Van Andel Arena’s biggest stars work behind the scenes

    At Grand Rapids’ largest entertainment venue, the real work often goes unnoticed.
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    Courtesy ASM Global

    With the hockey season well underway, basketball coming back and February’s Disney On Ice looming ahead, Van Andel Arena is braced for a busy few months. But, according to Todd Johnson and Chris Anderson, that’s pretty normal.

    Johnson, director of operations and security at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, has been working behind the scenes at the arena since it opened in 1996. He said one of the greatest things about the work he does is the variety of it, the fun of always having a new challenge.

    His sentiment was echoed by Anderson, director of facilities for Van Andel and DeVos Place, who has been working behind the scenes at the arena for the last 19 years.

    “Everybody that’s on my staff loves the unknown,” Anderson said. “It keeps you engaged. It’s a fun job. The staff makes it easy, honestly, for us because they enjoy the same thing.”

    It’s the hard work of Johnson and Anderson’s teams that keep big concerts, Monster Jam events, sports games and the odd WWE Friday Night Smackdown running smoothly and earning the arena nationwide attention as a quality entertainment destination.

    This year, ASM Global-managed Van Andel Arena was listed No. 5 worldwide and No. 3 for U.S. venues with a capacity between 10,001 and 15,000, according to Billboard Magazine, in a ranking based on ticket sales from Nov. 1, 2021, to April 2022. This ranking placed the West Michigan venue alongside renowned facilities such as Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, OVO Hydro in Glasgow and Berlin’s Mercedes Benz Arena.

    In 2020, Van Andel Arena earned a nomination for Arena of the Year by the Academy of Country Music, in addition to a plethora of previous accolades, including a “Best Stadium Experience” ranking for minor league hockey in 2014, which scored the venue 4.3 out of 5 on the FANFARE scale.

    It’s thanks to the work of hundreds of local stage crew, security and backstage staff that Van Andel is becoming a popular destination for high-profile artists like Carrie Underwood, Sting and Pitbull.

    And it’s this work that often is unnoticed.

    Right now, to simultaneously prepare for Griffins games, Gold games and concerts, the multipurpose, 12,000-plus seat arena is juggling an ice sheet, a basketball court and a solid floor.

    “Once we put the ice floor down at the beginning of the season, usually the end of September, beginning of October, it’s in and it’s staying in,” Johnson said. “We have a portable floor that goes on the top of the ice that protects it from our normal events. When we’re going to do a Monster Truck or a PBR (professional bull riders) or rodeo and bring dirt on top, we then add an additional layer of plastic and then plywood.”

    Currently, the arena floor is covered in ice, which is refreshed as needed for events like Disney On Ice. To keep the ice cold and fresh, Anderson runs three massive compressors backstage. Using a closed glycolic cooling system, he maintains a temperature of around 14 degrees using a piping system built into the arena floor.

    The floor can be frozen or heated to remove the ice, a process that usually spans several hours. When removed, ice is dumped into a backstage cavity dubbed the “melting pit.”

    “The whole process starts with the temperature being raised a bit, but at the same time we would begin to shave the ice down,” Johnson said. “So as the floor temperature is beginning to come up, we’re shaving the ice out because the logos that are in there, a lot of them are vinyl logos. We have to get those back out of the ice before it all goes into the melting pit in the back.”

    To prepare for events like bull riding, rodeo or BMX racing, the team brings in dump trucks full of dirt totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds to cover the floor. The dirt is reused and sourced locally.

    For stagehands and backstage crew, events generally start early and run long.

    Equipment is loaded in and soundchecks are done on the day of an event or the day before, depending on individual performance needs and variables such as tour schedule, stage layout and equipment needed. Teams stay after the show to help remove equipment, working late into the night, long after fans have gone home.

    “Every show is unique,” Johnson said. “It’s always different and the communication that we use beforehand to figure out how it’s different from the normal routine is what is key for us to be ready and capable of being flexible enough to make sure that these tours show up and everything goes great for them and (that) the fans show up and everything goes great for them. Then we’re ready for the next one the next day.”

    According to Assistant General Manager Chris Machuta, acts are planned months in advance, giving the team as much time as possible to prepare. Even so, sometimes last minute changes come up, meaning everyone has to be flexible and ready for a challenge.

    One of those challenges the Van Andel team has dealt with was the changing needs and additional protocol added after the onset of COVID-19.

    ASM Global, the management company behind the venue, created Venue Shield, a protocol policy manual to help guide its locations through the procedures necessitated by the pandemic.

    Many of those procedures such as additional disinfection, Johnson said, have been adopted permanently going forward and likely will always be a part of the team’s protocol.

    “A lot of the improvements we made while we were shut down were things that could be done and then continue whether there’s a pandemic or not,” he said. “We added hand sanitizer stations all over our buildings. We added touchless fixtures to all the restrooms in this facility (and) those kinds of things are here to stay regardless.”

    To keep guests — audience members and touring crew and performers — safe, Anderson oversaw the addition of a nearly medical-grade air filtration system and plasma bipolar ionization units that neutralize airborne pollutants.

    “This is a good, safe place to come and be entertained for a while,” Johnson said. “Our crews are not only (disinfecting) in advance and after the fact, but they are working constantly during events to keep areas clean.”

    While this is extra work, Johnson and Anderson know it is of vital importance to continuing the venue’s legacy of quality, world-class entertainment and keeping fans safe. Thanks to the hard work of security, backstage, front-of-house staff, stage crew and custodial teams, Van Andel Arena is keeping seats full and some of the biggest names in show business onstage.

    For Johnson, at the end of the day it’s all worth it.

    “One of the things I love is when we pack this place. I walk out on the floor after we’ve worked hard for 12 hours in the day already and then I see that performer come on and the people just go crazy,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing, you know, just to see the reaction of the fans and them having a good time and I (say) ‘All right, it was worth it. I’m out of here, I’m going home. I’ll come back the next day.’”

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