Becoming a general manager of an arena was never on Lynn Carlotto’s list of career goals. Working in facilities wasn’t even on her radar when she went to school.
“I’ve always loved live entertainment, but my degree was in advertising and journalism,” Carlotto told Amplify. “I was always fascinated by the concept that you can introduce someone to a product or service that they didn’t know existed before you put your message in front of them. And in doing so, they wanted to go out and get it. That fascinated me.”
After school she was working for an advertising agency and one of her clients was Molson Coors Brewery. A friend from college was attempting to put together a street festival and she helped land the brewery as the title sponsor for the event.
“I sold it to Molson and then quit the agency to manage the festival. It was the Molson Summertime Street Festival for three years,” Carlotto said. “Then I was sitting in my office one day and my Molson sponsorship guy called and said ‘We’re not going to be able to sponsor it anymore.’ For a certain amount of time, I was the only one that knew that we might not have an event. But then he connected me with (rival brewer) Miller and I sold it to them. I got to kind of tell people the good news and the bad news.”
Since then, Carlotto has never looked back. She has worked with some of the biggest companies in live entertainment and facilities, even moving from the United States to Canada to run the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Ontario. Through her unprescribed career path she has managed to meet the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Canada, and has thrown the second most viewed event in Canadian history. Amplify caught up with Carlotto to learn how her lack of a plan got her exactly where she wanted to be.
Your venue hosted the final Tragically Hip show after Gord Downie was diagnosed with cancer. What was that experience like?
I think it’s the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had in this industry and perhaps that I will ever have. The combination of arguably Canada’s most loved and iconic rock’n’roll band with his hometown boy status. And Gord’s diagnosis kind of focused a laser on Kingston and on this building that I would have never imagined. The eyes of the entire country seemed to be on the building that night. You know. CBC interrupted live Olympic coverage to air the concert as it happened.
It was one of those things where I was lucky I didn’t know some of this stuff until after it was over. This was the second highest Canadian live TV viewing audience, only after, I think the 2010 men’s gold medal hockey game at the Olympics. There was so much going on. CBC is broadcasting live so that was like a whole other event with the move in and all of that. There was a documentary film crew that was here for ‘Long Time Running.’ The doc crew was everywhere and it was the biggest show on the tour and we’re the smallest building on the tour. It was truly a labor of love for us because we know some of these guys really well because they live here. The entire band is beloved because of Kingston and we’re located at 1 The Tragically Hip Way.
In addition to that, the Prime Minister showed up as well right?
The show comes to me and says ‘We need an office. We need a room where we can interview (Justin) Trudeau.’ At this point it’s either going to be a hallway or the only thing I’ve got left is my office. So I actually gave up my office so that they could film him for the documentary. It was really kind of funny because I had to come back to my office and get my jacket or something and there’s the RCMP (Canadian equivalent to U.S. Secret Service). The only thing I wish I had thought to do was put a Sharpie on my desk and say ‘Please sign my desk.’ I didn’t think of that until much later. Frankly, it was a bit of an inconvenience in the midst of everything else. On a normal day, having Trudeau would have been an event all by itself. But as deep as we were into everything else that was just one more thing to manage. It was an honor for us to host the show, the likes of which I don’t think I could ever replicate.
How far in advance did you know the Prime Minister was coming?
A couple of days. It wasn’t far in advance at all. There was also a government official that was coming from Ottawa and I had somebody from the mayor’s office call me. They were very excited that this person was coming and wanted to know if they could buy a ticket for them. I’m thinking no! This has been sold out forever. What I didn’t realize was that the person that they were calling about was the Queen’s representative to Ontario. As we tend to be in this business, it’s like ‘Well, okay. I can’t make a seat.’ Everything ends up getting figured out, but I’m an American so there was a certain amount of ‘What does a Queen’s representative mean?’
The show was a huge success.
We go live on CBC and 11.4 million people are watching live. It’s pretty heavy and the environment here was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was a really hot summer day and the entire audience was up dancing the entire show. It was a three and a half hour show with three encores. They’d never done a third encore before. The building was sweaty. It was euphoric and sweaty and people didn’t want to leave when it was over. There was a couple that was trying to take a selfie and they were trying to get the backdrop. So I asked if they wanted me to take the picture for them and I had to get it just right and get the logo in there because there would be no other opportunity. So yeah it was intense. It was beautiful. It was tribal. It was emotional. It was historic. So many words that you just never reach for in the same sentence.
What was it like as an American putting together this hugely important event for Canadians?
