Russ Simons is senior principal in the Nashville office of HOK Sport Venue Event, an architectural firm specializing in the design and operation of sports and entertainment venues.
In January, HOK SVE spun off from HOK Group, the largest U.S.-based architecture-engineering firm. Recently, City Paper correspondent William Williams chatted with Simons regarding this highly specialized industry.
What is your opinion regarding the design and function of HOK’s LP Field and Sommet Center?
LP Field and Sommet Center rank among the top level of facilities anywhere. The Sommet Center still stands in my mind — and granted I may be biased as I managed the building prior to joining HOK Sport Venue Event — as one of the top arenas in the country. It has features that many large city arenas would die for, including wide concourses and flexible spaces to meet the varying needs of show producers.
I agree with you regarding Sommet Center, as it offers a cutting-edge design and interesting functionality. But with all due respect to HOK SVE, many would argue that compared to the 19 NFL stadiums opened or modified since 1995, the design of LP Field is very pedestrian and uninspired.
For example, post-’95 HOK-designed stadiums for the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Houston Texans are much more eye-catching and distinct.
I think everybody agrees that the fan views and fan experience at LP Field are as good as at any other NFL stadium. But, if you’re basing your opinion on iconic stadia design, that might be a different discussion.
Some U.S. citizens contend entertainment venues are overrated in terms of their positive impact on a community? Why do critics make this argument and what is your greatest challenge overcoming that cultural dynamic?
Let’s face it: More and more, these buildings are becoming the cathedrals of our time. Not only are they tourist attractions, but also they’re beloved, in fact rarefied, by fans. What our buildings have the opportunity to do is to allow fans to rally around a larger cause, to become a part of something bigger [than themselves] — and that’s the foundation of a strong community.
We have fewer opportunities today to gather together than ever before. I believe that these facilities play a more important role than ever. For example, public facilities are taking on an expanded role in preparing to provide service to communities as mass shelters in the wake of natural disasters. I am not sure who is making that argument [opposing entertainment venues]. It appears from what I read and hear that it is a very small group.
I’m not sure it’s a “small group.” For example, the new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys was originally estimated to cost $650 million. The stadium's current construction cost is now projected to be in excess of $1 billion, with Arlington taxpayers to cover some of that expense with a sales tax increase of one-half of one percent. Some folks would argue this is obscene. Regardless, Dallas-based HKS designed the stadium, which likely will be one the of most amazing entertainment venues on the planet. Your thoughts?
My sense is that the new Cowboys stadium is intended to be far more than “your average NFL stadium.” They have announced a Final Four, an NBA All-Star Game, a Super Bowl and a major soccer game. The concept is that the taxpayers will get more back [for their investment].
In the aftermath of 9/11, many aspects of entertainment facility design, operations and management changed. True?
Prior to 9/11, our industry primarily focused on what was happening inside of our facilities. Post 9/11, we added a commitment to understand and prepare for how events outside of our facility could affect us.
Our industry responded quickly and has established worldwide best practices for safety, security and crowd management. There is incredible information sharing globally and top-level educational and preparation learning now available to our industry.
You travel the world. Are there impressive management techniques in other countries?
Worldwide, there are sports fans and entertainment enthusiasts that absolutely meet and/or exceed those in North America. We benefit from a global practice with offices in London, Brisbane, Hong Kong and Singapore, and our event planning group works on Olympics, World Cup, Super Bowl and other large-scale events.
Working on that variety of events gives us an opportunity to observe and learn from techniques used all over the world. We, in turn, bring techniques developed in North America for our partners around the globe to use. A security example would be the policies, procedures and protocols relating to IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
The United Kingdom has been dealing with that threat for a long time, and it is only a recent issue for us here in North America. We have gained a great deal by working with law enforcement in the United Kingdom and incorporated those lessons into our designs worldwide.
In this economy, how important are entertainment venues?
As I said before, our buildings are unique in that they bring people together. Especially in these times, attending an event at one of our buildings is maybe a chance to take a break from your daily life to experience something with 10,000-50,000 of your friends. I have been through a number of economic downturns. And in every case, I have experienced people who still want to be entertained. They may not go to as many events or go as often, but they still go.
In an environment like this, it is more important than ever to provide the best possible experience for your guests. Clean, safe, well-maintained facilities make people comfortable. Let your facility go and people will spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else.
It is now an internationally accepted practice to conduct a “flush-off” before any entertainment venue is unveiled for public use.
Is this a setup? Many people in Nashville and most in the facility industry know that I was a part of one of the worst opening event situations ever in the opening of the Pyramid in Memphis. I will not go into all of the details but suffice it to say that the sewage from 20,000 guests ended up on the arena floor opening night.
I took that experience to learn from and tried to make an ‘art’ out of the flush-off. I wanted to make sure that the situation never happened again and in the process provide some comfort to those coming to a new facility that everything worked.
I have been interviewed about this all over the world and several of these events have been named after me. It is a great thing for my kids: “My Dad is famous for toilets!”
Of those Tennessee-based sports and entertainment venues that HOK did not design, which is the best in terms of design and functionality?
I like the Chattanooga Lookouts Minor League baseball stadium. It was placed close to the nexus of activity in downtown Chattanooga with terrific views. I like the FedEx Forum in Memphis. I thought they did a good job with the functional arena and the facility feels like a part of the community. Many of the people who worked on the FedEx Forum are now with our company.
What is the best site for a future Nashville Sounds stadium?
I am disappointed, as I expect many people are, that the new Sounds facility did not get done in downtown. I am a strong believer that a quality minor-league baseball facility in downtown would pay great dividends to our community. I like the [formal Thermal] site that was proposed downtown. Bringing area citizens into downtown strengthens the identity of our city's core. Providing affordable family entertainment to the Nashville community and the greater Middle Tennessee region is a goal that helps everyone.
HOK Group has reorganized its corporate structure, with HOK Sport Venue Event (based in Kansas City) now a separate entity.
Yes, we completed a management buyout at the end of 2008. This new entity really isn’t anything “new” to our clients — because we’ve been operating independently since 2000. It’s very much business as usual. But what will change is that we now control our own destiny. This move allows us to chart our own course moving forward, and we’re really excited about the possibilities. We’ll be announcing a new firm name and brand soon that will really speak to what we do best — bring people together.
What is the single greatest challenge in operating a large-scale entertainment venue/public assembly facility?
Time management. There are so many moving parts. The events, the planning, the post-event reviews, as well as the litany of issues that relate to the physical facility, the fiscal operations, food and beverage, merchandise, broadcast and most important, the people involved. Structuring your time to manage all of these elements can be challenging. It is essential that you have competent and capable staff and that you let them do their job.