Sweetland’s Gibbs talks venue’s financials

Published 9:11 am Tuesday, April 2, 2024

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Eight years in, Sweetland Amphitheatre has yet to make a profit. While many accept the venue running at a loss because of the benefits it brings to LaGrange, General Manager Brent Gibbs has a plan to bring it into the black.

During the March 26 council work session, Gibbs provided the mayor pro-tem and council with an overview of the amphitheater’s finances.

When the facility opened in 2016, it was not under city management, however, the city was backstopping any losses, Gibbs said. The overview included information from FY 2021 when the city took over management of the facility.

Since the city took over management, the amphitheater has increased the number of concerts from six to nine national concerts per year to around a dozen. Last year, Sweetland hosted 12 concerts and plans to do so again in 2024.

Revenue for Sweetland has typically been between $200,000 and $1 million, with expenses ranging from $300,000 to $1.3 million.

While concerts have been struggling to be profitable, Sweetland on Ice (SOI) has been the venue’s bright spot. Last year, SOI saw 800 more skaters than the previous year with a total attendance of about 13,000. They were also able to do so with 10 fewer days open, which allowed for a $27,227 increase in revenue for a total of over $138,000.

Gibbs said private parties were a big part of Sweetland on Ice’s success. The venue hosted 43 parties for $14,000-plus revenue.

The total profit for SOI in last year was $8,779. Gibbs added that includes a $50,177 annual payment for the chiller, which is expected to be paid off in 2025.

“If you pull that out of our expenses looking forward, Sweetland on Ice becomes dramatically more profitable,” Gibbs said.

The concerts, however, were not a financial success in aggregate. Across the 12 concerts in 2023, Sweetland lost a total of $99,393.71.

Nelly was the venue’s fastest-selling concert to date, having sold out in about 11 minutes, but the concert cost the city about $49,534 due to expenses including artist fees and payments to third-party vendors.

Gibbs said that previously, all of Sweetland’s talent programming was negotiated through a third party that charges fees.

“I was hired in late fall of 2022. With my participation in the operation, we’ve chosen not to use third parties and incur that additional expense,” Gibbs said.

A few of the 2023 Sweetland concerts were a financial success including .38 special ($19,469), Jason Isbell ($16,010), Tracy Byrd/Jo Dee Messina ($18,481), and Leann Rimes ($3,902).

The rest of the concerts lost money overall including Jeff Foxworthy (-$3,298), Commodores (-$8,414), Chris Tomlin (-$19,980), Tamela Mann (-$30,709), Nelly (-$49,534), Ricky Skaggs (-$7,182), Black Violin (-$36,915) and Blues Traveler (-$1,212).

“For the concerts that were not a financial success, it’s really important to know, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a success for Sweetland’s role in providing programming that benefits all of the community,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs noted that some of the concerts may have lost money but they were a success for the community. Nelly is a huge talent boost for Sweetland and Black Violin brought a dozen students from the Troup County schools to play on stage, Gibbs said.

“Tamela Mann was a great concert, great artist and an icon of the gospel community and it just didn’t perform well. We had some lessons learned with that and Chris Tomlin as well and other Christian artists,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said they believe they paid too much in artist fees for Tomlin, Black Violin and possibly the Commodores.

The venue also had several non-budgeted expenses which increased the annual loss.

“There was a ton of maintenance stuff that we did in 2023 that was probably two or three years overdue. So when you look at those maintenance and repair expenses, they probably could have been spread across a few years but it sort of all came due in 2023,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said they also had some “unforced errors” from an operational standpoint, noting sales tax had not been properly collected for a time, so they had to pay for that.

Moving forward, Gibbs has terminated third-party vendor relationships for programming, booking and marketing services, so he and Sweetland will self-book artists.

“We’re going to tighten up our advertising game and try to be more dialed in and how we use technology and digital media to provide a more efficient direct path to our patrons and letting them know about the opportunities we have at Sweetland,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said they are also on track to increase sponsorship revenue by about $70,000. He said that combined with the termination of the Rivals third-party booking agreement and the elimination of unforced errors, they are looking to be breakeven or profitable next year.

“What can you expect from Sweetland in 2024, breakeven or better on the fall shows, grow sponsorship by 10%. It looks like we’re on pace to grow sponsorship by about 34%. “[We will] have two non-concert events at Sweetland that show that there’s a diversity in place where we can use the assets to the community’s benefit,” Gibbs said.

“Our goal is to have five sold-out shows,” he said.