Ticketbud Tidbits Episode 5 - CJ Alderton
Posted in Spotlights on May 5, 2017
CJ Alderton is a busy man - he runs Patrick Crossing, a church that takes place in a pub, and he also heads the annual Durango Celtic Festival in Durango, Colorado. We speak with him about what you need to do to get a strong festival going, how to scale it, and how to use word-of-mouth marketing. You can listen to the audio here, and as always, the transcript is right below. Enjoy! Also, if you would like to appear on the show, you can email me at Sean AT ticketbud.com.
CJ: Well thank you for having me. I didn’t realize you knew so much about me!
Sean: Ha, well that’s the thing about the internet these days. You can really look up just about anything. But I assure you, it’s all good.
CJ: Oh, well that’s good.
Sean: CJ, first thing I wanted to ask is how did the Durango Celtic Festival get started, how did you get into organizing it?
CJ: Well a little bit of history, the city of Durango is a big music venue we have music in the mountains in the summer and it lasts 3 weeks. We also have a bluegrass festival with a small Celtic portion called Celt Down at the Meltdown. The bluegrass festival is called Melt Down. So there is a little bit of stuff going on but then some folks moved from Ireland and developed a massive pub, a pub called the Irish Embassy Pub. And they began to do Irish jam sessions and so we began to attract, and bands began to form around the Celtic genre, another community nearby started a Highland games which is a Scottish deal. And about 5-6 years ago, the Henry Strater theatre and the Henry Strater hotel approached us and asked us if we’d be interested in starting a Celtic festival during what they call the shoulder season. We’re a tourist town. So skiing at the point is starting to taper down. So we have got 5 seasons. Spring summer fall winter and the mud seasons. So March is the mud season. And we did it right around St. Patrick’s day, we started 5 years ago with 5 or 6 board members. We didn’t really know what we were doing, we just felt around our way along, and the thing is it’s just kind of blown up. We’ve been able to attract the top names in Celtic music, and we’re very proud of the acts. We’re like a boutique festival, it’s a situation where the shoe is telling the foot how big it is. We can only get about 250 sales per night, but now there’s talk of letting it take off to multi venue, we’re gonna see what’s it’s all about. it’s a lot of work even for a small festival especially with the kind of quality we’ve been able to get here. So the last 2 years we’ve sold out every night, and we fully anticipate doing that every year.
Sean: Awesome. Awesome, so a couple things I wanted to touch on first was, how do you keep getting it growing, what do you do. Do you do certain types of marketing, do you think referrals, what are the big things that keep the growth going year after year?
CJ: Just, first of all, pure determination. You know, I can tell you some things we shouldn’t have done, it’d be just as helpful.
Sean: I mean, it would be.
CJ: I mean, one of the things, the more successful you become, I literally hear around from agents and bands around the world all the time, I’m always emailing somebody. because we’re in sort of an out of the way location, I’ve learned to take advantage of the beauty of where we live in Colorado, it’s a tremendous location. You can do 12 vacations in one spot here, there’s so much to do. However we are off the beaten track so we’ve learned that we have to be very proactive in booking bands. Up to 24 months ahead, which sounds kind of weird when you’re approaching agents with that. But what they can do is, we’re typically a pass through venue on the way to a town, either Denver or Santa Fe or Albuquerque. They like the money we’re able to pay and it’s a short drive from those places. So we’ve learned how to negotiate from what we have and leverage the venue. The other thing we’ve learned is to leverage our historic five-star hotel. The guests who stay in a five star hotel, walk two minutes to get to our green room, then 30 seconds on stage. And it’s all under one roof, so we’re leveraging what we have in a small location and we’re doing it pretty well. As far as marketing, we did the typical social media thing Facebook that went from 5 likes to we’re close to 1000 now, we use Mailchimp, that’s been pretty handy. We have 600 or 700 people on it now and it keeps growing. Yeah, we try not to pester people, we try to do Celtic events throughout the year, and it’s not so intensive on us, but we try not to overdo it. People get a lot of stuff in the mail. We just try to make it worthwhile when they get it. When we first began, we were using a nonprofit ticketing agency, and it was great, they were very helpful, someone was always on the phone, and we had to wait two weeks after the event to get a check from them, so that killed our cash flow.
