‘Best of 2003’ show experience review

by Andrew Wheeler, DCW staff

Another junior drum corps season has come and gone. It seems like only yesterday that I was hitting the road for my first glorious weekend of shows, a little slice of heaven that included five shows in six days (it was an extended weekend) at the beginning of the season. This year, I have added a new facet to my show reviews — an experience review from a fan’s point of view. As a summary of the season, I’d like to highlight the best shows from an experience standpoint, point out a few of the truly unique solutions I saw and review the areas that most often needed a little improvement.

For reference, I’ll start by listing the shows I attended this year; I have notes on each one in terms of the fan experience.

June 12 — Middleton, WI
June 13 — Oswego, IL
June 14 — Menasha, WI
June 15 — Menomonie, WI
June 17 — Crown Point, IL
June 21 — Waukesha, WI
June 22 — Woodstock, IL
June 23 — Rockford, IL
June 28 — Waukegan, IL
July 5 — Michigan City, IN
July 6 — Dixon, IL
July 11 — De Kalb, IL
July 12 — De Kalb, IL
July 25 — Murfreesboro, TN

Fourteen wonderful shows, and before I begin let me say that I’d do any of them again in a heartbeat. I will consider the two De Kalb shows (THE Midwest Championships) as one, since much of this review will concern the venue and environment of the shows.

Show lineup
In reviewing show lineup, I’m giving preference to those shows that had a significant number of division 1 corps and those that had a high number of corps overall. In so doing, I intend no slight to division II/III corps (in fact, it was their presence that made De Kalb such a great show). I did not attend any of the division II/III focus shows this year, but if I had, they would definitely be in this list.
* Gold: De Kalb, IL. Both evenings of this show had stellar lineups; the quantity and quality of the corps (in all divisions) was unrivaled by any other show I attended this year.
* Silver: Murfreesboro, TN. Hard to argue with a lineup that featured the best eight corps in the country at the time.
* Bronze: Rockford, IL. This local show featured three of the top six division I corps from last year as well as several other quality corps.
* Honorable mention: Michigan City, IN. Another great lineup.

Show promotion
Top credit is given here for great show Web sites, whether they were put out by the show promoter, the host corps, or DCI.
* Gold: Menomonie, WI. A first-rate Web site was only the beginning for this show. Special show polo shirts and many other touches put this one at the top.
* Silver: De Kalb, IL. DCI did a great job with the Web site for this show. The fan guide was a nice touch.
* Bronze: Murfreesboro, TN. Same as De Kalb.
* Honorable mention: Crown Point, IN. A surprisingly good Web site with great detail.

Show venue – environment
Rather than breaking this out into each of the subcategories I used over the course of the year, I’m going to focus on two aspects: the venue itself, including stands, bathrooms, concessions, etc.; and the environment, including other events going on (as when a show is part of a town festival) and access to local restaurants, etc. Although this second part is not strictly part of the show experience itself and is of course beyond the control of the show promoter, I wanted to highlight some shows that were really special in this category.
* Gold: Oswego, IL. The “Festival of Brass” show is only one aspect of Oswego’s town festival, and many other carnival events were easily accessible from the stadium. Particularly notable here was the wonderful food selection available right across the street.
* Silver: Dixon, IL. The annual “Petunia Festival” is a great setting for the Dixon show; there’s a lot of excitement around with the carnival taking place literally in the school’s parking lot, and the fireworks show afterward was a real highlight.
* Bronze: De Kalb, IL. Though not part of a town festival, “THE Midwest Championships” had a great location at Northern Illinois University. There were lots of restaurants around, some even open late after the show.
* Honorable Mention: Woodstock, IL. The annual “Dick Tracy Days” celebration in Woodstock is a great setting for the show there. This town really opens itself up to visitors.

Show venue – stadium
* Gold: De Kalb, IL. Not only were the stands among the highest of the shows in the list, but they also featured very comfortable seating with curved benches (an absolutely unique feature in my experience) and some benchback and even chair seating. Traffic flow was excellent, with multiple exits in each section and bathrooms and concessions available on multiple levels. Concessions themselves were top-notch. The “Drum Corps Marketplace” was nothing short of spectacular — the best setup I’ve ever seen for souvenir stands. Having the stands outside the gates is a great bonus; you can come early and browse the stands, buy loads of stuff and take it back to your car without ever having to go through the gates. (Not that I did that of course; this is a purely theoretical discussion. Right.) If there is such a thing as a perfect stadium for drum corps, NIU is it.
* Silver: Menomonie, WI. High stands, available chairback seating, restrooms on multiple levels and a great field combine to make this venue an extraordinary place for a drum corps contest. The in-stadium concession stands were easy to get to (although the lines were long). So many times in a drum corps show you end up feeling like you’ve been in a sardine can for a couple of hours; despite the great attendance, Menomonie felt luxurious by comparison to most.
* Bronze: Murfreesboro, TN. High stands and a great field, easily accessible and sufficient restrooms and concessions, as well as a good set-up for the souvenir stands.
* Honorable mention: Michigan City, IN. Ames Field is one of my favorite places for a drum corps show. The stands and field are excellent and there’s plenty of room for the souvenir stands. Ushers were particularly helpful at Ames.
* Honorable mention: Crown Point, IN. Crown Point is another great place for a show — good-sized stadium and good all-around experience.

