Rob Underwood says he has the coolest job in his whole company. That’s because he is responsible for all the events and shows at Wings Event Center. He’s the one booking bands, setting up expos and conferences and making sure the ice is ready for hockey. In addition, he oversees the millions of dollars of building improvements that are helping to rejuvenate the 41-year-old venue formerly called Wings Stadium.
A trained chef (twice a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America) with some impressive credentials on his resume — (The Greenbriar, Great Wolf Resorts), Underwood is undaunted by the huge responsibilities on his shoulders.
“I’ve helped raise six kids,” he says, “so I can juggle a lot of things.”
What do you do at Wings Event Center?
I’ve got like 15 titles here. Basically I am general manager of the Wings Event Center and I oversee facilities, from housekeeping to renovations and concessions, security and parking. But at the end of the day, my drive is booking special events — sometimes they are big fun concerts and sometimes they are high school wrestling or inline roller hockey events.
For the most part, my job is finding people to play Wings Event Center and helping to put Wings Event Center back on the map.
How did you end up here?
I’ve been with Greenleaf Hospitality (owner of Wings Event Center, Wings West and the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites) for five years and was the company’s assistant corporate food and beverage director when my boss said, “Hey, we don’t have anyone doing concerts, and you have a great personality and can build relationships. You’re not shy. Do you want to start booking concerts?”
I said yes and started cold turkey three years ago. I had no idea what I was doing. My first phone call was to a band called Grand Funk Railroad because I’d seen them in a magazine. But my different mentors said, “These guys play fairs, and you won’t sell enough tickets.” Then the lessons began.
My first couple of shows didn’t make a lot of money, but we’ve learned since, and now we’re doing fantastic. We’re getting good shows, talking to the right people. When I took this position, I didn’t want to be the guy who brought in acts who have been playing forever. I was told you’re either going to get acts that are on the rise or people at the end of their career. I said no to that. The music I like has a huge college following, like The Head and the Heart and Alabama Shakes, and we are a college town. There are a lot of bands that fit our mold: not big enough for Van Andel (Arena, in Grand Rapids), but too big for the Kalamazoo State Theatre.
What is ‘your’ music?
I grew up in the ’80s — I had a pretty bad mullet — and listened to headbanger stuff. Then in the ’90s I discovered Dave Matthews and the jam band thing. I’ve seen Dave Matthews 24 times and even took my three daughters on a cross-country road trip to Washington to see him.
It’s not really my music, but I did see Taylor Swift at Ford Field. It was amazing. I spent most of the time staring at the ceiling. I was looking at the production and how much stuff was hanging from the ceiling and how they rigged it and the staging. Man, the production that went into that was incredible. I was just a sponge, learning everything I could.
What’s a typical day at work like for you?
We have two seasons. Summer is when we spend a whole lot of time filling dates for fall, winter and spring. We are expanding our expo and conference events, so there’s a lot of time on the phone and cultivating relationships with those people.
The second season is when Oct. 16 arrives and the K-Wings start up. We still have to continue to foster those relationships from the summer while we execute and coordinate all the shows and events we’ve got lined up. It’s like “here comes this group and we have to move this floor to that floor” and coordinate all that.
What do people say when you tell them what you do?
They usually want to know more. They also want to tell me what bands to bring in, for sure.
What’s it been like to relaunch Wings Stadium as Wings Event Center?
We are doing tons of building improvements. We’ve added air conditioning for all three venues, (in addition to the main stadium, the Event Center Complex includes two other arenas — The Cube and The Annex), put in a new floor for the hockey team, added a new scoreboard and a new marquee out by I-94. Inside we’ve changed our hospitality and catering, we’ve changed the food, we have new counters and new beer taps.
It’s a 41-year-old facility, and we’re putting a lot of love back into the building. And I think people can see that. We’re not the biggest, not the newest, but we have a great venue with great hospitality. We don’t have pillars to block the view, so there’s not a bad seat in the house.
What has inspired you the most?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work for great owners of companies and great leaders, and I’ve learned how to do things the right way from the beginning. It’s amazing to be given an opportunity and have the support of people that say, “Yeah, you can do this so go do it.” I’ve never lacked for confidence, but it was a boost to my confidence to know I can take on any challenge at any time. So when this opportunity came up three years ago, I wasn’t terrified. I knew it was a cool opportunity.
I love my job. During those certain moments when you’re backstage and the event is going great, it’s the coolest job on the planet.