Sean: I bet!
CJ: So we had to hold off on paying people, and that was just embarrassing. So that’s why we sought out a different avenue this past year.
Sean: Well, we appreciate it! -laughing- That wasn’t planned, to our listeners, don’t worry. That was totally organic. Um, so anyway, so regarding the marketing - so you said you did some social media and email marketing, I’m curious, how far before do you send emails for people to buy tickets? What’s your strategy?
CJ: Well, I’d like to say that it’s firm but it’s not. So this year we tried to get something rolling with you guys and take advantage of the holidays from Thanksgiving to Christmas to do an early bird. And it actually worked really good. We encouraged people to get a ticket for someone as a Christmas gift to the festival. And we sold like 50 or 60 tickets before December 31st. We always do thank you afterwards, and try to give afterwards, because the bands are booked so far in advance, what the festival is going to look like next year and what bands are going to be playing. It’s a Celtic festival which means we’re drawing from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Evergreens, the Great Britain sound up year. And next year it just fell that it’s going to be all Scottish next year. So it’s going to be the Scottish Invasion. So we’re going to have a lot of fun with that, and have the Scottish flag. So whether they vote to stay or leave Britain with their own little "Scotexit". But we’ll be on top of it.
Sean: And I have to admit, that’s nice, from a festival goers point of view, it’s very refreshing, because it seems like, Im reading about ACL. They don’t tell you who’s playing until a couple months before, sometimes after you buy tickets, and you’re shaking your head now. You don’t know what you’re getting when you’re buying tickets, and once you know they raise prices.
CJ: Yeah, we would never do that. In fact, I can say this, we try to do a personal profile on each musician of every band before they get here. We do that all on Facebook, not on email. And then we do band profiles by email. We try to, you know, you look at your lineup and you get to know these people even before the festival. And it just so happened that last year for this festival we had four hot female fiddlers. And usually it’s some curmudgeonly old dude up there, but sawing away, but we had these beautiful ladies, so we kind of made it the year of the female fiddler. We didn’t make it a big emphasis, but it was kind of a hook. Trying to educate ourselves on their music so we can sing along. There’s other things we do. I know we’re talking about marketing to an audience, but we also do marketing towards the Celtic family. And so the artists themselves are part of our marketing strategy because they do good gossip for us. They say “of all the small venues, you have got to go to Durango.” And we just get people swamping us and that’s very important to us to the extent that we reach out to the artist and say “what would you like as a gift bag in your room?” and we get everything from Granny Smith apples to exotic beers, a lot of whisky requests, chocolates. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is right here so, they don’t know about that, so we get that out to them too. And for the girls we get flowers, and they love it when they see right in the middle this big gift package from us. And so that’s marketing as well, just a different way of doing it.
Sean: No I think that’s a great idea, I’ve heard a lot of times, sometimes venues don’t treat the artists right. And then they don’t get as many artists as they want. So I think what you’re doing is great, set an example to other people who want to get repeat artists or other artists in the same genre. That’s awesome.
Sean: So shifting gears a bit, so talking more about the festival, I was curious - have you ever had to deal with unruly customers or ones who were unsatisfied, and if so, how did you rectify that problem.
