Kevin Donnelly (True North Sports & Entertainment)

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David Noël: Welcome to the Manitoba Business Podcast, featuring interviews with business leaders and entrepreneurs based in our wonderful province. I’m David Noël.

You won’t want to miss this. The interview you’re about to hear was a fun one. Our guest came up working with Sam Katz, and now he works for what is probably the most beloved corporation in Manitoba. Our entire province benefits from his work in a huge way, and yet I bet most people in it will not know his name. The conversation is also unique because we get to hear a true expert’s take on the business aspect of show business.

Before we get started, I’d like to repeat my usual quick reminder: if you enjoy this episode, please tell someone about the show. Our website is

Without further ado, here is Kevin Donnelly:

[to Kevin] Kevin, thanks so much for taking the time.

Kevin Donnelly: No problem, nice to be here.

David: Um, could we start by having you tell us a little bit about who you are, and what you do.

Kevin: My name’s Kevin Donnelly. I’m a Senior VP of Venues and Entertainment here at True North Sports and Entertainment. So we manage, and own, and operate the Winnipeg Jets, the MTS Centre, and now, the Burton Cummings Theatre. So I oversee the programming of all the activities in the building, so I work with the hockey departments. We slot in the home games for our teams. And then beyond that it’s my responsibility to try, and opportunity, to try to get other events to come to both buildings. And we also program Investors Group Field for their non-sporting events so AC/DC, Paul McCartney. The events at Investors Group Field have come off of my desk and landed at that facility.

David: Wow, okay, so there’s a lot of questions that come to mind from there, but let’s start a little bit, let’s rewind a little bit. What’s your personal background and how did you, sort of, come to join True North?

Kevin: I was a kid working and living in Regina and I had a brother who was a musician and the musician brother was managed by a fellow out of Winnipeg who promoted shows in addition to managing artists. So, you know, when I was a kid, I used that “in” to put up posters for April Wine concerts in Regina and back in the 70s sort of days, those bands that would dare to come through the prairies, I’d get the call to say, “Put up the posters,” and that that list grew to, “Can you come backstage and be a gopher and run and pick up guitar strings,” or “Pick up the bus driver at the airport or the hotel and bring him back to the arena,” or whatever. So the list then, grew and grew and I ended up moving to Winnipeg and I was part of Nite Out Entertainment, which was a, you know, fairly significant promoter back in the 80s and 90s with notably Bruce Rathbone and Sam Katz as the principles. And Katz, of course, went on to become our mayor.

So I cut my teeth in that promoting world working in that era and that milieu. We covered Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and sometimes we’d venture into Alberta. I then, I left promoting so my background really was promoting events. I left Manitoba, moved to Vancouver and for five years I headed up an operation out of Vancouver that was, it was the start of the consolidation of the concert business that’s really now dominant in the business. But a company from California, an American based company had decided they were gonna expand offices into Canada. So I oversaw events working for them, they were called MCA Concerts, it became Universal Concerts, it then became House of Blues Concerts, now it’s Live Nation. So I oversaw the operation from Vancouver to Winnipeg, or Victoria to Winnipeg, and so in and out of every arena, in and out of every theater, every stadium, doing small things from club shows up to the Rolling Stones and stadiums for them. I was in Vancouver for five years before my phone rang and it was contacts I had in Winnipeg saying, “Would you ever consider moving back to Winnipeg? Here’s what we’ve got going. We think we’re going to open an arena. You know, one day, who knows where it might lead to, but the old arena’s old and we have plans for a new arena. Do you think you could come back?” So I did return after five years in Vancouver, split my time between Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, which ran the stadium, ran the old arena, ran the ticketing operation, called “Select-a-Seat”, and helped develop the plan to, and execute the plan, that saw the closedown of that arena, transferred the operation of the stadium to the Bombers, and helped open True North. True North Centre became the MTS Centre. And so here I am today; more venue operator, but still a part-time promoter because we do program our own events here. Long answer, but that that’s my chronology.

David: For sure, for sure, interesting. And so then, I mean, it sounds like you’ve kind of had your fingers in a lot of different aspects of the, you know, entertainment industry. How would you, I guess, maybe break down the pieces for me would be a good start. You’ve got promoters, you’ve got managers, what, who are the other kind of, like, players that are involved in getting some of the, you know, major acts into an arena?

