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When VIP experiences are real, and when you're just a tool paying extra cash

Published in the Indy Star, Dec. 27, 2017 Longtime Indy DJ Indiana Jones (or Ron Miner to friends and family) says he has watched VIP options increase over the past decade plus, spreading from private rooms at clubs and boxes at sporting events to packages tailored to every sort of event imaginable. The key, he believes, is a package that makes the buyer forget how much he even paid to be there.

“A true VIP doesn’t have to pay to get in or pay extra to be taken care of,” says Miner. “In the nightclub, a VIP will breeze past security — they know who he is anyway — and pay less for bottles. Maybe they’re a celebrity or an athlete, or just a person who comes to the venue all the time and developed relationships. People who pay for a VIP experience want to feel that kind of treatment.”

But living out a fantasy is just one aspect of a worthwhile VIP experience. Every VIP package can be measured by three main factors: access, ease and exclusivity, and each can mean different things depending on the event.

At a concert, evaluating access and exclusivity boil down to one critical point — will you get to meet the artist?

Dan Kemer, LiveNation’s Midwest Music vice president, oversees assorted VIP packages for bands playing small clubs all the way to megastars selling out Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“As long as there’s some sort of interaction between fan and artist, that’s the key to a great VIP experience,” he says. “It could be a soundcheck party, a meet-and-greet, or just a quick hello before or after the show. It’s the artist and fan relationship that drives our business at the end of the day.”

It’s up to the artist, though, just how extensive or in-depth that interaction will be. A quick handshake and a backstage barbecue are certainly not the same thing.

“It was back in 2009 when the Zac Brown Band was touring behind their first album — we had a sold out show at then-called Pepsi Coliseum,” remembers Kemer. “They hosted an ‘eat-n-greet’. The band helped cook and serve a bunch of fans — with some acoustic performances by a few of the artists they brought on tour. Anytime you can have the band cook BBQ for you… that’s pretty special.”

Access and ease at a concert can also translate to your actual showtime experience: Did you have special parking options? Did you bypass the line to enter the venue? How easily can you get to the bathroom — or do you have your own bathroom? How quickly and easily can you get to the bar? And, of course, how close to the stage are you?

Miner puts it bluntly: “If these criteria aren’t met, VIP service can be a waste of money.”

At some of the city’s major annual events, access, ease, and exclusivity take a different shape with no pop star at the center.

“VIP allows for something ‘better,’” says Debbie Drieband, the director of corporate sponsorships at Gleaners Food Bank, who helms the annual Wine, Women & Shoes fundraiser. “Better parking, better seating, better food options, better view of the stage, and sometimes even better bathrooms with no standing in line. At an event, those things can go a long way.”

About 20 percent of the 515 tickets sold to last year’s Wine, Women & Shoes were VIP-level — adding an edge of exclusivity to the tickets.

At Indy’s annual Zoobilation, VIP ticket holders can enter the zoo before the crowds descend, as “people love being the first to see something — they want access to things not everyone else can get,” says Liz Mok, special events manager at the Indianapolis Zoo. Plus, “When VIP guests are ready to take a break, they have access to the only air-conditioned lounge.”

The rise in VIP options is a chicken-or-egg scenario — it surely comes from the demand of people hungry to experience something special, but also from artists willing to provide it and venues capable of accommodating it.

“I’ve been in this industry for 25 years,” says Kemer. “I’m a guy who went to the record store to buy tickets. But concerts today, it’s just like the NFL or NBA — teams used to play in Market Square, and now you’ve got Bankers Life. It’s beautiful. There are simply more levels of experience today.”

Ultimately, of course, only you can determine if a VIP ticket is worthwhile for you. But measure its value by access, ease, and exclusivity — and your money will be well-spent. And if the Zac Brown Band is in town again, you might even go away well-fed.

*Photo credit: Attendees arrive at the 2017 edition of Zoobilation at the Indianapolis Zoo. (Photo: Robert Scheer / IndyStar)

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