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Ticketbud Tidbits Episode 7 - Bruce Willenzik of Armadillo

Posted in Spotlights on June 21, 2017

Bruce Willenzik absolutely exudes the spirit of Austin. It makes sense - he used to work at the venue responsible for Austin being named the "Live Music Capital Of The World": The Armadillo World Headquarters. Shouldering decades of experience in running successful events and concerts, there probably aren't many people who are better to hear from. Enjoy the history, as well as tried and true lessons of organizing and running successful shows in spite of all adversity. You can listen to the audio recording, and read the transcription below.


Kayhan Ahmadi: Hello, welcome to exchanges at Ticketbud. I'm the CEO of Ticketbud, Kayhan, along with Sean Burke.

Sean Burke: Hi guys. How's it going?

Kayhan Ahmadi: Our director of Marketing, and today we have ...

Bruce Willenzik: Bruce Willenzik, producer of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

Kayhan Ahmadi: Thank you very much, Bruce. Appreciate you giving your time to us today. You started in the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar many, many years ago. Can you give our listeners a brief intro into the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar and what that is?

Bruce Willenzik: Right. Let's go back to when we started. We were at the Armadillo World Headquarters, the premier rock-and-roll hall between the East and West Coast, looking for a December event because we were cash starved in the winter time, and friend of mine, Lucinda Williams, you've probably heard of her, was down in the Beer Garden one night at the end of October, beginning of October 1975.

We went and talked. It was a long conversation, and she mentioned that the artists down there at the market by the university didn't have a warm dry place to sell like this. And that immediately got my eyes open, my mind churning. I quickly gave her a hug and got rid of her for the evening and sat down and wrote a five-year plan to build an art show in Armadillo World Headquarters.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So it's really inspiration striking like a lightning bulb.

Bruce Willenzik: Well, you know, I can say there was a irritation and instigation and inspiration and a cooperation that got it started rather than someone founded it. But I don't want to go into too much detail about the irritation and instigation other than Lucinda thank you for that mention because that got it started.

We were lucky. We already had a production company. I had a sound crew. I had a security crew. I had maintenance people. I had people who knew how to rig a stage. It wasn't real hard to reach out and figure out how we worked with artists, but the first thing we came across was, A, we have no budget, and B, we have no credibility with the artists. We're not going to be able to draw fine artists in the first year. They're very leery of a first year event.

So our guy who was kinda in charge of putting it together before he quit, and get it to where it got to be, he went down to the 23rd Street market on a pretty sunny day and passed out the flyers, and said come to Armadillo for a Christmas show, $20 a day. He got laughed off the block because it was pretty and sunny, and it was only seven cents a day to be out there if you got your year round license.

So it didn't look like it was gonna work. And on the morning we were to start, it was pouring down rain and there was a line of people waving money, going "Sign me up, sign me up, sign me up!" And that was our miracle to get started, but it took a miracle to get started. Those first few years it was hard to get people in. And what we realized is that we weren't going to draw a fine class of artists unless we created our own. So we started working with our artists.

Something happened that was really my miracle. A guy thought he was hurting me and he helped me. He'd been down there in year two and he was just a loud ... He didn't care about anything, he was hard to deal with, and he made real strong statements. "This is what I do, I ain't improvin' nothin'."

Kayhan Ahmadi: This was one of the artists--

Bruce Willenzik: One of the artists complained a lot. And he kinda irritated me, so when he came back in year three with a whole group of people, I made a statement to him that said I'm only interested in people that want to improve every year and want to build a career by working on better artwork, better promotion, better presentation, better business skills, more drive, more motivation. If you're not interested, take a hike.

Well, he went down to the market and badmouthed me, telling everybody, "That sumbitch expects everybody to improve every year!" By the time I found out about that two, three years later, we just said, "We're not gonna dispel the rumor." It created this incredible peer pressure amongst the artists to improve, and we started realizing for new people coming in were having a hard time competing, because our artists were becoming very sophisticated at presentation and display, so we needed to collect the wisdom and make it teachable.

So we became known as a learning and teaching show. We deliberately went five years in experience before we walked into another art show to see what they looked like, because we wanted our own character in the show. Armadillo World Headquarters had its own character, and we needed that.

