When It Comes To Attendance, Is Less More? Part 1

A recent article in the 03/10/2007 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune reported the negative patron feedback generated by the Utah Symphony & Opera’s new plan to make their primary concert venue look fuller for each concert…

Specifically, the US&O plans to block off certain sections of their primary concert venue (Abravanel Hall) in order to herd patrons closer together as an attempt to alleviate what the US&O’s Vice President for Marketing & Communications, Sean Toomey, described in an email message as frustrations over “the size of [our] hall and the challenge to fill it.”

According to the SL Tribune article, initial reactions from existing US&O subscribers were caustic. One patron was quoted saying “I think it’s an extremely stupid decision. They’re antagonizing the very people that they want.”

When describing to the SL Tribune the decision to close some of the seating sections, the article reported that Sean Toomey said the organization wanted to lessen the impact of a “psychological phenomenon” that the organization was faltering. According to ticket sales figures provided by Toomey upon request, from the 99-00 season to the 05-06 season the US&O experienced a decline in both the number of concerts it presented as well as the number of tickets they sold.

Between that period, the US&O went from selling 130,854 tickets for 82 concert events to 95,182 tickets for 63 concert events, or a difference of 35,672 tickets, as illustrated in the chart below.

Optical Illusions
It would be difficult to find many managers, musicians, or patrons who are immune to the detrimental impact from concerts where more than 30 percent of the seats are empty. In a word, it is demoralizing. According to Toomey, that is why he came up with the idea to visually shrink the space used by performers and patrons to judge Abravanel Hall’s attendance. In an email message, Toomey wrote that he was generally frustrated trying to maintain an average attendance of 64 percent “despite slow increases in sales.”

As such, Toomey went on to write that an earlier experiment in closing off seating sections for an audience size of 800 produced what he considered to be favorable results was among the driving factors in designing the current plan to close sections for the entire 2007-2008 season unless needed. The graphic to your left,provided by the US&O, illustrates how Toomey envisions the curbed seating choices will look (click to enlarge).

However, upon announcing the plan, the US&O received numerous complaints from subscribers and as a result, the organization has decided to reopen the Third Tier seats. According to Toomey, “there are some unique attributes of the third tier sides [for patrons], and that the small quantity of seats will not diminish the overall plan.”

This isn’t the first time an organization has attempted to make a less than capacity hall look fuller than it actually is. In fact, I recently encountered a clever device used by The Capital Theater at Overture Center for the Arts. During the venue’s recent refurbishing, they purposely used a fabric covering for the rear-most section of top balcony seats that is nearly identical to the color of the drapes immediately behind those seats. Meanwhile, the remaining seats are a contrasting bright red so that the venue appears to be closer to capacity when the box office opts to close the rear-most section of seats.

The photograph to your far left (click to enlarge) illustrates how well the rear-most section of seats visually blends in with the background. I took the first photograph during my tour and apologize for my lack of photographic skill, nevertheless, the photograph to the near left (click to enlarge), courtesy of professional photographer Eric Plautz, provides a clearer idea of how this technique looks from the stage.

However, one distinct difference between the program incorporated into The Capital Theater design and the plans set forth by the US&O is that The Capital Theater put forethought into their plan whereas the US&O plan is after the fact. Additionally, The Capitol Theater only incorporated the seats in the very back of the hall as opposed to seats on multiple levels and at the end of each main floor and balcony level row. Furthermore, the percentage of camouflaged seats in The Capital Theater is much less than the percentage the US&O plans to block off beginning in 2007-2008.

Crunching the Numbers
In the US&O’s situation, the decision to close off seating sections comes back to how the organization desires to be portrayed in the media. In the 05-06 season, the Utah Symphony didn’t sell approximately 45 percent of available seats for each classical concert, the lowest figure in all but two of the previous six seasons, yet they don’t want patrons and donors to see that as a failure. In the SL Tribune article and his email messages to me, Toomey pointed out that some of the newer concert venues across the U.S. have fewer seats than Abravanel Hall. In fact, Toomey wrote that the US&O’s recent single event attendance figure of approximately 1,800 would be an “unqualified success elsewhere [such as Disney Hall in] L.A. or [Carnival Hall in] Miami.”

It is also worth pointing out that in Nashville, the brand new Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s main hall seats approximately 1,800. However, maximum capacity is only one component influencing an organization’s average attendance figures, and therefore determining what may or may not be considered an “unqualified success”. For example, in Nashville their old venue seats approximately 2,400 and while there, the organization performed two concerts per classical series, meaning they had a maximum of 4,800 seats to sell for each concert series.

However, in the new 1,800 venue, they increased their number of performances for each classical series to three, meaning they have a maximum of 5,400 seats to sell for each series, an average of 200 more per concert than their old venue even though the new hall seats 25 percent fewer ticket buyers. As such, even though the hall’s maximum capacity went down, their overall maximum number of seats to sell per series went up almost equal to what the US&O needs to sell per two concert series in order to maintain a 90 percent average or better attendance figure.