Kevin: So significantly, the three parts are, you know, you’ve, excluding the artists, you’ve got your manager who helps plan that artist or what their activities are gonna be: recording, video making, or touring, or staying at home and writing whatever. So you’ve got a manager who helps plan what that artist’s gonna do. You have an agent that helps then broker those activities, especially for the live side. They broker those activities, say, “We think that you should do it in the following manner, we think that you should go to festivals in Europe in the summer and then you’re gonna tour arenas in the Winter, and you’re gonna go to North America, you’re gonna go to Africa, you’re gonna go to Canada, whatever”. So the agent then helps execute those plans by selling those performance rights to promoters. Promoters then will contact their favorite places to take an act and go, “We’ve got an opportunity to present this artist in your town, in your market, in your building,” whatever the case is. So you’ve got managers who help plan an artist’s career, agents that turn it into a monetary opportunities for promoters, who then take the risks and make all the local contacts and execute the shows.

And so those promoters are typically who connect with the facilities, with the venues and say, “Are you available on a Tuesday? Can I rent you or do you want to participate and share some of this risk? We think it’s, you know, business is getting harder to define, so can you help us share the risk?” And in our case, we’re both the venue and we also act as the promoter, so a lot of times I get approached by the promoters say, “Do you want to, you know, act with us, or do you want to rent to me?” And a lot of times I get called by agents direct saying, “Do you want to present this entertainment opportunity in your marketplace?” Managers, agents, promoters, and then venues.

David: Perfect. Now I’m a business guy so my head goes right to the money. How does the money work in that situation? Are the promoters paying the agents and managers and artists upfront, and then recouping the costs by selling the shows? Is that the idea?

Kevin: Yeah, typically an artist will, you know, an artist and a manager will come up with a show concept and they’ll say, “This is the kind of event I want to put on,” and so the manager will have to develop really, you know, his sense of what the expenses are. How much it’s going to cost to do that, to fulfill that artist’s vision? And so he’ll then present to the agent and say, “Here’s what we want to do. Here’s the kind of show my guy, my artist, wants to present. What do you think? Where can we do this? Who do you think’s gonna be interested?” And then from there they quickly turn that idea and that opportunity into a financial picture so that they take it to the promoter and they say, “This is the conceptual plan and here’s the financial opportunity. We want our artist to make $500,000 a day, because he’s got $100,000 a day in running costs and he wants to net $400,000 to take home to his wife,” or whatever the case is, or to take home to the husband, whatever the case is. So the promoter then has to go, “Well I have to pay the artist $500,000, I’ve got local costs, I’ve got my own return on investment. On 10,000 tickets I need to sell those at $75 so that I can get $750,000 to pay all those costs and leave a little bit for me. So it quickly becomes a financial formula that you then take to the marketplace and say, “On sale now. Who’s interested?”

David: And so, I mean, first of all, this sounds like it would be a super fun job: hanging out with all these rock stars and stuff. Is it as fun as it sounds, first of all?

Kevin: Well, I think the job’s really fun, but I almost never, and I say almost never, but you’re almost never hanging out with rock stars.

David: Well, you’ve got a picture with U2 on the wall there.

Kevin: Yeah, I mean, the photo lasts a lot longer than the opportunity to hang out with U2 did. You know, as you spend more time in the industry, and as you see recurring faces coming through, I would consider certain people who are rock stars have become my friends and acquaintances. You know, typically, it’s Canadian performers that you’ve worked with year in and year out. You develop a cordiality and a professional relationship. You know, not uncommon that it becomes a, you know, friendly relationship. So I’m not hanging out with rock stars everyday, but I do think that this job has always been fun. And I really consider myself very fortunate, that as much as it’s a grind and as much as there’s pressure, all that kind of stuff, I do enjoy coming to work every day, and always have my whole career.

David: Now my reason for asking that, I mean obviously I’m curious, but I also recognize that there’s this perception of it being a really glamorous job, and that makes it a job a lot of, you know, a lot of young people that are kind of peripherally connected to the music business want to pursue. So that brings me to my next question which is, what do you think set you apart? How do you think you were able to succeed in an industry where there’s actually a lot of people that want to be promoters?

