The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, part 4: Venue Selection

Originally posted here on November 29, 2016.

 

As soon as I heard we might be hosting a Latvian song festival on the East Coast, the flashbacks hit. “Well,” I thought with a laugh, “It’s a good thing that we just had all that practice with venue selections.”

It had only been half a year since Washington, D.C. had hosted the traveling annual multi-sport tournament ALA Meistarsacīkstes. Several of us who had helped organize Meistarsacīkstes were now working on the song festival, and the memories came rushing back: All day every day for several months we had been glued to our phones, attempting (and repeatedly failing at) what should have been a simple task: booking some venues. It’s the type of thing that seems straightforward and easy until you try it; you call and ask for availability and wave some cash, the venue says yes or no, and boom, you’re booked. Simple, right? Oh no, not even close. Where event venues are concerned, nothing is ever simple.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that the organizing committee could not be more thrilled with the festival’s venues, from the grand hotels that provide impressive views of Baltimore Harbor to the intimate Baltimore Soundstage, just a six-minute walk away and host of the festival’s first party. Indeed, one of the main reasons we selected Baltimore as the host city was because we knew it has excellent theaters, arenas, clubs, hotels, churches, and restaurants, and we’re confident that you’ll agree once you experience them. But that doesn’t mean that getting all of the pieces aligned has been easy.

The very first challenge regarding pinning down event venues was timing. Arguably the single greatest obstacle we’ve faced as an organizing committee has been having just 20 months to plan the entire festival. That may seem like a long time, but many venues get booked much earlier. One major theater was already reserved for a touring Broadway show. A hotel that we had visited and seemed promising as the festival’s home base got snagged by another group in the couple weeks between our first and second visits. Even earlier, when we were considering in which city to host the festival, towns like Boston were immediately scrapped due to venue unavailability (see Part 2 in this series).

Ironically, the surprisingly more common timing dilemma was that venues often wouldn’t know their availability that far in advance, and we found ourselves making inquiries too early rather than too late. The issue mostly came up as we searched for locations for smaller events, like the play (Ceļā uz mājām, presented by the Latvian National Theatre Company) and smaller concerts. Baltimore has a handful of very cool little theaters, which seemed promising at first, but at the time when we approached them, most didn’t yet know their rental availability for 2017. In many cases their own company’s season needed to be set. Or construction projects got in the way. A world-renowned music conservatory with a plethora of potential stages told us to check back at the start of the school year, which we did, only to be met with: “Turns out we’re renovating. Check back in the spring.” Considering that we were hoping to start selling tickets in the fall and were budgeting for and expecting thousands of attendees, checking back was not an option. And so it continued. Each venue had a different sweet spot in terms of timeline; catching them at just the right time proved to be difficult.

The second major challenge regarding pinning down venues for our shows was budget constraints. Letting our imaginations run wild and disregarding financial limitations, we explored all sorts of inventive scenarios, from a dance party among the dinosaurs of the science museum to jaundejas at the open-air pavilion on the waterfront. But these wish-list ideas ran up against one hard truth: Our largest events require seating for a couple thousand people and stage space for several hundred. This audience-performer ratio is not too common, and it most certainly does not come cheap. The only two ways we could have made these larger events break even on their own would have been to double their ticket prices (don’t worry, we wouldn’t do that to you folks) or to double our audience size (please bring friends!). And so, with the larger venues uncompromisingly eating up big chunks of the festival budget, finding affordable options for the other events so that they could help subsidize the main events was crucial. Unfortunately, the search for modestly priced smaller venues turned up less-than-ideal solutions, as nearby options (such as local high schools) failed to meet the professional standard of the event, and more appropriate options were too far away.

Luckily, we were saved by two perfect sources that served as financially responsible options. First, our trusty hotels came to the rescue, offering up fantastic spaces for most of the evening events, the art and fashion exhibits, and even the theater performance. And a local Latvian led us to a hidden gem of a church so beautiful and ideal that we probably would have jammed every event into it if we could have (in the end, we went with just two concerts).

Timeline and budget are obviously the main factors in venue selection, and in theory, the story should end right there. But even once you are on a venue’s calendar, things can go wrong. You can never really rest until the contract is signed and countersigned. And waiting on the finalization of the contract can be frustrating, since even in today’s modern world communication is rarely instant. Our seemingly monumental festival is small potatoes to our largest and priciest venue, and so while we got a base price estimate right away, getting a final estimate that included correct audio/video and staffing costs (which had the potential to more than quadruple our expenses) took weeks. Considering that this venue’s rent and all of its non-negotiable ancillary costs constitute the festival’s single greatest expense, we were understandably anxious to receive an estimate so that we could figure out if the rest of the festival was financially possible. It was the very epitome of catch-22 timing: we had to book right away to reserve our slot, but wouldn’t know for months whether or not we could afford it. We also needed to advertise the festival far in advance so that potential attendees would keep their busy summer schedules open, but we wouldn’t know if the festival was financially viable until after we had announced that it was taking place.

Our single greatest venue-booking frustration came in June, mere weeks before hotel and flight reservations would become available: one of our venues went MIA. A major one. One that had been on the books as a safe bet from the very beginning. All that remained was to sign the contract and send our deposit. But no contract came. Several members of our team called and emailed repeatedly over a several-week period. Nothing. Radio silence. To this day, we still have not received an explanation, though we gather that, despite assurances in the winter that logistics would not be an issue, they likely backed out due to the headache of assembling choral risers with a short turnaround time.

Thankfully, we found a solution when we discovered that one of the city’s most beautiful large concert halls was available — and not only available, but, as it turned out, perfect for its intended event. While some (myself included) might initially envision a doomsday scenario when such potential setbacks reveal themselves, this situation proves that, with careful attention and planning, you can find a solution or workaround for virtually anything.

And now, I end with a confession: this article was originally intended to come out months ago, because we had fully expected to have all of our venues, big and small, completely finalized by the end of the summer. Alas, though we almost made it — we opened the ticket store in October– one venue-less orphan event was responsible for the delay.

That event, surprisingly, was the chamber music concert. At first glance it should have been easy to procure a location: musicians can set up pretty much anywhere, right? Baltimore’s own symphony orchestra recently performed a pop-up concert at nearby Penn Station. And audience capacity shouldn’t have been an obstacle: we only needed seating for a couple hundred (instead of the couple thousand expected for larger events). Dozens of venues in Baltimore fit the bill, but almost all had issues with scheduling or were too far from the hotels. But the real obstacle was the flīģelis (a word I’d never heard before and had to repeatedly look up because I thought our music director had pulled it from a Dr. Seuss book just to mess with me). Few places (including our otherwise-convenient church venue) have a grand piano nowadays, and there are considerable additional costs associated with bringing one in from the outside. With all traditional venues crossed off the list, our quest for a grand piano, or for a nearby space where we could afford to bring in a grand piano, forced us to look outside the box again.

We fell in love with one of these unconventional spaces as soon as we saw it: a whiskey warehouse turned outsider-art gallery, the American Visionary Art Museum is walkable, affordable, and just plain cool. But could we manage the cost and logistics of bringing in a flīģelis? It turns our we didn’t need to worry about it. “Well, sure – we could probably get a grand piano up to the third floor by tilting it on its side in the elevator,” explained the rental manager, “but…  we can also use the baby grand that’s already on that floor.” Sometimes providence truly saves the best for last.

For full descriptions, photos, and maps of festival sites, check out the festival website’s “Event Venues” and “Location” pages. And, of course, you’ll have the opportunity to experience all these amazing venues for yourself this summer in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit www.latviansongfest2017.com or write to info@latviansongfest2017.com.


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