DCI Direct – The Case for Growing Roots

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Like many fans of drum corps, I’ve devoted several of my summer vacation plans over the years to include a pilgrimage to the host city of the Drum Corps International World Championships. Prior to my involvement on the staff of a corps and long before being able to experience the joy of instant-gratification by surfing for corps information online, I looked forward with great anticipation to the schedule appearing in my mailbox in an early spring edition of the Contest Guild or DCI Today so I could plan my time off for vacation to coincide with the culmination of the DCI tour.

When August rolled around, I took great delight in the butt-numbing ritual of spending the better part of a week riveted to the bleachers and stadium seats in locales like Montreal, Madison, Dallas, Buffalo, Foxboro and others, soaking in countless performances and availing myself of the local adventures surrounding each of the World Championships venues. Living near the numerous summer resort towns scattered all along the Jersey shore (the place, not the reality show), I probably wouldn’t have embarked on these cross-country treks with friends had it not been for my fanaticism for and fascination with drum corps.

When I learned several years ago that DCI was considering a "permanent" or even a semi-permanent location for the site of its biggest annual event, I must confess that I had mixed emotions. Like many others, I thought, "do they really want us to go to the same place every year?”

Myth Busting: Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be

The biggest factors in determining a suitable location for the Drum Corps International World Championships can be boiled down to two key functional areas: Availability and costs related to the both the championship performance venue and the housing and rehearsal sites needed in support of the corps participating in the big event.

Like many fans, I wondered why we don’t simply set up shop on an annual basis in the drum corps haven of Madison, Wis., A proposal had been made, years earlier, to do just that. University of Wisconsin officials did not jump at the chance to host an annual event, despite the long and storied love affair between the drum corps enthusiasts and the hallowed ground in and around Camp Randall stadium.

With neighborhood homes lining the streets surrounding the stadium and an ever-shrinking amount of open space in the form of parking facilities to accommodate the sizable numbers of corps and spectator vehicles, the best we could hope for in Madison, it seemed, would be an occasional visit. Further, ongoing physical improvements to the stadium and entire UW campus in Madison, like the Indiana University campus in Bloomington and those in many other towns across North America, have resulted in significantly higher facilities usage fees and increased scheduling challenges, turning what was once considered to be a fiscally prudent “sure thing” into something far more challenging… not to mention more financially risky, and weather-dependent.

Fans of drum corps often make suggestions based on their favorite locales for viewing past DCI World Championships. Each year, DCI’s mailboxes bulge from numerous appeals to return to a location from the past, or to explore the opportunities for a new destination. To the uninitiated, it would seem that any town would jump at the chance to host a prestigious event such as the DCI World Championships. The truth is that some of the locations we’ve enjoyed at the past simply aren’t options, either due to a lack of stadium availability years in advance or a current-day price tag that makes it impossible to consider.

Room-Nights vs. Gym Floors

Fans of the corps will generate thousands of hotel room-nights, the standard currency of the convention industry, in the greater Indianapolis area during the 2010 championships. With the hotel stays come millions of dollars of economic impact to the Circle City in restaurant, shopping and sight-seeing expenditures.

Although it would seem that this fact alone would make for the basis of an attractive proposal to cities throughout the country, a significant challenge lies in the notion of the non-hotel housing utilized and preferred by the participating units. With nearly 5,000 performers sleeping on gymnasium floors and not in hotel beds, many would-be destinations lose interest quickly.

Indianapolis understands this unique aspect of the drum corps lifestyle, and has created resources specifically focused on managing the challenge. More on that later.

The touring requirements of the modern day drum corps include a lot more than just a gymnasium-turned-dormitory. In order to deliver performances of the highest quality, typical World Class corps often simultaneously utilize a football stadium and multiple rehearsal fields (which need to be lined for football), with a need for some sort of elevation for making corrections to the performance routines. Additionally, there is a need for suitable utility connections for food trucks, adequate locker room capacity for efficient pre-show preparation, and additional classroom space for instructional, administrative and support staff members, among other things.

