Event Management for an Outdoor Venue (Podcast)
In this podcast we talk to Mandi Thomas, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Downtown Austin Alliance. She manages the events, programming and operations of Republic Square, a community park in downtown Austin frequently used for events.
In this episode Mandi talks about what goes into managing a public park and event space. She gives an overview of the key elements of her role which include business development, sales, fundraising, event planning and venue management. Mandi shares specific insights on event programming, key challenges and maximizing year round usage of a space.
The Downtown Austin Alliance is a local organization made up of property owners in the downtown community. Their purpose is to protect and promote Austin’s downtown through advocacy, strategic initiatives and planning.
- Downtown Austin Alliance and its role in the Downtown Public Improvement District
- Maximizing business partnerships
- Venue operations management and programming
- Securing sponsorships
- Managing a public park and venue
- Creating authentic and unique event programing for a public space
- Working with event producers to facilitate a great event
- Maximizing year round use of an outdoor venue
- Key challenges of managing a public park
- Tips and advice for event organizers
Mandi’s background includes roles in sales and corporate partnerships for venues operated by AEG Presents one of the world’s largest live music companies. Mandi has been working as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Downtown Austin Alliance for the past 3 years managing sponsorships, partnerships and business development.
Lisa: Welcome to Ticketbud Tidbits!
In today’s podcast, I talk to Mandi Thomas, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Downtown Austin Alliance. Mandi’s background includes roles in sales and corporate partnerships, for venues operated by AEG Presents, one of the world’s largest live music companies.
Mandi’s role at the Downtown Austin Alliance includes sponsorships, partnerships and business development. She manages events, programming, and the operations of Republic Square, a park in downtown Austin, frequently used for events.
In the episode, Mandi talks about what goes into managing a public park and event space. She gives an overview of the various elements, such as business development, sales, fundraising, event planning and venue management, sharing insights on event programming, managing challenges, and maximizing year-round use of the space.
I hope you enjoy the podcast!
Lisa: Welcome to the Ticketbud Tidbits podcast, Mandi!
Mandi: Hi! Thanks for having me.
Lisa: It’s great to have you here. You’re joining us from the Downtown Austin Alliance, who are an organization that aims to create, preserve and enhance downtown Austin. Could you tell us a bit more about the Alliance?
Mandi: Sure. The Downtown Austin Alliance is the downtown public improvement district. We’re charged with enhancing, improving and promoting all of the interests of downtown, which is protecting the vitality, proactively planning for the future.
We are made up of downtown property owners, within really a one mile public improvement district. So, we touch I-35 to the east, all the way to Republic Square on the west, the south central waterfront, and then up to MLK Avenue.
The programs that the Downtown Alliance is involved in is we are the lead partner advocate on most of the issues that affect downtown. We support initiatives around district planning, mobility, homelessness, parking, and other critical issues to the community downtown.
One of our most visible projects are the ambassadors that you’ll see downtown. They’re usually in the red shirts that say Downtown Austin Alliance. So, we’re creating a clean, safe and welcoming space in that area.
Some of our major pillars of work revolve around welcoming places. How do you create and connect the public realm in that space, and how do you grow the neighborhoods and districts?
Lisa: Tell us a bit about your role as Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Downtown Austin Alliance.
Mandi: I wear a lot of hats for the Alliance. I say that my role is part business development, part sales and fundraising, and then part event planning and venue manager. With the partnership’s piece, I like to refer to myself almost as a puzzle master. How do we take the great relationships and the strong relationships that we have, and work with everyone’s expertise, to help us further the vision of downtown? We want to maximize those partnerships, and work together as a community.
The second piece is really the sponsorships and the sales. How do we create incremental revenue streams that support both the Downtown Alliance, the events that we’re producing, and our newly formed Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation, which is charged with building the legacy of downtown?
Then, there’s the business development piece, where I’m responsible for managing the team over Republic Square; working with the city on our agreement, leading the team in regards to operations, management and programming.
So, it’s a lot of different hats, but it keeps me busy, and it’s a lot of fun!
