Guest Features: Alex Bua, Mandy Bauer, Harrison Scott, Dylan Barahona
Last week’s Headliner, Shane Boylan, told us that we should always go VIP, so this week, we reached out to some of our favorite folks who work across a variety of VIP and hospitality roles to find out just what makes VIP so, well, VIP and how a great program can add value to an event or experience.
Alex Bua talks to us about his experience in VIP Management & Operations across many events from Tortuga, Watershed, Electric Forest, and Gov Ball, to Disney On Ice & monster truck rallies, to food truck rallies & cannabis cups.
Mandy Bauer uses her past experience working festivals with CID Entertainment in her current role as Director of Hospitality for the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA.
Harrison Scott creates unique fan experiences alongside artists’ tours and festivals as Director of Business Development, Music Experiences at On Location as well as their owned events such as CID Presents events in Mexico.
Dylan Barahona started in the high-end hospitality industry and parlayed that experience into festivals and events with a focus on glamping.
What makes a VIP program great? How do you develop a great VIP program?
ALEX BUA: Attention to detail, excellent customer service, and tailoring the VIP elements to the event itself make a program great. When developing a program, you want to cover all your bases and then create something one-of-a-kind or beyond what's promised. For example, if you have an event on the beach, we think about how we will deal with the sun during the day and the cool sea breezes at night. We consider how it might be tough to walk through the sand, so we create walking paths out of mobile flooring. If your event is on a black top, in the heat of the summer, misting fans is always a great option. We consider most people like to eat in the shade or AC, we consider that a comfort station is a better place to use the restroom but we go above and beyond to make sure they are cleaned, smell great, and run properly. You have to really think of everything and stay on top of it all before, during, and after all of your events.
You also want to build a team of staff that care about the event and the people attending it, not just a group of friends that you want to party with.
MANDY BAUER: In VIP programs that stand out, companies have thought about every touchpoint the guest has with the event and have figured out a way for the guest to do the bare minimum and have an excellent experience. Attention to detail and excellent service are paramount in that. You need to have the most bright, bubbly, friendly person interacting with guests. That person needs to know EVERYTHING about the event. That person is who your guest will remember!
When building a VIP program, the most important thing is to understand the audience. Think of creative ways to engage with them and help them create long-lasting memories. And free stuff. Everyone likes free stuff.
HARRISON SCOTT: A great VIP experience brings people closer to the music that they love. That is not the same for every artist and their fans. Some artists want to meet their fans, give them good seats and merch. Others want to create wholly immersive experiences, such as touring exhibits, virtual reality experiences, or unique pre-show programming. Finding new ways for artists to connect to fans by tapping into a combination of what our partners are passionate about and what enhances the fan experience is the essence of a great program. For example, if an artist is also a homebrewer, is there a way to bring that experience onto the tour and share it with fans? Fans always want to see the other side of their favorite artists.
It’s also important to consider the venue. Is it a stadium, an amphitheater, a giant field? Can you build out a big VIP lounge in a field vs finding activation areas within the venue as part of a stadium tour? Price point is another consideration. Some of our partners can offer high priced packages with a ton of perks, others are more price conscious.
DYLAN BARAHONA: Having an overall seamless experience makes a VIP program great. People are paying a premium for convenience so having close bathrooms and transportation to various stages is also good. The staff is the most important. A staff that understands the whole festival - not just the VIP area - is trained well, and a staff that cares is key.
When developing a VIP program, if it is possible, build in something unique for artists to connect with fans. It can be hard to have artists play a set just for VIP guests, but when it works, it is usually what guests remember the most.
What makes it not great?
ALEX: A copy & paste of another event or festival. Just because one event/festival has a successful program doesn’t mean it’s the winning formula for yours. Sure, there are common elements we all share, but I have seen many times producers want to “do what they did” and it falls flat. Making the event space unique to its theme and space is key to its success.
MANDY: Under delivering on promises made. The expectation is that VIP is going to be over the top and excellent. And when it’s not impressive, it’s not VIP. Service is a big part of that. Excellent customer service is a dying art. It makes a difference when you enter a VIP lounge and someone greets you, tells you where things are, and what’s happening - not just in VIP, but at the event - versus someone being on the phone when you walk in. It is easy for an event to bypass training their staff because they are so busy and instead, hand them a piece of paper and tell them to learn it. One of the worst things is when the staff doesn’t know the answer to a guest question. It is really important to prepare customer service info in advance, take time to train the staff, and empower them to make decisions as needed.
