Board May Climb Aboard

February 25, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Convention and Arena Authority will decide this week whether to go into the booking business for a family-oriented show that would play in June at DeVos Performance Hall.

If board members agree, it would be the first time the panel would partner with a show producer for a non-charity event. Doing that, of course, means the CAA could lose money if the show tanks.

“It’s a limited risk, but there is a risk to the CAA,” said Rich MacKeigan, CAA executive director and SMG general manager.

The show is part of the inaugural North American tour of “Thomas & Friends Live! On Stage,” a 90-minute musical adventure based on the kids’ TV program “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.” The tank engine tour leaves the station next month with its first stop in York, Pa., on March 14. A total of 27 shows have been booked in 19 cities thus far for dates in March and April.

The CAA is looking at having Thomas chug into town for two performances on June 19 and maybe on June 20, too. The total number of shows held here would depend on how well tickets sell prior to the dates.

MacKeigan said the show’s producer, who has brought events to the city before, is willing to add DeVos Performance Hall as a stop but only if the CAA picks up some of the show’s cost to limit the producer’s potential loss. The CAA Finance Committee gave its blessing to the venture and the full board will review the proposal on Wednesday.

“The producer of ‘Thomas’ has been in the facility before with ‘Dora the Explorer’ and this April’s ‘Go! Diego! Go!’. Their products have always been of a very high quality and well received by the ticket buyers,” wrote MacKeigan in a memo to the committee.

SMG Director of Finance Chris Machuta esti

mated that each performance would have to sell out at 2,430 tickets for the CAA to break even. But if the board can find a sponsor for the show, the break-even mark would fall to below 2,000 sold tickets. Ticket prices would average about $19, a price MacKeigan said was slightly less than the average for most family shows.

“We are definitely price competitive,” he said.

MacKeigan and Machuta believe that 2,000 tickets can be sold for every performance in the hall, and their belief is backed by personal experience. Both have young children who are fans of Thomas and both took their families to Flint for an annual event that features a train ride pulled by Thomas. They said the rides were sold out, and about 5,000 customers showed up on each day of the four-day event.

“After witnessing that event first hand, we went from questioning the ability to get to 2,000 paid to feeling that the number is very attainable,” said MacKeigan, who added that having the show here would strengthen the board’s relationship with the producer for future shows.

But the CAA could lose over $53,000 — the projected break-even mark — if Thomas turns out to be a train wreck and the board has to cancel the performances due to low ticket sales. MacKeigan, though, didn’t think the CAA would have to take that drastic step, which has only happened once to a summertime family show held in the hall. He said having Thomas in the building in June gets the performances in before most families go on vacation in July.

“Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” is a British children’s TV show that debuted in 1984. It is based on “The Railway Series” books created by Rev. Wilbert Awdry. The series chronicles the adventures of a group of anthropomorphized trains and road vehicles that live on the fictional Island of Sodor. PBS broadcasts the show.

“It’s a widely successful program for kids age 2 to about 10,” said MacKeigan.

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