Kayhan Ahmadi: You didn't want to contaminate your potential vision for an art show by--

Bruce Willenzik: By copying other people's mistakes. We figured by the time we saw, went to the Renaissance Festival in 1980, and saw what they did, and went to the craft shows across the street and saw what they did, we could see all their mistakes, because we had already experimented with those things and we'd ... Plus, we had the fortunate thing of being a longer show. We were about 12 to 14 days long, so we had time to observe our mistakes and correct them before the end of the season, and that was a really important thing to do.

We also, right from the beginning, under the tutelage of Armadillo's CEO at that time, he said, "Make all the mistakes you want, but learn from them, document everything, get a base of information, collect the wisdom, and pass it up as institutional knowledge. We should never make the same mistake twice." I see so many young shows, especially those that are run with volunteers, they don't collect the experience year to year to year to year, and they have to invent from scratch every year. It's a very tough way to go.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So you really have to keep all your knowledge base and learnings internal, and have that drive the growth?

Bruce Willenzik: You have to observe what you're seeing happen at your show without trying to put a prejudice on it first. It has to be what I think it is. Well, you want to see what it really is. You want to see how that drives your systems that make your show work.

Kayhan Ahmadi: Well, how do you measure that?

Bruce Willenzik: You look at that from experience. You have to look at it from experience. How was the artist's experience on the show? What's their experience with their move in, what's their experience with their move out, what's their experience of the customer, what's their experience dealing with the staff? That's how you measure it.

We survey very carefully every year at the end of the year to find out exactly how our artists feel about their experience. I don't want to know how many dollars you sold, I want to know how you feel about your sales.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So it's not just a quantitative measure, it's a qualitative measure.

Bruce Willenzik: On sales? It's a scale of 1-5. It's a five star system. You put the cursor on one and it says, "This was really bad, a catastrophe." You put it on three and it says, "Just what I expected." You put it on five and go, "Grand slam, home run!" Kinda implies what two and four are, right?

So we look, and that tells you how they feel about it. That's much more valuable than the number of dollars they're doing, because how they feel about it is how motivated they are to come back. Our goal is to have at least half the people in the show do better than they expected. You do that, you're winning.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So it sounds like you're focusing on the artists' experience, and by providing a better artist experience--

Bruce Willenzik: That's the reason you're in the business.

Kayhan Ahmadi: That's how you drive in more ticket sales at the door?

Bruce Willenzik: That's how you're in the business. First thing, you're not gonna attract a clientele without something for them to want to see, right? They're gonna come and see nothing? No. What's gonna motivate them to get in the car, go through traffic, go somewhere, park, pay to get in or not pay to get in to go someplace, unless they know they got something they're gonna wanna see there.

And so it's building that attractive mask, that thing that wants to bring people to it. It's the beginning of starting a scene, right? That's when you connect attractions. This artist can bring in this ten people, this artist can bring in 15, this artist can bring in 20, that one can bring in ten. But by the time I put ten of those together, they can bring in 400. Wow. That's really the ... The magnifying factor on that is, when there's more things together, there's more reasons to go.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So you're driving a network effect.

Bruce Willenzik: You're driving a, yeah, you're building a scene. And that's ... Attractions that in the mind of the customer are connected. The more you can connect like that, the bigger the overall attraction is, and the more it gains on the sum of the parts. It's an economic driver. Austin's cultural identity is built on the scene-building work we did 40, 50 years ago here in town.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So how do you leverage that scene that you create through marketing to drive increased visitation, increased traffic? Is it the scene itself that you rely on, or?

Bruce Willenzik: The scene is designed to bring in people, money, energy, and attention. Then the next part is building a sphere of prosperity around the scene, and that has to do with churning your market. We think it's important to work with the other events around us whenever possible to make it more attractive for people to become habitual show attenders.

Just like we want in the live music scene, we would love it if all the music venues would work together with all the arts venues to build more traffic to, more domestic demand for what Austin has culturally. We spend a lot of time with the city talking about economic tourism. We work real hard on the tourism program, free hotel passes, and promote the heck out of it and put a lot of resources in it and it's 2% of our attendance. The other 98% is people who either came to Austin for the show, but not because of the hotels giving them passes, or people from Austin being here.