HARRISON: It all comes down to execution at the end of the day. I have a huge amount of confidence in our team in bringing concepts to life and delivering on-site. A VIP program fails if we can’t deliver on a given promise, respond to our guests in a timely manner, or provide an easy, seamless experience.
DYLAN: VIP Staff can make or break a VIP program. Unattentive, unapproachable staff automatically kills a VIP program.
How do you take accessibility into consideration when planning a VIP area? Anything you have learned about accessibility?
ALEX: VIP guests come in all types. VIP has no boundaries; it’s not just Instagram models and bottle services with streamers. Any and all types of events have VIP programs and they cater to the fans that want an elevated experience. ADA patrons are included within that and they deserve the same experience as everyone else. They are to be included in all planning of your area, amenities, experiences, and takeaways.
MANDY: Accessibility is and should always be at the forefront of any type of event planning, especially for a VIP experience. One of the most non-VIP things you can do is host a VIP experience and not make it accessible for everyone! You need to make sure every single touchpoint of the experience is accessible and inviting for all types of guests. You also need to train your staff so that they know how to help guests access all amenities, not just in the VIP area, but the festival or event as a whole. Just simple things like knowing which entrance line to use can go a long way. Again, it always goes back to great service! Empower whoever is working your VIP space to be a confident service provider who can help the guest overcome any obstacle with a smile. I've also learned that there is usually someone with the production company that specializes in ADA standards, so it's a good idea to run things by them to make sure you aren't forgetting anything.
HARRISON: Always have a contingency plan and always make sure there are ramps or elevators, or whatever is needed for accessibility. Properly advancing shows to make sure accessibility is provided, having an understanding of how all the pieces come together, and having a lock-solid plan is key so when a last minute request comes up, you can handle it.
DYLAN: Accessibility tends to be overlooked, unfortunately. The first year of an event, it feels like we play catch up in terms of accessibility, but in year two, we know we need to plan for it. For example, I learned after my first year of an event that we always need to have at least 1 ADA bathroom and shower in the campgrounds. Now we know we need it and plan for it.
Why should an event/festival/tour have VIP? What value does it bring?
ALEX: VIP provides a necessary option for dedicated fans to experience their favorite artist, experience, or event in an elevated fashion. It's not as easy as making a more expensive ticket. You have to increase the value of the overall experience at your event to create a successful VIP program. You also MUST think about the GA program first, make sure you aren’t taking major elements away from 75% of your patrons and then make the decision to expand your ticket options to a VIP or even GA+ option.
MANDY: If guests are uncomfortable or inconvenienced by things such as long lines at the entrance or bathroom, they are constantly thinking about those distractions and can’t fully enjoy themselves. With the perks of VIP, they are able to live in the moment, and enjoy the show, without worrying about those things. When it comes time to buy tickets for the next event at that venue and they think back to their last experience, they will remember either how far away the bathrooms were or how long it took to get a beer and hesitate before buying; or they will remember how easy and great the experience was and will buy tickets early.
HARRISON: For the tour or festival, VIP programs can be a great opportunity to generate incremental revenue while engaging some of your most passionate fans.
DYLAN: Events are often pushed as one-size-fits-all. VIP allows for folks who wouldn’t go to an event - maybe because they don’t like using a porta potty - to actually attend. In fact, bathrooms are the number one reason people say they buy VIP.
Biggest hurdle convincing customers to upgrade to VIP?
ALEX: When it comes to getting customers to upgrade, it always helps to introduce them to a returning customer. You can pitch a program to a customer all day, but if you introduce them to a happy couple already involved in the program, the persuasion is stronger.
MANDY: Proving the worth of the program to someone who has never spent that money before is the biggest hurdle. On paper, VIP is often a big jump in price. The guest might not initially understand the luxury and convenience that comes along with spending more, but once they get to the event and see things like real bathrooms, air conditioning, etc. they get it.
HARRISON: Fans of that particular artist or festival or main event need to know VIP options exist. Everyone needs to be talking about it and be excited about it. If they don’t know it exists, they can’t buy it.