CJ: -laughs- So the first couple years, we didn’t even think about security. It wasn’t a thing. And then, world events make you start getting a little bit goosy about it. So we brought in some large men with bright red shirts that say Security on them. We post them in strategic places. For practical reasons, some of the instruments these guys are carrying are worth ten or twenty thousand dollars. You don’t want those getting walked out with.We always have coverage. We’re not trying to be subtle or surreptitious about it. We’re saying we have big people who will hurt you if you act up. We’ve had a few grumbles over the years, it’s going to happen. And I just try to deal with it personally and I always start my letter with: “Thank you so much for reaching out to us with your concerns” and blah blah blah. But, I heard a rumor that a guy was wanting to pick a fight one night and he went on a rampage and wrote some stuff to the newspaper. His whole beef was people opening their phone and taking a photo, and he was very sensitive to that, so whatever, my cure for that was I let it blow over and didn’t respond to the newspapers that took the hook. I took him off our mailing list, I figured if he didn’t like us, then that was his problem. He’d have to work to come back to our festival. It wasn’t a big deal. One of the things about Celtic music is it’s under that big umbrella under folk music. So you have Celtic music, you have bluegrass, and whatever, world music. You have the luxury of a listening audience. you can hear a pin drop when the bands are playing. Its not like rock or country music where all hell’s breaking loose.
Sean: Yeah, I was at a concert last night, my ears are still ringing. A day later.
CJ: Yeah, so its actually a pretty polite audience, We try to anticipate as many possible problems. One of the problems we didn’t know, we didn’t even hear about the grumbling, but we were grumbling about it. Was just how to get people in quickly. There’s a bart inside the theatre and of course the Strater (hotel) just wants us to push people there to get their thirst satiated before the bands start. So how did we get them from the queue to the place quick enough. Again, that’s another reason why we chose Ticketbud. You guys helped us out a lot there.
Sean: Well thank you!
CJ: You guys really made it seamless and I gotta say it was, we had one little blip, but it was our fault, not yours.
Sean: That’s all good, did you manage to rectify - how did you resolve the problem? Was it regarding the refund?
CJ: No it wasn’t the refund, we got that sorted out with you guys, it was trying to estimate. It’s very difficult because I also serve as the Chaplain for the Durango Fire & Rescue here, I can’t be breaking the law -laughs- with overcrowding. They have the sign up there with how many people the building can hold. You have to do real time guessing with when you are really sold out. Our biggest goal is to sell out before the first night, which we came really close to doing, but you have to make some decisions. And when you send someone out on a run to see if there’s empty seats and who’s at the bar, well we couldn’t quite get the metrics exactly dialed in. For you guys, you have to put in exactly where the sold out place is. And in our metrics that we set up, what we did, is we kept selling tickets but if we didn’t do what we did. If we didn’t change it, Ticketbud wouldn’t have allowed us to keep selling but since we changed it we did. We just started selling tickets for the following night, but we collected it for this night. One of our volunteers suggested it and it actually worked. And ours is a very unique situation. We really do have a ceiling of what the fire department allows. We can sneak past them a little bit but not too much.
Sean: Ha, not too recommended for our listeners, but yeah. Awesome. So that’s good to know, and also, I was curious, have you ever - the Durango festival, you have the concerts, but you also have Workshops. Have you ever had to deal with someone who doesn’t show up to a concert or a workshop?
CJ: No, we’ve never had that. We’ve never had that problem, I don’t have wood to knock on,
Sean: Well, I -three knocking sounds- there you go.
CJ: Only one we had, we advertised a band at a festival a couple years ago, and about a month out from saying “here’s this big band that everybody loves”, they ended up having some visa issues. One guy had some visa issues, and it ended up crapping out their whole year. And that’s one of the difficult things of bringing foreign artists in. The United States is not friendly to our genre because people like U2 and Sting kind of screwed up the metrics for smaller bands that come in. And Uncle Sam said, “hey we’re missing out on some serious tax revenue, let’s hit these foreign artists for 30% of their gross”. So again this is something they’ve learned, they need to fill out copious amounts of paperwork to beat that 30%, but they end up spending a ton of money in Europe to get ready to come over here to just come here with their entire paycheck. So you take 30% off an entire band and send it to our government. But when you switch it, our artists going over there don’t have that same problem.
