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Q&A: Peoria Civic Center’s Rik Edgar discusses the venue’s rebound and outlook in the wake of COVID-19

Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar
Joe Deacon
Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar sees encouraging signs suggesting the downtown entertainment venue is on track for a strong rebound in the wake of the pandemic.

Nearly four months ago, Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar declared “it’s time to turn the machine back on,” after the downtown entertainment venue had been shuttered for more than 500 days by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Civic Center just concluded a busy weekend, with Bradley basketball's home opener at Carver Arena, rapper TobyMac and comedian Nate Bargatze in the theater, and the three-day Jurassic Quest dinosaur display in the exhibit halls.

Already this week, the Civic Center announced three more shows. Tickets go on sale Friday for appearances by comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias (March 5) and musical groups the Marshall Tucker Band (March 10) and Whisky Myers (April 5). And sales have been strong for rock band Greta Van Fleet's Carver Arena concert in late March.

But there have also been some hiccups, including high-profile cancellations by country music performers Jason Aldean and Travis Tritt. Aldean scrapped his Peoria stop without giving any reason just days before his scheduled show on Oct. 7, while Tritt had been booked to appear last week but he publicly announced last month that he would not play any venue that enforced any COVID-19 vaccination or mask requirements.

Yet Edgar sees encouraging signs suggesting the Civic Center is on track for a strong rebound in the wake of the pandemic. Reporter Joe Deacon recently spoke with Edgar about the Civic Center's outlook for the next few months and how spectator turnout has been so far.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: How have things been going at the Peoria Civic Center since you “turned the machine back on” in July?

Rik Edgar: It's been mixed, you know; I'll say the engine sputtered a little bit, like when you have a car in the garage for a year. It took us a little back and forth to get it going, but we're seeing extraordinarily positive signs in 2022 and that's what we've been sharing with the community. We've had some fantastic shows, like Bert Kreischer had sold out two shows in one night. We just had REO Speedwagon sell out – in a pandemic, selling out the theater completely. So the theater business has been going great, and now we're ready to transition to more traditional arena shows here in the spring.

Speaking of the arena, how vital is it to have the regular tenants like Bradley basketball and the Peoria Rivermen back at the arena right now?

Edgar: It's been great. You know what, activity breeds excitement. Attendance has been about where we’d expect it this time of year, and we're hoping as people get more and more comfortable they come out and support the shows.

You've had a couple of high-profile cancellations. How difficult is it to adjust when something like that occurs?

Edgar: Well, I think the point we want to make is we take no political stance when we're booking shows. So there's a lot of misconceptions, and a lot of times an artist changes their mind in this, it's really a unique time with the shows we've been doing. We've even had shows that have been booked for four or five months, and then the artist says, “You know what, I'm just gonna wait.”

Unfortunately, sometimes they cancel the shows a little bit late. We’re always disappointed to cancel a show, but there was decisions made by artists, management; everything had a reason. So we see that being less and less moving forward with cancellations and getting back to a new normal,

How well are the COVID protocols going with enforcement and things like that, or have patrons been pretty receptive?

Edgar: It really depends on the show and the clientele. But we're seeing more compliance than we were, quite honestly, initially. I think folks are realizing that, you're wearing masks indoors – it's part of the Illinois, not us, it's the state mandate – and once you're eating and drinking, you are allowed to remove your mask per the state guidelines. So I think what folks have decided is they come in, they're masked, once they get a beer or soda or hot dog, then they can do a little social distancing and feel comfortable at our events.

I've heard about some concession delays. How have the staffing challenges affected the patrons, and what have you heard?

Edgar: Well, I think we're running into the same issues that everyone's running into right now: hospitality workers are tougher to come by. But you know, you usually can't get a soda or beer at a baseball game in five minutes. So, you know, sometimes they get overplayed a little bit on the delays of getting something. What we found out is actually our sales have never been higher in concessions. So part of it is we're selling more product in a shorter amount of time.

In the arena in particular, we have two major stands. But everyone sees the one when they first walk in and they gravitate to that. So one of the challenges is: we'll have that (stand) six, seven people deep, but we have another stand that mirrors it on the other side of the building where there's nobody waiting for food. So we've actually started actively going to people in line and going, “Hey, would you mind, if you want to go quicker go over there.”

