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Brian Oaks joined the Prairie Capital Convention Center staff six years ago. He started working in the box office, then became director of operations and is now the executive director.
By Shannon Kirshner | SJ-R
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Party planner
PCCC manager Brian Oaks loves his work
By Kathleen Ostrander

Brian Oaks plans a party for 8,000 of his closest friends every weekend and sometimes during the week. Oaks, the executive director of the Prairie Capital Convention Center, thinks he's got one of the best jobs around.

Six years ago, Oaks -who was born and raised in Springfield - decided the traveling in his other job was getting to be too much.

So he went from the box office to director of operations to executive director and chief party-planner.

"I love coming to work. There are no two days that are the same," Oaks said. He's an unabashed booster of his hometown. This is the best community."

In his office decorated with posters of acts that have played at the PCCC as well as a framed copy of The State Journal Register lauding the sell-out show of Elton John, Oaks is all smiles.

He's happy because he's just logged a show that has sold even more tickets than the Elton John show.

"We are living proof that you can sell out with a Christian program," he said. Beth Moore's Houston-based Living Proof Ministries show sold more than 8,700 tickets, and that topped the pop singer's total.

The two-day event benefited the convention center, but it also means money for the downtown and the community.

Oaks works closely with the Springfield Convention and Visitors bureau to keep abreast of what conventions might be looking at the city.

"We've got a lot of stuff here for families," he said.

"From Knight's Action Park to the museums, we've got something for the whole family, and more and more, conventions are looking for that."

There are some 600 hotel rooms in close proximity to the convention center, and that helps.

Oaks and the convention bureau staff collaborate on requests for bids for large meetings and conventions looking for a place to land.

The Lincoln legacy is helpful, he said, as there are myriad historic sites to keep spouses and families of convention-goers busy.

Although the concerts and shows are what people think about when the PCCC is mentioned, it is the association events and conventions that are the lifeblood of the center.

With cities around Springfield writing bond issues to update their facilities, Oaks is managing a 30-year-old facility that, frankly, could use a facelift and an expansion.

But that need is grounded in the reality of economics.

"Everyone is working with tight budgets. Realistically, it would take $60 million to do what we want, and that would be to expand out into the county parking lot," he said.

A $60 million bond issue would take about 25 years to pay off, but there are things that could be done in the interim to make the facility more attractive to conventions.

With planned state funds as well as some TIF monies, Oaks can do work in some of the meeting rooms, update the mechanicals and tweak the sound and lighting system.

"There are groups that have already outgrown us," Oaks said. The Midwest Truckers and the Illinois Health Care Association need more space than the PCCC has available.

"There are some events that want break-out areas, so they look at this space and others. But there are some that want to have everything under one roof, and so we can't accommodate them."

There are meetings and conventions that come back time after time because they love the area and they are used to working with the PCCC staff, Oaks said. Getting some of the musical acts as well as some of the comedy shows takes a lot of work - on the Internet and on the phone.

"We find out when someone is touring and we look at the dates they have booked. If they are in Chicago one day and then coming to St. Louis, with time in between, we can book them on what would have been a dead day and everybody's happy," he said.

"We try to book up-and-coming acts when they are popular, but not too big. For some of the entertainers - Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift, who bring multi-million dollar set-ups they couldn't make playing here pay off," Oaks explained.

Country music acts play best at the PCCC, although Christian rock and some alternative rock shows have done well. For some acts, Oaks said, the PCCC might cordon off part of the main floor and hold a pre-party event to hype interest.

"When we've got a show coming up, we just plan that something is going to go wrong and that way, if we run into a glitch, we are ready," he said.

But that keeps things interesting. At any point in time during a show, Oaks might be moving chairs around or checking on concession sales.

"I'd love to see an act like Michael Buble," he said.

"But honestly, I usually only see about five minutes or one song of any given show because I'm so busy."

 

Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )

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