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Ames Business Helps Communities Discover Entertainment Wants

In 1996, Steven Peters asked if he could purchase some contracts from his employer Ogden Group Entertainment, a private management company that operated the Iowa State Center and other entertainment venues across the country.

He thought they didn’t fit within the company’s model, and he thought he could do better.

The request was denied, and Peters was soon shown the door.

Within a few months, Peters started his own management company. With an investor and a few clients plucked from Ogden he founded Compass Facility Management. The name was later changed to VenuWorks.

VenuWorks, which is based in Ames, operates about 50 venues in more than 20 different markets across the country. Last month, the company won the multi-year contract to operate the Chesapeake Conference Center in Virginia.

Peters, a Marshalltown native and president of VenuWorks, attended the University of Iowa – originally intending to be a theater designer – and graduating from the MFA program in arts administration.

His career started in Dubuque as manager of its Five Flags Center in 1976. There, he read about starting a business and began to contemplate owning his own management company.

In 1982, Peters began working at the Iowa State Center, the group of buildings south of campus comprised of Hilton Coliseum, Stephens Auditorium, Fisher Theater and the Scheman Building. Two years later, he became the director. In 1988, the center was privatized with management being awarded to Ogden, the company Peters would later leave.

Back then, a facility contracting its operations was a new thing and mostly done in big cities. Peters supported the decision. Little changed for staff, and Hilton continued to bring in top names such as The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Frank Sinatra and Prince.

Peters’ new boss was Ogden. He eventually left the Iowa State Center to work within Ogden. He was first director of the Target Center in Minneapolis and later was a vice president.

Today, it’s quite rare to see a city or institution run its own venue. The funding has changed since taxes are an unpopular way to fund the venues.

Management companies operate the venues from top to bottom. They handle booking, programming, human resources, custodial, finances, and food and beverage needs.

VenuWorks, which has about 300 full-time employees and 3,000 part-time workers, is still a small company. In a marketplace of numerous management companies, there are small ones and a few giants -Global Spectrum, AEG, Live Nation and SMG, which operates the Iowa State Center – with not many in between.

“You have to be an eternal optimist in this business,” Peters said.

Steven and his wife, Randi, own 81 percent of the company. His son, Joseph, owns the remaining 19 percent.

In Iowa, VenuWorks operates places such as Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines, the Adler Theatre and RiverCenter in Davenport, Bridge View Center in Ottumwa, and four properties in Cedar Rapids – U.S. Cellular Center, Paramount Theatre, McGrath Amphitheatre and Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. The diversity of the venues ranges from large arenas and stadiums to art galleries and convention centers.

“We are there to help the community realize what it wants from the venue,” Peters said. “For some, we are there to refine their image and help them shine again. Sometimes it’s more about marketing or even there from the beginning to help launch a venue.”

The rules of the marketplace have changed though. With the Internet, social media and hundreds of TV channels, marketing is an entirely new game that Peters often leaves to his younger staff.

“Every community resident has thoughts,” Peters said. “We help set the expectations. We also look for various kinds of ways to help with the finances.”

A positive of operating several venues means that even in a bad economy, not all will be effected at the same time. Peters said markets in the Dakota’s never experienced a downturn, while others certainly took sharp downturns before slowly returning.

Along with hosting concerts and festivals, VenuWorks hosted its first BaconFest last year in Cedar Rapids and plans to do Cheese Festival this year in Minnesota. Other events include a barbecue fest and tattoo convention.

(Story from Ames Tribune, written by Anthony Capps, acapps@amestrib.com)

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