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Designing Live-Event Venues for Operational Efficiency

The show’s load-in starts two hours late, which puts everyone on the backfoot and creates a palpably tense atmosphere where there is no time for anything else to go wrong. But, of course, more piles on. The trucks have to be unloaded from the alley because there’s no direct access, and the show that wasn’t bringing anything to be forklifted now, don’t you know it, does. A mile’s worth of feeder must be tied off and lugged from the other side of the stage because the monitor engineer wants to set up here, but the company switch with isolated ground power is over there. The merch team can’t get their point-of-sale on the house WiFi. And the only freight elevator must be shared between catering and every other person trying to load-in today, so it’s not uncommon to see a technician in a Genie lift and a slew of servers with a hotbox of risotto balls packed in like sardines.

It's in these high-stress moments when the operational flaws in a building’s design are most apparent. We know because we’ve operated venues in similar situations. And after decades of consulting and nearly 400 venues designed and built, we’re not short on anecdotes. We’ve picked a few to share along with lessons we’ve learned on making your venue work smarter and not harder for you. Some of the tips are more applicable to new construction, but others can be adopted right now. The crux of designing an operationally efficient venue, whether it be a theatre, convention center, arena, or any other type, is based upon a blend of foundational planning-design principles and leveraging technology.

Let’s start with basic space planning. It’s more than identifying a checklist of the facility’s key areas. Space planning is the laying out of a performance factory, so each component is optimized to work best individually and as part of a system. Take the loading dock at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City for example. The complex includes a traditional concert hall and a proscenium theatre under one roof. The original design included a loading dock for each space, but ultimately, the real estate and budget didn’t allow for it. With only one loading dock available, the decision was made to place it closest to the theatre because productions staged there would have a more difficult load-in with large scenic units and rigging. And because the backstage hallway had to service both performance venues, it was made twelve feet wide, had special bumper guards to protect the sheetrock, and the walls were color-coded by venue to help stagehands navigate the complex. Efficiency doesn’t always mean expensive. Simple solutions can work.

The largest impact on a venue’s operational efficiency is in the room design. If you run an existing venue, there will be few opportunities to adjust the room design unless it’s part of a capital enhancement project or a full-out renovation. If you’re on a design team of a new build, this is your chance to get it right and determine how easy or hard it will be to run the venue.

Efficient space design consists of flexible configurability, standalone operation, and maximum space allocation. Room flexibility is not a new concept to venue managers, but rising building material costs and increased competition for customer entertainment spending has made it a front-burner discussion. How can you expand operational capacity without adding more building? One answer is creating large open spaces free of obstructions that can still be partitioned for multiple experiences. Examples of this design choice would include American Airlines Plaza at SoFi Stadium and the Texas Lottery Plaza at the Toyota Music Factory. And for interior spaces, we’re seeing this translate into flexible seating and automated rigging. Being able to transform a room from a raked seating to a flat floor event is a gamechanger in programming and revenue potential. And there are different methods to achieving that functionality, from an open room with loose seating and platforms to telescopic seating to a fully mechanized approach like the Gala system.

Another great display of space design efficiency can be seen in the Chase Arena performance rigging system that was conceived with our friends at Theatre Projects. The arena’s scoreboard is 9,699 square feet, making it the largest center-hung unit in the NBA. For concerts and corporate events, the scoreboard and its eight audio clusters fully retract to store above the low steel. Two motorized gantries then track inward underneath the scoreboard to create a 60’ x 90’ grid with unrestricted rigging access. As you can imagine, this functionality was not cheap, but it’s paying off. The head rigger for the venue has said, “Chase Arena is one of the best production-friendly arenas I’ve ever been in.” And it shows in their impressive load-in and load-out times, affecting the bottom line and making the business case for investing in infrastructure.

Flexibility isn’t limited to room configuration. Efficient spaces also have operational flexibility through independent infrastructures such as engineered sound insulation, ample power and data drops, and pre-determined strong points in the ceiling of non-performance areas such as common areas and multi-purpose rooms as well as A/V patch panels in these same spaces. As patrons demand more experience enhancements in addition to the ticketed attraction, we must realize any space is fair game for activation. This market driver led the Long Beach Convention Center in 2017 to convert a pedestrian walkway and a covered service corridor into an immersive LED Rainbow Bridge and street-side party lounge renamed The Cove. With a capacity of 5,500 attendees, The Cove is favored by meeting planners for its food trucks, light-up décor, and vibrant artwork by California muralists. This adapted space proves that every square foot has the potential to be maximized.

