become gathering spaces for friends and family waiting for one another, providing opportunities to install charging stations for mobile phones and digital signs with information on coming shows, Meis said.

For amphitheaters, 60% of the audience typically has lawn seats, See said. To provide a stronger connection to the show for those attendees, Live Nation is installing new LED screens to replace old projection technology. 

The new screens, supplied by ANC, are in place at about 20 facilities with the balance to be installed for next year. They provide clear images in daylight, a big improvement over projection technology that doesn’t take effect until nightfall.

For better connectivity, Live Nation has upgraded 30 of its biggest amphitheaters with free Wi-Fi, designed with greater bandwidth, and it’s installing distributed antenna systems for mobile devices in general.

Communal boxes, the VIP sections situated in the middle of the pavilion, are getting dressed up with new furniture to create a premium feel to those seats. Meis looked to the Las Vegas pool cabanas, nightclubs and restaurants for inspiration on the redesign of those high-end spaces.

“The VIP product has basically been the same seats as the rest of the pavilion, separated by rails and canvas,” Meis said. “It’s the idea of creating an open living room feel. It’s not an enclosure with walls and ceilings, but you get a different vibe from that box.”

Early renderings showed couch seating, wet bars and graphic treatments framing communal boxes. The redesign is a work in progress as See sets a vision for where he wants to take the concept, Meis said. 

“We’re starting to beta test more of a communal suite experience,” See said. “We expect to learn a lot this summer and get more feedback from the fans as we elevate the experience inside the pavilion. We’ll start small and scale accordingly.”

Most of the VIP lounges, which are outdoor spaces apart from the seating bowl with no views to the stage, have been renovated. Crate & Barrel has a partnership with Live Nation to furnish those clubs with a more consistent look with upgraded bars and drink menus, See said. 

At Dos Equis Pavilion in Dallas and BB&T Pavilion in Camden, N.J., which serves Greater Philadelphia, Live Nation is testing an even higher level of premium access in a hip “black box” format in indoor spaces that were previously undeveloped, See said.

For the premium market in general, Live Nation’s strategy is to redevelop those areas in the amphitheaters that book the highest number of shows to generate the return on investment to pay for the renovations, See said. 

“I’m happy with our progress,” he said. “We’re also spending money back-of-house. We’re in a very competitive marketplace when it comes to where the artists play. They have alternatives at arenas and stadiums, or they may not play that market at all.”

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