Good Life

On with the show

Bernie Punt works to organize a meet-and-greet with performing artist Drake before his concert at the Bryce Jordan Center.  CDT/Christopher Weddle
Bernie Punt works to organize a meet-and-greet with performing artist Drake before his concert at the Bryce Jordan Center. CDT/Christopher Weddle

When Bernie Punt’s cell phone rings — and it often does — Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” plays.

It’s an ironic ringtone for a man who once filled a kiddie pool with 500 gallons of chocolate pudding and had an elephant deliver a tax return.

Punt, the Bryce Jordan Center director of sales and marketing, pursues one mission with relentless zeal. He puts fannies into seats. And he’ll use anything at his disposal — spreadsheets, media, Facebook, stunts — to get the job done and successfully promote an act.

“When a show doesn’t sell well, everyone looks at marketing,” he said. “So you have to be able to take that kind of pressure.”Especially when things go awry.

Case in point: For a Bill Cosby show, Punt hatched a plan. The comedian was hawking Jell-O Pudding Pops at the time, so Punt called a radio station, set up a pudding pool in front of the Jordan Center and buried two free tickets in a sealed plastic bag.

It all went swimmingly — literally — until one woman wanted the giveaways a bit too much.

“All of a sudden, it looked like a huge food fight,” Punt said. “All this pudding is going all over the place. I didn’t know chocolate pudding could stain a sidewalk.”

His second scheme involving an elephant proved more successful than his first. The initial one, to advertise the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, involved pachyderm mail delivery downtown. But shortly before the big day, police flagged the circus elephant trailer for an illegal axle and, poof, Punt’s promotion went up in smoke.

“I never let it go,” Punt said. “I thought it was a good idea.”

Another chance came two years later when the circus returned to town. This time, the twist was that the elephant would mail a tax return in honor of the show date, April 15. Punt persuaded the circus and the U.S. Postal Service, rounded up the media and, in front of the Jordan Center, staged the spectacle.

Networks showed up. An Associated Press photo went global — to more than 1,100 newspapers. It was a promotional grand slam.

“Ringling Bros. was so ecstatic, they actually presented me with the best PR stunt of the year award,” Punt said.

His work, though, isn’t just flash and dash. Much of it involves sober number-crunching as he devises advertising campaigns for shows. How hot is the artist? Who are the fans? What programs are they watching? Should he advertise through traditional media, Facebook and Twitter, or all of the above?

“Those are the type of things, the nuts and bolts stuff, he knows where to dig to get those,” Jordan Center General Manager Bob Howard said, noting that Punt combines an extrovert’s charisma with a researcher’s diligence. “There are very few people who can do both of those, be outgoing and analytical.”

Add his dual roles as the Jordan Center’s spokesman and its liaison with tours — dealing with promoters, managers, the media and the public — and somebody always requires his attention. His e-mail inbox fills quickly; urgent calls come at night. For more than three months earlier this year, he worked without a full day off.

“Sometimes, if my phone dies, it’s almost a blessing,” he said. “Now, I’ll get some sleep.”

In tune with the times

It’s about 7:30 a.m., and Punt pulls to the Calder Way curb in his white pickup, right in front of his usual Wednesday morning stop.

He comes straight from his Boalsburg home to the Cheese Shoppe, a favorite local haunt known for roasting its own coffee beans. Along with a mug of strong joe, Punt gets the latest news from other regulars.

“It’s my pulse on the local community,” Punt said.

After a few minutes of sipping and gabbing, he’s back in his truck, off to his next gig — radio station WZWW — for his standard Wednesday appearance to plug upcoming Jordan Center events.

“The great Bernardo,” co-host Steve Jones greets Punt, who’s striding toward the studio. Then Jones smiles and turns to another visitor: “He comes flying in here like a wild man.”

Punt has toned down his on-air shtick from years past — no more impressions — but the hosts still try to throw him off with quips.

“Every week is a challenge, and I have no idea what they’re going to say,” Punt said afterward, rushing to a marketing meeting.

Long ago, Punt wanted to predict storms rather than sales. Growing up outside Philadelphia, he came to State College in the late 1970s to study meteorology at Penn State in hopes of becoming a weatherman.

Instead, by 1996, he was running his own business, Go Bonkerz, an indoor playground. One day, the Jordan Center’s first marketing director dropped in, curious that Punt drew customers without much in the way of ads.