Kevin: So I would say that it’s funny that, you know, in the era when there literally was sex, drugs, and rock and roll going on, I never participated in that. You know, that was sort of what happened on the other side of the door, and I purposely closed that door and went back to work of counting the money, counting my pile of bills that helped that sex, drugs, and rock and roll exist on the other side of the door. And now today, so when there was sex, drugs, and rock and roll, I never participated; it wasn’t the fun that attracted me to the business. Now, you don’t want to say that it’s gone, but for the most part it’s gone. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll have been replaced by big, big business. And so, it’s still fun today. Without me participating when it existed I was having fun; today that it doesn’t exist, I’m fortunate enough to tell you that I still find it a fun career.

So I think what set me apart and what helped me on that path was that I was willing to put in the work. While everyone else was having fun, I was hard at work. To the point that I’ve had numerous people tell me over the path of my career, and they might see me in another setting, where I have a beverage in my hand, and that person might say, “Oh Jesus, Donnelly, I didn’t know you drank.” And it’s like, well, because you’ve only seen me in a professional setting. You’re at the concert having fun. You’ve got a beer in your hand. It’s my work environment; I don’t drink at work. So always focused on the work, you know, and I never begrudged that, hey, everyone’s having fun and I’m not two-fisting beers. I’m still having fun without participating as that patron experience generally is enjoyed. It’s still fun for me. So it’s hard work, really. And I think that’s what set me on my path, not set me apart, because there’s a lot of hard working people in the business, but you’re willing to put your nose to the grindstone, and do that now for 30 years. This isn’t a part-time job. This has been my career since I was 16 years old.

David: Wow. Operationally, what does it mean to do what you do? I mean, like, and I’m sure that it’s changed from when you were 16, but what does that hard work look like, sort of in day to day environment?

Kevin: You know, I have spoken at a couple sessions where you get students who, you know, want to come and do a mentorship program or something, and I tell, when I get that opportunity, I tell people, “You stay with math class, because everything, it doesn’t matter what you do in life, everything becomes a math formula.” And in this world, it’s turning that performance opportunity into a financial equation that ends up in a profitable outcome. And it’s a math formula, as I said, you know, artists’ expenses, artists’ costs, local expenses equals how many tickets you have to sell at what ticket price. So I spend my day on the phone trying to find out, and trying to connect to these opportunities that exist, so talking to promoters in other markets, talking to booking agents in other markets, talking to brokers that help put agents and promoters together with marketplaces. So I’m constantly on the phone trying to establish those opportunities, and then when you get a lead, you have to then do the math formula. Equate it into a financial proposition and present that financial opportunity back to that agent, broker, or manager. So I spend my day on the phone, I spend my day on the computer. Calculator’s never far away. Spreadsheet’s always open. And then multi-tasking because, you know, I’ve got 15 shows on sale right now at the Burton Cummings Theatre, I’ve got 20 more that are confirmed or confirming it for the future. We’re like, you know, 10 at the MTS Centre, another 30, I hope, that come over a longer stretch of time, and I’m constantly sourcing for new. And the best sound in the world to me is my phone ringing. So when the phone rings, I hope it’s another opportunity that I’ve gotta be able to pay attention to right away, respond to that opportunity, because business does move very quickly and you need to respond in a confident and informed and credible manner on somebody else’s timeline. Because, you know, one act may have 6 months of planning before they go on, another act might have 6 weeks of planning, and another one might call and say, “We want to do this on Wednesday,” and it’s Friday. Can you respond to that artist’s wildly insane short time length?

David: So, it sounds like it’s a…

Kevin: …job for someone with ADD? Yes!

David: [laughs] What I was gonna say is a heavily relationship-dependent job, right? You’re establishing relationships with a lot of different players in the industry, in different markets like you said, and sort of in different pieces of the chain. Would you say, I guess a couple of questions that stem from that, would you say that the networks you’ve been able to establish in your career are…I mean, you’re largely credited, True North is credited with having brought a lot of great acts into Winnipeg, and it’s largely, I mean, it’s largely you, right?

Kevin: Well it’s a team. It’s a team opportunity.

David: I understand, but I mean, I think if people wanted to boil it down they’d point the finger at you. And I recognize that you wouldn’t say it that way, but if that’s the case, is it because you carry around a lot of relationships or is it because you’re better at forming relationships than other people?

Kevin: Well, you know, it’s funny, relationships help for sure, but opportunity is really what drives the business: someone has an opportunity to put an artist on tour, that artist has an opportunity to, they’ve created an opportunity for themselves by having music that people are interested in. You know, I would tell you that I was in the business working, before I had these relationships. It wasn’t easier then, and now that I’m 30 years into it and you’re looking back, going, “Hey well, I know Bob and I know this guy and I know Mark,” I can phone somebody in a lot of different situations and communities and create a connection or create some sort of potential opportunity using those relationships. It’s not any easier today; I’m still busting my chops to try to make things happen.

David: I guess that’s what I was trying to get at. Has it gone easier or is it still always just…

Kevin: It’s easier in a certain degree, for sure, and these things do move quicker when you have that relationship and you’re not having to spend half the time introducing yourself, but it’s like the second and third and fourth Harry Potter movies are better than the first one because in the first one you set it all up. You know, Harry had a tough time going on the second, third, and fifth, and eighth movie, so, you know, I think the same with anybody. You create these connections, so you’re not having to introduce the concept, but you still have to sell the opportunity. And that agent who I might have a relationship with, then has to turn around and sell that opportunity to the manager, who has to convince the artist, and at some point, you know, the relationship benefit breaks down and it becomes, “Did you present a compelling opportunity?” Your opportunity is what sells the day, they need to be able to…

David: It’s still a business deal, it’s still numbers at the end of the day.

Kevin: They need to be able to come here and make the money that they’re looking for, and you’re in competition with another market that may be closer, easier, bigger, faster, more appealing, you know, not on a Tuesday, you know, whatever. You fight against so many elements that are outside your control that you need to actually compensate for those within the opportunity profile you present.

David: Do you think that relationships helped you to at least, sort of, find out about the opportunities or be plugged into the opportunity streak?

Kevin: Totally, totally. I mean, that’s exactly what it is. And, you know, we tend to think that we are, to a degree, over delivering to the marketplace of this size, for the volume of shows, the caliber of shows, the…

David: Oh yeah, I think that people would generally agree that True North is punching way above their weight in terms of the concerts they bring in.

Kevin: So yeah, I think that that has come from the effort and the relationships. I mean, you know, I won’t be here forever, and the guy who sits in my chair, or the woman who sits in my chair after may need to work a little harder than I did, or maybe they’ll find their way to it. You create a bit of track record, but, you know, maybe the expectations will grow with that person. You know, maybe that person will take the momentum we’ve started, but, you know, it definitely helps. It doesn’t come easy, and I don’t know that there’s an expedited way to actually get to the point where, other than time and energy and credibility, delivering what you say you did when you said it yesterday. You’ve got to deliver today.

David: What is the sort of, like, next level or what are the challenges that you face nowadays? What’s hard about what you do now?

Kevin: You know, the biggest challenge for sure, outside of, you know, and again, it’s connected to, but it’s our geography. I say, and I think that I’m accurate in saying it, is that there’s no marketplace that is further from both L.A. and New York than Winnipeg. You can be further away from New York if you live in Edmonton, but you’re closer to L.A. And when the majority of decisions on the business that I trade in are made in L.A. and New York, the further away you are from that seed of an idea that’s spawned in one of those two marketplaces, the further it is to actually get connected to them and get to become part of that chain. Because so many things start or end in one of those two marketplaces. So you know, geography plays a huge role in the pain I feel on a daily basis. And then, what you try to work against is that somebody’s perception is that another marketplace holds a greater priority than yours. “Oh, we don’t have time for Winnipeg. We’re gonna go Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, then to Denver. We don’t have time to go Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, then to Denver. It would have been Minneapolis, Denver, but that’s, too, we gotta pick.” Somebody’s put a priority setting on it in their mind and it’s different for everybody, but I constantly battle with somebody else’s preconceived notion that other marketplaces hold a higher priority in their value equation than Winnipeg.

David: Right. Does it help that you’ve established a track record of putting on big successful concerts? Is that making it easier to convince people that it’s a real market?

