An interview with DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson

Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

The last time I had an opportunity to speak with Dan Acheson and ask him questions was last winter and the resulting two-part interview appeared in the December and January editions of DCW. I want to again thank him for his willingness to share information about Drum Corps International, along with his viewpoints and ideas with our readers through this type of forum.

Since he assumed the executive directorship of DCI in 1995, the organization has seen a significant increase in revenue and some very exciting new projects. That’s where I’d like to begin this article.

Steve Vickers: In the nine years since you took over, you’ve instituted some effective new ways of generating income for DCI. This past year alone you instituted the DCI Quarterfinals movie theater presentation around the United States, the individual corps performance downloads from the regular season and, of course, the history-making “Tour of Champions” in California. Describe how those three projects came about and how their success impacted the organization.

Dan Acheson: Ultimately distributing more funds to corps directly to offset their tour expenses is Drum Corps International’s priority and that’s why we are always in search of ideas to generate more revenue. Touring corps in all divisions are struggling to keep pace with rising costs and most have a limited ability to fund-raise the hundreds of thousands needed.

Drum Corps International is in its own right a non-profit organization, but with a for-profit mindset in the hopes of turning any such increase in profits over to the corps. Roughly 30 percent of DCI’s gross revenue is redistributed back to the corps and, on top of that, there are services that are provided by the organization.

While we have indeed enjoyed financial growth in the past several years, the DCI staff and the board of directors are focused on creating a business environment that can offer an even higher percentage of return for corps.

Specific to the projects you mentioned, all three were a complete success. The “Tour of Champions” concept came from an idea discussed seven or so years ago when considering strategy to maximize putting our top corps together for maximum impact in any given market without compromising the balance and experience for all corps that wish to participate.

The Broncos could only offer the first Saturday of August in 2004 to stage our event, which caused us to move from the traditional date of the second Saturday in August to a week earlier. The six active DCI champions agreed to keep going and the rest is history. The six corps performed in front of just over 20,000 people in the four California events.

The audio performance downloads were successful, but not in terms of revenue per se. We were able to test the technology with very limited resources and managed to sell over 12,000 downloads. While many enjoyed the opportunity, there are several issues yet to be conquered in order to get to the next evolution of what we can do. There is significant work to be done to take the use of on-line technology to the next level.

The slam dunk of the season as far as new projects had to be the partnership with Regal CineMedia to deliver the cinecast of quarterfinals. Regal experienced a glitch at the location in Manhattan, but beyond that DCI has never received more positive feedback for a project than we have for this.

Over 17,000 fans filed into theaters across the country. We look for significant growth for this project in 2005 due to Regal adding another 30 plus locations into the mix to the established 43 we had available in 2004.

SV: Attendance at the regular summer tour shows as well as the championships has been growing these past few years. Can you share any totals indicating the increases over the past two or three years?

DA: At the tour events, or non-major events, DCI contracts, overall attendance from 2002 to 2003 increased 8%. This is a statistic based on comparing the same show and location from one year to the next and does not include new shows. All reports are not quite in for 2004 events, but it looks like we may see another 6% to 8% increase. We are quite proud of the work our tour event partners have done, along with the rise in performance quality of the corps that has driven these numbers.

The championship finals Saturday night attendance numbers have been a long time favorite success measurement for fans, corps and participants alike. This is likely due to the history of championships being the single biggest revenue source with other less significant sources to support the organization.

Championships is still the single largest fund-raiser, but the strength of the many major events, merchandise sales, sponsorships and new opportunities like the Regal event are more successful today for DCI to generate revenue than there were a decade ago.

DCI realized a current era record paid attendance of 22,047 at Denver in 2004. That is the highest since Foxboro in 1994 which was reported at 24,513. Orlando 2003 was considered a complete success with 18,865 compared to Madison 2002 at 20,230 and Buffalo 2001 at 16,505.

Other highlights for 2004 include 6,217 paid to attend the first-year event in Kalamazoo and a record in Murfeesboro of 10,134 and Indianapolis with 11,674. Championship quarterfinals posted a record 10,007 and for fun we add that to the 17,000 in the theater and we had over 27,000 watching quarterfinals live.

SV: Gaining access to major venues for your championship events has always been a challenge. I know it is particularly difficult sometimes to convince major football stadiums to let DCI in the door. Can you discuss the INVESCO FIELD experience in Denver, as well as the opportunities in Buffalo, NY; Orlando, FL; and Foxboro, MA, from the standpoint of how the owners feel about the drum and bugle corps activity — the corps, the fans, the public relations value to their football organizations?

DA: Something of note — 2005 will mark the sixth consecutive year the world championships have been staged in a different location. The Broncos were very good to us and up to this point it appears the New England Patriots will be just as accommodating. In both cases, the turf manager is king.

The NFL has strict guidelines for what is expected in terms of field condition and our event being at the beginning of the NFL pre-season does not help the grass concerns. Both venues required us changing the sides we perform to and they limited the number of performances for each day.

