Watts Shows Go On

February 13, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Much of the credit as to why thousands of events at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place have gone so smoothly for all these years has to be given to Jim Watt.

Watt is assistant general manager of both buildings for SMG, the Philadelphia-based management firm that oversees the buildings’ daily operations for the Convention and Arena Authority. In fact, he said his best career move came when he joined SMG more than 15 years ago, following 15 years on the road touring with two different companies.

“I’ve been in the business since 1975. I toured for seven years with the old Ice Capades. I was their treasurer. And I toured for about eight years with Sesame Street Live. I spent 15 years, 42 weeks a year, in a different hotel every week,” said Watt, laughing about the 630 weeks, or 4,410 days, he carried a hotel key in his pocket.

“In visiting and playing in over 200 buildings around the country, I found that the SMG-operated facilities were some of the best out there. I got to know virtually everybody in the company and actually worked in their facilities from a show standpoint. It was obvious they ran a great place and a great company,” he added.

Watt joined SMG in 1990 as the general manager of a small building in Louisiana and came here four years later as the first person SMG assigned to Grand Rapids. He beat Craig Liston, the first general manager of the GrandCenter, to town by 24 hours in 1994 when the city turned over the reins of the former convention center to SMG.

“I was actually the first person on site from SMG for one day. I’ve been here since the GrandCenter days,” he said.

Watt was director of operations for the building that

DeVos Place
has since replaced. The GrandCenter was losing about $500,000 a year then, and the city decided that it couldn’t run the convention center anymore. Watt, Liston and the rest of the SMG crew needed less than two years to convert the building’s annual deficit into a surplus.

“I remember that well. There were a number of changes that we made, which would be normal for SMG. It was just taking a long, hard look at every aspect of the building, from how it was booked to how we cleaned the floors and just making changes,” said Watt.

Today, Watt is responsible for operations and maintenance at both buildings and has two offices, one at the arena and another at the convention center, as proof of his double duty. He has directed just about everything involved with staging an event and even a partial list of what he has done is long.

The list included making sure there were enough ushers, ticket takers, security guards and medical personnel on hand for each event. He was also responsible for setting up events and changing from one event to another, like going from a basketball game to a hockey match at the arena, or from a public show to a convention exhibit at

DeVos Place

“Recently some of that has been relieved from me. Part of being here is to bring along some good people locally, and we brought along Steve Miller. He recently became assistant GM at

DeVos Place
. So the event load at
DeVos Place
is now under him and I maintain the operations and maintenance areas,” said Watt.

What Watt likes best about his position is that every day is different.

“Over a weekend, you can walk in the arena and it is filled with dirt and motorcycles. Then that is all gone and Rascal Flatts is putting on a show. When you walk in the back door, it’s different all the time. The event side of it is ever changing and ever challenging,” he said.

And that’s no bull, either. Well, OK, for one day it was.

“There was an occasion where our maintenance manager stepped out of his office in the back of the arena and a bull walked past his office on its way to the kitchen. We had a rodeo in and the bull somehow got out of its pen and was strolling around the building. I mean, it is different every day.”

Watt and Vicki, his wife, have three children: 20-year-old Shawn, 16-year-old Alastair and Laura, who is 13. When he isn’t working, Watt said his spends much of his free time with his kids, doing what he called the “normal fatherly duties,” like running them where they need to go. But after those commitments are met, Watt confessed that he is always looking for a warm day so he can get a little golf in.

“Well, I’m one of those golfers who admits that breaking 105 is difficult,” he said. “I love the game. I only started playing it about seven years ago, but give me an opportunity to get out there … And I have discovered that what they say is true: A lot of deals are made on the golf course.”

One deal that SMG and the Convention and Visitors Bureau are trying to get done is to bring the International Association of Assembly Managers, a group Watt belongs to, to

DeVos Place
for one of its annual meetings. In addition to the business the city would gain from such a booking, it would be a noteworthy symbolic victory if they could capture the national convention group for the local convention center.

“It’s the industry’s organization for arenas and convention centers,” he said.

Watt has a few remaining operational wrinkles left to iron out at

DeVos Place
. But now that the new convention center is broken in, it’s likely that much of his future attention will be keyed on the arena.

“We’re into our second year now and I’d like to think that it is up and operating. So we’re smoothing it all out and gaining the experience of the logistics of the building. The first year we were learning how people were really coming in (to the building) versus how it was designed. And we’re getting those issues smoothed out,” he said.

“I’m focusing more on the arena now. We want to keep it active and we want to keep it looking fresh. We’ll make changes occasionally, so it’s more comfortable for the artists in the back of the house and for the public in the front of the house, so it’s just not the same old building every day.”    

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