Bonnaroo business lessons

In about two months, Bonnaroo will attract more than 70,000 fans and transform the small city of Manchester into the center of the of the rock ‘n’ roll universe.

But on Thursday, the annual music festival was a mere business lesson for a handful of Nashville wheeler-dealers. The Nashville chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization hosted festival founder Ashley Capps of Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, who told stories about the festival's origins to a crowd that included everyone from the president of CAO Cigars to the owner of a landscape company.

Capps said there are a lot of business lessons to be learned from Bonnaroo including the importance of committing to a high quality product.

“From the word ‘go’ our No. 1 focus was creating the best music festival we could possibly imagine,” Capps said. “That is still the driving force behind what keeps Bonnaroo successful in my opinion. ... If the product isn’t fantastic, you’re going to have a really hard time sustaining your business.”

Capps said he and the festival’s other operators learned a lot of lessons the hard way when Bonnaroo started in 2002, but with perseverance and some luck, have grown the event into a success. Overall revenue figures are confidential, but Capps said ticket sales total about $15 million a year.

“We put together a business plan,” Capps said. “It was really wrong.”

Capps said the first year of the event cost three times more than expected, for example. The promoters also underestimated fan interest and inadvertently sold 60,000 tickets before they had a chance to properly plan the site. Ticket sales had to be halted for six weeks to figure out how many people the 500-acre farm could accommodate. When another 10,000 tickets were offered up, they sold out in a matter of hours.

Capps said the idea for Bonnaroo started with the most basic steps in formulating a business: identify an underserved need and fill it. He also stressed the importance of being a good neighbor in the community your business operates in, especially for an event as large and disruptive as Bonnaroo.

“It’s been a challenge,” Capps said. “It’s really important to show respect and be a good community citizen. We try to be a really positive force in the community year round. The difficulties of the first few years are gone.”

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