But working together and connecting attractions is a really cool thing. It's the basis of what a show's about. It's the reason you want a merchandise mix of things and other activities in it, like perhaps a live music stage or a juggler, a mime, a face painter, a something, to create an experience, because that experience is what drives a scene.

You want that experience to be better than what they expected. You want it to be something that they go home and talk about. You want it to slowly improve. Every time they come, it's a little bit better, so they'll come back to see what got better this time. If you got a whole slate of improvements to do, don't do them all at once. Dribble them out. You'll find the effect is a whole lot more effective.

We've been playing with scene stuff from the Armadillo World Headquarters days and even back when I was a kid growing up in New Orleans, my family was in retail. They always talked about creating a shopping scene. So, it's the same thing in shows. The thing that a love of young, inexperienced show promoters do, or even some of them who are experienced, is they forget it's a show.

Kayhan Ahmadi: What does that mean to you?

Bruce Willenzik: It's not a static exhibit. It's activity. People are coming down there for the event, for the experience of the event. For the what it feels like in the room. "Oh, look, there's my friend!" "Oh, look, this is fun!" "Let's dance to this song!" As opposed to just, "Oh, look at the art. Oh, look at the art. Oh, look at the art."

People who stand in their booth and pay attention to their crowd, make eye contact even on a slow day, constantly have customers. Those who sit in their chair and look at their phone, they don't get bothered much. It's a show. You have to put on a show. The happier the show is, the more people like it.

That's why our prime directive, first line says keep the artist happy. When they're happy, it spreads to the customers. The next line says keep the patrons happy. Next one says keep the facility happy. We gotta have a home.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So, speaking of facility.

Bruce Willenzik: Yeah.

Kayhan Ahmadi: Over the years, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar has evolved from Armadillo World Headquarters to the Palmer Events Center where it is now. Can you talk a little bit about the process when it comes to finding a venue for your event?

Bruce Willenzik: Sure, because we went through that several times. Armadillo was great, it was our home venue. We had our home production company, we couldn't ask for an easier way to get started. But in 1980 we had to move, and trying to find a piece of real estate that would rent to a long haired hippie, it was difficult.

Kayhan Ahmadi: That's probably more normalized today, right?

Bruce Willenzik: Oh, no, no, no, no, it's not, it's even, I mean the market today is even harder, 'cause it was a lot of empty buildings around. We found the building, and they wouldn't talk to me. And luckily, something I'd done with a real estate developer here in town a few years before, I was over in his office getting a check and he asked me, he said "How you doing?" And I said, "Oh man, this guy in Dallas, he won't call me back." He looked at me, and he said, "Oh, that guy's a jerk. Hang on, let me call his boss's boss." Got promised a place that day, and they dallied it to the very last second, we got in there all white knuckled, we gotta open.

It was interesting. And luckily, we got such good publicity right off the theme that it worked. We were there for three years and never knew if we could go back the next year. And then it finally got to where we couldn't go back to that location. It was very challenging to bring charm to a old dead grocery store anyhow, and the next place we went was the Austin Opera House, a small room, which only had about 8,500 square feet to do the show. Tiny. We had to go from 83 booths down to 50, and it was hard.

And in the meantime, a competing show opened downtown claiming, with all of their graphics and name that somehow or another they were our legacy, when they were not. And that was a hard year. The next year, that downtown show decided they were going to knock us out of business with several hundred thousand dollars of city money, of that money, this money, defense contractors, financial institutions, media, all trying to get rid of us, and they lasted one more year and went away, and here we are.

After a while, we had to move from the small room at the Opera House to the bigger room at the Opera House. We were in there for three years. We were inside the same address, but it was a much larger room. We could come back up to 83 booths and we were thrilled with that.

Then, we moved to the Austin Music Hall downtown in 1995. Same landlord as we had had in the beginning at the Austin Opera House, thank you Tim O'Connor and Willie Nelson. We were in that building for 11 years until development downtown took away all the parking and all of the access to and all of the loading area, and all of the logistic space that we needed. And the building itself, there were cracks in the building you could just slip a business card in the first year we were there, I could now slide my whole hand through without touching either side. You could tell the building's not stable, we really don't want to be here much longer.

