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Sesame Street Live was a premier event at the Sanford Center during December. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

End for hockey season means new opportunities for Bemidji's Sanford Center

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The Sanford Center, in operation for more than four months, is preparing for a change.

Tonight marks the final home game and regular-season game for the Bemidji State University men's hockey team, the anchor tenant of the facility. And while the hockey season is not over - depending on the Beavers' performance in post-season play, it could last several more weeks - there will not be as much hockey presence at the Sanford Center in coming weeks.

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The Beavers opened the facility Oct. 15 to a sell-out crowd as they faced North Dakota.

Since that time, the Sanford Center has hosted several concerts, including Jeremy Camp and Blake Shelton; Sesame Street Live; Larry the Cable guy; holiday parties; weddings; corporate meetings and more.

"I think it is going very well," said Bob LeBarron, the executive director of the Sanford Center. "I couldn't be any happier or prouder of our people, our staff."

But with the hockey season's end in sight, staff is preparing for a change.

"Once hockey is done and the ice is out, it does affect us," LeBarron said. "It makes it easier to do shows in the building."

Promoters save about $2,000 required in costs to convert the facility from an ice arena to an event center.

Also, the Sanford Center has more weekend availability.

For instance, there are back-to-back-to-back weekend events coming up in a few weeks. The Bemidji Figure Skating Club's "Fantasy on Ice" is March 18-20, TNA Wrestling is March 26 and the Harlem Globetrotters is April 3.

That type of schedule is difficult to set during the hockey season, LeBarron noted.

Further, spring brings with it changes of its own.

Shows on the arena side are expected to taper off a bit as the convention center picks up.

The event center remains busy in April, May and the first part of June, but after that, entertainment acts tend to perform outdoors at fairs, festivals and in band shells.

The schedule for the convention center, though, gets a little tighter as weddings and class reunions, for instance, become more frequent.

"It never really does slow down," LeBarron said.

Thus far, LeBarron said he is pleased with the variety of events held at the Sanford Center.

"We've had a good four months," LeBarron said. "We've had a nice mix of things."

Although he is still working to try to find that ideal classic rock performer for Bemidji.

"It's like a snowball," he said. "We just need to get it rolling and then it will get bigger and bigger."

The Sanford Center now is bidding to host statewide conventions in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Bids need to be made in advance to fit into the usual northern-location-then-southern-location rotation of groups and organizations.

LeBarron works with VisitBemidji, also headquartered in the Sanford Center, to coordinate larger conventions.

Denelle Cauble, the executive director of VisitBemdji, contacts local hotels to inquire about space availability for specific weekends and the possibility of special rates.

"We work on conferences together," LeBarron said.

Still, he admitted, landing conventions would be easier if there was an attached hotel.

"People attending conferences want to stay at the hotels closest to the building," he said.

They expect to be able to go from their hotel room to the conference center and back without having to deal with shuttles or finding transportation, he said.

Most conferences require about 320 hotel rooms.

If hotel plans progress this spring and summer as expected, the Sanford Center soon will be able to meet that demand. Already there is the Hampton Inn & Suites three-quarters of a mile away and there are plans for a DoubleTree Hotel that would be connected to that complex. A Sanford Center-attached Holiday Inn Resort also is in the works.

"That will be a big feather in our cap," LeBarron said. "We're doing OK now but that will be the impetus to do even better:"

LeBarron said one of the nicest changes for promoting the facility has been the ability now to show off photos of the building in use.

No longer is the facility using images and schematics of what the building could look like, but now there are actual photographs of singers in concert and Larry the Cable Guy performing on stage.

"There are differences in what it is going to look like and what it actually does look like," LeBarron said.

Staffers at the Sanford Center have also learned quite a bit about the Bemidji market.

Promoters and Sanford Center staff would like more tickets to be pre-sold, LeBarron said, but Bemidji seems to be a late-ticket-buying market.

