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.
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.