A Publication of WTVP

Debbie Ritschel is general manager of the Peoria Civic Center, an SMG managed facility. She's responsible for the overall management responsibilities and activities of the $18 million business, including marketing to local, regional, and national entertainment, arts, sporting, and meeting planning industries, as well as the booking and coordination of marketing for all Civic Center events.

Ritschel began her career with the Civic Center as group sales and booking manager in 1982, moving into the position of director of marketing in 1988. She assumed the role of general manager four years ago.

She's currently involved in a number of community organizations, including membership on the ArtsPartners Task Force, ICC Peoria Campus Advisory Board, Riverfront Program Advisory Committee, Riverfront Public Art Committee, Women's Fund of the Peoria Area Community Foundation, and Junior League Advisory Board.

Ritschel and her husband reside in Peoria.

Tell about your background, family, schools attended, etc.

I have an English degree from St. Louis University and was a part-time reference librarian at Peoria Public Library for 12 years while our children were small. My husband of 36 years, Tom, is an asphalt contractor, and we have two grown children: Meg and Tim.

Explain your responsibilities as SMG general manager.

I have oversight of 51 full-time and 300 part-time employees, who work very hard to give excellent customer service for all the clients of the more than 500 events we host each year and the 850,000 people who attend them. The Peoria Civic Center (PCC) is a municipal not-for-profit organization governed by 10 Peoria Civic Center Authority (PCCA) commissioners, who are all mayoral appointees. Dan Daly is currently the chairman.

What role do members of the Civic Center Authority play in the administration of the Civic Center?

The PCCA is a supportive policy-making board. They're unpaid community leaders who are committed to making the Peoria Civic Center a stronger economic driver for our area. They employ SMG as managers of their day-to-day activities and hold SMG accountable. We meet in monthly public session to discuss timely issues facing PCC.

You've worked at the Peoria Civic Center since 1982. Is it customary for general managers to be promoted from within?

I've worked for SMG, the largest private management company of public assembly facilities, since the contract between SMG and PCCA was signed in 1990. I began my career at PCC in 1982 in the marketing department as the group sales manager with 54 phone books and a box of labels. The technology of today has improved the process, but good customer service is still the key to success.

Because I had done years of volunteer work with several local performing arts groups, I began coordinating the PCC theater bookings. I've worked for general managers who allowed me to learn all aspects of this business over the years, and that prepared me for the job of general manager. SMG prefers to promote from within whenever possible. When SMG asked if I would consider the GM job, I didn't think I really wanted the responsibility. However, it's been an incredible three and a half years. There's a strong network of peer general managers, as well as deep support from SMG corporate, which shares expertise with me whenever it's needed.

I assume being the Civic Center's GM is not a 9-to-5 job. For how many evening events must you be on-site?

We have a calendar with more than 500 events each year. Many of these entertainment events are evenings and weekends. "We work while you play" is often the case at PCC. The four directors and I split the night and weekend duty equally. That can mean five or six director-on-duty responsibilities for each of us in a busy month. We're there to act as additional customer service ambassadors. It's also a good opportunity for us to analyze how we can improve how we all do our jobs. We have a very talented and dedicated staff, and we're always trying to work smarter-not harder-since some weeks we're all working long days and nights.

What have been some of the most unusual requests from celebrities who have been booked here?

I remember the first time we had Diana Ross in the 1980s, her technical rider-the show's specific requests for a particular event-required us to carpet her dressing room, which is one of our large locker rooms, in brown carpet. It also specified dozens of tropical plants by name and how many of each we had to have in the dressing room. Since these shows are on the road for months at a time, the food requirements are specific to the day of the week. That guards against six days of chicken in a row.

The Phantom of the Opera required us to empty every closet in the theater and store anything from those closets off site in two semi trailers. These closets became some of the dozens of offices they needed for their six-week stay. Their requirements were some of the most extensive we've had to meet-from closing the street overnight for load in and load out to specific steel reinforcements they had installed in the theater ceiling for the famous chandelier. We referred to this show as a "well oiled machine" since it had been on the road for more than 10 years. They knew what they needed to make their show a success, and they were willing to pay for everything to make that happen.

Our job is to make the show very happy to be at the Peoria Civic Center so they'll spread the news about what a great place we are to play. A facility with a good "road" reputation has a real edge on one that's had problems.

The Civic Center must employ security. When there are major celebrities or government officials in town, how does security step up?

The safety of all our customers is our first concern. Each event is analyzed for security needs by staff, and then staff is scheduled. We deal with secret service for governmental dignitaries, bodyguards for rock stars, and varying degrees of security for other events. We contact other facilities that have had the event or personality to find out anything that will help us have a successful and safe event.

The Civic Center is preparing for expansion. Explain the study and evaluation of the results.

Three years ago, the PCCA and management staff created a strategic plan that stated that Civic Center will be the place to be in the Midwest. The PCCA committed to find the means necessary to improve our 20-year-old facilities to become the best in the Midwest. C H Johnson Consulting was commissioned to create master plan goals and an economic impact study to help us see how to reach our goals. The studies proved that PCC continues to be a significant economic driver for the Peoria area and downtown Peoria in particular. That was the original mission of PCC, and the results after 20 years are impressive on all fronts. The study detailed that we currently drive $134 million of economic impact in our area.

Explain how the Civic Center is funded in Peoria. Is this the norm for funding?

The PCC opened in 1982 with the help of $20 million from the State of Illinois and more than $40 million of bonds that are paid back annually through revenues from Hotel Restaurant and Amusement taxes. These HRA "user" taxes were created to build and maintain PCC so visitors using hotels and eating at restaurants or buying tickets, as well as residents, were helping support this great facility. These taxes are a traditional funding source through the "public assembly" industry. The taxes are replenished as we book more events and fill more hotel rooms, restaurants, and ticketed events. The economic impact study noted PCC generated $4.5 million in state sales tax annually-one of the State of Illinois' better investments.

