Box Suites and Chicken Strips

I remember attending a Three Tenors concert at the 20,000 seat MCI Center in Washington D.C. in 2001.  It was my first experience attending a “classical” style concert in that type of venue.  I recall walking into the arena and I was struck by the overpowering smell of chicken strips.  About half of the regular concession stands and merchandise kiosks were operating and doing good business.  The lines were as long to get nachos at this concert as it is for a Wizzard’s game (same price too).

Once inside, they had most of the arena floor covered with seats, our seats were right below one of the mega expensive, party-driven, executive suites.  The people were enjoying wine and Champaign while eating a wonderful array of food (I peeked in during half-time, er, intermission). In general they all seemed to be having a great time.  Out in the main floor you couldn’t go more than a few people in each row without seeing someone with a plastic plate of fast food.  Some people were dressed up like they do for most orchestra concerts but the vast majority was in casual clothes, jeans, t-shirts, and shorts (I went for sandals, jeans, and a short sleeve polo).

And I have to admit, when walking into the arena, the sights of and smell of fast food and beer in combination with the mass merchandising seemed shocking. A voice in my head said “This isn’t right, it’s a classical concert.”

But by the time the concert started I had run into several old friends (each had a bucket of french fries), caught up on old times, and met some new acquaintances.  By that point I decided that this was a pretty cool evening regardless of how the performance went.  It was a concert experience where the relaxed social aspect was every bit of a factor that determined my enjoyment of the evening as the show itself.

Next week, I am publishing an installment of articles about four orchestras that are in various stages of building new concert halls.  I don’t remember any of them incorporating executive suites into their respective hall designs, but perhaps they should.  It’s those suites that help contribute to the type of instantly comfortable atmosphere that’s missing from traditional orchestra concerts.  Now I don’t know if you’re going to see beer and chicken strips in your local orchestra hall any time soon. But maybe if they begin building venues that can easily convert from a traditional hall to something more relaxed we’ll see a fundamental shift in the type of broad based audience that discovers an interest in the orchestral concert experience.

I bet you could even sell an orchestra hall executive suite for less than a typical arena suite and still make a big profit.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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