Allen Johnson prefers to work in the shadows. Big shadows. Sir Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, The Undertaker, Paolo Banchero, and a slew of NFL and NCAA football stars.
They are the show. Johnson is the guy running the show. Huge difference.
"We aren't the show," Johnson said. "In fact, if we get noticed, I always say it's a bad thing. You never see a stage manager come out on the stage. So, the highest compliment to me is that everyone said it was a great experience and nothing went wrong."
Johnson lays low and looms large as Chief Venues Officer of Orlando Venues, a position encompassing a wide range of responsibilities under his watch -- the Amway Center, Camping World Stadium, Harry P. Leu Gardens, and Mennello Museum of American Art.
He has held the gig since September 2004, after coming to Orlando from Lakeland, where he ran the Lakeland Center.
About 70 percent of his responsibilities focus on the Amway Center, with the Orlando Magic, Orlando Solar Bears and big-name concert acts and other events filtering in and out.
It's quite the ambidextrous trick. And Johnson is well-suited for the task.
Some numbers to ponder from 2022:
• Amway staged 54 concerts (591,967 in attendance - an arena record) in addition to 41 NBA games.
• Camping World Stadium staged six concerts in 2022, with a total attendance of 486,767 total attendance in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Overall, there were 226 events and a total attendance of 1,288,255.
Digging deeper into the numbers from an economic impact perspective, consider these stats:
• Wrestlemania 33 (2017) = $181.5 million in economic impact
• 2022 EDC Orlando = $118 million
• 2019 Monster Jam World Finals = $40 million.
A lot of skills come into play – managing people and egos, among them. Which is why a psychology degree from UCF isn’t a bad thing.
As with many things that happen in life, Johnson came about his line of work serendipitously. While a student at UCF, Johnson had to work to pay his way through school. He took a job at UPS, good money, flexible hours. Often between work and classes, he would kill time by going to Fashion Square Mall. There was a ticket agency in the mall. Johnson inquired about working there and got a job selling tickets in 1979.
He worked his way up the food chain quickly, ending up in Lakeland, where he replaced Donna Dowless as Executive Director of the Lakeland Center in 1988. (Side note: Dowless would leave the industry and would stake a new career in the arts. She is now officially The City of Orlando's Ambassador of Love).
Johnson interviewed for the Orlando post in 2004, and figured he had no shot after meeting twice with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
"I just thought we didn't connect," Johnson said. "The first one was very short. The second one was like... I just know he just didn't give me any kind of clue... Didn't lean in, didn't give me that body language."
He told his wife Suzi that the Orlando opportunity was toast. "Don't worry about getting packing boxes," he told Suzi. "We don't need any of them."
"And now here we are 19-plus years later."
Dyer's poker-face fooled Johnson, but he was quite impressed. "On paper Allen wasn't the frontrunner coming in, but I thought Allen knocked it out of the box," Dyer said, noting that his "professionalism" stood out.
And contrary to some assumptions that have been made over the years, Johnson and Dyer didn't know each other before meeting for the interview, despite the fact that they both grew up in Osceola County and are only a few years apart in age.
Dyer's faith has obviously paid off. Johnson has been on the front lines, overseeing the opening of the Amway Center in 2010 and a $207-million reconstruction of Camping World Stadium (then Citrus Bowl).
There is now another push from Florida Citrus Sports for stadium improvements. FCS is asking for $800 million of Tourist Development Tax dollars to finish enhancements to Camping World Stadium, which began in 2014.
"Those were major undertakings while also operating buildings at the same time," Dyer said.
Although the 65,000-seat stadium has undergone numerous expansions and renovations that include the most recent $60 million upgrade in 2021, it remains a bit of an arms race competing with other venues and cities for prime events. The upper bowl is the next target of renovations.
Orlando recently lost out on a bid to bring the FIFA 2026 World Cup tournament for a series of games, as well as the Army-Navy game.
“The competition in that world is fierce," Johnson said. "And the stadium amenities, even though we're a non-NFL stadium, the clients, when these artists are traveling from city to city, Rolling Stones or whatever, they don't know the difference between NFL or non-NFL. They just know they want a nice stadium. Patrons want a nice stadium."
A decision is expected this summer. Meanwhile, Johnson will continue to have plenty on his plate. One may wonder how he copes with the scale of his responsibilities.
A couple of factors come into play: 1. Johnson is highly organized. 2. His wife Suzi.
Johnson usually begins his workday with a touch of decluttering. He will go through his emails and hit "unsubscribe" if the content is no longer relevant. He will then get to the important stuff, going through industry newsletters and websites, most notably Sports Business Journal and Billboard, to stay up to speed on things.
"I find that calendar management and time management are the absolute key to being productive as well as proficient at your job, because you can let calendars get out of control," he said. "And some days it does."
That leads to the second part: Balancing his professional responsibilities with those as a husband and father of two adult children, Savanna and Haley.
Johnson met Suzi when he was already in the business in Lakeland, so there were no surprises when they married. It has worked out just fine.
Suzi has often told friends, "The hardest thing about deciding to say yes and marry Allen was, is it better to be number two in his life or number one in somebody else's?"
Their personal game plan means getting out the calendar on Sundays and deciding how much free time he has, what works for a family dinner, and adjust accordingly.
For 30 years and while raising two wonderful daughters, this system has worked for them. Balancing a demanding career and profession is a challenge they accept.
Everything does not go smoothly every day. Most notably, on the entertainment side, Sir Elton John canceled his scheduled concert in December 2019 just minutes after he was set to perform because of an ear infection.
"There was no indication that he was not going to be able to perform that night," Johnson said. "You don’t move in that much equipment — 18 semi-trucks, load in, have that much labor going, thinking no one is going to perform. We had no notification from the promoter or anyone else. All I knew was that he had a doctor coming by, which is not unusual. This [doctor] came by twice. My first indication was when I got a call from one of our security guards who said, ‘He just left.’''
Sir Elton John may have left the building, but otherwise the shows go on.
You can thank Allen Johnson and his team for making much of that happen in Orlando.