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Touring’s where it’s at right now – and that means someone has to get the band from A to B. Nick Easen reports on the people that put the (rock) biz into business travel...
AS LONG AS TOURING remains one of the biggest sources of income for top earners in the music business, travel managers globally will have a paymaster. Today’s music industry is all about the live thing – and for that, bands need to be on the road.
Forget CD sales, music downloads, and retail and radio feats – the global gig and playing to audiences around the world, whether you’re U2, Adele, Lady Gaga, Sade or Elton John, is not only big business but also a source of income for the travel trade.
According to Billboard, the music media experts, the concert business rebounded last year, with its top 40 A-list arena headliners making a good deal of their cash from tours. The industry could well be on its way to logging record numbers this year.
For example, Sade’s 59-date tour posted over £29 million, while U2’s monumental ‘360° Tour’ generated over £700 million in revenues. “The good thing is that it’s not a seasonal business – tours are going on all the time,” explains Brian Locke, owner of music travel specialist The Tour Division, which is a member of Tzell Travel Group.
Certainly this year many superstars are touring, from Roger Waters with ‘The Wall Live’ to Paul McCartney, but also a greater diversity of bands offering pop, rock, hip hop and even classical music. Both veterans and newer artistes are also travelling extensively, and that means more bookings of flights, hotels and ground transportation.
Globalisation has helped the tour and travel industry. Not only are people appreciating artistes in remoter corners of the globe, bands are also playing gigs there as well, from Baku to Bratislava. With more direct flights and better global air connectivity, it means these destinations are also easier to get to. Ante Giskeodegard is organiser of Sommerfesten, a Norwegian music festival that hosted British artistes Travis and Gabrielle among others in July, on a small island called Giske, near Alesund in the northern fjord area. “Logistics and organisation are everything,” she says. “We’ve seen this event grow from 30 people to 30,000 in the last nine years.”
It’s the reason why a number of British travel management companies (TMCs) active in the music and media industry are seeing a sector in rude health and in contrast to other industries – and expectations for 2013 are even bigger. “There is a hunger for it out there, there are many more doors now open to tours,” explains Locke.
Over the last few years the music tour sector has also become more professional in how it books, manages and scrutinises travel plans. “Budgets are incredibly important now and we have to provide very detailed breakdowns of costs for music tours,” says John Gianquitto, chairman and CEO of The Appointment Group (TAG).
TAG’s concert tour division is Music By Appointment, whose general manager, Caroline McCann, adds: “Tour managers increasingly value reporting. It’s playing a significant part in our relationship with them – it means they have all the figures so they can assess the efficiency and profitability of a tour.”
Get yourself connected And it is not an easy sector to either grapple or make money in: “Business tends to be almost exclusively word of mouth and many of our client relationships, particularly with tour managers, date back many years,” says Nigel Parkinson, general manager at Altour.
Agents have to offer a 24/7 personalised service, yet not every TMC can allot such a significant resource. Often on larger tours there can be up to three teams of roadies leapfrogging each other from city to city, building and deconstructing the stages.
Then there is the management of the band and the talent on top of this. It can create all sorts of complex logistical issues (see box on Guns n’ Roses, below right). “Having staff that are unfazed by extreme pressure and can manage constant changes is a necessity,” explains McCann.
Tour managers demand that agents have exceptional knowledge and a deep personal understanding of this sector that’s backed up by an outstanding track record of solid travel booking experience over many years. “The relationship with the client is much more complex than in other sectors – it’s integrated into the organisation. You become part of the tour,” says Barry Whittaker, managing director of Tzell Travel Group.
The specialist TMC also needs to be an accomplished negotiator with airlines, hotels and ground transport as well as other suppliers, be analytical and commercially astute – because relationships can be tested to the limit. Travel arrangements are often turned upside down at very short notice, which can be a challenge. “It’s all about finding good suppliers who will bend and break the rules for us. If they empower us with our music clients, we will, in turn, remember that when it comes to the next booking,” says Locke.
Many long-standing specialists in this field have built up a tried and tested network of travel suppliers who understand the nature of the music business. “They know what we need and, because they have this understanding, they are willing to think outside the box and offer us flexibility on ticketing for touring groups,” says McCann.
And as another travel manager states: “If I cancel a booking for The Black Eyed Peas today, I will be booking for Adele tomorrow, the travel industry is aware of that.” Such is the revolving nature of business in this sector – agents who focus on entertainment don’t forget who’s done them big favours in the past.
Rock’n’roll confidential Confidentiality is of paramount importance to many clients in this sector, and they need to have confidence in discretion across the supply chain, and know that the whereabouts of stars and their staff will not be revealed. This is especially true in the age of instant social media when a picture of a celebrity can be up on Twitter and Facebook in seconds. Working with trusted partners and good hotels that deal with live acts is crucial.
“We have some non-disclosure agreements [NDAs] in place with particularly high-profile people. We always treat their travel with discretion and do not openly discuss specifics, either generally within the office, or outside,” explains Altour’s Parkinson.
Frontline staff at hotels, in vehicles and at airports have the most impact on a music tour since they are interacting, with the band, the A-listers and the crew all the time. In many cases, TMCs go ahead of the tour to give these people a thorough briefing before they interact with the band. Excess baggage can also be an issue. “For instance, equipment can result in each passenger taking 100 kilos of excess baggage,” says Angela Singh, programme manager at Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
Managing expectations One issue that raises its head time and again is airlines. Music tours specifically need flexibility. Carriers have now narrowed the window on how long agents can hold seats to 24 hours, and are not budging when it comes to fixed fares, penalties for changes and how long a booking can be held.
It’s a continual bugbear in a sector that needs as much flexibility as travel suppliers can offer, especially since bands can make snap decisions on when they want to fly. “There’s no flexibility in the system. I guess the airlines don’t need to be flexible anymore due to demand. We’ve had to communicate this to our clients. It’s a constant education and re-education on this front,” explains Gianquitto.
Since there are many variables that are beyond the control of TMCs, managing the music client’s expectations is incredibly important, especially in an industry that knows no limits. Having a constant dialogue with the tour managers is vital. “It may sound like a cliché, but it is important in a business where nothing is unreasonable. Managing expectations is a key part of our job,” says The Tour Division’s Locke.
Yet with all the headaches, the hassles, the early morning calls and the late-night changes, everyone I speak to says it is an extremely rewarding business to be part of, knowing that a good music tour must involve a great travel experience – and that’s down to those who manage business travel.
Ain't it fun: Guns n'Roses on tourJohn Gianquitto, chairman and CEO of The Appointment Group, talks about the challenges of managing travel for bands such as Guns n’ Roses...
“FIRST OFF, you have three groups of people you need to organise, including the A-listers or VIPs, the band and then the crew. Each party travels independently and stays in different hotels. They each have specific needs and we must manage the expectations for each group.
“For the talent, it’s all about managing private jet operators, limousines, particular hotel needs and the quirks of the artistes. One musician wanted a blacked-out room, others need particular food – this group are the most demanding. We facilitate whatever they want and nothing is too ridiculous.
“The crew like to be close to the venue with good facilities, easy access to the venue with bus transport, 24-hour room service and a late bar that’s open after the gig so they can relax. The band, meanwhile, tends to prefer being in a centralised place, within a city hotel rather than out near the venue, which can sometimes be in the middle of nowhere.
“We deal with the band manager direct and we always try to keep to budgets – the moment they change, costs go up or new bookings are needed, and we are straight on the phone to the band manager.”