Cleveland, Ohio – The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has had a very strong seven months.
The annual November induction party brought stars like Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Paul McCartney and the Foo Fighters to town. The new Beatles show has won praise from news outlets around the world. The museum recently announced its plans for the largest summer concert series in recent memory.
However, it all comes on the heels of the most tumultuous period the museum on the shores of Lake Erie has seen since it opened 27 years ago.
Like most cultural institutions and businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has rocked Rock Hall. The museum temporarily closed twice in 2020 due to the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations. Attendance decreased by 80%. Operating revenue fell 60%. The Rock Hall had to reduce its full-time staff by nearly 60% while losing more than $14 million in 2020.
However, like music, the Rock Hall business is up and running with a $100 million expansion planned for later this year.
“Navigating all of this has been a challenge,” admits Greg Harris, CEO and chair of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We’ve been a very different organization now than we were heading into a pandemic.”
good times bad times
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t have been better off at the start of 2020. The museum saw a total attendance of nearly 563,000 visitors in 2019, capping five consecutive years of more than half a million visitors to the museum. According to Rock Hall, attendance figures totaled $197 million in the area’s economic impact from visitors spending money on hotels, restaurants, taxis, rental cars, and more.
In fact, 2020 was potentially the biggest year in the museum’s history. This year’s induction ceremony was scheduled for May in the public hall. It was scheduled to air for the first time on HBO in conjunction with the first-ever Induction Festival, a series of concerts in clubs across Cleveland during Induction Week. However, thanks to the Corona virus, nothing of the sort has happened.
Instead, the museum had to cut wages, furlough staff, and make changes to its day-to-day operations. Two years later, the structure of the Rock Hall company remained changing.
“We had to really look at the expenses and figure out how to scale this organization the right way,” Harris says. “We’ve implemented a lot of protocols through COVID and the changes we still have already and will continue to move forward.”
Rock Hall now operates as a cashless venture. The digital ticket system has replaced the physical box office. Museum store, café and food trucks use digital payment systems. And while many changes were made to cut costs, they also allowed Rock Hall to grow in other areas.
“We ended up overstaffing in places like technology,” Harris says. “We have become more dependent on technology, and we have grown things like our digital education program. We went from 50 teachers a day using our pre-COVID online teaching resources to 500, sometimes 1,000 teachers a day using our content and reaching 1 million classrooms.”
Harris says Rock Hall will be adding more staff to accommodate the upcoming Rock Hall Live summer concert series. But he emphasizes a “leaner” and conservative approach to hiring.
“We have more of a hiring model that allows us to schedule a lot of people every hour at peak times,” Harris reveals. “But then in the slow times we can shrink it down and be logical and slower so we don’t incur tons and tons of expenses.”
Another scratch on the wall
To date, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame capital campaign for a $100 million expansion project has raised $93 million. Harris says the museum expects to lay the groundwork for the expansion, which will add 50,000 square feet of programming space to the museum, later this year.
The Rock Hall revealed initial plans and initial presentations for the project in late 2020. However, another year of the pandemic has altered the project, which will be managed by New York-based architecture firm PAU.
“The final designs are about to be completed. It’s still about 50,000 square feet,” Harris says. “But we’ve learned a lot during COVID, and we’re incorporating these things into the new construction. If we had designed this before COVID, we would likely have had things like box office and more office space. We’ve learned that we want to have things that are flexible and mutable.”
Plans still require teaching laboratories, space for the Rock Hall Library and Archives (currently in a separate facility on Woodland Avenue), and 10,000 square feet of gallery space to house large-scale traveling exhibitions.
Initial plans called for a triangular addition that would resemble a guitar cut at the base of the museum’s original design. Harris says the updated design, to be released later this year, will continue to play the role of the existing building’s architecture.
“It’s an interesting balance to make sure we respect and appreciate the original building designed by I.M. Pei because it is so iconic,” admits Harris. But we want the expansion to stand on its own and make a big statement, too. One of the driving principles for this is the very large 10,000 square feet gallery gallery.
Let’s stay together
Rock Hall’s massive expansion, which is expected to take at least two years, may affect the next time the annual induction party returns to Cleveland. Previous plans called for the next inductions to take place in downtown Cleveland in 2023. However, Harris says nothing is consistent.
“It hasn’t been decided yet,” Harris says. “We’re focused on 2022 right now. And then we’re also looking at the possibility of linking induction to reopening the new expansion and things like that.”
Earlier this month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame confirmed that the 2022 concert will be held in Los Angeles for the first time since 2013. Joel Berezmann, CEO and president of the New York-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, revealed that Los Angeles will now be a part From rotation to the annual induction party, alternating between Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland.
“We are focused on celebrating this year’s amazing category and plan to announce future locations at a later time,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation told cleveland.com in a statement. Harris was a bit more elaborate.
“We are exploring the possibility of rotating over three cities, but nothing is consistent,” he says. “We’ll see where it goes. But since it’s been home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland will always be in the mix as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tournaments. It hasn’t been determined if this is two or three years.”
Another factor could be financial. Rock Hall has revealed in the past that hosting annual shows cost upwards of $7 million. Regional institutions and donors, including the city of Cleveland and Ohio, have helped offset some of the expenses because the ceremony generates an economic impact of tens of millions of dollars.
The 2021 induction party was the largest of its kind to date in Cleveland, moving from Public Auditorium to the largest Rocket Mortgant Field House theater in front of 12,000 fans. But it was a heavy burden financially and logistically.
“We made some money,” Harris says. “But we spent a lot of money doing this event. It was incredibly expensive with a lot of additional COVID protocols. Most of the people that came in had to fly in private. In some cases, the only way to get them here was to provide private accommodations.
“At the same time, we filled almost every hotel in downtown Cleveland. People came from a lot of places to go to the show and it had a good economic impact on the city.”
Do not stop Believin
The main focus of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 is to return to its success before the pandemic. Financially, Harris says the museum is doing much better financially this year than he expected, but it still lags behind its impressive numbers for 2019.
Things were uncertain last year. Therefore, we approach our budgets very conservatively,” says Harris. “We are able to be sustainable, comfortable and robust. But we’re still under where we were.”
Attendance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is still about 25 percent lower than it was at this time three years ago. However, Harris says there are plans to ramp things up.
The first step was the opening of “The Beatles: Get Back to Let It Be” in March. The immersive exhibition represents the largest space the museum has ever dedicated to the Fab Four, which has led to publicity appearances in national press outlets such as Rolling Stone, Variety, The Washington Post, People magazine, and Billboard and Salon.
“I don’t want to underestimate this year. We’ve been doing really well this year,” says Harris. “We’re getting aggressive and doing things to help get people here, rather than just opening our doors hoping they’ll come, which is what you see with the Beatles show. .”
The next step is a great summer concert group featuring indie rock band Guided By Voices, pop group Mona, singer-songwriter Adrien Bello and other yet to be announced big names. The Rock Hall innovates with some of its other live promotions as well, like hosting a Toronto-themed party and concert while the Toronto Blue Jays were in town to take on the Cleveland Guardians. The museum will do the same when it visits the Detroit Tigers.
“When you look at all the travel and tourism stats, we think it’s going to take some time to fully recover,” Harris says. But I was very optimistic this summer. What will happen, I think, is that with rising gas prices and inflation, people are not going to take long trips. So this is a chance for people in Columbus, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago to come here and see where we are instead of going anywhere else.”