Explain the process for booking national events.

As in most businesses, reputation and relationships bring results. We work with national promoters to bring big-name concerts, sporting, and cultural events to PCC. Our SMG connections help us tremendously since the numerous arenas and theaters managed by SMG host the same events Peoria is looking for. I keep in close contact with other Midwest SMG general managers who share similarly sized facilities and cities so I know what's touring. Then it's my job to be proactive to convince a promoter or agent that Peoria is a market they won't want to miss.

How are the events selected?

We have three sports tenants in the arena and five performing arts tenants in the theater. These organizations book multiple dates each year and, as major tenants, get to negotiate dates in the booking calendar before other, less frequent users do. We work with the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (PACVB) to book conventions that need significant exhibit and meeting space and hotel rooms several years out. We then fill in the calendar with more local business within 18 months.

Explain the coordinated effort between the Civic Center and the PACVB in booking conventions, trade shows, etc.

The PACVB is the marketing arm of the Civic Center for the convention and meeting market, and HRA taxes support 50 percent of the PACVB operating budget. We work daily with Keith Arnold and his sales staff to book new business for our convention spaces whenever possible. Our exhibit hall calendar is heavily booked, which has been documented in the master plan. We do conventions and meetings well as a hospitality community, and we know we could do more if we had expanded facilities. We expanded exhibit space 10 years ago, and the financial return has been strong. We recently documented lost opportunities of $200,000 in rental fees and 15,000 hotel room nights due to our lack of available facilities. With expanded and redeveloped PCC facilities and matching marketing and sales efforts, we'll take our convention activity to the next level.

What's the radius from which the Civic Center draws?

PCC draws from a 60-mile area for many activities and several hundred miles for higher profile events such as the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament, concerts like Cher, and cultural events like the Yo-Yo Ma performance. We work with the PACVB to package these events with local hotels and restaurants.

On your wish list, what would best complement the needs of the Civic Center as it grows? Facilities, hotels, restaurants, transportation, etc?

The master plan noted that the success of our expansion and redevelopment will also depend on how our partners upgrade. More than 46,000 more hotel room nights will be generated when our expansion is in full swing, which means additional hotel rooms will eventually need to be added to our hotel inventory. All hotels will need to be high quality to meet the demands of the conventions that are meeting in the larger facilities in larger cities. The larger conventions will also require our facilities to have more meeting space and a ballroom to host the onsite meals that keep the conventioneers close to the exhibits.

We'll need to have state-of-the-art technologically and the newer "high touch" look and feel of the new convention centers. We look forward to more carpeting, much more artwork, and a real sense of place at our convention center.

There's been some discussion that the Civic Center food service vendors have taken business from area restaurants and caterers. How have the food services grown in the last 10 years?

PCC has high-quality catering and food and beverage concessions. Since 1991, Volume Services America, now CenterPlate, has done a great job of improving the quality and service of all of our food and beverage activities. Our good food and beverage reputation has brought us return events. Our events create great demand for restaurants both downtown and beyond, and our onsite catering and concessions are services to customers who choose not to go off site. Most conventions host meals at their hotels and offer meal-free nights for local restaurants to take advantage of. In 1982, downtown Peoria had 25 restaurants, and today it has 34. I think that's due, in part, to the activity PCC generates.

What other cities does the Peoria Civic Center compete with for bookings?

We often compete for conventions with Springfield since our base is Illinois association businesses. Our goal is to expand and compete with Grand Rapids, Des Moines, and Indianapolis, bringing net new business into the State of Illinois, as well as the City of Peoria.

For entertainment events, we compete with Moline and Champaign. If a concert tour is looking at only one other city in Illinois outside of Chicago, we add Rockford and Springfield to that list. Sometimes our competition can be a facility in another Midwest market.

What, if any, are the misperceptions regarding the Civic Center?

Some people think the PCC is doing just fine since we've had good financial results on the operating line since 1995. We're able to use the HRA dollars for capital improvements after bond debt service and payments to PACVB and several other obligations. Though we're pleased that we meet our operating financial obligations, we have an aging, 22-year-old facility that's facing regional competition. To do nothing will erode our reputation as a service-oriented facility. We've been able to retain many clients by being creative with our flexible space, but Peoria winters make our unheated glass arcades unattractive for clients that need more exhibit space, such as the Greater Peoria Farm Show. We need to redevelop and expand to meet our clients' needs for the next 20 years.

What has surprised you most since becoming general manager?

After I accepted the job of GM, I was amazed at how much I didn't know after working on the management staff since PCC opened. As a marketing department member, my world was mostly words. As GM, my world is mostly numbers. We have a $20 million business with a $4.6 million dollar operating budget. The significant maintenance dollars that are required for the care and upkeep of PCC is daunting. However, the people who work beside me at PCC make it all worth it. They're an incredibly talented and dedicated group of individuals who only want PCC to be the best. With attitudes like that, PCC remains a winner.

How supportive is the business community of the Civic Center? Is there more that can be done?

PCC is a public facility that's highly visible. Our successes and missteps can be front-page news. However, many in the business community tell me a strong, viable PCC makes recruiting and sustaining good employees easier. They buy thousands of discounted tickets for company incentives or rewards and schedule meetings and conferences at the PCC. The activities and vitality that happens at the PCC makes Peoria a better place. I'm lucky to work at a place where every day is different and where people smile when they're here.  IBI