Factors which become challenges for finding enough housing sites in many markets include: proximity to neighborhood homes and churches (sound ordinances), school district policies regarding overnight school use, schedules for sports, band camps and other extra-curricular activities, school facility summer building and field maintenance and landscaping/irrigation schedules, summer class schedules, and so on.

Often times, corps must schedule their “Finals Week” rehearsal segments around these and other school-based activities. When the corps arrive in the Indianapolis area in August, many area school districts will already be back in session. Several plans are in place to address these issues.

Corps housing options on high school campuses continue to shrink along with school district budgets. What was once often a “favor” granted by enthusiastic band directors and administrators, use of the school housing site has evolved into a “rental” situation as a significant profit center for schools finding it hard to make ends meet.

For the week of the Championships, aggregated housing site charges for all corps can average upward of $10,000 per day but can go much higher. During the 2004 World Championships in Denver, Colo., for example, housing charges topped an incredible quarter-million dollars for the week.

Based on continuing trends, the shrinking pool of “housing sites” as we’ve come to know them could pose a severe threat to the drum corps touring model. The continuing expansion of year-round schooling will further impact the pool of available locations. Developing a long-term partnership with a city like Indianapolis is a very strategic – and very necessary – component in preserving an integral part of the drum corps ecosystem.

Losing the ability to stay at schools altogether would radically alter the touring model, and could create an insurmountable financial obstacle for the corps and for DCI. Even packing four corps- or staff members to a room in an economy motel, could quickly rack up $3,000 per night in housing expenses which would total several million dollars for all of the corps over the course of one season, assuming that there was an ample supply of such rooms within a reasonable proximity to the performance sites. Of course, hotel rooms solve the sleeping and showering challenges for corps members but not the rehearsal issue, which then sets off another set of challenges pertaining to the sleep requirements and off-duty hours of bus and truck drivers and moving the corps members from a theoretical hotel to suitable practice fields somewhere nearby.

Indy Advantages

Prior to the move of the DCI offices from suburban Chicago to its current home in Indianapolis, and with my "east coast elitist" skepticism firmly intact, I listened to presentations being delivered by various Indianapolis representatives at several different meetings spanning many months. All the while I knew that these "evangelical" representatives had been hired to do precisely what I was experiencing: to “sell” the city as a great place to live, work and play and the ultimate location in which to stage DCI’s "big dance." They might have been working hard to sell it, but I was determined not to buy. All of this "Hoosier Hospitality" stuff I was hearing was a little bit too touchy-feely for my jaded New Jersey sensibilities.

Only after getting intimately involved with the planning and marketing of the tour, and after several meetings requiring me to travel to Indy away from the din of slick boardroom presentations and professionally-guided bus tours, did I begin to understand for myself the truth about Indianapolis and the reasoning behind finding a long-term home in which to host the DCI World Championships.

I started to change my position on both topics as I learned that "Hoosier Hospitality" was, actually, more than a sales pitch and that the obvious buzz of pride among the residents and business owners about their fair city was genuine. Despite my skepticism, it was apparent that the Indianapolis “sales team” had done their homework, and had come to the table with much to offer, prepared to prove their desire to be committed partners who were in it for the long haul.

Well beyond the standard bid package offered by potential host cities, Indianapolis laid out a vision which would bring together similar organizations, to create a synergy that would create a powerful collaborative effort… the sum being greater than the parts. Focusing specifically on the unique needs of DCI and the larger pool of allied organizations, Indianapolis was quick to develop several key initiatives:

The creation of “Music Crossroads.” A consortium dedicated to “advancing quality of life through the attraction, support, collaboration, and evidence-based outcomes of leading art entrepreneurs.” Focusing on the needs of Drum Corps International, the Percussive Arts Society, Music For All, the American Pianists Association, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, the Music Crossroads team has created a synergistic alliance of groups who are working together for their individual and collective needs.