"With a lot of shows, there is a big rush with ticket sales that last week," he said.

And while the Sanford Center is still figuring out how to adequately reach concert-goers in Grand Rapids or Roseau, for instance, LeBarron said staff has learned some of the key ways to reach Bemidji audiences.

But convincing promoters of that can be tricky.

LeBarron said, for Bemidji, a lot of people get their news from the Pioneer.

But it is hard to tell that to marketers, who often spurn newspaper advertising in favor of radio advertisements.

To them, it seems backwards, LeBarron said.

But the past four-plus months have offered anecdotal evidence, he noted.

If a concert preview runs in the Pioneer on a Wednesday, there is a surge in ticket sales that afternoon. When the Pioneer ran a story about free walking at the Sanford Center, participation jumped from 20-some people to more than 50.

Targeting people outside the immediate Bemidji area is a learning process, he noted. The area has three country radio stations, so with Blake Shelton's concert, for instance, marketing had to be split.

"How to target people," he said. "That's a big part of it."

Bemidji appears to be a price-sensitive market, LeBarron said.

Tickets for Larry the Cable Guy did not perform as well as expected and LeBarron speculated that the cost, more than $43, was perhaps too high for the area. The Blake Shelton concert, which cost about $28 and up, did much better.

Some events have performed as well as they could have. BSU hockey games draw plenty of fans and had sell-outs to open the season against North Dakota. This weekend's University of Minnesota Gopher games also were sold out for both Friday and Saturday.

Atmosphere recently performed in concert in the ballroom at the Sanford Center to a sell-out crowd.

And both Jeremy Camp and Blake Shelton performed to near-sell-outs, LeBarron said. The Sesame Street Live shows were not sold out, but did much better than had been projected.

LeBarron said entertainers and promoters have all been impressed with the Sanford Center building and its staff.

"People have been very pleased with the building," he said, "and they're in love with my staff. Staff goes out of their way to make sure everything goes right for people."

With all the work and planning that went into preparing for the opening of the facility, LeBarron said, it is nice now to see Sanford Center staff getting comfortable enough in their positions to expand and look to the future.

No longer are staff members just trying to get their jobs done, but they are looking for ways to expand on their contributions to the operation of the facility.

"The staff here is fantastic," LeBarron said. "I couldn't be prouder of everybody."

Everyone, from part-time to full-time staff, is committed to facilitating positive Sanford Center experiences for guests and performers, he said.

"They want the building to succeed," LeBarron said. "I think we've gotten off on the right foot."

The Home, Sport and Travel Show has found room to grow.

The annual event, put on by the Bemidji Jaycees, has historically been held inside the John Glas Fieldhouse but is moving to the Sanford Center.

The 34th annual show, set for April 8-10, is planned to take over the entire Sanford Center. LeBarron said the Jaycees are planning to utilize the conference center and ballroom, the arena and breakout space throughout the building.

That would make it the largest event, in terms of square footage usage, to be hosted at the facility.

"They are planning to use every inch possible," LeBarron said.

The Home, Sport and Travel Show is one of several events coming up this spring.

Also planned are "Fantasy on Ice" March 18-20, TNA Wrestling March 26 and Harlem Globetrotters April 3.

LeBarron said more than 300 tickets have been sold for TNA Wrestling including five rows of VIP seating, through which audience members can meet the wrestlers.

LeBarron also is interested to see how the BudLight Bull Riding Challenge performs.

The event, to be held April 1-2, is aimed for families.

Ticket prices have been set to be affordable for families, LeBarron said. Advanced adult tickets are $24, $18 and $12 while advanced children's tickets are $6.

"I'm interested to see how that does," he said.

Other events planned for this spring include company diners, celebrations for organizations and banquets for sports teams.

And commencement for both BSU and Northwest Technical College is scheduled for May 6.

To watch for more upcoming events as they are announced, go online to bemidjievents.com.

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