Kevin: You know what, yes and no. I mean, it’s funny in this business, and it’s probably the same in a lot of others, but I think in this business in particular, probably the movie business would be the same, people don’t remember successes as much as they remember failures. So, you know, we haven’t been successful with every single show, no market ever is. But you’ve got to, as soon as you have one that doesn’t deliver on the kind of level that you presented that it could, it takes so long to recover from that and you’re just constantly are working to say, “No, no, no”. And I would say that where we have fallen short as a marketplace, there’s usually another reason for it. There’s an underlying issue of that artist didn’t have a hit record or that artist said something stupid on TV. But when you’re a marketplace this small, you know, some of those things don’t show up at the box office scores when you’re in a larger market, like Chicago or San Francisco. There’s enough people who still buy in that the people who’ve adopted out or opted out, there’s enough at that event or that performer still has their fan base that’s larger than a smaller market’s. You know, you’re always judged by your last show and we need to just keep making sure that your last show was a successful one. You know, pray that you get over the tougher shows quick and onto something successful again.

David: For sure. Cool. Okay, we’re getting close to time here. There’s two questions I always want to ask every guest. One of them: are you a reader?

Kevin: Not much of one. My wife would laugh out loud if she heard me say that, so yeah, not much of one.

David: I often ask what people’s favorite books are. I think your case, what I’ll ask instead then, is what’s a good resource someone could look to if they wanted to get into your industry?

Kevin: You know, it’s a tough question. I think that, you know, just basic business degrees. Marketing for sure plays a huge role. There are now legitimate university courses on sports management. I mean, sports agents is a huge business. People recognize that. The entertainment agency would be the same kind of career path, and there are specific courses now for recreational studies that lead you to facility management. And from facility management you need to become aware of what your, the vital part of your business is called live entertainment, outside of your sports’ stands. So, you know, there are real programs in terms of sports marketing, venue management, recreational studies, music business management that are out there, and there’s some nearby, it’s funny, there’s some nearby campuses that are really highly respected. University of Montana has a nationally regarded entertainment business course. Yeah, of all places, Montana. And Thunder Bay has a good theater studies course at Lincoln University, so there are places nearby. Rec studies at the University of Manitoba: legitimate course that takes people into facility management kind of thing. So, it’s not a book, but there’s courses. I always just say, you know, work: get a job, there’s, you know, become an usher, become a merchandise seller, work at the concert hall, work at one of our facilities, and always offer to do more.

David: Right, right. Cool. Okay, last question. This one is universally dreaded by every guest and I apologize in advance. Who are your personal mentors and influences or people, even people you didn’t know, who you looked up to kind of coming up?

Kevin: I was very fortunate, you know, for me there would be a chain of concert promoters. Guys that back in the day when I started, there was a promoter in every market, and heaven help anyone else who tried to tread into that town. I mean, you know, San Francisco had Bill Graham. New York City had a gentleman named Ron Delsener. In Canada, you had giants in our industry named Donald Tarlton, who had a company out of Quebec named of Donald K. Donald. Michael Cohl in Toronto had Concert Productions International. Vancouver had Norman Perry, and after that volume, Riley O’Connor. These are gentleman that when I started they were they were running the company, their companies. They were running the country. I was fortunate enough to work in that food chain and now, have gotten to know all of them and now have developed into a collegial relationship where they’re my peers as much as they’re still out there in the business. So, those guys set a template in Canada that really helped create an opportunity for somebody like a local guy to look nationally and for a local guy to have resources. There was a chain of us across the land, you know, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, and we were the network. And you’d pick up the phone and you’d call any one of your food chain partners and get intel on whether it was a Scorpions’ tour or we’re gonna take a run in this together, we’re all gonna band together and buy Van Halen across the land. And now, that has been replaced, that model has been sort of adopted and taken globally, and now instead of being five independent companies that collaborate, it’s one company that owns the whole shooting match. So that consolidation has happened, but those guys, that type of guy, you know, in America, Jay Marciano was my boss when I was at Universal Concerts. He’s still active in the industry. He’s running a company called Anschutz Entertainment, they’re AEG, couple billion dollar a year in ticket sales. So, there’s lots of participants that helped me, sort of, find an opportunity and they’re still active today.

David: No kidding. Well, cool. All right, well, Kevin, thanks so much for your time, it’s really been a pleasure.

Kevin: All right, well that was not painful at all. Thanks for the invitation.

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