• Additional networking into Indianapolis-based organizations through the Music Crossroads alliance include the Lacy Leadership organization, IndyHub, the Indy Arts Council and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. These relationships have connected Drum Corps International to the Indianapolis-area business community in a meaningful way, helping to increase the organization’s grant-worthiness, providing exposure to new potential strategic partners, engaging staffers in professional development opportunities, and offering good old fashioned relationship-building.

• The DCI World Championships Advance Resource Team (ART). Organized by the Music Crossroads group, the DCI ART consists of several committees, each of which is a collaboration between enthusiastic area professionals and members of the DCI staff. The ART serves as the steering committee for the various teams that have stepped forward to ensure a positive experience which improves every year, benefiting the corps members and their fans, along with everyone else with a vested interest in the DCI World Championships as a successful, world class event.

• Corps Experience Committee – charged with the responsibility of enhancing the experience of the corps members by assisting with corps housing and doing advance work on local-area sources of goods and services of interest to the visiting corps. These would include laundry facilities, diesel fuel providers, local emergency medical and dental resources, grocery stores and food service purveyors, etc. This underscores areas of partnership which the typical Convention and Visitors Bureau would be ill-prepared to provide. This committee also worked with corps and the communities hosting them to create “Community Night” performance opportunities, increasing the awareness of each corps in their adopted Indianapolis-area home away from home.

Also, as the season dissolves nearly instantly following the encore performance of the World Champion, thousands of corps members descend on the airport in the middle of the night, awaiting their early morning flights back home or off to school to complete studies or begin band camp. Despite effort to the contrary, the situation has been somewhat confusing and inconvenient in several previous host cities. By being proactive and engaged in our world however, the Corps Experience Committee continues to work with airport officials to provide overnight facilities and supervision, keeping things organized and orderly while some try catch a little sleep and others say their final goodbyes. Plans for increased involvement this year include the engagement of other non-profits, happy to provide refreshments and to collect, clean and redistribute the donated clothing and sleeping gear which are often left behind by corps members.

• Volunteer Experience Committee – reaches out to local organizations and individuals who wish to volunteer for DCI events. This eliminates the need for a full-time employee to manage the sizable volunteer efforts for more than 250 Championship Week volunteer positions.

• Marketing Committee – raises awareness in the community throughout the year and at the Championships by assisting with value-added activities such as the Super Fan program.

• Special Events Committee – assists with the production of media and other special events surrounding and in support of the World Championships.

• Fan Experience Committee – worked behind-the-scenes with hotel concierges and property general managers, as well as restaurant owners and other merchants to bring them up to speed on the unique needs and wants of DCI’s passionate fan base.

Other Benefits Behind-the-Scenes

In addition to the kinds of things you might expect a city to do during the courtship and honeymoon phases of landing a piece of business, there are many less obvious advantages to growing roots in one place and to having that place be the home of the World Championships.

• Favorable long-term lease on prime office space – The new DCI offices are right smack-dab in the center of everything. The opportunity to easily conduct meetings with city officials and stadium officials, community leaders, business owners and potential strategic partners is tremendous. The headquarters office also is a source of pride for the DCI staff and the directors of the member corps, as well as the fans who come to visit or to purchase tickets to events.

• Favorable stadium facility rates – The ability to lock-in a multi-year contract with excellent rates and cost controls for stadium rental and related services (such as security, parking lot buyouts, inclement weather warm-up and staging areas, etc.) is a tremendous benefit to the fiscal planning executed by DCI on behalf of the corps.

• Stadium staff familiar with our event and engaged in its success – After years of building a successful partnership at the RCA Dome, the staff of professionals who now manage Lucas Oil Stadium know our routine and actually contribute to the success of the event, both operationally and financially by helping things to run efficiently and by being able to speak with us in the secret language of drum corps.

