This transcript is from Episode 20 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/20
This transcript consists of the interview only
Tom: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm on the line with Mark Wade. Mark, you are the executive director of the Vent Haven International Ventriloquists’ ConVENTion. That's a niche that you don't hear very often. Let's talk about this. Tell us first a brief history of the convention.
Mark: Okay, Tom. Well, good to be with you, by the way, and thanks for having me on board. Hopefully people will get a little something from this today. The Vent Haven International Ventriloquists’ ConVENTion started 40 years ago as an offshoot of vents getting together to go to the museum. Up until that time period, ventriloquists really didn't have a convention to call their own. They always met with magician groups, mostly magicians, but sometimes with clown groups, but never anything on their own. So 40 years ago Vent Haven Museum, which is the number one museum, the only museum of its type in the world, decided, “Why don't we see if we can get some vents together?”
So it started at a place, at that time, called the Drawbridge Inn. We stayed there for 30 years at the Drawbridge, until finally we moved here a few years ago to our Marriott. Anyway, like I said before, it was a place for vents to come together, to meet one another, to trade ideas, to see other vents perform. And it's worked out really, really well over the years. We've had every top-name ventriloquist in the world at one time or another at our conventions. Jeff Dunham comes every year. Edgar Bergen was there. We've had just about everybody you can think of at our conventions.
The conventions ran with an executive director and a convention chairman up until about 15 years ago. At that point, 15 years ago, they did away with the title of the convention chairman because they used to trade it around to all the board of advisor's members on the museum. When I took it over 15 years ago, with the understanding that there'd only be an executive director, and I would be it. It made it a lot easier on the planning. So for the last 15 years, I've been the executive director and I've ran, probably, another 10 or 12 conventions beyond that, when I was just a convention chairman, so to speak.
Tom: Okay, when you were working with an executive director, and you were a convention chairman, what were some of the logistical problems that were associated when you had two positions?
Mark: Well, for one thing, if you were a convention chairman you always had to go back and see what kind of a budget the executive director was going to give you. In those days the budget was very slim. I remember running conventions on less than $5000 for a three-and-a-half or four-day convention, which is . . . basically, you're telling them, “We'll buy one night of room for you, to stay at the hotel, and your registration.” And that's just about all we could offer a lot of people. So the convention stayed small for a few years, because we didn't expand on that. That was one thing, and also the fact that sometimes the executive director, in fact most of the time, the executive director was a person that worked with the museum but weren't actually ventriloquists. So they did all the ins and outs of trying to get people to come and do things for practically nothing in those days.
So by eliminating that position, when that executive director left, for a couple years there Vent Haven did not have a convention. Somebody else did a convention in another part of the country. They called me and asked me if I would take it over, and I said, “Yes, with the understanding that I would be the executive director, and there would be no more convention chairmen.” We weren't going to turn it around and give it to different people every year. You can't get any kind of consistency when you have somebody in charge of it different every year. One guy or one lady might run it really well. The next one around was maybe not quite as active trying to book things. So the consistency of the convention was up and down.
Tom: When you took over the convention, what kind of numbers did you have? How many people were attending?
Mark: At those times we were somewhere between, probably around 350 or so.
Tom: And you've grown that. What was your maximum attendance, which I think was 2014, 2015.
Mark: Yeah, right. Well, 2013 or '14 we had 623, and this year I'm looking for numbers upwards of 650 to 700. So we've been able to get those numbers and achieve that kind of consistency the last few years, and that's great. I think one of the big factors that helped us was having the right place to meet. The convention hotel that we had before, the old Drawbridge, it was a large property. And because it was so large, they didn't have the funds all the time to keep the upkeep on the place. Some of that went downhill a little bit. I think that hurt our attendance. So with a brand-new place, which was brand-spanking new, the hotel now that we're at, the Cincinnati Airport Marriott, it's only, I think, six or seven years old. So in hotel terms, that's brand new. So people wanted to come for a vacation, they have a nice place to come. The Drawbridge was okay. People had a lot of sentimental value to that place, but it outlived its usefulness.
Tom: Now, the Drawbridge, when you finished up there, you had a contract with them. How did you go about, and what were the decisions made to quit the Drawbridge and find someplace new?