So the nice people who were building next door put a lot of money into helping them improve the Hall, and they improved it so badly we couldn't use it, and so we had to do a very quick, quick exit to the Convention Center. It was hard to get in there. We took the smallest room. We had a good help from the city, because they needed a retail anchor for December to make sure that the 2nd Street district retail could have some catalyst to get started.

Kayhan Ahmadi: This was mid 2000's?

Bruce Willenzik: Yeah, and it was 2007. They had just, 2nd Street district was just going, and that was my retail plan that went in there, because I work a lot with the city. And I really wanted to see it work, so we didn't want to leave the 2nd-3rd Street corridor because our presence was ... So, we looked at a lot of places, including where the W, the retail shell down there below what's now the Moody Theater. It wasn't built out yet, it wasn't usable to us, but we looked all up and down that street, we wound up in the Convention Center.

And we had to go to 40, let's see, 33,000 square feet from about 15,000 square feet in one year, and that was tricky. That was really tricky. We had a lot of community space. We had a huge museum right in the middle of the show. We had a capital Metro Bus right in the middle of the show. We had to take up some acreage, and we had to figure out how to get people downtown to come as opposed to us being, you know, we were on the fringes of downtown and now we're dead center in the middle.

Very, very difficult with the parking, because intuitively the garage that's right next door? It's five blocks from our entrance by the time you walk to our entrance from the garage. The one that's two blocks away, that's too far, it's only two blocks from our door. So, a lot of people were saying, you get in the building and you start walking and you feel like you spend half the afternoon just walking down hallways before you get to the show. It was way too big a facility.

The move to Palmer was great. But the thing you've gotta remember, every time you move, it's expensive. Every time you move, it costs. You have to re-establish to your customers where you are, they're driving to the wrong place, your artists are driving to the old place to load in. People don't pay attention. No matter how much effort you put in to a change in location. So it's really good if you can keep the location long term.

Let's go back to some other stuff that's really important. We never want to over promote an underproduction, or under promote an overproduction. Your promotion and your production should be equal. You don't want to tell people this is the greatest thing ever and have it be disappointing, 'cause they'll never come back. And you don't want to spend all the money to mount the greatest thing ever and not bother to tell anybody you got it going on. Either way's a guaranteed failure.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So how do you balance that? Is it a qualitative, quantitative metric?

Bruce Willenzik: It's seat of the pants for me, because I've been doing it for so long, but when I first started studying it and looking at it, I just saw so many failures on both sides for both reasons, and thought I've always gotta pay attention to describe my event as what it really is, and not as I would like to hype it up to be in order to draw. You'll draw more people, but you'll have more disappointed customers walking away badmouthing you. You really want your customers walking away happy happy joy joy as much as possible.

Kayhan Ahmadi: At least if you want to have a long term, multi-year successful event.

Bruce Willenzik: If you want to build a show that actually is worthwhile, that's what you want to do. I tell people all the time, it is so easy to run an art show if you don't care how good it is. It's kinda hard to run a good one. To run an excellent one, it's a career. To run a truly excellent one, it's a passion all the time. It's a lifetime passion, or you can't do it.

You have to do it for the right reason, or it won't work. If it's all about how much money I can make, go do something else. You're not helping. If it's about can I help these artists learn how to be successful and prosperous in their career, jump right in, put all your effort in there. If it's how do I build my artists into a tribe that cares about each other and supports each other and works with each other, that's a really good goal. If it's divide and conquer, go away. Don't even bother.

What more would you like?

     Sean Burke: I'm just curious, you said at the very beginning, talking about mistakes. What are some other mistakes, besides the under promoting your overproduced event, or over promoting your under produced event, like what are some other pretty common mistakes that you ran into in the beginning of Armadillo Christmas Bazaar that you're also seeing now in other events that you go to?

