Corps housing at show sites a growing problem for DCI

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

The drum corps touring model has suffered in recent years from budget-breaking high fuel costs, but its biggest obstacle may be a growing shortage of housing options for corps while they’re out on the road.

More schools are refusing to open their doors to corps and a growing number that do are now charging high rental fees to offset district budget shortfalls caused by the country’s economic crisis. That adds up to a serious problem for corps, show sponsors and drum corps governing organizations alike.

“Well, if you’re running a show — if you’re the show sponsor – it’s very difficult just to find housing,” said Spirit Executive Director Joel Vincent. “With all the summer activities that are going on at the schools now, the earlier start dates for schools, the later ending dates, it becomes a real challenge for show sponsors. I know that from experience.”

Jeff Cox, Drum Corps International’s corps housing manager concurs, although he’s not sure if there’s an actual shortage.

“You have to work harder for it,” Cox said. “Probably for some of these events that we do, various areas have their own problems, such as schools starting earlier. Murfreesboro, TN, was very difficult for me last year in that some schools were starting on July 23 or 24.

“The schools themselves are getting more use. There are more activities,” he continued.

“You know, the schools are really, really used a lot and that’s as big of a problem as anything.”

But while some schools are more active during the summer and simply have no room to host a corps, others are being forced into summer inactivity by the economy.

“Last year was even worse because the economy really belted us hard,” Cox said. “A lot of school districts did closures on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where they actually shut down everything in terms of electrical power. I mean they had nothing going on. Some districts actually shut down for a couple of weeks. There was one district in Florida that I was working with that shut down for the entire month of July.

“The economy last year had a lot to do with it,” he said. “And I lost several sites because of that as well. They had been traditionally long-standing sites.”

While a summer housing shortage may be new to touring drum corps, housing has always been an issue since corps first decided to hit the road according to Pioneer Director Roman Blenski, who was active in drum corps management back when the touring model was first born in the 1970s. He believes some complications may be because of corps evolution.

“Well, you’ve got to realize that housing, since the time the corps started to travel, has always been difficult. So it’s nothing new,” said Blenski, a DCI Hall of Famer who founded Pioneer in 1973 and has served as director since. He marched beginning in the late 1950s and started his own corps, the Imperials of St. Patrick, in the early 1960s that eventually merged with the Mercury Thunderbolds to form The Thing, then Pioneer. “What is new is the demands that we need.

“You know, the activity has expanded,” he said. “We’re no longer sufficient with just one practice field. We’d like an extra one and sometimes two. You know, we’re no longer content with just one big gymnasium. We need room for the driving staff, which has a different schedule than the teaching staff, which has a different schedule than the food staff. And, of course, the size of these staffs and the size of our corps have grown.

So we’re like an octopus. We get in the school and we just kind of spread.”

Corps not necessarily
welcomed guests at some schools

Given the demands of the modern drum corps, Blenski can understand why some schools wouldn’t want to throw open their doors to the activity’s traveling musical circus.

“And you have to understand, most schools have summer school,” Blenski said. “Those who don’t have summer school are doing renovations and so on. Chances are, to those working, we’re not necessarily a welcomed surprise guest.”

If that’s the case, Vincent says their school hosts don’t show it. “They do a great job everywhere we go,” he said. “It’s a challenge and I know it’s a challenge for the schools as well because we invade, so to speak, and knock them out of their routine. But for the most part, by far, they’re always very gracious when we’re there and very helpful with anything that we need, and they seem to be very appreciative of the fact that we’ve visited their town.”

But not every town is so welcoming to have them. Such was the case when the Colts agreed to take over sponsorship of “The Summer Shootout,” a new show last summer in West Des Moines, IA. Organizers had hoped to house the seven competing corps at schools within the state’s largest metro area and its suburbs. But some schools said “no,” while others were only willing at a hefty price.

So the housing radius was extended outside of Des Moines. Spirit was actually housed at the high school in tiny Audubon, IA, a remote location more than 80 miles away from the show site. That’s what it took to find “affordable” housing options.

“I was informed that they [show organizers] were trying to get them [corps] into some of those schools in Des Moines, but the schools wanted to charge a facility fee,” said Russ Braun, band director at Adel DeSoto Minburn High School, located 18 miles from the show site, which agreed to house the Madison Scouts. “Our school actually does also charge fees for using the auditorium and things like that, and if anybody holds camps, they do charge them, but they didn’t charge us for this event.”

ADM school district officials waived the facility fees for the educational experience Braun could give his band members.

“Marching band was not real popular or a big thing when I first started here a few years back. It was fairly non-existent,” Braun said. “I ended up talking to my principal and AD, and they did some checking for me and they went so far as to rearrange things like getting the gym floors done at that time and just rearranged the summer work schedule so that it worked in.

They were very helpful and wanted our students to have an experience of having a drum corps in. So they helped out a lot to make sure it worked out.”