Beyond the turf management issues, the owners and the stadium managers realize the benefit of having an event such as ours that brings revenue to their area. This would apply to the Buffalo Bills, University of Wisconsin and the Citrus Bowl as well. None of the stadiums waive rental fees and they maintain all the parking and concession proceeds, so it is a revenue-positive event for all of them.

Each of the venues have expressed a willingness to have DCI stage the championships there once again, so I think the public relations aspect is very big for them with local citizens and DCI fans alike. As a side, they are all amazed at the passion DCI fans, corps and volunteers bring to their stadiums.

SV: In 2005, DCI is returning to Foxboro which has a brand-new facility. I know you’re planning to run quarter- and semifinals to one side and finals to the other like you did in Denver. Does that make securing use of a major facility easier?

DA: Our being flexible with the INVESCO Field folks as to the date and the willingness to switch sides was the only way that incredible facility would be made available. I know the Patriots hesitated for a long time because of the grass issues.

We first pitched the idea to the Tennessee Titans when their stadium first opened. So, yes, I think it makes it easier to get the facility. Don’t ask the DCI staff and event staff what they think of the idea of switching sides. They will give you a polite smile and a soft growl toward yours truly.

All we can do is hope that football players for the NCAA and the NFL come to like the new technology in artificial turf so that at least this barrier can be behind us.

SV: The division II and III events were held in separate facilities at Denver and this coming year will be in Providence, RI. Can you describe the reasoning behind this separation and what DCI will be doing to encourage fans to take in more than just the division I events?

DA: Well, I think the previous questions pertaining to grass answer some of the reason for separating the events. The intent since 1999, when we first tried to stage the division II and III world championships in a separate venue, was to create a more intimate environment between the corps and the audience.

It is an unfortunate reality that fans do not flock to the division II and III events. To perform in front of 500 to 1,000 people in a venue like Camp Randall is heartbreaking to some. That same size audience at All-City Stadium in Denver was alive, loud, into the program and you could feel the energy exchange with the corps.

Of course there are several practical issues that involve money and turf ware. It is extremely expensive to use any of the venues we’ve been in the last few years. Even if they have artificial turf, the size of the audience falls far short of covering the cost of rental and services for the days necessary.

A stadium like All-City in Denver and Doctor Phillips High School in Orlando simply keeps revenue and expenses closer in line. The turf wear has become an issue for 2003, 2004 and 2005 due to staging championships in venues with natural turf.

We had hoped that by scheduling the division II and III championship finals on Saturday late morning and early afternoon that we might capture a larger percentage of the over 12,000 fans that attend semifinals and finals. The DCI office will continue to work with the division II and III corps to accommodate what we collectively believe is in their best interest. In the meantime, fans not having attended the division II and III finals should know they are missing one of the best shows of the year.

SV: Housing has also become an increasingly difficult aspect of running not only the             championship events, but this past summer was also a major problem in locations like Oklahoma City. I know you also had challenges in Denver and, in fact, ended up housing some corps in hotels and motels. What are the major reasons you find in securing housing sites?

DA: School funding in just about every area is suffering tremendously. This causes there to be no access to schools that are all but boarded up in the summer. Risk management is more on the minds of every school administrator than ever, which again leads to them not wanting to grant access.

There are more summer school activities or non-related school activities being scheduled in schools currently and the stakes have never been higher for athletic directors, thus restricting use of stadiums and practice fields.

We do have areas that allow band directors to work with us at little or no charge and other areas where the only access is through the superintendent’s office which, while often accommodating, can be difficult and expensive.

Hotels and motels are simply too expensive and not located near rehearsal fields that often. Drivers need to sleep during the day, not allowing them to drive to and from such fields in the day time.

DCI tour event partners will tell you that securing housing for corps is the biggest nightmare of staging an event. DCI now has a remote employee who concentrates year round and full-time on securing championship, major event and division II and III event housing. The challenges don’t seem to be lessening as we go through each year. Beyond changing the entire touring model, we are struggling with how to react to this complicated issue.

SV: Have you finalized a site for the 2006 DCI Championships?

DA: Madison in 2006.

SV: Any prospects beyond 2006 at this point in time? Will Orlando, Buffalo, Denver and Madison continue to be on the list of sites?

DA: We have been discussing the possibility of bringing the championships to California in 2007 or 2008. The “Tour of Champions” this summer opened up some possibilities, but there are significant challenges to overcome to make this happen.

Although Buffalo and Orlando are not in the near-term plans, going back is always a possibility. We can’t get back to Denver quick enough as far as I am concerned and the way things are coming together in New England, I expect we will want to go back there, too.

It is likely that Madison will always be a part of the championships rotation.

In the next issue, some of the questions fans have been asking about things that occurred during the 2004 season will be answered,    including changing start-times at events in Denver, the concurrent scheduling of competitions on Thursday of DCI week, and future plans for Drum Corps International.