Keith Urban played the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion earlier this year. (Courtesy of Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — Any way you slice it, 2016 was a banner year for the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion. R.J. Harding, one of the managing partners of the open-air performing arts center, said that this year's season of performances set records for number of shows, with 36, 12 of which were sold out; amount spent on talent, over $11 million; and number of people who passed through the gates, more than 200,000, which exceeded the previous mark by more than a third.
"I don't think there's a category that we wouldn't have broken," said Harding.
But, to Harding, the important question isn't, "How much?," it's "How?" Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion did several things differently this year to see if they'd work. And, it seems, they all did.
Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, which was originally known as Meadowbrook when it held its first season in 1996, had several improvements in place to help make its 20th season one for the record books. In 2014, capacity was increased to accommodate 5,500 fans under a roof and another 3,500 on a grassed slope. The venue had recently received permission from the town to offer on-site camping in a designated area. And, heard if not necessarily seen, a new public address system provided better sound quality for the audience, especially those on the lawn.
With those upgrades complete, Harding booked some of the biggest names that Gilford had ever seen. The venue had previously booked acts at the top of their respective genres, but this year went after talent that had broad, cross-genre appeal, such as Rod Stewart and the Dave Matthews Band.
Harding also booked some acts that appeal to crowds that were well outside of the venue's wheelhouse. Pretty Lights, an electronic dance music band, put on a two-day festival that was so successful Harding is hoping to book them again. And, he and Bridget Harding, his wife and fellow managing partner, booked the enigmatic teenager favorites Twenty-One Pilots on their own personal hunch, and it was one of the fastest-selling tickets of the season.
These shows were proof to Harding that, though Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion will continue to be popular among country music artists, there's a much wider potential for the venue.
"I think the most valuable lesson we learned is that we can branch out," he said.
Although it wasn't a sell-out event, Harding said that he considered their final event of the year, "Half-Way to St. Patty's Day," a success, and something he hopes to make an annual tradition. The day featured music with opening acts, boxing matches, keg bowling, and was headlined by the Boston-based, Irish punk-rockers Dropkick Murphys. He also thinks he has a winner in the family movie night idea. They held one this summer, featuring '80s favorites, and Harding would like to make movie nights a regular part of the calendar.
Is 36 events too many for an outdoor venue in a northern climate? Harding gives that answer a hard no, and points to the world-famous Red Rocks venue in Colorado as an example. Red Rocks has far more notoriety than Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, but it doesn't have a roof or any of the other creature comforts that Harding and his partners provide. Meanwhile, even though it has a similar capacity and operating season, Red Rocks manages to host 140 concerts per year.
Still, Red Rocks is 15 miles outside of Denver, while Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, Harding notes, has a capacity greater than the population of Gilford.
So, why do artists that sell out much larger venues come to Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion? And, why would people drive from hours away to see a concert in Gilford, when they could see that same act at a typical venue closer to home? For the talent, it's all about the Lakes Region experience, said Harding, and for the audience, it's because of the consistent improvements at the venue.
"I think, why we are selling more tickets, is that audiences can see that their ticket purchases are being reinvested," said Harding. At Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, audience members get more than only a show. They are encouraged to tailgate in the parking lots, and visit the vendors and see entertainment on small stages before the main stage is active.
And for the headliners, Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion is able to attract names larger names by leveraging the natural beauty of the region. Musicians and their crews can ride mountain bikes around the 100-acre property or go for a boat ride on Winnipesaukee. During the off-season, the venue will add a pool and a "lazy river" for stars and crew members to soak in while they wait for showtime. Ticket buyers will appreciate efforts to further streamline traffic flow into and out of parking lots. Harding's goal is to have everyone on the road and on their way back home within 30 minutes of the final encore. While other venues consider traffic jams to be part of hosting a concert, Harding sees gridlock as an aggravating end to what should be an enjoyable evening.
Concert goers might not pay much attention to the speakers, though they're critical to the overall experience. At a venue the size of Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, a sophisticated system is necessary to ensure good sound quality. As Harding explained, their previous PA system didn't account for the amount of time it takes for sound to travel from the stage to the further seats. That created a problem, because the speaker projecting sound out to the lawn seats would deliver a sound, such as the drummer striking a cymbal, and a microsecond later, the sound would arrive from the stage. The result was a slightly muddy listening experience. With the new system, the speakers are divided into three zones, with delays in each zone calibrated so that the cymbal crash coming from the stage will reach the listener at the same moment as the sound coming from the speaker.
"Every year, we are looking for ways to take the status quo and blow it up," said Harding. "We try to do more and more each year to enhance the experience."
How will the lessons of 2016 be applied to next year? Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion fans should expect more stars coming for multiple dates, more movie nights, more diversity among acts booked and more improvements to the venue. A handful of dates will be announced by Christmas, and the full calendar will be public by the end of April. Harding doesn't expect to be as busy as Red Rocks next year, but he doesn't want to be constrained by convention, either.
"There's no ceiling to what we can do here, that's the biggest thing that we learned this year."
Rod Stewart played the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion Sept. 1. (Photo courtesy Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion)
The Dave Matthews Band played the pavilion this past July. The venue is becoming more popular among the performers because of the amenities it offers – not just the Lakes Region itself, but also the ability to enjoy the 100-acre property where they can ride mountain bikes. Owners plan to add a pool and “lazy river” for artists to enjoy while they wait for showtime. (Photo courtesy Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion)