Originally published on gwalumni.org by Christine Cole
As a theatre major, Joe Altenau, CCAS BA ’08, worked behind the scenes on productions that thousands of people attended every year. Today, his behind-the-scenes role at New Jersey’s Prudential Center reaches millions.
Prudential Center hosts about 175 events a year — including New Jersey Devils hockey games, Seton Hall Pirates basketball games, concerts with acts like Bruce Springsteen, and special events like graduations or last summer’s MTV Music Video Awards — and, on average, there are 17,000 seats up for grabs for each one.
With that many events and that many people entering the arena night after night, it takes teams of people to ensure everything runs smoothly. And Joe Altenau is the one who heads up that effort.
“At a top 10 arena in the country, I’m part of the team that oversees event logistics, the guest services team, and the guest experience to ensure that the millions of guests who come through the doors are treated to a world-class experience from the moment they park their car to the moment they leave,” says Altenau, who is the vice president of event operations and guest experience.
“I love how different every day is,” he says. “I get to go the same place, and there’s familiarity with the team, but every day there are new challenges that we have to solve quickly.” But he also admits that you have to have a true passion for this industry because the hours are rigorous, and it’s by no means a nine-to-five job. There are times when he works six or seven days a week, and sometimes more than 20 hours a day.
“But when you spend hours preparing the arena, and once the lights go down, and you hear that roar of the crowd — 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 or more people cheering — you realize how much joy you’re helping to bring to people’s lives, and it really becomes worth it,” he says.
Of course, switching between hockey games, concerts, and basketball games, sometimes all within a three-day period, takes a lot of planning and coordination. There are stages to set up, lighting and sound considerations, security and housekeeping issues, and after the events, there are numerous other tasks like billing, labor invoices, and working with the team that programs and books the upcoming shows. It’s a long list.
“So much of my time at GW helped me prepare for what I do today,” he emphasizes.
Originally from Eastchester, New York, Altenau, who was a Presidential Scholar, cross country athlete, and theatre major, remembers stepping off the Metro in D.C. for the first time, and within minutes of being on campus felt like he was at home.
“I went into the Marvin Theater, where they were loading in a production for the Theatre and Dance Department … and the professor who was leading that, Carl Gudenius, stopped what he was doing and gave me and my family a personalized tour of the theater and talked to me about the program, and it was incredible,” he recalls. “At that point, I just knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
And during his time in Foggy Bottom, he had numerous “only at GW moments” that helped lead him to where he is today.
Take for example working with Gudenius as a production assistant setting up a stage outside the White House for the dedication of President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. “It gave me an incredible view into what life was like in this field I wanted to work in,” he says.
Or the time he saw a poster in the Marvin Center advertising a trip to the 2006 winter Olympics to work with NBC. He was only a freshman and thought there was no chance he’d be able to be a part of that.
“But sure enough, a year and a half later, I was in Italy at the Olympics because of the connections that Dr. Lisa Delpy Neirotti had made. She was able to get us interviews with NBC,” he says.
Not only did he work for NBC in 2006, he also worked for them during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “Those memories, although not on campus, only happened because of my time at GW.”
Altenau has stayed close to both Gudenius and Delpy Neirotti over the last 16 years, often emailing for advice or asking how he can help current GW students, and they always answer. “They’ve been incredible. Once I graduated, those relationships didn’t just stop,” he notes.
It’s these relationships, along with the close friendships he made in Thurston Hall, that keep him so connected to GW and why he continues to give back: “We talk about life-long engagement with the university, and I certainly have that.”
He’s also incredibly thankful for everything GW offered him. “I want to make sure that everyone who wants to go to GW can have those experiences as well,” he says. “So giving back financially, and helping current GW students see career paths and options once they graduate, is incredibly important to me.”
Despite his rigorous work schedule, he still manages to find time to put his GW cross country training to good use. He’s currently training for the Boston Marathon, and he’s running as an ambassador for You Can Play, an organization that is a partner of the NHL and is dedicated to giving members of the LGBTQ+ community equal representation in sports.
So, what advice does he have for students or recent grads?
“The number one thing I tell people all the time is to network. Network while at GW, reach out to connections on LinkedIn. But don’t just add them as a connection, send a personal message,” he says. “Whenever a GW grad reaches out, wanting to know more about the sports or entertainment industry, I’m happy to get on a call to say here’s what it looks like, here’s what I did, and here are some options for how they can break into the industry.”