Show Venue – atmosphere
I want to give special mention to two of the smallest shows I attended this summer for creating truly unique atmospheres that made them particularly great experiences. Woodstock, IL, and Waukegan, IL, had possibly the two smallest stands that I was in this year, but each show had a truly electric atmosphere. Fans at these shows were really into the performances, cheering enthusiastically for every corps and letting their appreciation for the performers be known. These shows were really entertaining and exciting, and are on my “A” list for shows to attend in the future.

Best ideas of 2003
Here I want to list some creative solutions I saw this year. These ideas represent truly fan-oriented thinking on the part of the respective show organizers.

Concessions: The best idea of 2003 award for concessions goes to Woodstock, IL. They actually had concession vendors come to the stands and sell drinks, etc., during the intermissions between corps. The vendors were very respectful of the corps and did not interfere with any performance. The items available this way were limited mostly to drinks and popcorn, but the fans truly appreciated the ability to get drinks without having to leave their seats. A great idea, executed well. Honorable mention in this category goes to Oswego, IL, who had the foresight to set up an “express” concession line for people who just wanted drinks. This line moved quickly because the concession people were not having to assemble food for orders, and it served many people who otherwise would have had to wait much longer.

Stands: If you’re an adult who hasn’t been high-school size for a while and you’ve ever been squeezed into about two-thirds of the room you really need for two to three hours for a show, you’ll understand how important this one is. Best idea of 2003 goes to Middleton, WI, for re-marking the reserved seats to provide a sufficient amount of room for adults to sit. The Madison organization (sponsor of the Middleton show) did the same thing at Sun Prairie last year; leave it to them to put the fans first. They may have lost a bit of money in ticket sales, but they certainly won a lot of fans with their solution.

Tickets: Have you ever gone to a show needing to get tickets at the gate and wondered how to get the best seats, or even where a given seat would be in the stands? Here’s a great idea, from Menomonie, WI. They had a person outside the gate with a seating chart of the stadium, with sections color-coded as to the prices of the tickets. You could find the best seats on the chart, and when you got to the window, the ticket folks had charts that showed them which seats were still available and you could request the area you wanted. My one-word summary: wow. I believe that De Kalb did something similar except for being able to see a seating chart before you got to the gates. Great, great idea.

Most common problems
The most common problems in the shows I attended this year won’t surprise many people. At the top of the list would be long lines at concession stands and restrooms. Several shows brought in port-a-johns to supplement the restrooms available in the stadium; more shows should have considered this option. Concession vendors in the stands and better training of concession volunteers would greatly alleviate the concession stand problems.

Another consistent problem was people entering and leaving the stands during performances. This can be very disruptive, especially when the bleachers are long and there is a considerable distance between aisles. Kudos to shows like Michigan City for not only announcing that people should enter and leave between performances, but also providing ushers to help enforce what should have been common sense behavior.

Parking is not always an issue at drum corps shows, but often it is. There’s not much that a show organizer can do about the available parking at the stadium itself other than to make sure that it is used to best advantage. But the best-organized shows will have realized in advance that there is not enough parking and will figure out where to put the “overflow” people and provide traffic directors to make sure that people know where to go. Show organizers who are familiar with the area are in a better position to know where people should park than out-of-town visitors are.

Advance ticket buying can be a hit-or-miss proposition. I’ve always appreciated being able to talk to an actual person who knew the stadium (or had a chart of it) and could tell me what the best seats still available were. Although ordering over the Web can be convenient, I’ve never really felt that I necessarily got the best seats that way; although it would take some work, I’d love to see online ordering where you could see a seating chart, including the seats that are still available, and choose your actual tickets. Toledo has something like this, except that you can’t choose your seats; when you place your order, the screen comes back and shows you where you will be sitting. (If you don’t like the seats, you can back out and start over and end up with different seats, but there is no way to specify the seats.)

The best (and worst) news of 2003
One of the truly encouraging trends I saw in 2003 was that nearly every show I attended was packed with fans. Although I don’t know exact ticket sales numbers, from looking at the stands I could tell that, typically, all the seats worth having (e.g. between the 20-yard lines) were pretty much occupied. That’s great news for drum corps in 2003. But I have to wonder how good it is for drum corps in 2004 and beyond. If the activity is to continue to expand its fan base, mathematically one of two things is going to need to happen: we’re going to need bigger venues or more shows. Here’s one vote for both.

As with any new effort, my show experience reviews this year have certainly not been perfect. I have received some great reader feedback this year and will be incorporating some of that into next year’s reviews. Among some of the new topics I will be considering will be the “smoothness” of the show (does it flow well, is the announcer knowledgeable, does it come off as being well planned and organized); the provision of ushers to help find seats and to restrict traffic flow during performances; and the “environment” in which a show takes place (e.g. available restaurants, etc.). I hope that readers have enjoyed the show experience reviews this year and would appreciate any further feedback and ideas for next year.