But what's been interesting is a lot of the patrons are like, “Nah, I'm here, I'm good. I can see the game on the TV while I'm standing here. I don't want to walk around the other side of the venue.” So there's a little bit of that. But we're couldn't be more pleased with where the sales are, and we're trying to build our staff. So as we get back to the new normal – and when we get to the Greta Van Fleets in the spring – we obviously need to add more staff.

You kind of mentioned attendance semi-sputtering but starting to come around. What is your outlook for the next few months and the rest of the fiscal year?

Edgar: Well, just to be clear, the sputtering is the building – like we could have a hit, and then one that's maybe not selling quite as well. I think what we're seeing is a change in the marketplace. It used to be you went down to the box office, you bought your tickets. We're seeing more touchless points, and fans are embracing it.

We're now selling more than, I think it’s now 94% of our tickets are being purchased online, and over half of those – actually more than like 60% – are being bought on your phone. So during COVID, folks got used to buying on their phone. So, we went cashless in our concession stand (and) those are the kinds of things we want to reduce touch points.

We've had some huge wins here too, with the Jurassic Quest event, dinosaur exhibition. Their sales were almost 180-200% better than 2019, and what we heard from fans as we were getting emails saying, “Are you guys going to have masks? Because I have a kid that's coming to this who can't be vaccinated.” And, we are doing what we're supposed to do, which is follow the state mandate, and I think that helped drive sales. So I think we're adjusting to the fan base in the new normal moving forward.

With these higher percentages from what there was in 2019, is it just an issue of people are really kind of antsy to get back out now and go to things, do you think?

Edgar: I mean, that's opinion. You kind of watch, we're seeing that folks – the families are embracing some of the changes, and then there's certain events … I think, you know, a lot of folks were stuck in their house for 16-18 months. Now they're getting out and they're feeling happier, and they want to see their friends and go out and be part of a community. I think we're expecting even more of that as the weather gets colder and we start seeing snow on the ground, because that's usually when we're the most successful.

We do have the holiday season starting to come up with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming around. What do you have in store for the next couple months?

Edgar: We’ve got some cool stuff. I mean, we constantly have Rivermen hockey, Bradley basketball. We have a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it's kind of a Broadway-type presentation on the 21st of November. We've got (Peoria Ballet’s) The Nutcracker, which is a local production in the second week of December (Dec. 11-12). So I think those are the type things – one of the ones that we've always focused on was New Year's Eve. We actually are bringing back our New Year's Eve event that is really targeted towards kids, where our union friends are going to bring down – the trade unions – are going to bring the big crane with the ball, and we're going to do a ball drop at 6 p.m. So that's one we're really trying to get the community to come back together, and what we like about that event is: we're kind of done at 6:15, so they can be home off the streets before the adults go out and play.

You mentioned Greta Van Fleet – obviously, that's a big show coming, and doing really well from what I understand.

Edgar: The Greta show is beyond our expectations in sales. It really shows that people were ready for this band, and I'm really happy because we've been chasing Greta for three years. We've already heard from management that Peoria is well above everybody else and we can't be more ecstatic about the show coming here.

And I think what we're seeing is once we start having those wins, that leads to more shows. So we just announced a Hot Wheels (Feb. 5), which is kind of a monster truck-type event but with the cars you see in the grocery stores; that's going to be a lot of fun. And we've got about a half dozen events we're going to be announcing over the next three weeks. That's really when we turn the machine back on; that's something I've used as a phrase is: we may have sputtered out of the gate on a couple hits and misses, but I think the machine is going to be fully operational come January.

Again, what is the date of that Greta Van Fleet show?

Greta Van Fleet is Saturday, March 26. So we’ve got a Saturday night and it's going to be great, and we have some other things right on its heels.

Are there any other shows you can tell us about quite yet?

Edgar: You know, it's kind of like Christmas where we’ve got to get the advent calendar and peel them off as the days get closer. But before we get to that we have Beautiful – which is the Broadway show – on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 23-24). A phenomenal production; we had sold the show out prior to the pandemic and brought it back, and there are still tickets available on the second night, So that Wednesday, if you want to get away from the family around pre-Thanksgiving, what a great way to do it by coming out and hearing some Carole King.

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