Lisa: Lots of different things! You mentioned, obviously, you work a lot on sponsorships. Can you give any advice to event organizers, on securing sponsorships?
Mandi: Sure. One of the other pieces that falls under the sponsorship piece is kind of this event planning role for the Downtown Austin Alliance. We have two public-facing signature events that we celebrate each year, one of them being Austin’s Birthday Bash, that we launched last year. It’s an annual event that’s held at Republic Square. The second one is Holiday Stroll, where we kick off the tree lighting downtown.
We’ve kind of started beginning selling sponsorships for both of those events. I came from Dallas to Austin, where it was a very different environment, in terms of sponsorships. There were tons of arenas and venues, and ways to get involved.
So, sometimes in Dallas, it was easy just to slap a logo on something, and call it a sponsorship. What I’ve learned is Austinites are looking for a more authentic and engaging experience. Here, what I try to do is integrate the sponsorships into the programming, into the event itself, to make it more meaningful.
Austinites want to experience the brand. How do we bring the brand to life in the event that we’re doing, and do it with purpose? That helps the companies and the sponsors as well, because it brings their brands to life.
I’ve also had to learn, really, with the sponsorships here, that it’s okay to say no. If it’s not in the integrity of the event, and it doesn’t help supplement the event in some way, it doesn’t mean you have to make it fit.
Lisa: If it doesn’t add value, then it doesn’t make sense. I like the idea that it’s more of a – Austin’s got this very community, big town vibe to it, so I think that makes sense, for the sponsorships to also sort of want to have that close relationship and be more involved, and not just “Here’s my logo. Slap it on a fence.”
Mandi: Austin is very much a big, small town. So, how do you make the companies that may be big tech companies and national brands, feel like they’re a small town business, and serve it to the consumers that way?
Lisa: I know a lot of brands are doing that all over the place now. They realize they want to be more involved, and people want to engage with them more.
A key part of your role is the management of Republic Square, a city park open to the community. It’s a prime location for downtown events. Can you tell us about the space, different ways it’s utilized by the community, and what types of events have been hosted there?
Mandi: Yes. Republic Square is very unique to Austin. It was one of four historic downtown squares, designated in our 1839 city plan, that was designed by Edwin Waller.
The original – when Austin decided it was going to become a city, there was a city plan and grid system drawn out, and that map included four historic squares, three of which are still downtown today. Then, when they went to auction off the city plots, it all happened under the oak trees, in August of 1839, that are still standing at the park.
So, there’s still that piece of history that’s in Republic Square. The Downtown Austin Alliance worked very closely with the city, the Parks and Recreation Department, and Austin Parks Foundation for a decade, if not more, to renovate that park, because of its historic significance to the city.
Then, in 2017, after an almost $5.9 million renovation, we reopened the park, with the Downtown Austin Alliance managing it. So, it’s a very unique situation for Austin. It’s the first public park that is managed through a public/private partnership with the city, which allows us to set forth a revenue model where we can rent out the space.
A lot more flexibility than a lot of the other city parks, in both the design and the way that we can coordinate events on a different timeline than the city has.
Lisa: Can you describe the park and the facilities that are there, for somebody who hasn’t seen it?
Mandi: Sure. We made a great lawn. I like to say it’s in the shape of a kidney bean, almost. But it’s elevated. Before, it was just a flat space. There’s a very gradual elevation.
There’s a market promenade that was built intentionally, because we do host the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmer’s Market there, every Saturday morning. So, we’ve built a promenade where they can actually set up a market, and host that Farmer’s Market easier.
There is a deck that sits underneath one of those historic trees that I talked about, that has café seating. And there is now a small café space that will be opening later this year. We will have a café operator in there that will be serving everything from breakfast to lunch, beer and wine at night. We’ve signed a lease with Salt & Time Café, to go into that space.
We’re excited that now there’s a city park that not only has a café running in the park, but now you can grab a drink and watch a movie in that space. So again, very unique to Austin and very exciting for us, because it’s a different park than anything else that you’ll see in the city.