Bruce Willenzik: I was trying to think of what our mistakes were in the beginning. I see the events that have ... I see so many people, 'cause I've coached so many people through the years, and basically the two things that fall first, "Well I expected to make money the first year." Yeah, really? "Well, I thought I could do it with only this much money." Uh-huh. "Well, I thought I could do it that quickly." Not gonna work, not gonna work, not gonna work. You need a plan, you need support, you need a team.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So how do you build that team? When you're delegating responsibilities, it's a challenge 'cause you're giving away control, but at the same time you're allowing scale and specialization, so how do you balance that?

Bruce Willenzik: In the beginning it was real simple for me. Sound crew, how do I do the stage? Light crew, how do I light it? Security, you guys gimme a plan! Kitchen, I need a menu, oh no, that's me. Merchandising, oh no that's me. Okay, laying out in the floor. I'm gonna get in there, I need three of my guys who know special relationships and how to measure. Let's get an accurate measurement and let's lay out the floor. Let's get an accurate booth pattern. Okay.

My hardest part in the beginning was getting security to learn the booth numbers. "Why do we have to know that?" Now it's January, February, March, our big show season, rock-n-roll concerts. "Security, booth 16, get there." And they're all using it. They all had it memorized man, from then on everything was by number.

There's a lot of things people can learn when they're starting off, but most of it you learn from your artist. Go observe other shows and see what the customer experience is there, look for bottlenecks. Look for things that happen in the beginning of the show that upset an artist. Was it a badly planned load in? You just ruined their mood for the whole show. Was it smooth as silk? They'll be smooth the whole show.

Same thing for your box office for your customers. Customer experience. Your customers come away from the box office smiling, or they come away blank, or they come away frowning. If they're frowning, you have trouble. Somebody in the box office isn't nice, somebody didn't entertain them well, somebody was just grumpy. You don't want that to happen.

Did you make it too cumbersome and crazy to get in? There's one show that we go to that the last time we went to their Spring show, you gotta park here, and then you gotta wait for the show, and then you get off, and then you have to buy your ticket, and then you have to buy your shuttle return ticket, then you gotta go through their security. Well when they were busy in the morning, that was several hours.

And then they searched everybody's purses for any morsel of food or water, so you'd have to buy it inside. Pissed off everybody, right? So when people are walking down the aisle past the artwork, they're gonna grumble grumble grump. It makes it much harder to sell fine art work.

In our business, we're where we sell expensive art. That's why artists come to our show. The kind of comments we get back is, "This was a good year. Things sold from top price down."

Kayhan Ahmadi: So a happy attendee is a happy potential customer--

Bruce Willenzik: Buyer, it's a happy buyer, exactly. You want them happy walking in the door, you want them happy walking out the door. You want them happy everywhere in between. Everything you can do to keep that customer happy.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So your role as the event producer is really to curate and create an experience that drives a happy customer?

Bruce Willenzik: What we're selling is an experience for our artists and an experience for our customer and an experience for our community. That's what we're selling.

Kayhan Ahmadi: And then balancing that production with promotion in a way that's not over promised and under delivered.

Bruce Willenzik: Yeah. I mean, it's like this. Your promotion, that is your promise. The composition of your show, that's your delivery. If your promise is huge and your delivery is tiny, you know the results long run. It's when they, the promise is true but they come and the delivery's just a little bit better than the promise, they're impressed, and that's notable to talk home about.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So success lives in that delta.

Bruce Willenzik: In that little margin right there.

Kayhan Ahmadi: That's how you go from a one to two year show to a 40-50 year show.

Bruce Willenzik: And you build your show up 'til you have a reputation where the top artists in the country are seeking you out and trying to get your attention so that they can get in, and then when they do get in, they give you really good comments like, "I've been doing shows for 20 years and I make it a point not to depend on the show team for anything. Armadillo has proven me wrong, ya'll should be the model for every show in the country."

Kayhan Ahmadi: So here's a question--

Bruce Willenzik: That's the kind of ... We get that kind of feedback, that's happy, that's good.

Sean Burke: Yeah, that is good.

Kayhan Ahmadi: So, when someone comes to the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar and makes a purchase at one of your artist's spots, who owns that customer?

Bruce Willenzik: That artist primarily owns that customer. That is their space. That is their person that's there. That person came in, they bought a ticket from me so that they could get to that customer. But, if that artist is smart, and that customer is smart, that's everybody's customer.