But, what about technology? Nothing epitomizes efficiency more in today’s world than digital solutions and cutting-edge equipment. One of the most impactful changes we’re seeing from a comprehensive building systems standpoint is in networking and BMS software. Networking is no longer relegated to the personal computer. All major systems that were once analog-based are now networked and running off cloud-based platforms including security, life safety, telecom, physical plant, and backstage operations. You pretty much need to be an IT specialist to configure a DSP and mix a show these days. And venue management software such as VenueOps and Prism are becoming a necessity for even small to mid-sized facilities. This connectivity change also requires a shift in infrastructure planning such as installing dedicated home runs for each system category to ensure they don’t share the same backbone. These categories consist of production systems, building systems, third-party vendors, and public access. Separating these networks will also require multiple banks of cable trays for data runs, and it wouldn’t hurt to add spare, empty conduit while the wall is open. It will save you in demolition costs later.

Advances in production equipment are also helping venue operators do more with less inventory. For anyone that operates a small venue with limited storage or a venue with fixed hanging positions and limited focus room, moving light fixtures instead of conventional ellipsoidals and par cans are recommended. One moving fixture can replace ten conventionals, and now there are multiple brands and products with varying price points to fit most budgets. We’re also seeing equipment consolidation between lighting and video where one console can control show lighting as well as live video mixing. These integrated units are beginning to double up as mini-media servers, which can be perfect for smaller tours and corporate events. And to save time in the pre-production phase, lighting control manufacturers such as ETC and their Apex console are making advancements in pre-visualization technology. Designers can now use augmented 3D models to overlay computer-rendered light plots onto the physical stage to pre-check instrument placement and beam coverages. We implemented much of this technology into the equipment design for the Museum, Facebook’s event center on their MPK21 corporate campus. At 20,000 square feet and a capacity of 2,300 attendees, the space is divisible into four smaller rooms, each fully outfitted with catwalks and equipment for both presentation and broadcast capabilities. The performance infrastructure includes a performance lighting power and control system, a distributed chain motor control system with load sensing and position feedback, and a Meyer audio system.

And we cannot forget to highlight the digital solutions for front of house operations and how they’ve proved to be useful tools for increasing transaction times and personalizing the entertainment experience. We’re seeing increased demand for digital display technology in new construction. Digital monitors are already ubiquitous in our venues, serving as a means of wayfinding, menu boards, informational displays, and décor elements. But what’s new, especially for performing arts centers, is the embedment of LED screens into exterior facades for advertising and programming purposes. There is a desire to expand the ticketed experience beyond the seated room and to an open-air space, and large-format exterior screens achieve that goal.

One silver lining of the pandemic for our industry was that it forced us to break operational norms and it expedited customer adoption of app-based technology and self-service kiosks for events. We have yet to see COVID’s full effect on the future of facility design, but venues of all types are already decreasing the box office footprint with ticketless operations and tapering down queue lines with app-driven food and beverage sales. And there are more industry-defining changes on the horizon. The adoption of blockchain technology for events will require us to create new software for tendering cryptocurrency and rethink what a merch display looks like that sells t-shirts alongside NFTs. But that’s what makes our industry unique, isn’t it? We sell the most rudimentary product, the live experience, using today’s most advanced technology, and it’s our job to figure out the best way to do it.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to efficiency design. A building’s functionality and capabilities will vary depending on the venue type, budget constraints, daily usage, and market conditions. And operational workflows will be customized to the venue management personnel, changing as team members leave and new ones get hired. The best any operator can do in the pursuit of operational efficiency is to follow these guiding principles and continue collaborating with peers to find new innovations. This industry moves fast, but together we can keep pace.

Written by Benton Delinger and Michael Ferguson, Founding Principals of TheatreDNA


You can also read this article in VenueProfessional's May/June issue.

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