Lisa: Nice! I love it. Are there any specific restrictions on the types of events held in the square, or what people can do with the space?
Mandi: We’re very flexible, a little bit more tolerant than some of the city-run parks. We’re still subject to the Special Events Ordinance, so we do go through the city process for special events. If certain trigger points are met, we help kind of talk event producers through what that threshold is.
We are restricted in, almost self-restricted, in our management agreement with the city on the number of closed, private ticketed events that we can do each year. The reason being is the goal of the park was to have an open space. We didn’t want to fence it in, and do weddings every single night. So, weddings are off the table.
But we do have an allotment of dates where we can do a private ticketed event. We just can’t do those all of the time.
Lisa: It’s just a balance.
Mandi: It’s just a balance.
Lisa: Okay. You look after events, programming and operations at Republic Square. Can you tell us a bit more about the different elements to that role?
Mandi: There’s a lot of elements to that role, and a lot of things that I’ve had to learn in my role. The easy part is that we’re a venue manager, so we’re able to curate the programming that goes into that. That’s really the fun piece.
We’re brainstorming with our partners downtown. What are authentic and unique ways to use this park? Obviously, Yoga in the Park and a movie series is much needed and well-attended, but it’s also something that you can go into any park in the United States and do. So, how can we use this space, and come up with something that’s a little bit more authentic and Austin?
We’ve worked with Austin Community College, and they’ve conducted foreign language classes for kids of all ages. So, from five to 50, you can learn a foreign language on a Saturday morning, with Austin Community College.
We’ve worked with different events, to how do you weave the culture into the park, and the history of the city.
Then, on a venue management side, it’s how do you take in the rental applications, to determine what events make sense for the space, work with the producers on the event permits that they need, and the best use of that space.
Then, there’s this whole new element that is the operations of a park, and learning how to take care of the grass, so that if you pop an event up, it’s not going to kill the grass immediately. So, working through the irrigation systems and the landscaping, and the rest periods for grass, which is a whole new concept for me. But grass needs rest, and you can kill grass.
Luckily, I was the first one to kind of test that and burn it out, so now I know what you can and can’t do!
Lisa: Absolutely. When you’ve got a lot of people and a lot of events going and stuff, they’re going to trample the grass!
Can you talk a little bit about managing programming? You said that you do try to balance the types of events. What sort of events are you looking for?
Mandi: When we first opened the park, it was important for the Downtown Austin Alliance to sit down with some of the community stakeholders and outline, really, guiding principles. We wrote those guiding principles into our agreement with the city.
What we wanted Republic Square to be, first and foremost, was a peoples’ park. We wanted it to be an inclusive and welcoming space. How do you get a diverse audience group into the park, and create this multi-cultural collaborative, yet still spontaneous interaction downtown?
So, a lot of the programming, and the way that we balance it is we always want something that’s family friendly, knowing that more families are moving into downtown, and there’s not a lot for families to do, just yet. How do you do something that’s open to everyone?
We are very fortunate that we’re able to partner with some of the downtown organizations, to produce those events such as Yoga. We partner with Mexic-Arte, to bring that multi-cultural piece into it. But also working with event producers, to bring their events into that space, that kind of fill those guiding principles. We’ve done that with event producers.
Last year, we had an event called Taco Libre, that was very authentic to the Mexican culture. It was a taco event, but it had Lucha Libre wrestling going on at the same time. We recently partnered with a group out of New Orleans, to bring jazz to the park.
So, we’re able to work with event producers and curate how are we going to do something that’s going to benefit the community, first and foremost.
Lisa: That makes sense. Because it’s a prime city location, I’m sure there’s a lot of demand to use it, particularly in the warmer months. Do you have any key criteria that has to be met, for events that are hosted there? Like you said you don’t do weddings, but is there other criteria people have to meet?
Mandi: There’s not a lot. We don’t have a lot of criteria. Again, we look at whether it fits into our guiding principles. I talked a little bit about how we’re limited by our contract, on the closure dates. We have a max number of 20 days per year, that we can fence the park off and have a private – the full park – and have a private event.
