1st Mariner Arena: Staging Some History

Baltimore, Md., is nicknamed “Charm City,” but there was a time when event promoters weren’t as enamored with the historic seaport. Part of a congested corridor, overshadowed by Philadelphia to the north and Washington, D.C., to the south, Baltimore was seen as a tertiary market beginning in the late 1970s and extending throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s.

However, the management staff at the Baltimore Arena, currently known as the 1st Mariner Arena (an SMG-managed facility), knew the quality of both venue and audience that they had, and they have been wooing back the big acts successfully for well over a decade. They have been so success that in 2009 1st Mariner Area was named the No. 1 arena (10,001 - 15,000 capacity) in the United States by Billboard Magazine and Venues Today, and it has continued to rank in one of the top two spots every year since.

“Our building wasn’t designed perfectly – it’s square, it has got its quirks, and it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles – but you’re not going to beat the experience,” says Frank Remesch, general manager of 1st Mariner Arena. “It’s more intimate than the giants [Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center and Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center], it’s clean, and we never forget the importance of customer service.”

Aged to Perfection

1st Mariner Arena has a long history of premier entertainment. Officially opening on October 23, 1962, the building has 11,000 permanent seats (three levels in a horseshoe shape), with the option to house 13,500 with floor seating. The arena’s stage has played host to sporting events (boxing, hockey, basketball, tennis and more), as well as some of the most influential bands of all time (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen). The venue’s first half-century of activity has seen a lot of foot traffic and happy faces, and even though there are always fixtures that can be improved, there’s no way to transfer the memories. That’s why the 1st Mariner Arena still stands as a testament to Baltimore’s increasingly thriving market.

“This building is in pretty good shape for its age,” says Remesch knowingly, as he began his relationship with the arena as an electrician. “And you can buy upgrades. We just did a new lighting project, replacing every single bulb to make us more earth friendly. What you can’t buy, however, is history. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, the Doors … they all played here. We put together a ‘Hall of Fame’ on the first floor, and it’s cool to see pictures of the Jackson 5 with a young Michael, or Led Zeppelin in their prime. This town, this building, has supported those kind of events for over 50 years, and we continue to add to the list.”

Remesch, a Maryland native, has been with the arena since 1988, when his boss at the former Joseph E. Seagram & Sons bottling plant suggested he try to get a job at the venue to secure more job satisfaction and longevity.

“I remember coming to visit the arena for the first time, walking in through the pass gate, and it was totally dark inside with the scoreboard on the ground being worked on,” says Remesch. “It reminded me of the moment in the first Rocky when he enters the Spectrum and looks up. I got chills and knew I wanted to be here. So I started working on the wiring, the HVAC, etc., then every few years a new position came open. I felt like I was the right guy in the right place at the right time.”

Remesch eventually worked his way up to general manager, and in the years since he has helped grow the 1st Mariner Arena into the venue it is today, which hosts in excess of 800,000 people per year. They come for showcases including Arenacross, mixed martial arts (MMA) matches, Professional Bull Riders (PBR) events, WWE, family fare such as Disney on Ice and Sesame Street Live, and, of course, a broad spectrum of live music acts, including the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, George Strait, Jay-Z, U2 and Rick Ross.

There were, however, challenges along the road to renown. There was a period when the booking agents of top-draw musical talent had to be convinced to consider 1st Mariner Arena. That’s when Remesch’s insistence on treating people well beforehand, during and after an event kicked into high gear. He doubled down on making sure all boxes are checked for each and every event, and successfully landed shows such as the Rolling Stones in 2006 and Bruce Springsteen in 2009.

The Stones hadn’t performed at the arena since the ’60s, and Springsteen hadn’t been there since opening up for Chicago in the early ’70s, but both were swayed to return and their staffs had nothing but glowing things to say about the experience, showing how the tide has turned thanks to conscientious management. Repeat clients, such as Live Nation, continue to book repeat business thanks to the attention given.

“The market is absolutely phenomenal, but we had the stigma of being an older building,” admits Remesch. “What I always say, however, is stay the course and don’t care what people say. You can overcome anything with customer service. I can paint the walls messed up by monster trucks, but I can’t control the shape of the building, whether some hallways are narrow because concession stands were added after construction as an afterthought. But I understand these negatives, and I make sure the experience is always positive.

Big Shows, Little Details

“You can get anyone once, and screw them over for a bigger take,“ continues Remesch. “But I’d rather do right by people and work with them for years and years, have them keep coming back to shows. We operate with honesty and integrity, reading the client and the market to get events that will play out well for everyone.”

Remesch’s customer service initiatives at the 1st Mariner Arena are reinforced by a full-time staff of 32 and up to 450 part-time employees, depending on the size of the event. The riggers and sound crew are all Local 19, but direct employees, and changeover staff is all in house. Security is a mix of in-house and contract crowd management, specifically Contemporary Services Corporation.

Meanwhile, Maryland-based Crown Foods Inc. manages concessions, which brings things full circle as Crown’s owner started at eight years old selling cotton candy with his father in the Baltimore Arena. “It’s great to have a ma-and-pa organization run by someone who really cares and understands that, while every dollar is important, what’s most important is being a service organization,” says Remesch. “I know what we charge for a beer, so I expect that beer to be cold, for it to be the right amount, and for the cashier to say ‘thank you’ when they take your money. That’s how I want to be treated, so that’s how we treat people.”

It’s all these little details, benefitting artist and audience alike, that have disproven that Baltimore is a secondary market. “Even the big boys – the Stones and Springsteen – don’t think their people don’t notice how you treat each and every person,” says Remesch. “There was a point where we were seen as the region’s stepchild, but when they are here they are not just king for a day; we still thank them for their appearances years later. And they know we want everyone to feel the same way, to want to come back and to remember not only the show but that the show was here.”

Taking nothing for granted, Remesch and the entire 1st Mariner Arena staff continue putting forth all their concentrated efforts on offering a little temporary escape at a reasonable price, staging events that contribute to the growth and prosperity of Baltimore.

“I’m pretty conservative … I take into account how long it takes to get to work, how much gas it uses, and I don’t change my course day in and day out,” explains Remesch. “But even though I’m coming to the same place every day I’m never bored, because one day it’s Sade and the next it’s Monster Trucks, then the Circus the next. The variety is endless, and exciting. Plus, and this will sound corny, but it’s sincere, it’s so cool to go to a show like Bruce Springsteen, look out onto the crowd, and see that for three hours no one is thinking about politics, race, religion, economics; they’re all just happy. That still means a lot to me.”