Little details consume big events firm
Road Shows Inc. operates something like a combination of the military and a carnival, says Randy Burke.
The Reno-based company’s next big show — a carnival that runs with military-like attention to detail — will draw between 35,000 and 50,000 motorcycles to Reno and Sparks for the 19th Street Vibrations Fall Rally Sept. 25-29.
Unlike other major special events in Reno and Sparks, Street Vibrations is produced as a for-profit event by Road Shows Inc.
Creating that profit is tougher than it looks, says Burke, the company’s president.
Try insuring a special event. The staff of Road Shows Inc. is on the phone almost every day with the insurance specialist who provides coverage for the two dozen events that the Reno company produces around the nation each year.
“Every time you turn around, there’s another liability being tacked on,” Burke says.
Or get the local government permits for a special event — permits for parades, permits for outdoor concerts, permits to close streets for special events. And every town in which Road Shows does business has its own way of issuing permits.
Security is a big concern, and a crisis management plan is printed on the back of the badges worn by Road Shows staff at every event.
“You just can’t let your guard down,” the Road Shows president says.
And, like any business staff, Burke and his staff need to pay close attention to the markets they serve.
Despite common wisdom, for instance, about a third of the participants in Street Vibrations — one of five motorcycle-themed events produced by Road Shows — are women.
That means that vendors are as likely to be selling jewelry as chromed motorcycle accessories at Street Vibrations and the other company’s other motorcycle events. Along with Street Vibrations, which operates a spring event in Sparks and the big autumn show in Reno, Sparks, Carson City and Virginia City, Road Shows Inc. produces Good Vibrations in Keizer and Salem, Ore., American Heat in Palm Springs, Calif., and Hog Wild in Ocean Shores, Wash.
And Burke’s team just wrapped up a week-long rally at one of the largest Harley-Davidson dealerships in Milwaukee, part of the motorcycle maker’s 110th anniversary at Labor Day. That kept Road Shows Inc. crews busy for 18 consecutive days, and they hustled back to Reno to finish preparations for Street Vibrations.
Burke, who’s been producing big special events since he worked as manager of Hot August Nights in nearly two decades ago, says the company’s events are beginning to rebound after years of struggle through the financial crisis.
Road Shows Inc. generates multiple streams of income from its events — entry fees, sponsorships, sales of T-shirts and other merchandise, management fees from cities or tourism agencies. Occasionally, it also generates some grant income to support a special event.
But as consumers tightened their belts during the recession, they traveled to fewer special events and bought less merchandise. Cities and tourism agencies were less willing to launch new events.
“It was bad,” Burke says.
He stopped taking a salary from the company and focused on keeping its core staff together. After all, he says, the expertise in events management is the service that Road Shows sells, and he didn’t want to lose expertise through layoffs.
The company’s employment numbers swing wildly through the course of a year from a low about 12 during the darkest days of winter to about 10 times that number at the height of the summer festival season.
“Around here, it’s feast or famine,” says Burke.
When the firm is busiest, the staff often works 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week.
Along with its motorcycle-themed events, Road Shows’ big productions include a Festival of Lights parade that typically draws about 120,000 to the streets of Palm Springs, Calif., and a Veterans Day parade in Palm Springs that draws about 80,000.
It’s busy, too, with lots of one-off events — corporate parties, holiday events, executive birthday parties and the like. Burke has even developed a production or two for casino showrooms, and he’s handled local production for movie shoots.
And even when it’s not handling the entire production, Road Shows subcontracts its services to other promoters. For instance, the company designs and prints T-Shirts for the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off in Sparks. The company rents out props — including a big collection of showgirl headdresses — for other productions.
Along with the myriad of details involved with a production such as Street Vibrations, Burke’s team wants to keep its shows fresh. That gets challenging with an event such as Street Vibrations, now in its 19th year.
“We’re constantly changing it ever year,” Burke says. This year, for instance, the company is bringing film and TV star Erik Estrada — best known for his role in “CHiPs” — to Street Vibrations.
Some things don’t change.
Street Vibrations is a major tourism draw — it will account for somewhere around 25,000 room-nights at the region’s hotels — and Road Show Inc. staff members hope to create a desire among visitors to make a return trip.
A key element in that strategy, Burke says, is an annual poker run that takes participants through Carson City, Virginia City and the Lake Tahoe basin as well as Reno and Sparks. Participants who get a glimpse of the region are likely to return on their own for a longer experience.
For all the planning, however, there’s nothing that Burke and his staff can do about the weather.
He still shakes his head about a “Fort Reno” event he produced a few years ago in downtown Reno. Rains and high winds killed attendance, and the event died a quick death.
And weather contributed to the biggest challenge ever faced by the company. High winds tore through the tents of a high-end auto auction that Road Shows was producing in Arizona a few years ago.
The company’s staff had seven hours to rebuild the production before the auction began at noon — and they made it.
“The weather? Things happen to us all the time,” Burke says.
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