We’re really looking to – we balance it by supplementing some of the legacy events that have always happened at that park, such as the Farmer’s Market. AIDs Walk has been in that park for a very long time. We also have Trail of Lights shuttles and ACL shuttles leaving from that space.
We try to balance the older events with new events, to kind of go with the demand of downtown, and the people that are now in downtown.
Lisa: And how it evolves, yeah. What is the process event organizers need to go through, to request to use the space?
Mandi: We have an application process. There’s an application, along with an event planning guide, that goes through a lot of the frequently asked questions, on our website, with is RepublicSquare.org. Typically, after we receive the application, we schedule a phone call, to talk through really the idea, the history, the site plan of your event, to determine whether or not it will fit in the space.
What permits are going to be required? And if there are any red flags from our end, it gives us that opportunity to talk through it with the event producer, to see if we can make any small adjustments before approving the date and putting the day on hold, and approving the event application.
Lisa: If an event manager wants to secure a prime event space like Republic Square, what sort of information should they include in an application, to be successful? Do they need to talk about success of past events? Because it’s prime real estate, as well, so they would be competing against other event holders.
Mandi: I think it’s a little bit of all of that. You know, the more comprehensive you can be in the application – there’s a lot of questions, more or less about the site plan. I always like to get on the phone with the event producer, to understand why they want Republic Square, why that’s important to them, what the history of the event is.
Sometimes it’s a new event, and what are they trying to gain for it? I think that’s where the sponsorship sales side of me comes in, is what questions do you ask, to figure out whether or not it’s a good fit and a good partnership, and something that we want to happen in the park.
So, I think just the more comprehensive. I like to ask what is the community benefit, and why is this event important to you, and why is this park the park of choice? I think knowing and having those answers in advance definitely helps.
Lisa: Alright. What strategies do you implement to maximize year-round use of the square?
Mandi: We opened the park fall of 2017, and started programming the park really in May of last year. So, we are now one year in. It seems like it’s been a lot longer than that. But we’re still working with the programming and the events.
One of the things that we do know is that we have to build in that rest time, into the grass and the lawn. The rest is seasonal. In the summer months, where it’s really hot blaring heat on the grass, there’s more rest than is needed in the fall or the spring, when we’re getting a ton of rain and saturation, and have really green grass.
That operations schedule helps us a lot. We know that we don’t have to heavily program the park in the summer months. With that being said, we’ve also learned that Austinites are very heat tolerant, and will come and stand outside in 100 degree heat and do Yoga, throughout the summer. So, sometimes it’s just as simple as that, as partnering with a fitness program, and doing fitness year-round.
Or they’ll come out and sit and watch a movie in the middle of the summer. But what I learned in the winter is that they will not come out and sit in the park in December, when it’s cold, and watch a movie. Right now, it’s a lot of trial by error, figuring out when in the season you can do things.
It’s been very easy, so far, for us to actually program place events. Austin is so event heavy, that with South By in the spring, and everything else happening in October, a lot of the event planners have gotten creative with the months that they’re hosting and producing events. That’s really helped us out a lot, as well.
Lisa: It sounds like Austinites are very much like my hometown of Adelaide, which is Austin’s sister city. We’re all over, out and about in the summer. Then come the colder months, everyone hibernates, like “No! We’re not going out!”
Mandi: Which makes sense. I’m the same way.
Lisa: What are some of the key challenges of managing a public park and event space, such as Republic Square?
Mandi: I think weather is probably one of my big challenges, and something that in my career, I’ve never really had to think about. But we have had more rain, and I’ve cancelled more things, or postponed and rescheduled more programming and events in the past month, than we did in the past year. So really, it’s that where you can choose to go indoors, and you know that there’s safety and security in that.
But in the park, how do you convince an event planner to do something outside, where you may have to be a little bit more flexible in the planning, flexible in both the site design and the option to tent, and flexible in “Okay, let’s put a rain date on hold,” at the same time? So, I think the weather is probably the first one.