Mark: Well, the Drawbridge, at that time, was the largest place that we could find in a tri-state area. We're talking Indiana, northern Kentucky, and southern Ohio. It was the largest place at that time. There was no other place to go. So in order for us to maintain the dates that we needed and wanted, which was always the second or third week in July in those days, we had to sign a contract with them to guarantee that we would be there during that time so they wouldn't sell our dates away from us. We had a long-range contract with them, and when it got to the end, limping, we had a year and a half, or two years to go on the contract. That was close enough to the end of that long-term contract that I could get out of it if I let them know a year in advance. If not, the contract would have cost us $10,000 just to break it, to get out. I only had a few days to do it after the last convention. So after the last convention, Ken Groves and my wife Jody and I went down to the Cincinnati Airport Marriott, took a look at the place, loved it, told them I'd sign a contract with them. I drew up a letter, took it to the Drawbridge and handed it personally to them, saying, “This is your official notice that we're not going to be back.”
Tom: And shortly after that, the Drawbridge closed and is now a parking lot, if I remember correctly.
Mark: Exactly right. A hospital in the area bought the property, and they're going to put medical offices in and some retail shops. So it's not even a hotel anymore. It was a shame. It was a nice hotel in its day, but like I said, it's such a large property. It was all one floor. They had no multiple floors to it. It was harder to keep up.
Tom: Well, before we go into talking about the new property and other logistics about the convention, I wanted to ask you a question. As a convention chairman, you realize that there's a lot of things that go on that aren't always within your control. One think that stood out to me in the old hotel, the Drawbridge, was I remember a few years ago there was somebody who complained about bedbugs. And instead of coming to you, they went to the news stations and tried to generate press. Now, as an executive director, somebody in charge of this, how did you deal with this?
Mark: Well, it was a little beyond my control, but we tried to bring it back into our control. Let's put it that way. I'll explain what I mean. The people that complained about that I had some suspicions about. They were people that liked to garner a lot of attention to themselves. They were people that liked to be in the limelight all the time, get news and make news, and be in front of the camera. And they said they had bedbugs in the room, and they wanted me to go and investigate. They wanted me to make a big announcement to the whole convention, and I saw no evidence of that. I looked. They had a jar that they brought with them, with a bedbug in it that was dead. I'm not so sure where that bedbug came from. I don't want to call my attendees liars, or anything like that. That's kind of drastic. But on the other hand, I had my suspicions.
Anyway, I said, “I can't go ahead and make that announcement. I don't have enough evidence to prove it one way or the other.” Well, that did not satisfy them. They went to the media, called the newspaper. I went immediately to the hotel manager and explained the situation to him. He said, “We're not going to allow the press in here.” I don't know if that was to cover his own tail, because they had them, or if they did not have them. Like I said before, this property was starting to go downhill in a hurry. Anyway, the media came, went to the front desk, and the manager told them they couldn't come in. So what happened was, they called those people that had made the complaint, and they snuck in the back door, so to speak. Came around the back to another doorway there, of the hotel, went up to the room.
Now, the thing that really caught me was, when they got up there, the one lady, her daughter was on the bed, sitting on the bed, with her ventriloquist figure. And the figure was glibly talking about bedbugs, and making reference to it, and they were filming. They were just loving it. They were filming this whole thing. Anyway, at that point they got their footage, they left, they went ahead and they did put it on the 11 o’clock news that night. They did not see me for an interview. I did not talk to them. The manager of the hotel told them, and showed them the certificates, where the place had been already . . . I don't want to say fumigated, that's probably not the right word. Had exterminators there to look at the place, and he had all this paperwork in order. It was kind of like his word against their word. Although, I guess, in that particular area they had an epidemic of bedbugs at one time. Not so much our hotel, but other hotels close by.
So anyway, kind of resolved itself after I gave it no traction, and sometimes you just have to turn a blind eye to that. That's not saying you're not meeting the needs of the people. It would have been a worse situation had I tried to go ahead and made a big announcement, “There's bedbugs.” Because immediately everybody would have been bitten, if you know what I mean. You make an announcement like that, and suddenly everybody's itching, you know? It's like saying you've got fleas in a place or something. So sometimes you just turn a blind eye to that. You work through the right people, we talked to the health department. I know that that's one of the things that the manager of the hotel did. I actually just worked through my hotel manager and my convention people.
Tom: Okay. Well, I worked that convention, and I was there. And there were no bedbugs in my room, and I didn't talk to anybody else.
Mark: I talked to a dozen people, and nobody else had them either.
