I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jon Vena the AEG marketing director about the rebuilding of Starland Ballroom. Starland Ballroom has been my second home (some people would say my first home) for the last six or seven years and has provided my son and I with more experiences then most people will see in their entire lives. Starland Ballroom was hit pretty hard by hurricane Sandy and has been closed since. The reopening is scheduled for September 6th with a killer show that headlines The Stone Temple Pilots with Filter.
I wanted to get a behind the scenes sense of what the process was from the time the club went down leading up to the opening show, here is how it went.
What was the staffs initial reaction when they were informed that Starland Ballroom needed to be shut down for the needed repairs due to Hurricane Sandy ?
Just the visible extent of our damage made it obvious that we’d need to endure some downtime. Nearly six feet of water entered the venue, destroying most of our interior – from the wood floors and walls, to all of our electric elements. As you can imagine, running a venue of this size takes a bit more electricity and infrastructure than your standard home or business. Just the electric damage alone meant we’d be down for some time.
What was it like having to try to re assign and or cancel whatever shows you could to other venues during a time of chaos and need for many people including yourselves ?
When you talk about what happened here at Starland, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the real lives and livelihoods that were affected by the disaster. The Safety and well-being of our employees, colleagues and friends came first. Canceling shows in the aftermath of Sandy was more or less a phone call. However we worked with our friends at The Stone Pony, Pine Belt Arena, The Count Basie Theatre and The State Theatre to move those shows that could still work despite our differences from those venues, i.e.: their seats, capacities, etc. We were able to preserve shows with Taking Back Sunday, Sum 41, Cody Simpson and others. In fact, our pair of Taking Back Sunday shows became one mega-event in Toms River that came to serve as a benefit for fans in that community affected by the storm.
Was there any talk about shutting Starland down and not reopening it due to the amount of damage caused by the storm ?
What inside and outside sources were used to decide the outcome and improvements that are being made to the club ?
We’re very proud to say that virtually all of our reconstrution – from contracting work to interior design to plumbing, electricity and beyond – was handled by firms and workers here in New Jersey. Our Management team, most of which has been in place since Starland opened, lead the charge.
How important was it to have a top notch lineup for the first couple of months once reopened and was a lot of bands, tours contacting you to be part of the new Starland, did you at any time feel the need to win back the fans of the club ?
As you know, social media has changed everything. If I printed out every encouraging email, tweet and facebook comment we’ve received since the storm, I’d need a second Starland Ballroom to store it all. Our customers are very enthusiastic about their experiences here, so when we went offline, they held us up. Two young ladies even came and tied a get-well balloon bouquet to our front railing! I have the note they attached to it and plan on framing it to remind us of what our work means to our customers. As for the booking, i’s a mix of luck and planning. Our talent buyer, Adam Weiser, has an incredible relationship with artist reps and agents worldwide. A lot of artists chose to skip over NJ while we were down, simply because Starland is their venue of choice. Others played elsewhere – but jumped at the opportunity to return to Starland because of their previous experiences here. Over the last decade, Starland has been the venue of choice in New Jersey, and it would seem our downtime and subsequent return has only accentuated that. The DeLeo brothers in Stone Temple Pilots heard our story and wanted to be part of the celebration, while Blink 182 wanted to make Starland a part of its tour and help the local community in the process. Blink is donating a portion of each ticket sold to the Middlesex County Long Term Recovery Group, and that money will be earmarked to help families right here in Sayreville. And the guys in Taking Back Sunday, with whom we have a long friendship, were the first to let us know that they’d be back once we were up and running. True to their word, they’ll be here September 11th and 12th.
Can you describe what improvements have been made to enhance the bands, fans and staffs experiences when the club reopens ?
First and foremost, Starland is still Starland – it’s still that roadhouse feel, i’s still the same type of venue and it still carries its greatest attributes. Nonetheless, we took this opportunity to make various types of improvements. Artists will see modernized and upgraded dressing room facilities. Our staff will see new sound and lighting technologies, fixtures, and some changes to our offices. Fans will really get to experience what we think are the coolest improvements: There are some changes to the flow of the room and its layout. There are changes to the sightlines that will provide a clear view of the stage from virtually any area of the venue. The corner platforms – we added a level there and now have 4 separate, graduated floor levels to improve one’s view of the stage. The back bar has a clearer view to the stage, and our restroom facilities are now thoroughly modern. In fact, the decor throughout the building has been modernized … our walls and woodwork are all new, and our flooring is the polished type of concrete you see in fine restaurants or malls. The sound and light systems have been revamped, too – so it’s going to be a true visual and aural experience for everyone. Two other ne elements involve AEG Live’s AXS.com now handles our ticketing, while its television extension, AXS.tv, will be broadcasting select Starland Ballroom concerts nationwide. The first national broadcast is Taking Back Sunday’s September 12th performance here. Anyone with FiOS, DirectTV or the Dish Network gets AXS, and we’re hopeful it’ll come to Cablevision and Comcast soon. too.
What in your own words would you say makes Starland the kind of club it has been all these years, if I remember correctly it was voted one of the top five clubs in the country to see a show ?
That’s easy : First off, the fans and the artists. We could spend $300 zillion dollars on improvements and it wouldn’t make a single difference unless we had that fine combination of great artists and enthusiastic fans. New Jersey seems to attract both of these elements. Secondly, it’s our staff. Most of us have been here since day one, more than ten years ago. There’s a great bond of friendship here that keeps morale and enthusiasm flowing, and I think that shows in the product we put out to the public.
Maybe not initially but going forward will there be a need for increased prices of tickets, vending products and parking to keep the club operating in the green ?
We don’t anticipate passing on any marked price increases to our patrons. Ticket prices are set by the artist.
We love the feedback and response we get from out patrons. When the storm hit and word got out that the venue was nearly destroyed, we were overwhelmed at all the well – wishes and offers of help we received from customers from all over the state. Notwithstanding, there are homes just down the street from Starland that remain uninhabitable. We don’t want fans to just come to a show at Starland, we want them to spend some money in and around Sayreville and South River, and all the other communities affected by the storm : Manahawkin, the Highlands, Sea Bright, Ortley Beach, Lavalette, Union Beach – the list goes on. Bruce Springsteen had a song last year called “We Take Care Of Our Own” and quite frankly, that song will forever remind me of the way New Jerseyans responded to Superdtorm Sandy. We take care of its music fans.
I would personally like to thank Jon Vena and the entire Starland Ballroom staff for always taking the time out to make our experiences at the club life long lasting memories as well more to come.