Virginia Fortune talks to Colin White about her progression from front of house manager at the Point Depot to manager of private members clubs at the 3Arena.
The emergence of the O2 – now known as the 3Arena – out of the ashes of the old Point Depot was a bone of contention amongst Irish gig-goers after the venue reopened in 2008.
The façade of much of the old railway station remained, but poor site lines and the infamous sticky floor had been replaced by something far more contemporary.
Personally, I welcomed the new space. It felt monotone, minimal and spacious. The audio experience had also seen an improvement and, to my ears, seemed more vibrant and superior to the previous set-up, which was prone to inconsistencies, and at times, a muddy sound.
The 3Arena is one of the busiest venues in the world and is now well established as the country’s undisputed leading entertainment venue. Virginia Fortune’s involvement with the venue dates back to 1989 when she was appointed front of house manager.
In 1991 she left to become involved with the start-up of the Michelin-starred Commons Restaurant on St Stephens Green, where she built up a rapport with a large cross section of business clients, and most of Dublin’s high fliers of industry at the time.
Then, in 2003, prior to the launch of The O2 Point Club, she was recruited again, this time to assist with membership recruitment. With a vast client list and her many contacts, memberships grew substantially. From what was initially due to be a two-week temporary sales drive, Fortune is still at the helm as manager of private members club experiences at the 3Arena.
TIME FOR A RETHINK
Fortune fondly remembers her foray into exclusive private memberships in 2003. “When the O2 opened, membership was capped at around 100 members at the time and we were successful in quickly doubling our numbers,” she says.
“Then the halcyon boom times arrived and we continued to run at complete capacity. At that moment in time, the limited amount of physical space we had to work with at the venue wasn’t an issue for our members; everybody who was anybody wanted to be seen at our club.”
When the recession hit, Fortune, and the entertainment industry as a whole, were not immune to the damaging effects of a collapsing world economy.
Fortune states: “Memberships dropped by 30% in a short space of time. We had to try and counterbalance what was taking place, so we decided to take on Mairead McElvaney to look after the marketing side of things.
“With Mairead’s assistance, we introduced price reductions and added a number of member benefits. Basically, we were trying anything we could to stop the constant fall in revenue,” she reveals.
“Direct mails would have been the norm up until about four years ago. Now, we focus on campaigns across Ticketmaster in which we target specific shows and demographics. We’re not only building a database. We’re harnessing a relationship with our customers through regular communication.”
A NEW SPACE
In 2007, the Point Theatre needed a facelift and a decision was made to renovate. Rumours at the time about new emerging Dublin venues also played a part in forcing the upgrade of facilities. Although fond of the old venue, Fortune knew the time was right for a rebrand.
“The old venue certainly had a magic to it, but site lines were poor and there were frequent issues with excessive queuing. In order to keep up with the times and to accommodate the bigger shows, the redevelopment was necessary to increase capacity to cater to larger events,” she says.
Many marquee shows were announced for the reopening of the venue in 2008 and Fortune and her team enjoyed a period of success in obtaining impressive membership numbers. Memberships were flying in on the back of the announcement of some high-profile acts, such as Kings of Leon, Tina Turner, Snow Patrol and The Rolling Stones.
There’s nothing more special than walking from one of our clubs into the arena when a big show is starting. Equally, it’s a phenomenal feeling when everyone returns to the bar after a successful gig to enjoy the rest of their night
“We had to market the club to individuals and families, rather than to the big corporates and we invested a lot of time into getting our price range just right. Our members wanted to see in increase in value, rather than solely a reduction in price,” claims Fortune.
“We got it right. Membership numbers were static for a long time, but our alternative system of marketing the clubs proved fruitful. Rather than sending out collateral and ringing people, we became focused on our digital communication.”
So, what does the 1878 offer members today? Membership guarantees a first-class entertainment experience and is suitable for groups up to eight. Membership to the club also grants access to the best seats in the house for all shows at the 3Arena (even when sold out), as well as access to free car parking.
The transferability of membership has been a big selling point for Fortune and her team. This allows the card to be used throughout an organisation or shared privately amongst family and friends.
One of the many added benefits for the 1878’s members is a dual membership with another prominent Dublin establishment. Live Nation, the entertainment company that owns the 3Arena, also runs the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Customers are also entitled to membership of The Circle Club at the theatre, which guarantees up to four seats for every show at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
The Premium Club offers priority purchase on two premium seats for every show, pre and post-show access to the club on every show night via a private entrance, full transferability of membership and the option to dine on show nights from carefully considered menus.
INVESTMENT IN PEOPLE
Fortune is a very much a proactive, hands-on boss. There are ten office staff currently employed across sales and marketing at the 1878, as well as up to 50 hospitality staff to manage each event.
Fortune believes she is working alongside the best member-orientated team in Ireland and when asked about her day-to-day role as general manager, she is keen to highlight the hard work of her support team and the loyalty customers have shown.
“Nothing is too much when it comes to member requests, who are loyal year-upon-year. A large percentage have been with us since year one and see the value of their memberships,” says the Greystones native.
“Across the board, our team is finely tuned, particularly with regard to customer service. That’s hugely important to us. If you don’t treat people well, they simply won’t return. We know each member is making a big investment in us,” she adds.
REAPING THE BENEFITS
Fortune and her team are really seeing the fruits of their labour as more and more members are returning and renewing their subscriptions. Increased confidence in the economy has obviously also helped in that regard.
Member retention has become an increasingly critical element for Fortune and focusing on current members, instead of purely chasing new business, is paramount to the success of the 1878 and The Premium Club.
“Nowadays, everyone expects bang for their buck, and rightly so,” she declares. “It’s up to us to ensure each member or guest receives a great service. We’ve also increased capacity. Everyone now has their own dedicated table and the staff-to-member ratio has improved dramatically.”
Virginia Fortune is the driving personality behind the clubs, bringing a passion for people and music to her role as general manager at the 1878 and The Premium Club. She also holds firm in her belief that the pre-show experience on offer is unlike any other in Ireland.
“There’s nothing more special than walking from one of our clubs into the arena when a big show is starting. Equally, it’s a phenomenal feeling when everyone returns to the bar after a successful gig to enjoy the rest of their night,” she enthuses.
“In the past, we had to chase opportunities, but now customers are coming to us to experience the amazing shows and our top-notch hospitality.”