Susan Criner is the owner of Gulf Coast Entertainment. She is not a performer as one might expect. She and her husband started revitalizing the Houston Heights in the 1970’s; Mr. Criner was particularly involved in real estate, and bought and restored houses, and some businesses along Washington Avenue. Central to the story of Gulf Coast Entertainment is a nightclub the Criner’s developed named Rockefeller Hall at 3620 Washington Ave. Rockefeller Hall was unique because it was a destination showcase nightclub. After a wobbly start of having local entertainers, the Criner’s realized they needed to engage nationally touring artists. They went to L.A. and had a cocktail party for many agents/managers of artists to come and hear about their 350-seat club. They had a meeting with B.B. King’s agent, Sid Seidenberg. Sid agreed to book B.B. King at Rockefeller Hall twice a year. Then others like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, and many other national acts followed suit. A fortuitous turn of events came when a client approached Susan Criner asking if it would be possible to book the Four Tops for a debutante party. This moment was an awakening for Susan Criner. She agreed to do so and decided that developing an entertainment company for social events was what she wanted to do, instead of working long hours at a nightclub. This was the beginning of Gulf Coast Entertainment.
The resources required for the startup of Gulf Coast Entertainment came from the entertainment component of Rockefeller Hall. Since connections with prominent agents were the most important aspects in the success of Gulf Coast Entertainment, there weren’t many notable startup costs. From what I could gauge, the costs of maintaining connections with agents was the most notable cost of startup. The cost of maintaining relationships has a monetary price, but the most important aspect is time investment. Susan Criner seems to have a knack for maintaining a tight network of trustworthy colleagues that has served her well for over thirty years.
Because of her reputation in the entertainment industry, and the service-based characteristic of Gulf Coast Entertainment, financial projections weren’t necessary. The projections made were based on seasonal trends, not on a break-even type of analysis. The projections of Gulf Coast Entertainment were revealed over time, and have never been hard and fast rules on which to plan revenue.
I was surprised to find that Criner was not overflowing with stories of hurdles and stumbles in a customer service based business. After learning more about the business style of Gulf Coast Entertainment, I understood that she eliminated risks and disastrous situations by staying close to both her clients and her entertainment representatives. I heard some stories of situations where performers couldn’t make it to a performance, but that was the extent of any operational errors that were shared with me. I suppose the best takeaway from this is to stay close to your clients and contractors, because that will make any problematic issues that arise very understandable, or at least very easy to forgive.
The biggest mistake Criner noted regarding marketing was her underestimation of the power of the internet to attract new clients, but given that 90% of her business is from repeat or referral customers it seems that this was really a negligible loss for the company.
Criner has several goals for the future. One of her goals is to downsize the office where the company is located. Moving to a smaller office would save costs, and would align with Criner’s goal to do more work from a laptop, allowing her two loyal employees to take on more management responsibilities. Criner is also the membership coordinator of a new Houston music series called Music with Friends. The Zilkha Hall will annually feature host three concerts of famous performers, and Criner will manage the membership, which allows for 500 total members. November 3 was the first installment of the series, which featured Tony Bennett.
I learned that Criner has created a thriving business by maintaining strong connections throughout the years. I learned that her business, to my surprise, is a DBA. She has used the same one-page contract for thirty years. She requests feedback form clients, and spends time every Monday morning following up, and personally responding to clients. I learned that the managers at Gulf Coast Entertainment have not personally heard all of the acts they book, and they often rely on recommendations from trusted peers.
One of the main insights that will influence my business plan comes from a comment Criner made about working with restaurants. Essentially, she does not work with any restaurants because they usually cannot afford an agent’s fee. Also, I was surprised by the cancellation policy she uses. Clients are required to pay 100% of the agreed upon fee if they cancel, unless the event is rescheduled. These are some of the lessons I will carry forward with me, but most important of all was her emphasis on being a trustworthy businessperson and maintaining good connections with people in your industry.