Sean: No, they don’t.
CJ: It’s a difficult genre to deal with, in that respect. With a bluegrass festival, we’d be getting people from Kentucky and wherever. And it wouldn’t be that problem. So I don’t know, I’m out in the weeds on that one.
Sean: No you’re fine, I think you’re bringing up some stuff that’s pretty important, without getting too political. It seems that still, with the visa procedure, that you’re still getting a whole bunch of people for next year too. And you didn’t run into any problems with that?
CJ: Well one of the bands that is coming next year is the very band that had issues last year
Sean: Oh, so they managed to figure it out?
Sean: Well that’s good to know.
CJ: Yeah, so we did get them, it just took an extra year.
Sean: Definitely. Well, let’s see- that’s about everything. I just want to know - you talked at the beginning about things that you wished you hadn’t had done, and I was just curious, if you had to start it all over again, what are some things you wish you had known before?
CJ: Um, let me see - well, trying to think back, when you’re - we would have gotten our nonprofit number a lot earlier. We found out that we can’t just get it for festivals, so we were intimidated. Some our friends tried to get one and got rejected three times and their stack of papers was 6-8 inches tall. I talked to my accountant, he said there’s an expert in that, to just send your papers to him. And I went through that process last year in about 15 minutes. It took me about 15 minutes of talking to them on the phone, and they said it usually takes six months, it was done in six weeks. And what that does - I would’ve gone for that a lot sooner if I’d known how easy it was for people who do it full time. And what that does, it makes it so much easier in terms of getting sponsors. If you have a nonprofit status. That’s one. Also, when you’re recruiting committee members, it’s easy to get people you know and like. Then what you find out over time is it’s very task oriented and so you don’t really need idea meetings, and a lot of times if people don’t have specific skills sets with like putting on social media or putting together a website, then they’re just sitting around for something to do. And you’re just trying to think of work for them. When you’re creating a festival, you really need people who have skill sets and don’t have the time to do it. They’ll just say give me my assignment I’ll do it after I watch a movie or get home, I’ll get it done and get it done well. Having very good task oriented people rather than just people that like Celtic-oriented music is incredibly important. And for me, I’ve been the president since day one, and I’m already thinking about a replacement for myself. So we brought in a couple people - I know I don’t look like it, but I’m 57 years old. That’s an antique, baby.
Sean: -laughs- That’s not that bad!
CJ: So I’m bringing in some people who are late-20’s/30’s on the committee who can do stuff by the way, and be getting their input, and tell them, within 4-5 years this is gonna be your baby. I’ll always be around as long as I’m alive to help you book bands, I’m getting pretty good at that, as far as replacing yourself, the worst thing I can think of is to be that old curmudgeon just saying, “we’ve never done it that way before.” As soon as I say that, I need to quit.
Sean: Well, it’s still good that you’re still self-aware of that happening, and definitely just taking someone under your wing seems the right way to go about it.
CJ: And I gave up the MC’ing this year, we had a 29 old grade school teacher up there. Just did a fantastic job, he was right to the point, had everything memorized, he was on and off the stage in a minute and a half. It’s what you want. More and more I find myself getting in the background. And the value of that - I always found myself getting calls - “you gotta go up to the stage, introduce this”, or whatever. I didn’t do that this year. I’m able to get a bigger picture of what’s going on, with the workshops, I can even enjoy the festival a little bit.
Sean: Well, I’m glad to hear that! Anyway, well thank you CJ, for this call. We really appreciated it, and I’m sure our listeners will appreciate it too whether they’re running festivals or not, just because there’s so many applicable things for really everyone. So thank you so much for coming on.
CJ: Well you bet, thank you, and this is not some big political statement, but Ticketbud was awesome and you my friend were awesome.
Sean: Ah thank you, you were too!
CJ: Well alright, it was great to talk to you again.
Sean: Great to talk to you too, CJ.
CJ: Take care Sean.