Tom: Yeah, and it has to be frustrating as all get out when somebody tries to do that and go around you and draw publicity for themselves based on your event. But I appreciate you sharing that with us because it's indicative of some of the things that you have to look at. Some of the unexpected things that could pop up during a convention. Now, after you left the Drawbridge and you went over to the Marriott, you had to negotiate a contract with them. Talk to us a little bit about that process.
Mark: Well, they had a Christmas gift dropped in their lap. I walked in the door with Ken and my wife, and I knew I was looking for a place. We looked it over, we checked out the ballroom. I told the person in charge of the group there at that time, I said, “I need to take a look at your ballroom, see what we could do for our dealer's rooms. Different types of things that we needed for individual workshops and lectures.” We looked over, and we decided it looked great. I had to talk to her about a room rate. The rate at that particular time, I think their average room rate was $175 to $225 a night. I told them I would be bringing in several hundred ventriloquists for a four-day convention. Well, they gave me a room rate of, I think, $104. I said, “Can you do a little better than that?” I said, “If this works out, it could be long term. I will be willing to sign a three-year contract with you, in the event that we can come up with the right price on things.” So they dropped the room rate to $99 a night with the understanding that we would increase the rate by $4 or $5 a year, up to, I think the maximum was going to be $120 or $125 a night. So that was how we did it.
So after that first year that they had us, we made real believers out of them. I bet they were thinking, “Probably we're going to have 50 or 60 people coming in, at most.” And when almost 550 showed up, their eyes really rolled, and they knew they could make a lot of money with us. So they worked with me. And not that they didn't work before, but they worked a little harder after they saw that we were the real deal.
Tom: Okay, when you bring in 550 people from all around the world, there are a lot of logistics to that. First of all, let's talk a bit about feeding that number of people.
Mark: Well, you have all kinds of people coming in with all kinds of dollar situations that they have to deal with. There were some ventriloquists that came from India, and Malaysia, and Pacific Rim countries that I had to send them a letter of invitation. Their country would not let them come unless they got a letter of invitation from me. They were only allowed to bring so many dollars out of the country. India was very bad about that, and some other countries as well. So they only had so many dollars to spend. So I had to make sure that I had food that was inexpensive for them, and they could get the most bang for the buck, so to speak. So, the restaurant was a really high-class restaurant we had in there. It was a high-dollar restaurant, but I said, “I need a food bar put up there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that would be things like sandwiches and chips and an apple. Some fruit, what have you.” That they could do it a la carte, pick up something right away.
The other thing was, that when we have our convention, our convention's pretty packed with a lot of different things. And a lot of times they don't have a lot of time to come out of a lecture, to come out of something, go sit in a restaurant, and then try to get back in time. They start missing things. This way, they could walk out, pick up a sandwich or something quick there, go over and sit down in the atrium that we had right there close by and eat, and be right back in within 20 minutes, a half hour, to 40 minutes. So it wasn't a long wait. So, that was one thing we instituted.
One thing we did try were the food trucks, where you had people coming in, parking trucks outside, and they would go out and order a sandwich, order something from it. We had Mexican. We had hamburger, hot dog, kind of thing out there. Now, I'm not saying that all of our groups were hamburger, hot dog people, but we had that available to them if they wanted it. The food trucks didn't work out quite the way we imagined because it was so hot in the summer time in northern Kentucky, people didn't want to stand outside and order. They didn't want to sit outside at their tables and eat. They would rather stay inside, even if it meant they had to pay a little bit more. So after about three years we discontinued the food trucks. It just didn't pan out for our groups. Plus, they weren't making the sales they felt they should in order to justify being there for three or four days.
So, by coming up with the food situation, we try to get low-price food for people that were on a budget. Something quick and easy they could get to, something also that if they brought their kids, they could afford to feed their kids and have the kids get something to eat that they would like as well. But then for the other people that wanted to go to a bar situation and/or a good sit-down restaurant, we already had that in the hotel. So by introducing that food bar, I think it helped the situation of bringing families in.
Tom: At the convention you have, as you mentioned, a fairly packed schedule. How was that schedule developed over the years? Can you talk to us a little bit about how you created that framework?