As for Nashville’s ability to sell the additional number of tickets in the space of one year Christy Crytzer, Nashville Symphony’s Director of Media Relations, said their inaugural year produced an average attendance over 90 percent capacity for classical concerts and their subscription revenue is more than 6 percent over their goal of $4,085,366. As for the 07-08 season, Nashville reports they are ahead of where they were at this point last season and have increased their revenue goals by nearly $500,000.

How about the example mentioned by Sean Toomey, the L.A. Philharmonic? Their new venue does indeed seat approximately 2,265, which is approximately 900 seats less than their previous venue. However, much like Nashville, the Los Angeles Philharmonic offers more concerts per series as compared to the Utah Symphony; in fact, they offer between three and four performances for each classical concert. This results in the L.A. Philharmonic having to sell between 6,795 and 9,060 seats per classical concert series.

Nevertheless, according to Adam Crane, Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Public Relations & Communications, since moving into Disney Hall the Philharmonic has regularly averaged 90 percent or better attendance for all classical concerts.

Apparently, based on these examples, population or venue size isn’t an overriding factor when it comes to the ability to sell tickets. In an email, Sean Toomey pointed out that the average population in Los Angeles is much larger than Salt Lake (according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate, it is around ten times larger). However, when compared to Salt Lake’s greater metropolitan area, Nashville’s greater metropolitan population is much smaller, it only amounts to 60 percent of Salt Lake’s population, yet they manage to sell approximately 1,200 more tickets per classical series than the Utah Symphony. The chart below illustrates the comparisons:

When asked at what time the US&O’s current seating plan will facilitate the organization reaching an average attendance rate of 90 percent, Sean Toomey wrote “We don’t have a target date to hit a 90% occupancy rate.” Instead, Toomey went on to state that the US&O is focused on increasing overall ticket revenue though a combination of raising prices and selling more tickets as opposed to focusing on attendance rates.

I invite you to return tomorrow where we’ll continue to examine the US&O’s plan to create what they are calling a “smaller virtual hall”. Among other points, we’ll consider the logistics involved with preventing patrons from moving to unoccupied seats as well as how the US&O prepared for reactions from stakeholders once the decision was announced. We’ll also consider whether or not designing and implementing a plan such as this is ultimately self defeating in light of opting to find solutions capable of filling the number seats which occupy the hall.

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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4 thoughts on “When It Comes To Attendance, Is Less More? Part 1”

  1. I think this is a terrible idea on the part of the US&O. As an audience member, I really like going to less popular concerts. I have space to breathe. I can spread out, put my coat on the seat next to me, or change seats if I want. I don’t have to fight for the armrest! People like their personal space. Its the same reason why we like half-empty flights when sitting in coach. This plan will probably just antagonize regular patrons.

    The US&O really should just work on filling more of the space they have, rather than making it smaller. Why not give away free student tickets, if they already don’t? How about free tickets to first time symphony-goers? How about buy-one-get-one-free, so regular patrons will bring friends? How about blowout reduced ticket prices for large groups that normally wouldn’t be able to attend, or wouldn’t consider it? The orchestra management is going about this the totally wrong way. Don’t reduce the seating–expand the audience!

  2. Good morning, Greg. Interesting and all too true. Outside of major metropolitan centers where classical music is well-established, such as New York, Chicago, and Boston, audiences for classical music are shrinking. This is not statistical data, but first-hand experience. Concert halls in many major European capitals and the vast majority of opera houses in mid-size cities in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and France are much, much smaller than their American counterparts. And we all know they have – halls, music, musicians, audiences – been around for much, much longer than their American counterparts. The size of most halls in mid-size American cities, such as those mentioned in your article – Salt Lake City, for example- is much too capacious. While marketing ploys, such as twofers and giveaways might crack open the doors to the concert halls, only a radical re-invention of the traditional symphonic concert, as we know it, will truly throw those doors wide open and begin to expand the audience that now stays away in droves. This season I have been to approximately forty musical performances between September and now. Even with a brand-new performing arts center and all the accompanying hoopla, I have seen an alarming number of empty seats in concert after concert and opera after opera. Only the New World Symphony – which performs in the intimate Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, does regularly fill the house. Part of that is programming that assures the concert-goer that classical music is not a soporific 19th century (and earlier) art form. The way those programs are presented also makes them much more accessible, and by that I mean casual, with spoken introductions by the conductor, projected program commentary, and so forth. My good wishes go to the management and musicians of the Utah Symphony Orchestra for their efforts to enlarge their audience.

  3. The Utah SO is trying to do what many sports teams have done – especially in Major League Soccer, close off sections in large stadiums to concentrate spectators in a smaller area. Baseball teams used to do the same, though probably less so now that most newer stadiums tend to be a bit smaller.

    I don’t like the Utah plan, esp. because I’m one of those people who like to sit up in the cheap seats. And spin it however you want; if sales have declined 30% over a few years, that’s trouble, and no quantity of covered seats will change that.

    It’s true that creating a perception of scarcity can sometimes be a very effective marketing tool, but instead of ordering seat-cover fabrics, I’d prefer the Utah SO look more at where they’re headed artistically and in terms of giving their public a compelling experience. With a new music director likely coming soon, perhaps they could look at this as an opportunity.

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