The other one is that it is a public park, first and foremost. Austin is a very civic city, so we encourage organizations, and we love that organizations want to gather outside and rally in support or against certain issues that come up, both state and nationwide. We sit next to a federal courthouse, so it becomes very, this very flexible space, in the sense of civic movement.
Sometimes, as you know, those events happen on a moment’s notice, and we have to be flexible enough to expect and anticipate hundreds of people in the park at any one time. But also, trying to find out about those in advance, and make sure that we don’t have something conflicting going on in the space at the same time.
Sometimes working with digging through Facebook, to work with the organizers. A lot of times, they have the flexibility where they’re working with us. It hasn’t really been a problem. It’s just something that we have to anticipate.
Lisa: And have to be aware of. From your experience, do you have any top tips for event organizers, advice that you can give?
Mandi: From my experience personally, I just think that don’t be afraid to try new things, and step out of your comfort zone. You know, I never thought that I would be managing a park, and I’ve never thought twice about it. I just thought “Oh, things happen in parks, and that’s how it happens!”
So, there’s been a lot of a learning curve for me. I think one of the things that helps is I came from a space where I’ll try anything once. So, I encourage people to kind of embrace that. Things may not, especially outside in a park, your event is not going to go 100% perfect, really, at any time in any event.
But as long as you can – you’re flexible enough to ride with that and embrace it, and not stress about it, I think that event planning, it’s got a great reward to it. For me, that’s always been what pushes me, is when you open the doors, or when the stage lights come on at a concert. The reaction that you get from the public is the reward.
Particularly with the park, the reward is seeing people use it, and come together. So, don’t be afraid. Try new things!
Lisa: You might have covered this, but I was going to ask about if you’ve been given any great advice at the start of your career.
Mandi: I think it’s kind of along the same lines. I didn’t start in the concert industry. I honestly started in for-profit education. I was really drawn toward events, and that’s what I wanted to do. I had people encouraging me, throughout my journey, and telling me “As long as you’re flexible, and open to new experiences, then things will happen.” And they have.
I went from concerts into a non-profit downtown organization, which seems like a major step away from what I was doing. At the time, I honestly thought that I was stepping away from the events world, and needed that for a minute. But you know, it’s all come back full circle, and it’s because I was open to those -.
Lisa: Different possibilities.
Mandi: Different possibilities, and embraced them when they did come up. So really, challenge yourself, be open to the possibility, and be confident in your knowledge and your expertise in something. Do what you feel is right, and I’m confident that it leads you on the right path.
Lisa: I think if you know your skillset and your experience, even if it’s an area you haven’t worked in before, it translates.
Lisa: We’ll finish up with, can you tell us about a great event you’ve attended?
Mandi: This question is so hard for me, because I’ve really been fortunate enough to – I’ve been in the events business now for almost 20 years. So, I’ve attended the good, the bad and the ugly.
Lisa: That’s why I like asking people on this podcast that question!
Mandi: Of course, coming from an event producer, you probably get this a lot. I walk into events with a different set of eyes than even my fiancé walks into an event. He goes “Oh, this is great!” And I go “Oh, they did this wrong. How could they do that different?”
So logistically, it becomes difficult for me. But some of the events that I look back on and that were the most memorable to me, whether it was a concert or whether it was a festival, are really the ones where you could experience it.
We go to a music festival every year, in California, and it’s really because it’s a more intimate festival. It’s on the beach. It’s more experiential. Their sponsorships are more integrated, so it’s done in a meaningful way.
I went to an event last year, that was part of a bigger downtown art and cultural event, but there was a secret. It was called Hidden Walls, so there was a secret kind of underground art scene, where it was really different artists paired together on either side of a wall, and they were competing in a length of time, to see who could come up with the best mural.
It’s really the things that help you experience a city, that aren’t necessarily about the production, but it’s more about the authenticity of it.
Lisa: Well, thanks for chatting with us on the podcast today, Mandi.
Mandi: Sure. Thank you!
Lisa: Until next time, this was Ticketbud Tidbits!
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