Mark: I put most of that together myself because I ran more conventions than the other convention chairmen. Then when I became executive director, I had it every year, at that point. I found certain things worked. People like to see shows, so I tried to offer a show a night. One on Wednesday night, one on Thursday night, one on Friday night, and one on Saturday night. They wanted to see other ventriloquists’ work, so that was the first priority. I worked backwards from there. I had it Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday show. Then, on top of that, during the day . . . usually the shows were in the evening. It gave the audience or attendees some place to go that evening, and they could go and enjoy the show and watch other people. During the day, then, I decided one day would be with workshops and one day would be with lectures.
Now the difference, in my own terminology, a workshop is a lot shorter in duration. It's about 45 or 50 minutes, with a 5 or 10 minute question and answer period at the end, whole thing lasting an hour. We had three running at a time, and we would repeat those three. So actually, people coming in could sit through one workshop, go to another workshop, but they would miss the third one. Or, they could divide it up, see part of one, part of another, and part of the third one. However they wanted to do it. In the afternoon, then, we had three other, different workshops. So in total we had six different workshops that they could go to.
The lectures were for the entire group. The other way, with the workshops, people picked and chose what they wanted to go and see. The other way, with a complete lecture, the whole group is there and it's one person on stage, presenting. Usually we try to get names that are fairly big to do the lectures, because that's for everybody. The workshops were still with some name people, but they may be more in what I call a specialty area. For instance, I do things like children's performing, kids' shows. So there might be a workshop on kids' shows. There might be one on gospel ventriloquism, doing things in the church. Different kind of more highly specialized things, in the workshops. So I tried to give a balance between all-lecture things, which could apply to everybody, and individual workshops that would be more specialized. So I tried to work those in.
At one point, we had vent videos, which gave them a chance to see some of our history from the past. We had some old Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell tapes and shows that we would show. We had those for them to see. Jimmy Nelson, the Dean of American Ventriloquists, came, and he would show his commercials from the early '50s and '60s that he did for Nestles. So they got a chance to see that. So it's also preserving some of our history through video, as well.
So we gave them lectures, workshops, shows, and then, of course, we had two dealers' rooms, with about 28 to 30 dealers, so about 14 or 15 in each room. We had those open when dinner breaks were on. If they had a lunch break, the dealers were open, and at dinner break it was on. They were open after hours. We also instituted something that, I did this. I'm kind of proud of this. We had a contest for a lot of years, where people would come and compete for a junior award or a senior award. Juniors being under 17, 16 and under. Seventeen and above would be for the seniors. What happened was, with competitions like that, they get kind of bloodthirsty sometimes. At one point, not under my watch, but under someone else's, people were starting sabotaging other people's acts so they could win a trophy, or win a medallion. And I thought, “This isn't fostering the kind of good feeling that we want to have at a convention. This is supposed to be more like a family reunion, and that's kind of the feel that we have of it. A family reunion, more than just a convention.” So, what we did was this. We instituted what was called an open mic. They didn't have to compete. They just went out and they did an act, and they got critiqued, and they got a DVD of their act to take home with them, plus a certificate of participation.
I figured they had enough time in their own locale, wherever they are working, where they'll have to compete on a real-life basis. Coming to the convention should be a safe place for them to try out things and not have to worry about it. Well, that became very popular, and we had to limit to about 8 to 10 people in each category. Then we had all these other people that wanted to get in but couldn't. So, when we had the dealers open after hours, let's say it's after 9 o’clock at night, we instituted a general open mic. And a general open mic allowed the overflow of people that couldn't get in to the other two a chance to come and perform. There was no certificates, there was no critique. They would just go up, do your time on stage, I think they had six minutes, and then they were done. So we worked backwards from the shows, and getting good acts in all the shows.
We instituted, even, an international show on our Friday nights, to give our international people something to look forward to, that would come. We'd have acts anywhere from Korea, to Japan, to Australia, to England. All over. Romania, all over the world, we would have these acts in. We would have, usually, three acts and an MC. And the MC was always a German by the name of Stevo Schuling that handled that for me.
So you put all these diverse pieces together, but you work backwards, I thought, from my one-day plan of having shows and then go back from there and put it together. It became a formula after a while, and I worked with that formula. Then, we change it, and we do change it up a little bit, but when something works, why change horses?
Tom: It does work, and everybody who comes knows the order of things. They know that you start these events on time, which I think is a huge, huge part of what you do. People know that if they're not in that show room, they're going to miss out on something. Now Mark, I've got another question for you here. You instituted something that's, at the very beginning of the convention, for people who have never attended, to bring them into the family. So would you tell people about that?
