Music

Country Thunder Festivals President Troy Vollhoffer on the Brand’s Expanding Success

Country Thunder Music Festivals and Premier Global Production president Troy Vollhoffer had a decade-long career as a hockey player beginning in the early 1980s — including multiple years in the Western Hockey League, and a stint with the Baltimore Skipjacks, minor-league affiliate of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. But off the ice, he was already building his status in live music production.

Vollhoffer tells Billboard his money from playing hockey “allowed me to have the capital to invest into theatrical equipment, a lighting system,” which he used to launch Premier Global Production in 1986. Over the past nearly four decades, the company has rigged touring lights and outdoor staging for artists including Metallica, Chris Stapleton, Morgan Wallen, Tim McGraw and Florence and the Machine, as well as for events including Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo Music Festival and Austin City Limits.

Though he was leading a production company, Vollhoffer says, “I never thought the festival business would be an interest of mine.” Still, his experience with live events meant he was able to observe numerous concerts and festivals over the years. “We did a lot of festivals and we saw some great ones and we saw some not-so-great ones,” he says.

Years before he transitioned into his current role leading the Country Thunder brand of festivals and the production company, he was already familiar with the territory: Vollhoffer’s father served as a production manager for the Big Valley Jamboree in Saskatchewan, Canada, and as a teenager, Vollhoffer helped as a stagehand.

The festival would change names and shift from country to rock acts and back again, but in 2005, Vollhoffer acquired the festival (at the time called the Craven Country Jamboree). In 2017, the festival was folded into the Country Thunder brand as Country Thunder Saskatchewan, one of the six multi-day Country Thunder Festivals Vollhoffer oversees in the United States and Canada.

Vollhoffer acquired the Country Thunder brand in 2009 from Larry Barr, for the Arizona and Wisconsin festivals. Country Thunder Alberta was added to the fold in 2016, followed by Country Thunder Saskatchewan in 2017, Country Thunder Florida in 2019 and Country Thunder Bristol in 2021. Since acquiring Country Thunder Wisconsin and Country Thunder Arizona, attendance has surged from averaging 12,500 patrons per day to up to 30,000 per day.

This year, Luke Combs is headlining Country Thunder Festivals in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Florida. Eric Church and Lainey Wilson were named as headliners this year for Country Thunder Arizona and Country Thunder Wisconsin. Country Thunder Bristol, set for this weekend [June 28-29], will feature Cody Johnson, HARDY, Bailey Zimmerman and Trace Adkins.

These names extend the Country Thunder brand’s storied history of headliners, which already includes Keith Urban, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, and the late Toby Keith — who have made for some memorable moments, such as when Strait played the Craven Country Jamboree in 2009, and the time Keith got behind the bar and served up drinks after his set in 2008.

“The music business is going to miss Toby Keith,” Vollhoffer says. “He was such a big personality. After his show, he just went behind the bar. He was like, ‘I got this,’ started bartending and he was back there rocking it up until three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning.”

Far from a cut-and-paste mentality, Vollhoffer says the brand strives to make each festival as unique as the artists that play them, from Country Thunder Arizona’s site embedded in the mountains to the more coastal feel of Country Thunder Florida. Given the far-flung locations of each festival across the U.S. and in Canada, Vollhoffer and his team take care to book artists that resonate in each market.

“There are bands you’d play in Phoenix that you wouldn’t play in Wisconsin, and people who aren’t even known in Canada that do great business in Arizona,” Vollhoffer says. “The thing about Canada is that records break later there. Something could be super-hot in America, but maybe not [in Canada] yet. But when you’re booking a show a year in advance, you’re rolling the dice at times.”

One of those dice rolls that proved fortuitous was booking Morgan Wallen just prior to his skyrocketing success. In 2019, Vollhoffer met with Wallen’s team to discuss booking Wallen for multiple Country Thunder festivals in 2020.

“I had dinner with his management. He was a $25,000 act, and that’s what we paid him that year. I agreed to do the deal and I was to take a flier on him for Saturdays [at multiple festivals] — and it didn’t end up working out [due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused festivals to be canceled in 2020]. We pretty much sold out right across the board when it hit, but that doesn’t happen very often,” Vollhoffer adds.

By the time Wallen headlined three Country Thunder festivals in 2022 — Arizona in April, Wisconsin in July and Florida in October — his 2021 breakout set Dangerous: The Double Album had become the No. 1 album on the Year-End Billboard 200. The same month that Wallen headlined Country Thunder Florida (Oct. ’22), he also played his first headlining stadium show in Arlington, Texas.

Another risk that paid off was booking Zimmerman in July 2022, just as he was earning his initial hits with “Fall in Love” and “Rock and a Hard Place.”

“When we booked him for [Country Thunder] Wisconsin, I think we were maybe the second show he’d ever done professionally,” Vollhoffer recalls. “He was on around 1:00 in the afternoon. We had an influx of audience, which was unusual for 1:00. There were a ton of people, and it was fantastic.”

For each event, between 500 and 800 staffers are hired to work security, parking, camping, hosting, operational site crews, and entrance gates. Vollhoffer has seen the increasing costs associated with putting on a festival, from talent booking costs to expenses for staffing, hotels and transportation.

“I’m pretty fortunate to be able to compile great lineups, and that’s from relationships — but it’s getting a little bit harder now,” he says, also adding that the exchange rate hits hard with the Canadian festivals.

Since the October 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and over 850 people were injured, Vollhoffer has escalated security at his festivals. “Our security budget has been increased by twice what it was previously, and our police presence in each market is very high,” he explains. “We’ve had [police] dogs, we’ve had towers set up so police have a bird’s-eye view all over the site. We’ve done drones, all sorts of things. It’s all about keeping fans safe.”

As with most festival owners, Vollhoffer is aware of the impact the rising overall costs of putting on the festival series can have on ticket prices. The general admission ticket price for the six Country Thunder festivals averages less than $300.

“Unfortunately, you have to raise your ticket price,” he says. “I don’t know if there is a correction coming or not, but you can no longer charge the consumer more than what the market will bear. There was a lot of money in the marketplace. Now that’s changed. We’re having a great year, but we take one year at a time. I don’t believe the adage is necessarily correct where in times of economic downturn, the show business will always flourish. People have a decision between buying milk and buying a concert ticket. I think they’re buying milk right now.”

The Country Thunder festivals have also earned the respect of Vollhoffer’s peers, with Country Thunder Arizona, Wisconsin, and Bristol each earning Academy of Country Music’s festival of the year honors. Vollhoffer was also honored with the ACM Awards’ Lifting Lives Award and received the Don Romeo talent buyer of the year accolade.

Vollhoffer says the idea of expanding the festivals beyond North America “is not off the table,” though he says, “We’ve not entertained it. We wanted to become a household name in America first, but Europe’s different … a lot of different red tape to jump through, a lot of different regulations, and it has a very mature festival market, with the rock festivals.”

As for artists Vollhoffer would love to see headline Country Thunder, he says, “We’ve talked about having Post Malone — he’d be a great addition.” He also notes that he’s seeing several newcomers who seem poised for future headliner status. “Riley Green’s coming in hot; I think he’s going to be great. And Tucker Wetmore is on fire.”

Vollhoffer adds, “We have so many great artists this year. We are fortunate to have Luke Combs and Eric Church headlining. That’s always great business. It’s going to be a great year.”

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