Breaking records Ahead of its 20th anniversary, the BancorpSouth Arena has its most successful year and soon will get a face-lift

By Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The BancorpSouth Arena turns 20 next year, and like any 20-year-old, it is in the prime of its life.
The last five years have seen more than 200,000 visitors to the building per year – a first in the arena’s history – and the 2011-2012 year, which just ended Oct. 1, was the arena’s biggest, with 261,854 folks through the doors.
So, what does that mean?
“Our mission is to help enhance the quality of life and be an economic driver for the area. So the people that come in, they’re spending the night in a hotel, they’re eating at restaurants,” said BancorpSouth Arena director Todd Hunt. “So it’s a sign we’re truly fulfilling our mission.”
These five years of success also have come during five years of economic recession, when many folks were giving up going to concerts, special events or traveling for business to save a few dollars.
“That makes this even sweeter,” Hunt said.
By the numbers
Some of the biggest events for the BancorpSouth Arena this year were the Disney on Ice shows, Monster Jam Monster Trucks, Ringling Bros. and Barnum amp& Bailey Circus, Tupelo and Lee County school graduations and an Eric Church concert.
The biggest weekend in this last year was two sold-out concerts back to back.
Country star Jason Aldean’s show on Feb. 25, with 8,825 in attendance, sold out in a matter of a few hours, making it the fastest-selling show in the building’s history.
The next night, Christian music festival Winter Jam sold-out the arena with 9,428. Tickets for Winter Jam aren’t sold in advance, only at the door, so another 3,000 were turned away.
“There were so many people that showed up that we had to set up a portable sound system outside the arena, and the artists came out and did an unplugged set for the overflow crowd,” said Roy Morgan with Premier Productions, who brings Winter Jam and other shows to the arena each year.
Those two shows and several other concerts did well this year, but the arena does more than entertain the masses.
Also figuring into the building’s final numbers are the many meetings, conferences, trade shows, wedding receptions, proms, pageants, birthday parties and other events that take place. In the last year, groups like the Tupelo Fire Department, the Mississippi Natural Gas Association, United Way, Junior and Senior Beta Clubs and the American Society of Mining and Reclamation met at the BancorpSouth Arena.
Also, several artists rehearse upcoming tours in the building, including Rascal Flatts, which has prepped for tours in Tupelo every year for the last five years.
“We’re hoping for No. 6,” Hunt said. “That’s the sign of a happy customer.”
When these numbers are tallied, this doesn’t count the artist, crew or event organizers. It’s the number of tickets sold, or an event organizer’s count of attendees.
Keeping a careful eye on what sells well and what doesn’t isn’t the only magic trick to drawing attendees, said the arena’s marketing director, Kevan Kirkpatrick. The timing between similar kinds of events is key, he said.
“There’s a difference between booking and scheduling. (Hunt) does a great job of scheduling events, and a wide range of events,” he said.
His talent for that shows in the numbers, as the building’s successful five-year attendance run has been only under his helm.
For folks like Morgan, who are looking to fill seats, he has to go no further than the BancorpSouth Arena and Hunt’s team.
“Whether it is Casting Crowns, Third Day, or the Gaither Homecoming Tour, Tupelo is always one of our favorite stops,” he said.
Getting work done
One downside of turning 20: The building is beginning to look its age.
The arena has been through a lot lately: It had to have two back-to-back roof replacements when a storm damaged a new roof; one chiller is currently being rebuilt, and the other chiller was recently struck by lightning; and the upper bowl of the arena was recently resurfaced.
But next year the BancorpSouth Arena will undergo an extensive face-lift with a $1.8 million price tag.
The exterior of the building, made out of exterior insulation finishing system, or EIFS, is showing signs of wear and tear. It will be replaced and painted in warm shades like burgundy, tan and a limestone-like finish.
The lobby and other areas of the interior will get a fresh paint job. The gray walls of the main arena bowl will be repainted to reflect the exterior color scheme.
The Coliseum Commission approved a 2012-2013 budget at its August meeting that would approve for $1.8 million to be taken out of the arena’s $2.5 million capital fund to pay for the renovations. The city accepted the budget, so the green light is on and work should begin before the year is up. It’ll take about six months to complete, depending on weather.
A fresh look also will mean that the building will reflect its surroundings, like the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We don’t match anything else nearby, except the Auto Museum,” Hunt said at the August Coliseum Commission meeting. “We stick out because it looks like a 20-year-old building.”
Looking ahead
It takes just eight people to run the BancorpSouth Arena, but it’s the fans and community who keep the building young.
“The key ingredient is the fans,” Hunt said. “At the end of the day, we’re a memory-making business. It’s memories you can share with your family and friends. We have to remember that’s why we do what we do.”
It’s why the arena offers different kinds of events – smaller-scale concerts or public ice skating, for example – that may not be big money-makers, but bring folks in to spend money in Tupelo before coming to the arena’s events and to offer something out of the ordinary.
“Not many kids in Mississippi get to ice skate,” Kirkpatrick said. “It serves our duty of enhancing the quality of life.”
The building turns 20 in October 2013, so Hunt and his team hope to fill 2013 with a variety of events, partly to thank the community for its patronage.
“For it to be as successful as its been, that shows support from the region,” Kirkpatrick said. “We want to reward these people, and give them something they want to see.”
“We’ll have our perennials – Disney, Monster Trucks,” Hunt said, both of which draw equally good if not better numbers than elsewhere in the country. There’s only one concert left on the 2012 calendar – a Gaither Homecoming concert in November – and Kirkpatrick said many other buildings are having a quiet fall and early winter. Come the beginning of 2013, though, things will be very busy, but fans can expect a celebratory concert sometime around October 2013, the building’s 20th anniversary month.
“We’re still trying to find a show we can hang our hat on and say it’s our 20th anniversary show,” Hunt said.
He gave no clues as to what’s coming up in 2013, other than this: “Expect at least two concert announcements before (2012) is up.”
Hunt and crew aren’t taking much of a break to celebrate the milestone anniversary, or the record-breaking attendance numbers. There’s work to be done.
“We’ve got stuff on the books for 2015,” Hunt said. “Our goal every year is to break the 200,000 mark as our base, and then the challenge is to set a record.”
sheena.barnett@journalinc.com