Mark: We came up with something, Tom, a few years ago. It's an orientation for the newbies, the first-timers that would come. There's nothing worse than going to a strange city, to a strange hotel, to a group of people you're not used to being around, or a convention you've never been to before, and not knowing what time things start, where to go, who to see, and all that. So what we did was, we had a hospitality committee put together, with a hospitality chairman in charge of it. This would be seven or eight people that could direct people. They'd watch the door so people weren't running in and out during our shows or lectures. They also would help out when we load up the buses. We also had a bus trip that we took from our convention over to the museum. They would make sure those buses were running on time and with full capacity.
Also, the orientation itself was about a half an hour in length, and I would introduce myself and my staff to them, and also introduce the people on the hospitality committee. We'd tell them what time dinner was, where to go for the food, what about the food bar out in front of the room that we would have for them, with the lesser-priced foods, when the dealer rooms were open. We gave them a whole run down, and would answer questions even, as to what makes the convention work. And they felt like they were part of it. We also did this. We put a red dot on their badges, that they were first-timers. That way the people there knew to take time for them. Not that they wouldn't anyway, but especially take time for them, a little extra care and handling, as they say. So a lot of times you see a red dotter sitting by themselves, and a lot of the guys will just go up and just say, “Would you like to have dinner with us? Come on over to our table.” And that brought them into it. We would do things like, we'd see them out in the hall, we speak to them. We could see their badge, we call them by name, make them feel a part of things. That's the kind of feeling I wanted to foster with this convention, and it's worked. Because of that, we have huge attendance and people walk away happy and knowing that they're part of a family now, event community.
Tom: Well, that sense of community has definitely been fostered by you, and it's amazing to me how much of a family reunion the convention is. Now, Mark, when you put the convention together, you have different heads of different departments. Talk to us about the different departments, or different chairmen or heads that you have that help you out with this thing.
Mark: Well, I think as the executive director, you're only as good as your department heads. You surround yourself with good people and not try to micromanage. I think that's the big thing. I give them some direction on how I'd like things to go, but I don't tell them how to do it. They can find their own way as long as it's within the limits and parameters of how we're trying to run the convention. I chose people that I could trust, people that I could work with, that I knew would handle the job and be self-starters. There's nothing worse than putting somebody in a position that's not a self-starter and you have to, so to speak, hold their hand the entire time. If you're doing that, you might as well do it yourself.
I had a person in charge of the general open mic. That was his job. He ran it, he set up the schedule, he MC’ed it, he'd do whatever he needed to do. I would look in on it to make sure things were running smoothly, and if he needed anything. I had a head of hospitality, and he took care of the red dot people, so to speak. He took care of his committee. He gave them assignments as to where they were to watch the doors, and what other chores they would have to do during the convention. I have a person in charge of the dealers, and she took good care of the dealers' rooms. We have two dealers' rooms. She would handle making sure the lights are turned off, the room's locked up, things are secure. Making sure if there's any questions about anything, they would go to her, and if she couldn't handle it, she would come to me. I had Ken Groves, and you, both people on my committee, running the showroom, so to speak. You ran the sound, and the lights, and you took care of the stage area. I would check in with you to see if there's anything that needed to be done, and we would handle it at that point. But I would rely on you guys to handle the situation there, and that was great.
I would also meet with my hotel staff before the convention starts, to make sure that we're all on the same page. That's very important, to talk to the food-service people, to talk to the people registration there at the hotel, and talk to my own special people that I work with on a one-to-one basis. Registration people there, that handle the hotel-room registrations coming in. All those kind of things are very important. Then, the next night, on Tuesday night before the convention started on Wednesday, I would meet with my own staff of people, and all those heads I just mentioned before. That way everybody knows what I'm expecting from them, and they report to on me what they're doing and how they're going to do it. I don't say, “Don't do that, or don't do this,” but I would give them guidance if I thought it was off. But so far so good. I trust the people I have working for me and with me, and that's what makes it go.
Tom: Well, you've definitely inspired their loyalty, because everybody that I've ever talked to at that convention says, “Oh, if it wasn't for Mark, I wouldn't be doing this.” Now Mark, after the convention's over, how do you debrief? How do you evaluate?