• Reduction on the travel expenses for event staff – since most of DCI’s employees now live in the host city, and since the establishment of a larger pool of hometown volunteers helps to replace and augment volunteer event staffers who would normally need to be flown in for the big event, DCI is able to save tens of thousands of dollars annually in travel expenses. In previous years, key event and operations staff members, along with CEO Dan Acheson, could spend up to a third of their entire work year traveling to the host city for various meetings and planning sessions. Now, it’s a simple walk down the street or to the other side of the office to massively increase productivity, efficiency and cost-savings.

• Central geographic location makes it far more feasible for event staff, judges and corps directors to drive-in from a several hundred mile radius, rather than having to fly as they did previously.

• Rental cars are unnecessary when coming into town for a meeting or event, since the stadium is easily within walking distance from hotels.

• Building relationships of enduring value – with the establishment of the new Indianapolis headquarters, the organization has received an unparalleled opportunity to establish personal relationships with its neighbors, enjoying the benefit of the World Championships as the backdrop to increasing awareness and understanding. The fact that the World Championships are happening in the “hometown” of the organization, has created opportunities for partnerships which extend well beyond one week in August.

• Thriving tourism, arts and culture – Indianapolis has done an incredible job of leveraging its assets to create a very pleasant experience for the first-time fan or seasoned road warrior. Although the “big event” is the centerpiece for those traveling to support their favorite corps, there are plenty of “world class” options for dining, shopping and sight-seeing.

Rethinking the Possibilities

For many years, DCI’s proverbial eggs were all in the World Championships basket. With few major events on the tour, the financial success or failure of a given season rested squarely on the shoulders of the success of the last few days of the tour, creating a sometimes precarious financial situation for the organization. Under those conditions, DCI could very well be one rainy summer away from financial ruin. The creation and development of regional “Premier” events in cities like San Antonio, Texas and Atlanta, Ga., among others, have helped to change the business model significantly, bringing much of the excitement that was often reserved exclusively for the fortunate few attending the World Championships to various regions throughout the country, increasing business success and diffusing catastrophic risk.

Had I not made the decision to get involved by volunteering with a corps, I’m not sure whether or not I would make the pilgrimage to Indy every summer, or if I’d choose to rotate my summertime adventures to other interesting locales along the tour. Or if I’d expand my summer travel plans to include regular trips to Denver or Texas or to the Stanford and Pasadena shows or a tour of the upper Midwest. With the creation of a comprehensive schedule with stops in major cities and traditional must-see events like Allentown, along with the Fan Network and live HD theater broadcasts, there are certainly more options than ever for remaining connected and having a great summer of drum corps every year.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I could pass up the chance to be there in person to witness the culminating event of the season. As a proud drum corps geek, I remember when the World Championship used to be broadcast on PBS. I would watch it every time it was shown throughout the year, even though I’d already purchased the VHS tapes, and even though I knew that the show hadn’t changed at all from the ten other times I’d already watched it and recorded it off the TV… “just in case.” I couldn’t get enough of it back then, and I guess I still can’t.

As a corps director and after committing to assist the overall effort on the marketing front, I see the logic in committing to Indianapolis, and I’m convinced of the passionate and sincere commitment to our success which exists as this relationship continues to expand far more profoundly than perhaps I had expected. Although some might find the notion of working to create a “win/win relationship” to be trite, it just might be the most apt way to characterize the foundation for mutual success that is being poured and reinforced every day, as DCI deepens its roots in the local community.

The DCI World Championships and the entire summer tour is a tremendous undertaking with many moving parts. As real-world economic conditions continue to change and challenge all of us, the ability to plan strategically is fundamental to any effort to ensure the future of our activity. Although the notion of setting up shop in one place is still alien to many of my friends and fellow longtime fans, it might just be the best thing that could have happened to us.

I’ll hope to see you there.


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Posted by on Thursday, January 28th, 2010. Filed under DCI Direct.