Fortunately, I had been here long enough. It was four years into my time here. And I completely got it. I knew the gravity of it. I knew the importance of it. I knew the honor of it. I happen to know The Tragically Hip’s manager and through other events in town I had met one of the guy’s wives and ended up at a wrap party for another event at their home. I explained to him that ‘I have an incredible amount of respect for you based on all of the acknowledgment that I see around your success and the enormous popularity of the band. But I’ve got to tell you your name meant nothing to me six months ago. How could you be this huge and I didn’t even know about you?’ It was a really interesting conversation on why The Tragically Hip just never really connected with an American audience. Their lyrics are about Canadiana and the values and the places and the experiences that are uniquely Canadian. It’s not written for an American audience.
What do you do the day after a huge event like that is over?
I crawled home at whatever time and hit the pillow. I go to sleep and wake up not too long after to driving torrential rain. There was such an incredible storm that rolled in. I woke up laughed and thought ‘Oh my God if this had been six hours earlier.’ So I laid in bed and listened to the rain with a big smile on my face. That is not a parade to rain on my friends.
You’ve had the privilege of meeting the Canadian Prime Minister, but you’ve also met a sitting U.S. president. How did you end up meeting President Obama?
That was pretty incredible. It was a 2010 election event that was really focused on the Connecticut races for Senate and state rep. I had talked to the mayor and the contract administrator about how phenomenal it would be to get the president to come to the rally. It wasn’t anything that I was personally working on. It was just something I was rooting for. I did know the name of the person that was the main organizer for the DNC. As things would happen, I was out one Saturday afternoon doing errands and my cell phone rings and it’s this voice. ‘Hi Lynn, this is Steve with the DNC. We’d like to bring the president to your building.’ How often do you hear that? I’m leaning against the column in a store so that I have some privacy and I said, ‘That’d be great.’ He said, ‘I thought you’d say that.’
So he wants to come in and he wants to do the site inspection, but he’s bringing the whole team and the whole team is 10 individuals, three members of the Secret Service. So I tell him ‘That’s fine, but the circus is going to be here.’ They arrive and we go over the different areas of responsibility and they want to go around the building to do some advance work. We get to the area where you walk into the back of house and it was right before the tigers and one of the Secret Service guys looked at me and he said, ‘Oh my God there’s tigers.’ I said, ‘It’s the circus. How many times have I told you we’ve got the circus? And I would suggest that you stand back about 12 feet because that’s they’re spraying radius.’
How was the day of with the president?
While it’s common to have that handshake with the dignitary that comes in your building or the artist, it was really nothing that I ever thought about in these circumstances. His entire event team lives in the building for the entire week prior and there was a bank of BlackBerrys charging from one outlet in my office and there were take out menus and pizza menus flying left and right. Usually at 7 pm somebody would come in my office and say ‘We’re going to get pizza.’ So it was at that time of day when the event lead came in my office and I thought it was going to start talking about pizza and he said, ‘When the president arrives tomorrow, would you mind greeting him?’
That was incredibly surreal. We all know what it looks like on TV. The helicopter, the motorcade, and all of that. It’s a whole other thing entirely when you’re standing at the point where it all stops. It’s such an interesting perspective because you hear it all coming. I was in a production hallway and I had to stand so that I could not see his limousine pull into the building for whatever reason. I do not know, but that’s the protocol. But you hear the wing of the helicopter directly above the building. You hear all of these motor vehicles arrive. You hear a vehicle pull into the loading dock. You hear the doors slam but so far it’s only audible. You’re not seeing anything except the one serving Secret Service guy that’s looking at you. And and then all of a sudden you hear some voices and I know Obama’s voice. He comes around the corner, incredibly gracious just as one would expect. Since we had the circus in town, I had P.T. Barnum gift bags for his daughter who were younger then. I explained to him the history of Bridgeport with the circus. P.T. Barnum had been the mayor of Bridgeport and it’s really a circus town.
We talked a bit and the thing that struck me first was how he’s so tall. He was standing pretty close to me. He’s not somebody who’s very standoffish, so that made it even more obvious. He said ‘C’mon let’s take a picture.’ He put his arm around me and kind of swung me around toward the White House photographer. My arm swings up and now I’ve got my arm around his waist and I’m thinking to myself ‘Is this okay? Is it okay to have like your fingertips on presidential ribs?’ That’s what I’m thinking about.
You were born in America, but work in Canada. Do you have dual citizenship?
No. When I arrived I was granted a work permit. And since then I’ve applied and been granted permanent residency. It’s not citizenship. I’m just allowed to live here and work here but I don’t have voting privileges.
How do you feel you’re fitting in in Canada?