Mark: Well, first of all, I try to take notes during the convention, mental notes, and I talk to Jody, my wife, and she writes them down. If she sees something, she'll write it down as well. I try to get my people together, either by phone or by email, or in person if we have time, if I can catch them there on Sunday before they leave, and talk to them. One of the ways that we debrief is, for all of our helpers and all the people that work, we have a coffee and doughnut for them session on Sunday morning. They come in, and they can sit down and relax a little bit, talk about some things with them, about what they liked and what they didn't like. How can we make things better? How can we improve? So the coffee and doughnuts is not only a thank-you, but it's also a way for us to get immediate feedback while it's still fresh in everybody's mind. See if there're any problems that were glaring, that we needed to take care of, and then we would take care of it for the following year.
We made notes about things that happened, and make sure that they don't happen again that way. Or, if we liked how it happened, make sure we can repeat that the next year. But it is important to have some feedback. I found out something else, and this is going to sound kind of radical to people. If you ask people how they like the convention, and I'm not talking just about my convention, I think any kind of convention, they'll say, “We loved it. It was great.” That's their first impression, they had a good time. But if you ask a group to evaluate your convention, sometimes then they think it's their obligation to find something wrong with it and it turns into, “Well, I didn't like the fact that the guy had a blue coat on, or I didn't like the fact that that guy's act was too long.” You find out they feel obligated to find something wrong with it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But on the other hand, try to get legitimate ideas from people on how to make things better.
I was trained as a teacher. One of the things that we had was textbook evaluations, and one of those textbook evaluations the guy told us, he said, “If you're not finding something wrong, you're not doing your job.” So it's instilling in them the idea that not everything's perfect, and you've got to find something wrong every time or you're not really being on top of things. Well, I don't think that's true, at all. I think you get a feeling from the people in how their first reactions are to things, how things are going. I kind of gauge it from there.
Tom: As the executive director of the convention, has there ever been anything that popped up that just totally surprised you?
Mark: Let me count the ways, as Shakespeare would say. Yes, I had a situation one time where a gentleman came in with a puppet, talked to one of our dealers, and traded his puppet for one of their puppets. Well, the guy came back an hour later and said, “I don't think this is going to work for me. Let me trade for something else.” Well, the guy traded for something else, and an hour later he came back and he told the guy, he said “I want to trade back.” Well, the dealer wasn't so anxious to trade back after that second time through. He goes, “Nope, I'm not going to trade back.” Well, the guy raised all kinds of Cain, in fact he called the police. I got a call from my hotel staff there saying, “Can you come down to the front desk, there's a police officer here looking for such-and-such a guy.” I came down to find out what was going on, and found out about it. So I told the officer it was an internal kind of thing, and they said they were obligated to come and check anyway.
So I took the police officer with me, went down to the dealer's, and find out what it was. So I had the dealer, finally I told the dealer, “Look, you give him back the puppet, you don't trade anymore.” I told the other guy, “Put that puppet away, I don't want any more trades here.” It felt like I was disciplining kids at a school. I said, “We're not going to have any more of this.” So, that was a total situation that came up.
One year at the convention, years ago, I had two dealers that almost got into a fistfight. They didn't like each other very well, they were both from the same state, same area. They got into an argument, and I thought it was going to come to fisticuffs, as they say, come to fists and blows. But it took care of itself when I got there. By the time I walked in, they said, “Here comes Mark in the door.” They backed off a little bit. I told them both that if it was at the beginning of the convention they both would be sent home. So we had to ease into it that way, but they were getting after it, so to speak.
So you have things like that that are very unusual, and those are just two incidents over 40 years that I can think of. So that's a pretty good track record, with that many diverse people from diverse backgrounds coming in, in close proximity, for four days.
Tom: Now, one year we all jumped onto, I shouldn't say jumped onto, climbed onto buses and headed over to Cincinnati for a program by Terry Fator. Terry came in, he booked the . . . I forget the name of the theater.
Mark: The Taft Theater.
Tom: The Taft Theater. And we all went over to watch Terry perform, and he actually contracted buses to take everybody over. Terry's an excellent guy, just a super, super great guy. What was the logistics like, to move 600 people over to a theater in downtown Cincinnati? Talk to us about that.
Mark: Well, there're a couple things. Number one, you have to rely on your hotel who does those kind of things to be the point person to help out. My friend Stephanie, who works for the hotel, she's in charge of doing a lot of things with me, with the convention. She knew the bus company, had used that bus company a lot for different tours, and people going out of the hotel and coming back. She had good confidence and faith in them. So I had her line up the buses. I told her how many people approximately we would have, but also wanted to have a bus in reserve, just in case we had overflow. So she took care of the buses. We had the bus contract lined up through the hotel, and that was good. Rely on their advice, because they deal with them all the time and they know.