That kind of educational enrichment appears to be one way to secure the long-term keys to the school. But the band director isn’t always involved in the housing decision. Cox says some school district officials treat it as purely a business decision.

“I try to avoid schools, if I can, that are actually asking for rental charges where you have to pay X amount of dollars for the gym, X amount for a classroom, X amount for the shower facilities, etc.,” he said. “What I’d like to be able to do, if I can, is make a donation to the music program. It’s getting more and more difficult to do that because the districts are more involved and they quote the district’s charges.”

Then there are school officials’
concerns over liability

“Well, liability insurance is one of the big things,” Cox said. “You know, we all have the    policy that they carry a minimum of a million dollars coverage that can name the school or district or the school and district as additionally insured. Some of the schools are asking for waivers of subrogation. So the liability issue is getting there. We’ve had some districts say, ‘Hey, our insurance company has said we can’t have any overnights. You know, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a drum and bugle corps, or if it’s a marching band, or even if it’s our own football team. We can’t do overnights because our insurance doesn’t cover us.’”
The Indianapolis housing picture

Housing stability at DCI World Championships would appear to be improved with DCI’s 10-year commitment to host the event in its new Indianapolis home. Cox says it certainly helps to be able to build personal relationships with school districts that they can include on their annual housing roster. He’s pleased they’re off to an encouraging start.

“I hope to try to find everyone housing within 50 miles of the Indianapolis site, which isn’t happening right now,” Cox said. “We’re just having to spread out a little bit. But last year, everybody was accommodated. We did not have to use any hotels for corps. That’s what happens when it [housing is not found] does not work and we’ve had to do that in the past. But everybody had a site last year.”

Because DCI can take the personal lead on championship housing, Cox says DCI requests corps not line up housing on their own.  While organizers like Cox hope to house all corps — World and Open Class — equally at its championship event, corps are charged differently for their housing.

“Basically the World Class, indirectly, still pay in what comes out of the funds they deal with,” Cox said. “The Open Class corps actually pay a per-hour bill. So that’s the big difference, but there’s still a cost involved for DCI for even the Open Class where they don’t necessarily always cover the full bill.” That championship charge can add up for Open corps and smaller budgets.

“Once again, it’s the disparity between World Class and Open Class,” said Revolution Director Johnny Rodriguez. “It’s nothing new. We’ve always had to pay for housing [at World Championships], in excess of $17 to $30 an hour. It’s just something we have to plan for.

“I think in ’07 we did our own housing and we paid $500 vs. the $3,000-plus dollars that DCI was charging for their housing,” Rodriguez said. “If we’re fortunate enough to have a connection within the city that’s not infringing upon DCI’s model, we’ll take care of our own housing plans. That way we’ll help reduce our cost as much as possible.”

Rodriguez reports he acquiesced to DCI once the World Championships were moved to Indianapolis. He appreciates the quality accommodations DCI has lined up for his corps since the move. He still sees a class system.

Blenski has noticed that his corps’ housing has improved since it made the move up in class to what is now the World division. It was more of a travel adventure before that move.

“In the Division II, III days when we used to travel, the housing situation was always whatever we got, we had to be happy with it and it would have to do,” Blenski said. “Since we’ve been in Division I, housing has been really good. We have had some outstanding facilities, dealing with some outstanding human beings. So the adventures, or challenges as I’ve called them, are very minute as opposed to previous years.”

A past Division II/III coordinator for DCI, Blenski claims the class disparity is more fact than fiction — and that includes housing.

“I know a lot about that, the disparity of the activity and how it’s being serviced is pretty much common to everybody,” Blenski said. “It’s kind of a twist between those who want to see the activity grow and be numerous, as opposed to those who would rather see it more small and elite. In order for more people to want to play drum corps, we have to make sure they get an appropriate amount of what I would call sunshine — and housing is one of those things. Good housing goes a long way toward a good performance. But good housing shouldn’t only be for a select few, it should be for everybody.”

But good housing may soon be at a premium for all corps at the Indianapolis championships over the next two years.

“From my standpoint at this point, a couple of things that are problematic for us this year is that DCI holds their championships the second Saturday of August on an annual basis. This year, because of the calendar, we’re as late as we can possibly have the championships,” Cox said. “So this year and next year are very challenging for me in that many of the area schools are actually starting on the August 10, 11 or 12. So they would actually be in session while we are there.”

Housing the traveling circus that is the touring drum corps is becoming increasingly more difficult. With fewer schools willing to open their doors, Cox can foresee a time when corps may have to charge a championship hotel housing fee as part of their touring costs.

“I guess you could say it may come to that at some point in time because it is very challenging, as I’m sure you might imagine, how you have to do that logistically,” he said.

“The biggest problem I can see, as well as the cost factor, is the scheduling of schools — year-round schools and the schools that start before championships happen. So I think that can be equally as big of a challenge as the financial aspect.”

Anyone interested in having their school serve as a rehearsal/housing site for a DCI corps in conjunction with a future contest may contact Jeff Cox at