We have artists who network with each other in the show. The year that Deborah Steidel was able to do our show, and she is museum class ceramics, her pieces are quite expensive, and then we have Daryl Howard in the other side of the room, who has pieces that sell with two digits before the comma in the price tag pretty regular. No one left one booth with a package without being directed to the other. "Oh, you're gonna love this, but let me tell you about Deborah, she's ... Her booth is right over there. She's got ceramic vessels that would go so well with this, go over there and see what she's got, get one of those, too."

And Deborah's, every time, "Man, I love this, it's just what I want." "I'll hold this for you right here, go check out Daryl Howard's and get a piece to go with it." "Wow!" And they're walking out with both. That is really the best kind of synergy you can build at a show. When they start building that sphere of prosperity around the scene by churning the customer, churning the crowd.

We move people around on the floor, we churn the locations in order to churn the crowd. We promote the other shows when our artists are participating. If five of our artists are going to be at a show in Denver, we'll promote the fact that if you're in Denver, go by Cherry Creek Arts Festival and say hello to our artists, and we've got pictures of their work there, promoting them at Cherry Creek.

Well, if Cherry Creek's smart, they'll share that on their social media that Armadillo did that, and we get the great ... I mean, our artists love us for that. The other shows love us for that. Our customers love us for that. What's the downside? It takes a few minutes.

Kayhan Ahmadi: But it engenders good will in your community.

Bruce Willenzik: And it builds more clientele, because then people from Denver have seen this and they go, "What is that show?" And they check us out online, and they talk to the artists who do it, and then they want to come down, and then next year they come not by themselves but with a busload. Not bad.

But you've got to work that. We're always looking for one more qualified buyer, because when you look at total overall what our artists experience on the national circuit, our total attendance of about 34, 35,000 is small. It's dinky. It's infinitesimal. They have shows with ten times that in two days, and they're used to that, but what they marvel about us is it's a very small number, but very highly qualified buyers, and that took years of developing the clientele loyalty.

A lot of free passes when out to get that started. A lot of hand shaking. A lot of going to meetings, a lot of networking in order to build that up. And then the synergy that we create between our live music stage and our art sales can be really fabulous. Someone comes down, "I wanted to hear this Western swing band." This was someone from the physics department at UT, and Andy gave him some tickets, and he came down to see Hot Club at Cow Town, and they just were only gonna stay a little while and they stayed longer and longer and longer and longer, and they walked around the show and they looked at art, and they walked into Nabu's booth, it has these beautiful paintings and prints, but they weren't interested in the reproductions. They were interested in the originals and bought the whole wall.

Had there not been music, would that sale have happened? No. Now they come back every year. They don't always buy a wall of originals, you know, you only have so much wall in your house. But they have to come by and see what's new and what they want to get at the show.

So that's what you're trying to get to in the long run, but in the beginning, when you're new and fresh, the best thing you can do is work with the artists you have and help develop their talents. Help motivate them to want to be better at what they do. Try to create a regimen of, bring out the best in all the others by showing only the best of yourself. With the motivation that if that works, everybody gets the best at what everyone can deliver, not a bad place to be.

When you dwell on the worst, when you harp on the worst, when you jump on them for the worst, when you try to force them to do stuff, artists are like cats, they scatter. When you beckon, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!" And you can give them the treat of a common goal that's bigger than their differences, they jump together and work together extremely well, including motivating each other to raise their standards of excellency season after season after season.

We did that to the locals. We built them up. We got them to build themselves up, each other up. We got them motivating each other, thanks to that guy on the drag who badmouthed me. Thank you for getting that started. That was the kindest thing that anyone could have ever done for my career. If I ever see him, I'd need to buy him a dinner, steak dinner or something for that. Holy cow!

But anyhow, that's how you build it up. You build up the locals to where now, they're on the national circuit. Your people are on the national circuit with these ... And they go, "What's this show you're doing back home? How do we get in?" That's how you make the transfer from a local gut started show to a top circuit show.

Kayhan Ahmadi: Words of wisdom from Bruce, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

Bruce Willenzik: Thank you.

Kayhan Ahmadi: Thank you very much, Bruce.

Sean Burke: Yeah, thank you, Bruce.

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