Inside the Soul of Detroit With Howard Handler of 313 Presents

A legend in live entertainment on the changing shape of virtual and IRL events

To get a sense of the remarkable power of the live experience, look no further than the city of Detroit. At the heart of so many of those live experiences in Detroit is the premier live entertainment company 313 Presents. I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Howard Handler, president of 313 Presents, to get an inside look into how they have built such strong, passionate communities over the years. Howard is a true visionary in the entertainment and media business, so our conversations are always full of exciting energy and a strategic point of view that always impresses me.

Damian Bazadona: 313 Presents produces concerts, theatrical productions, sporting events and family shows at six world-class venues across southeast Michigan, inspired by the soul of Detroit. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of your community to bring them the live experiences they want most?

Howard Handler: Firstly, we've got a terrific booking team with relationships and experience all across the landscape of music, comedy, theatricals, family shows, sporting events … the whole gamut of live entertainment. They always have a keen sense of what's out there and what Detroiters will love.

Personally speaking, I've always tried to soak up as much as possible—to be a fan, as well as a student, of music and pop culture. I'm constantly listening, reading and paying attention to everything I can. Sometimes I feel like "So much music, so little time" and I'll miss some stuff for sure. But there are typically very few events we book that haven't already been on my radar in one way or another. 

The other important thing to note is the soul of Detroit. We have the most remarkably passionate concertgoers in the world. Detroit's enduring status as a legendary music mecca and a must-play touring destination is a testament to our community's interest in and enthusiasm for diverse entertainment offerings. 

We're so fortunate for the ability to deliver on our community's passion for live events; that's typically 350 shows across our six venues, which range in size from 4,000 to 40,000 capacity. This versatility allows us to deliver access to concerts and content of every genre and medium. The goal is to always support the dynamic musical and entertainment interests of our community with a world-class range of programming.

What have been some of your biggest learnings over the years about what moves a fan, from thinking about coming to a live entertainment experience to actually purchasing a ticket and showing up?

First and foremost, content is king. The show, the artist, the attraction itself is what will ultimately move a fan to buy a ticket. For certain fans, it's automatic. Example: We just booked Dwight Yoakam—I'm a huge fan. If I wasn't working, I'm there no matter what.

Secondly, it's our ability to get the message out—communicating info about the right show, to the right audience, using the right medium. Everything we do on the marketing end is dedicated to working as hard and as creatively as possible to build awareness and purchase intent and ultimately to convert and get that sale. Our website, our database, our social channels, our partnerships with radio, our campaigns and, of course, local market expertise are all key. The entertainment options are endless today, so marketing is a critical part of the equation.

Lastly, if guests have a great experience, that's another good bet on their desire to come back and see another show at one of our venues. We strive to deliver top-notch service and an unforgettable experience; from before you leave your house to the moment you exit one of our parking facilities, all of these factors are essential to a positive guest experience. Guest experience is another area where there's more sophistication, more data and insights to draw upon. We work hard and keep challenging ourselves to make sure our guests see and feel the value in their attendance.

Are there any major "no-no's" in how and when you engage with your community?

We manage our messaging and especially frequency of communication carefully. We want to feel like a message or announcement from 313 Presents is welcome and worthwhile. We're all fans at heart, so respect is key and non-negotiable.

During the pandemic, when folks could no longer come together to experience what they love in your venues, you came up with some new ways—playlists, activities, etc.—to keep your community engaged. What were some of the more meaningful insights you learned through that experience?

We learned a lot about the resilience and tenacity of our industry and the team at 313 Presents. Concerts and live entertainment were the first sector to shut down and one of the last to come back online. We lived through a 17-month hiatus from full-scale live shows. In the beginning, we were canceling and postponing shows at an intense pace, and morale was a huge concern. So we set up regular, virtual team-building get-togethers to create a sense of connectivity and well-being. We had a bunch of cool guests including Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, sportscaster Erin Andrews, NFL legend Derrick Brooks and tour production legend Jake Berry. 

I think that togetherness proved powerful as we moved through the process, and once protocols permitted, the 313 team was able to get creative with our partners to reimagine our venue spaces and the programming we could provide to our community.

As an example, we converted our largest parking lot—at Pine Knob Music Theatre—to a "stage" for drive-through entertainment. We did a dinosaur show called Jurassic Quest and an amazing holiday light show called Magic of Lights. We also partnered with Normal Studio from Montreal to present the highly sought-after art exhibition Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at Huntington Place (Detroit's convention center). All told, we entertained almost a quarter million people with these nontraditional shows. So, we expanded our event mix. This will be one of the positive legacies of the pandemic.

But the most enduring takeaway was the resounding enthusiasm for live entertainment that just never waned. Sure "live" pivoted and provided new digital and social engagement opportunities. But ultimately, virtual entertainment could never replace live—that magical place where people come together to experience those unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime moments. 

Giving back to those who are under-resourced in your community is also a large part of the work that you do. Have you found it essential that those efforts go hand in hand with the experiences you bring to the community?

We have traditionally provided tickets to nonprofits and charitable groups; that's the easy stuff. We have a couple of newer, more ambitious initiatives we are implementing this year that I am particularly excited about. From a team member perspective, we are partnering with a local charity for our first official All-Company Day of Service this fall and, additionally, encouraging our staff to partake in a second day of service to volunteer at a charity of their choice. 

313 Presents is also partnering with Olympia Development, Comerica Bank and Detroit Public Schools to bring back the Evening of Fine Arts to the historic Fox Theatre, providing students the opportunity to perform and showcase their artwork on the stage on which so many amazing artists have stepped foot before them, showcasing that anything is possible. How awesome as a parent to be able to see your child perform in that beautiful setting where Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and so many others have played.

You have deep experience working at the center of building passionate communities from MTV to the NFL to MLS. How will the virtual ways of connection we've grown to love most effectively sit side-by-side with the live experiences we miss so much?

Virtual platforms enhance and extend the live experience. As I said before, they won't replace live, but they allow us to serve more people and foster richer engagement. Artists and brands love the opportunity to connect with their fans directly, anytime, every day. I've loved witnessing and participating in the nonstop march of technology to serve fans, artists and brands. MTV and cable TV were plenty innovative at one point. With Virgin Mobile, I got to see the power of a phone in everyone's hand, mass adoption of SMS and the beginning of social media. Streaming has been a game changer. Now we're all trying to figure out the potential of the metaverse, blockchain and the growing world of music NFTs. Technology will continue to create opportunities to deepen the live experience far beyond the actual concert. 

You're someone I've admired for always bringing great optimism into any room you enter. Has the last few years rattled your optimism about the future of the live experience?

When our industry shut down and everyone was in lockdown, it was brutal. Too many people lost loved ones and had their lives change forever. But I've always believed when life gives you lemons, you must make lemonade; and so that's how I tried to lead. We got into the lemonade business, maintained hope, and looked after one another.

From the fortitude of the 313 Presents team and our industry partners to the loyalty and love shown by the fans throughout the pandemic, I have never been more certain of the importance that music, theater and sport play in our daily lives. It's what keeps us going and offers an escape and experience that you can't forget. There is nothing like grabbing a group of friends and heading out to a show under the stars on a hot summer night to dance, to get loud and to have a good time. Live entertainment has been a powerful cultural force and great business for ages and it won't let up anytime soon! 

Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

Damian Bazadona
Damian Bazadona is president and founder of Situation Group, a global collective of marketing, advertising and technology companies committed to helping brands build passionate communities across a range of industries worldwide.

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