Punt explained that he mostly relied on “crazy, wacky promotions” and word of mouth. One thing led to another, and he began moonlighting for the Jordan Center marketing staff. Eventually, the side job became his main pursuit, and he sold the business. In 1998, he became the Jordan Center’s public relations director, then started his current position four years later.

Since then, he has sharpened his ability to attract crowds.

Before shows, he submits an “ad plan” to a tour’s management. The timing may be less than ideal — the show date’s on a school night, the band’s also playing a nearby festival in a month. Punt takes it all into account, then taps into his marketing data and experience to come up with a strategy.

“Because the promoter doesn’t want to hear excuses,” he said. “They want results.”

With the tour’s approval, he then works his magic, monitoring daily ticket sales and sometimes adjusting on the fly. This spring, demand for a spring Daughtry concert suddenly dipped. Punt began targeting older fans in the market, not just college students.

The night of the show, as is his habit, he checked the crowds streaming in. Women predominated, in line with his forecast. Gray hair and parents with children made him smile.

His instinct, honed by hundreds of shows, was on the money.

That savvy has led to some inspired improvisation. How do you promote an Irish/Scottish military band? Punt scratched his head, then rented kilts for himself and his staff to wear while marching with the Nittany Highlanders in a local parade. For a bull-riding show, he borrowed a few Penn State bulls and set up a mock corral outside the Jordan Center.

This spring, an expensive, life-sized promo standup of the country singer Alan Jackson vanished from the Jordan Center after a trade show. Disaster? Not for Punt, who seized the opportunity.

Long before many of his peers, he embraced Facebook as a promotional tool. So when the standup walked away, he created a Jacksonian version of the “Have You Seen Me?” milk carton ads for missing children on the Jordan Center page, offering tickets in exchange for the display’s return.

It never came back, but no matter: Punt created buzz, the promoter’s best friend.

David Chesler, a marketing director with Live Nation, the giant concert producer handling Jackson’s tour, said he and the singer’s people loved Punt’s “funny and entertaining response.” In 10 years of working with Punt, Chesler has come to admire his ingenuity and expertise.

“Bernie is a real pro. He knows what he’s doing,” Chesler said. “He comes up with great ideas.”

Setting the stage

Punt hustles down the Jordan Center corridor, and a college kid struggles to keep up.

“What’s your name?” Punt asks over his shoulder.

“Evan.”

Evan is excited. He won a radio contest and the chance to welcome the crowd before the Daughtry concert. Evan is also nervous. He’s being escorted to a meeting with the band’s manager backstage, but Punt isn’t exactly reassuring him.

“Just follow instructions so they don’t cut your mic off in the middle of a sentence,” Punt said.

He seems swamped — handling last-minute tasks and promotions, checking that the radio station broadcasting outside isn’t giving away tickets — but, really, his hard work is done. It always is by this point. While the rest of the arena goes into high gear, he’s winding down, moving on.

Weeks before the first power chords ring out, Punt has nailed down the contracts specifying stage and dressing room needs, down to that odd bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Beneath posters of John Lennon, Miles Davis and other musicians in his office, he has waded through sheaves of invoices and ticket requests. He has dealt with the demands, the egos, the tempers frayed by too many cities in too few days.

“Every show is different,” he said. “That’s what makes it a challenge. There are no set rules.”

Or set hours. Punt jokes about rarely seeing his wife. He’d love more free time to play competitive volleyball or burn mix CDs for friends. But there have been trade-offs.

He has seen killer shows — Prince, Aerosmith, Springsteen. He has witnessed memorable moments, such as the time Reba McEntire broke down after hearing that the sick girl she had befriended a year before at her Jordan Center show had died weeks afterward.

Another standout: Garth Brooks, incognito in a Penn State hoodie, rode a bicycle to the Jordan Center and mingled amid fans waiting for him to arrive by car.

“Garth went into the crowd and said, ‘Is he here yet? Is he here?’ ” Punt said.

Best of all, Punt has made people happy — the antidote to the business’ tough, cynical side. Like a proud parent, he has seen college interns he trained go on to become band managers and arena marketing directors. He once told a stunned young couple sitting alone in the back of the Jordan Center 90 minutes before a Brooks show that the singer was giving them front-row tickets.

He recalled learning of a request from three siblings whose parents died not long apart, from cancer and a heart attack. More than anything, they wanted to see Rascal Flatts, their favorite band.

From the tour came free tickets and passes to meet the band. Punt still savors the thank-you note from a family friend. The children, it said, had the best day of their lives.

“They were kids again for just a few hours, instead of having to grow up so fast,” Punt said. “This had nothing to do with selling tickets.”

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