DYLAN: The biggest hurdle seems to be the big jump in price between GA and VIP. Sometimes it can be 10 times the price to upgrade. Though, once someone upgrades to VIP at one festival and experiences the culture and the conveniences, they are more likely to go VIP at another.
Which areas are you most eager to improve or expand into?
ALEX: With my move back home to Australia, I am experiencing a much smaller music festival market. It provides me an opportunity to focus more on the details of the program and to aim at providing an excellent experience for the patrons. I am eager to expand on the catering portion of our work and have recently started working with a few hospitality groups within the CBD Sydney area.
MANDY: The Wells Fargo Center has 22,000 seats in the building. I want to provide a more personal touch to the guests who are buying VIP tickets. So many people come to the concert, it's easy for VIPs to get lost in the mix. I want to create a more intimate experience for them starting from the moment they enter the parking lots. This includes greeters specifically for VIP guests who welcome them and show them how excited we are that they are here. The small, intimate, personalized experiences are what people remember and why they come back.
HARRISON: Continuing to develop our Mexico events where our motto is that "everyone is a VIP". We are also finding ways to grow our boutique and bespoke events that take place on a much smaller scale but provide a high end experience. We’ve done a couple of them including the Up Close & Personal dinner with Josh Groban in NYC. There were fewer than 500 people in attendance, some packages included a hotel stay, and all attendees got to meet Josh and were treated to an intimate concert experience. We want to find ways to deliver more experiences like that with artists and their fans.
DYLAN: I’m working on a couple of exciting things now. With Connecting Roads, we are building out intimate retreats and experiences across all industries, connecting creatives with fans. Separately, I’m working with Roameo, a VIP road trip company with dedicated concierges, upscale, unique, renter-friendly mobile travel suites, and curated outdoor itineraries. We are talking with festivals now about curating road trips to the festival with stops along the way at national parks, then using the suite as a bungalow or cabana onsite during the festival, before driving it back home.
In the end, quality and experience are king
While the tangible perks of VIP can vary greatly depending on the venue and audience - flushable bathrooms, air conditioning, private lounges, food and open bar, on stage viewing, swag, and more - at the end of the day, the intangible art of making a guest feel special is what makes VIP, VIP. As Alex, Mandy, Harrison, and Dylan repeated over and over, finding the right people to deliver a seamless VIP experience and connect with guests is the key ingredient to success and keeps guests coming back year after year - and of course, spending money.
ABOUT ALEX BUA:
Alex Bua has been a professional in the Music & Event industry for the last 10 years. He has held a variety of different positions in multiple departments - with a strong core of work in VIP operations - as well as a range of leadership positions. He also worked as a Producer with Live Nation Sponsorship, managing their largest sponsorship deal to date. Alex recently relocated to his hometown of Sydney, Australia and is jumping into the event & hospitality market on the other side of the planet.
ABOUT MANDY BAUER:
Mandy Bauer has 8 years of professional experience working in the music and sports industries in various operations, guest experience, and hospitality roles. Mandy is currently the Director of Hospitality at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. A highlight from her 2019 was her part in designing and introducing the newly renovated balcony level, the Assembly Room, at the WFC. She is also building her personal brand as an entrepreneur and can be found on social @heymandybauer
ABOUT HARRISON SCOTT:
Harrison Scott leads On Location’s Music Experiences Business Development team in building premier VIP and hospitality programs, event services, and destination concert events. Throughout his 7+ year tenure with the legacy CID Entertainment brand (CID has been a part of On Location since 2017), Harrison has ideated and executed activations for domestic and international tours, major music festivals, and contributed to the talent roster for CID Presents’ annual concert vacations hosted in Mexico.
ABOUT DYLAN BARAHONA:
Dylan Barahona is an event professional who has been working in the hospitality industry for the past 8 years with a focus in event management and glamping over the past 5 years. One of his highlights of 2019 was being the Guest Operations Manager at Coachella Safari, where he led a hospitality team of over 30 at the most expensive festival campground.
As he explores his passion for creating experiences, Dylan and his partner Morgan see a need for intimate, curated events and retreats that showcase life changing experiences merged with luxurious hospitality. Their company Connecting Roads Hospitality has served as a great vessel to showcase their skills, until they find the perfect property to produce these experiences.