Ticketbud Tidbits Podcast Episode 2 - Anne Johnson
Posted in Spotlights on March 8, 2017
Anne Johnson has grown up with a 40 year old Austin favorite - the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. It's a decidedly Austin event - live music, local art, and a layout that eschews convention.
Today on Ticketbud Tidbits we sit down with her to learn about what it takes to keep such a classic event fresh while also staying in touch with its roots, as well as learn about new marketing tips. You can listen to the interview, as well as read the transcript below. Thanks and happy listening!
Kayhan: So today we have Anne Johnson the associate producer and general manager of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Thanks for being with us today Anne.
Anne: Thank you for having me!
Kay: So can you tell us a little bit about Armadillo Christmas Bazaar? Its history, what it is, give it a quick breakdown.
Anne: Yeah so the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar! We are in our 42nd season in 2017. It started at the Armadillo World Headquarters which closed before my time, but from what I’ve heard its the jumping off point for Austin being the live music capital of the world. You know, it was where Frank Zappa, Willie Nelson, just a bunch of huge bands started coming to Austin to play here. The Headquarters closed in the early 80’s as they were having some financial troubles and Bruce Willenzik wanted to start the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar to try and fund the World Headquarters. And they had to shut down but the Christmas Bazaar has lasted for 42 years since then.
Kayhan: What’s it like inside the Christmas Bazaar? Is it a place for you to enjoy music and for you to go in and do some interesting holiday shopping?
Anne: We have like 160-something artists, 130 booths with, you know handmade fine art to gift items. We are probably 75% Austin local, and probably 25% national with award winning artists making things you can’t find in Austin easily. So you can buy gifts, you can buy fine art, we have 3 bands that play a day so over an 11 day show you have 33 bands. And if you include the little kids band you have 34 for the show. So you have music playing, you can come in you can shop and you can listen to music. We have 2 full bars so you can have a drink while you’re shipping. I think it’s just such a better atmosphere to go shopping, and it’s so much more Austin than going to a mall. It’s stressful, you have to find parking, and getting there is hard, and you’re running around. For this, you come in, you grab a beer, walk around with your friends. It’s almost a gallery /shipping / bar / music experience.
Kayhan: So how did you get involved into the event industry and specifically Armadillo Christmas Bazaar?
Anne: So I got involved with the industry because of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. My dad and the producer Bruce were best friends in the 70’s hanging out at the World Headquarters together. My dad had been the night manager there and he still is [at the Christmas Bazaar]. So my Christmas has always been around the Armadillo Bazaar.
Every Christmas Eve I’ve always been at the Armadillo. Our whole Christmas revolved around it. We’d be there ‘till midnight and then we would come home. And Santa came to our house first! So we’d open presents that night and sleep all day Christmas day. That’s how it is for my niece, she’s 15 now and she’s spent every Christmas Eve at the Christmas Bazaar. We trained her this year so she’s going to be working her first job there next year. So Bruce asked me to work, as I was just finishing up with my comm degree at Texas State. Bruce asked me and a few other girls, if we were interested, to come in and mentor with him and of course I said yes. They kind of dropped one person every year and it just came down to me. After that he said “I want you to run the show. I want this to be your thing. It’s ingrained in you.” And I took leadership so I will be running the show whenever he doesn’t want to anymore.
Kayhan: So it really sounds like it’s something near and dear to you and something you grew up with. As an event producer, when you have that, how do you deliver something new and fresh every year while still honoring the traditions? At the same time trying to hit growth numbers and everything else you worry about?
Anne: That’s an interesting question, and one I haven’t completely figured that out yet. When I first started with him (Bruce) 8 years ago I had all these grand ideas of “we could do this, and this, and this”, and those things went to the back while I was learning the ins and outs of how it was already going. I’ve been focusing on that more but I am definitely looking into new and fresh and how to evolve. And that’s critical. It’s how Bruce has been doing it. It’s hard when you’re trying to do everything. It’s a challenge and I set goals every year. You know, “we should have this many new bands”. It’s hard because the show is so family oriented, and the show is a family and this is a culture. We are a tribe. And when you say, “we need to freshen it up” to the person who’s been doing the show for 41 years that isn’t really relevant. It doesn’t work that way. We ask them to bring in what Austin is looking for. It’s tough. We try to refresh it, every year we bring in new things. However I haven’t quite figured out the whole answer to it yet.
Kayhan: So imagine five years from now: what is the Armadillo, what is new 5 years out. What in a perfect world would you add or edit to make it as relevant as its always been.
Anne: Well the fact is that we’re living in Austin and that Austin is changing so much every year. I mean, I was born and raised here and sometimes I feel like a visitor with all the new places coming up and trying to keep up with that and the pulse of the city is going to be goal. it’s nice to have an art show where you can bring in new artists. i go in the spring its my favorite type of the year because you can go visit art shows and see what the trends are. visiting them and keeping an eye on them to see what other shows and artists are doing to grow. We have to grow with the city.
Kayhan: So a big part of the strategy is that you’re understanding what’s going on in your space and making sure that you’re on trend and have a pulse on what’s going on in the city.
Kayhan: Part of being a producer is dealing with the stress of these big, publicly facing events. As you prepare for this major event which happens during a holiday season, I’m sure your priorities change. What’s on your priority list as things happen from 90 days out, vs 60 days out, vs 30 days out?