Then, I had my hospitality people out there. I had to make sure that we had two hospitality people for each bus, and that they would ride over with that bus, and they would get them back on that bus afterward. And the bus they went over on was the bus they were supposed to come back on. They were supposed to make a head count on that. I think it was 50 or 55 people per bus. Some people chose to drive over on their own, so we didn't worry about them. That was all on their back, at that point, their responsibility. Anyway, they rode over with the people. They got them off the bus, and they told them where to meet. We made a meeting place with the buses. The buses had been from our hotel to that theater before, so they knew where to park and they told our people there where to meet out in front. So our buses pulled right up front, dropped the people right off at the door, and when they found out when the show was going to be over, approximately, they were there waiting on us. They walked out and the people went back to their bus, and our hospitality people loaded the bus and brought them all back.
That really had me worried, moving 600 people 10 miles, or 15 miles away, on a bus trip. Because I was waiting to get that call at midnight saying, “I went over to get a cup of coffee, and the buses were gone.” Thank goodness we didn't have that.
Tom: So you got them all back safely.
Mark: All the chicks were back in the hen house. It was good.
Tom: Now Mark, you've already started planning the 40th, obviously you've been working on that for a while now, the 40th anniversary of the Vent Haven ConVENTion coming up in 2016. We're recording this in October, but it's not going to air until February. By that time, you'll already have announced the schedule. So can you now share with our listeners something big that's going to be happening, courtesy of our friend Jeff Dunham?
Mark: Okay, sure. Jeff is doing something really great for us this year, just like Terry Fator did a few years ago. Jeff has invited the entire convention to come and see his show at the BB&T Auditorium at Northern Kentucky University. That'll be on our Saturday night. It'll be a little earlier than we usually do. His show's at 5 or 5:15, and we'll have them back at the hotel by 7. So, anyway, Jeff's going to take care of the buses. I'll line them up again like we did before with my hospitality people and with the hotel staff who knows how to line up the buses. We'll do all that, take them over in one fell swoop, so to speak. Bring them all back, use the same kind of methodology that we did when we went to the Terry Fator show. Jeff's picking up the cost of the buses, the cost of the tickets, it's free to our people. It's part of their registration. When they register for our convention, they get that trip over as well. So, that's just one thing that we're doing as a special thing for our 40th anniversary.
Tom: That right there is just going to be an amazing time for everybody who attends. And thanks to Jeff for doing all that to help the convention out and help the museum out. Now Mark, for everybody out there who may be thinking about planning a convention, or may have to plan a convention, are there any last tips or insights you can provide us that they should think about?
Mark: Every convention, Tom, is different. How we plan for a ventriloquist convention, and what their expectations are, is different than say, a plumbers' convention. I know that basically they have keynote speakers, and they have a trade show. But that's probably some of the only similarities. You're working with ego-driven people that are show-business kind of people, for the ventriloquists. So we have to accommodate that a little bit in our schedule, to let them know that they're getting things that they can use. I can think back to Steve Martin talking about doing jokes for a plumbers' union, when he found out it was airline pilots or something. He had all these jokes for the plumbers' unions, and everything, and it just didn't work out for him. But it was part of his comedy routine is, “Are those people here tonight?” Of course, not.
Like I said, you have to plan your convention according to the people that are coming, and you have to gauge and see what they want. That's why you have to know your audience, and know who you're working with, and know that inside and out, so you can plan something they want to see. If not, they're going to say, “Well, it was…we can't go every year, but we'll go every third year.” Well, you can't build an audience on every third year. You have to build it on consistent people coming back year after year. Also, you have to grow your convention, because certain years certain groups of people won't come. We've been averaging about 85 to 100 new people a year. That means if I can keep half of those, and those other 50 that dropped out from the year before, we'll fill that slot and then some. It's always a matter of numbers. It's always a matter of numbers, keeping your numbers up.
Tom: Well, Mark, again, thank you very much for taking your time to talk with us today. I appreciate all the insights, and I'm looking forward to getting our audience's reaction to the uniqueness of the ventriloquists’ convention.
Mark: It certainly is. It's a fun bunch, and like I said, it's more like a family reunion than a convention. That's the kind of feel we're going to keep with it, Tom.
Tom: Well thanks, Dad.
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