I guess I’m more of a light-hearted person. I work really hard. I’m serious about what I do and all, but I do believe in having a humorous view on the world. When I first came here it was with the mindset that they look like us, they talk like us, we’re all the same. Then a word will get thrown into a sentence that means absolutely nothing to me, that I have never heard before. Just when you start to feel like we’re all the same it comes out of nowhere and it makes me laugh.
There’s no such thing as one Canadian experience just like Connecticut is different from California. I find Ontario to be more formal. For example, I think we’re all accustomed to writing that seven-word email and hitting send. If you did that here I think it would be very insulting. It’s it’s much more like an email letter. So I have become more formal in my communication. There’s different municipal requirements as well. When I go and report to the city council (as I do every year) it’s on TV and people actually watch it. The mayor has a very large metal ceremonial necklace that he wears. When you go into his chambers, there are pictures of the Queen and Prince Phillip everywhere. I find Ontario to be more formal, but not unfriendly. And I find myself saying ‘you people’ quite a lot and they all know that I mean it in a lighthearted way.
How did you get started in the facilities world?
I was an events consultant and I was running a street festival in New Haven, Connecticut that was on the campus of Yale University. At a tennis match, I ran into my old high school guidance counselor who had left education and was the executive director of the New Haven Coliseum. He said, ‘What are you doing after that tournaments over?’ I said ‘I don’t know yet’ and he said ‘Well why don’t you give me a call.’ He hired me to do marketing on a consulting basis for the New Haven Coliseum. Up until then I really had not given the arena business a thought at all. I just never realized that existed.
Where did you go from there?
From there I went to the Hartford Civic Center. I created the marketing department at Ogden entertainment. I worked for the guy who is running the U.S. Open. I went to Bridgeport to the arena at Harbor Yard which sold the naming rights. It became Webster Bank Arena and then Live Nation ran the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford and then from there was contacted about this position.
At what point did you move from marketing to general manager?
That was in Bridgeport. I started there as marketing director and then became AGM. The guy who was the GM there retired and his boss called me and asked me if I wanted to be the general manager. Truthfully, my gut reaction was, ‘No, why would I ever want to do that.’ But the more I thought about it the more I realized that if I said no, they were going to hire someone who knew nothing about the building and would take all of my ideas and would call them their own. So why not me. I just wasn’t intrigued by the whole facility infrastructure management of it. I love the marketing side and still do. When I came over to general management more than 15 years ago it was mostly operations and finance people that were GM. Marketing people were really not GM, let alone a female marketing person.
I don’t even know how many female GMs there were when I started. I think that was one of the reasons why I wasn’t all that intrigued about it. I didn’t really have any role models for it. It was this feeling of kind of diving into a pool and not knowing how deep the water was.
You’re still in the GM business so you didn’t hate it.
No. Who knew I was going to love it. I just needed to have people that were capable of handling building systems and the stuff that I fundamentally didn’t have an interest in. And the intelligence to be able to knit it all together and be able to manage a business. I’ve always been a relationship person. I’ve always been a hard worker. I’ve always tried to see the big picture. I’ve always been very interested in brand and reputation. All of these things dovetail so closely with what I do, not only with the building, but with our relationships with our city administrator, with our elected officials, our hockey tenant, and every promoter that comes in the building.
As a GM, do you find that you ever actually get to watch any music at your building?
Yeah but not all at the same time. I’ll stick my nose in and be on my way somewhere else. Usually I have the set list and then I find myself saying, ‘Ugh. That was the one song I wanted to hear and I missed that.’ With the Tragically Hip show, the only time I went out there was when it should have been over because we had to empty the building. I had to do a changeover for the after party. I went out there and they were still on the stage.
Are there any musicians who you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to work with?
Paul McCartney or as he used to be known, the cute Beatle. How could you not idolize Paul McCartney? But the size building that I work in is never going to be a Paul McCartney target, much as it breaks my heart. Paul McCartney probably won’t be able to fulfill that goal, but the other goal that I did manage to accomplish was Bruce Springsteen. The god of music and storytelling. I did work with Bruce Springsteen and his camp in Bridgeport. That was an incredible accomplishment and proud moment and fan moment.
Have you always been a Springsteen fan?
Oh yeah. Forever. I snuck into a Springsteen concert in Waterbury back in the day. Clarence [Clemons] was in a bright red suit.
You snuck into a venue?
Well, no. Let me rephrase that. We had tickets but the tickets that we had were not in the section that we snuck into to watch. So we got into the building legally and then we found our way to orchestra seats and then the right people came and we had to move. Nonetheless, we were very close. We were just where we wanted to be.