Anne: So 90 days out, I guess we are focusing on the artists and making sure that they have everything they need to come in. They build their own space and we work really hard because the atmosphere of our room and the ambience is especially important as you’re doing an event in a convention center. You don’t want people to walk in and feel like it’s every other event thats been done there. We turn off the overhead lights and make the artists light their own booths. And so it has a warm, friendly, cozy feel and it transforms the space so we have to work really hard with the artists so they’re on the same page and it’s cohesive.
60 days out it’s more marketing. When the artists contact us to to get their lighting at this stage we go “oh my God”. We just shifted our focus to marketing and we help as much as we can. But definitely we focus on our ad agency and our PR company to make sure we get all of our announcements out so the public knows what’s going on.
30 days out just goes to production. You know, “do we have everything we need”, ordering a lot of online orders for parts and making sure we have our inventories of our storage and employees making sure we have staffing we need for show. And for me that’s when life stops: 30 days out. I live 25 miles from the convention center and that’s too far for me to work 18 hour days so I move into a hotel room in downtown. I have to make a list of places that I can eat as I’m a celiac and so sometimes eating out can be hard for me, so I have a list of places I can eat downtown. So if I need to find something with a snap of a finger, I just need to make sure everything is really close to me.
Kayhan: So the night before the event, what are you thinking about? Is there anything keeping you awake? Do you have any funny stories you have to share?
Anne: No you know Bruce is always asking me how I’m sleeping cause he says once you can’t sleep thats the sign you’re doing everything right and I’m like no! I don’t have a hard time sleeping before the event. I don’t have any trouble, I’m exhausted. You do have work nightmares and wonder if anything is going wrong. I’m pretty well organized and basically in November we stop taking new ideas and stop doing new things and it turns into making sure the things and I have all my due dates before then. between Nov and Dec I make sure I’m able to deal with the unexpected.
Kayhan: So at 45 days out you draw a line and from then on it’s all about execution.
Anne: Exactly. And then there’s always things that come up and that way you have your schedule and you can deal with the unexpected contingencies. I’m really excited, I sometimes say it’s like planning a groundhog day wedding for 40,000 people. You plan it all year long, it happens, and it’s over. The time that we’re open is super exciting you know, you get ready for what you’re working on all year long. I think it’s more exciting than nail-biting.
Kayhan: So let’s talk about the sort of marketing aspect, delivering the message to the potential audience. What has worked well for you in terms of media? Do you guys focus on TV commercials, radio spots - what seems to be the best way?
Anne: Well we do a lot of traditional media. We still do a lot of TV and radio and print and online and every year it’s getting more online. I’m not a TV watcher so I don’t always see our ads there. I am thinking the value [of TV] is decreasing year after year. This year I would like to turn all of our marketing and media buys upside down and try different things. I think this might work because we’ve been around for so long, that people that know us in Austin really know us. We need to figure out how to reach the people living here that don’t know anything about us. Austin is so interesting right now. With all these people moving here, I think they’re moving here because of our culture and what makes Austin is so great. But, we have to change those things to accommodate. It’s kind of bittersweet because you’re losing some of the traditional stuff and getting some newer things. It’s good for us because we could move. We’re not a brick and mortar, we can move. If we can’t pay rent we can move.
I wish I had more data to show you, but like I said the traditional media buying - I’m ready to shake things up. I know there’s a lot of Geo Targeting. I’m going to work on that for this year.
Kayhan: So do you guys use any sponsorships or have any sponsors that you guys reach out to or try to acquire?
Anne: Mhm we’ve been working with Brown Distributing which is a local beer distributor. They’ve been around Austin for a long time. They’ve really helped us a lot with ideas, things that help the event. The more people that come in, the more alcohol they sell. They’re wonderful - I’ve been working with them the whole time we did the show.
We’ve been working with Sun Radio. Going back to one of our marketing things that work is really having reach. With KDRP and Sun Radio, and once they came out, everything they were playing was our lineup. And so we were listening and saying, “oh this is so cool someone is picking up on this they’re helping local musicians on tour stage”.
We developed a relationship and partnership with them. Their line up is exactly what we’re doing on their radio station. Not only do we have a monetary trade, they talk about us like we’re their best friends. They have a lot of love for us on our radio station. Having a sponsor that really believes in you and cares about your success is huge. That’s one of the best things we’ve done for marketing. Only goes as far as listenership, but it’s been really great for us.
Kayhan: So obviously the Bazaar is a Christmas event so how soon after one event do you begin planning for the next one?
Anne: As soon as possible. January we spend time wrapping things up, reconciling, accounting and taking down data. In February we just jump right into: what artists are we going to have this year. Yeah just starting all over again.
Kayhan: So wrapping things up what advice do you have for people out there who are interested in starting a career in the events industry.
Anne: That’s a hard question. Its really awesome if you love what you do and I guess that’s advice for anything. You have to be organized and passionate about what you’re doing because otherwise it turns into you being worried about the profit end of it. What Bruce has taught me is that it has to be a win-win-win situation for everyone. Of course we need to have enough money to continue every year and we have 160 people that depend on us every year to make this work. So for me it’s not a job about making as much money as possible and being as profitable, it’s about giving back to the community and being part of the community and something bigger as ourselves. It’s what drives me to be a better business person. Love what you do and let that translate into your event.
Kayhan: Thanks so much Anne for speaking with us and good luck in planning for 2017.
Anne: Thank you!