When It Comes To Attendance, Is Less More? Part 2

After learning the initial details about their plan and crunching some numbers, today’s installment will examine the remaining issues behind the Utah Symphony & Opera’s plan to create a “smaller virtual hall”…


Strong Reaction
In Part 1, we heard from a US&O subscriber who was quoted in a recent edition of the Salt Lake Tribune about losing her Third Tier subscription seat. In order to learn more about how patrons fell beyond what has already been reported in the mainstream media I contacted a US&O patron who described him and his wife as “subscribers for many years”.

The veteran subscriber said they received a subscription renewal notice from the US&O not long ago indicating their regular seats in the Third Tier were no longer available but the organization was pleased to offer them “great seats” on the main orchestra floor.

“The Third Tier seats were missing from brochure altogether,” said the veteran subscriber. “And the seats they offered to us on the main floor were not really all that great in our opinion, especially since they were in the section that was supposedly blacked out.”

The veteran subscriber also indicated that they subscribe to different seats throughout Abravanel Hall based on which concert series they attend. For example, they reserve Third Tier seats for the US&O’s Entertainment Series because they provide better sightlines but for the Pops and Classical Series, they reserve seats in the Second Tier, which in their opinion provide better acoustics. As such, they were displeased at the prospect of having to move to seats on the main floor.

“Acoustically, the Third Tier seats sound great but it’s the vantage point that really makes a difference,” said the veteran subscriber. “But we think that some of the sections on the main floor don’t sound as good as our subscription seats midway back on the side of the Second Tier and in the Third Tier.”

After mentioning that the US&O recently rescinded its decision to close the Third Tier seating sections, the veteran subscriber was pleasantly surprised.

“We haven’t received any letter indicating the Third Tier was open again but I hope that’s correct,” said the veteran subscriber. “Now I hope we’ll be able to get our regular seats back. As of now, [the US&O] told us it would be two months before they could tell us which seats were available in the new plan so who knows how long it will take for them to let us know about the status of our original seast and whether or not the price will remain the same as last season.”

The veteran subscriber brings up a good point, even if Third Tier seats are now open will the US&O charge subscribers prices that are within five percent of what they paid for this season or will they attempt to persuade patrons to move out of the Third Tier by raising prices? One way or another, renewing subscribers will find out once the US&O contacts them with details.

When asked what he thought of the decision to begin herding patrons together by closing off certain seating sections, the veteran subscriber offered a fervent response.

“I think they need to focus on filling the seats they have as opposed to blocking off seats to make things seem fuller,” said the veteran subscriber. “I think this is a gimmick to relieve pressure on the marketing department from selling the hall.”

And with that, we head right into the next section…

Why Go To All This Trouble?
Undeniably, every organization must focus on meeting revenue goals and according to US&O’s Vice President for Marketing & Communications, Sean Toomey, their “goals are revenue-driven, not attendance-driven.”

However, that is where the US&O may have run into some problems with the plan to create what Toomey described as a “smaller virtual hall.” The organization has already acknowledged the detrimental impact of a hall that is more than 30 percent empty for an average classical performance. Nevertheless, according to Toomey, the primary negative aspect the causing the organization concern is public perception of their financial position.

“The appearance of an empty hall,” wrote Toomey “calls into question our improved financial picture.”

hypnot_text.jpgIn fact, when compared to the 03-04 and 04-05 seasons, the organization did experience a modest increase in tickets sold during 0-06, although that season was still below sales figures from 99-00 through 0-02 (as illustrated in a graph from Part 1). Add to that the US&O, according to Toomey, has no set date at which they plan to reach an average of 90 percent occupancy rate and patrons may wonder whether or not the US&O has any firm exit strategy out of the “smaller virtual hall.” Furthermore, now that the matter has been brought to public attention, will the audience be more aware of empty seats?

Then there’s the issue of acoustics, closing off some seating sections will undoubtedly have an impact on how the orchestra sounds. Where patrons sit and even what they wear are such a critical issues that the acousticians for Nashville’s new concert hall recommend that the organization prohibit patrons from wearing heavy winter coats in the hall (a suggestion the organization implemented along with free coat check service). To date, the US&O hasn’t mentioned anything about having secured input from a professional acoustician to help determine what sort of impact the new seating plan will have on a patron’s listening experience.

Consequently, many US&O supporters may be wondering the same thing the veteran subscriber touched on above; mainly, why isn’t the organization directing their resources toward finding a way to fill the seats instead of making Abravanel Hall appear “virtually” full. It may likely come back to the point at the beginning of this section: revenue. Perhaps the US&O may one day consider the benefit of a plan espoused here at Adaptistration for years and is being adapted to a degree in Baltimore: subsidized ticket prices. Simply, put, the US&O should look for a funding source to subsidize revenue they clearly need in order to offer lower ticket prices and therefore attract new and erstwhile ticket buyers.

A Logistical Quagmire?
Unlike the example of the Overture Center for the Arts’ Capitol Theater to close entire sections that have camouflaged seats to make the hall appear fuller, the US&O plan includes a combination of closing off entire rows and sections along with individual seats on the ends of some main floor rows.

>From a logistical standpoint, closing off entire tiers or rows is fairly easy to accomplish by setting up ropes, etc. However, closing off four to six seats on the end of continental style rows (meaning there are no middle aisles) may be more trouble than it is worth. According to Toomey, the organization hasn’t decided how it will enforce a “no drifting” policy but short of placing some sort of sign or cover on each and every closed seat, there isn’t much the organization can do.

Then there’s the issue of policing the no seating policy. Will ushers be armed with instructions to remove patrons from closed seats? It is doubtful that many house managers would welcome the opportunity to increase face to face conflict between ushers and patrons. Furthermore, if subscribers by and large are already displeased with being evicted from familiar seats, imagine how they may respond if confronted by an usher for sitting in a “closed seat”.

Spanish novelist Miguel De Cervantes said “To be prepared is half the victory.” As such, when asked if the US&O conducted any surveys among existing subscribers and/or single ticket buyers to anticipate how the new seating options would be received, Toomey responded in an email message writing,

“This is a very difficult issue to test on a survey. You obviously prefer your seats for some reason because out of many options you have chosen them. Rate on a scale of one to five your willingness to move to other seats so that the organization as a whole would benefit.

Toomey went on to state that instead of conducting any initial surveys he relied on responses from their initial communication with subscribers announcing the new seating plan.

“Most people did not even respond to (many didn’t read) the initial mailing we sent out regarding the change,” wrote Toomey. “And so getting a valid response would have been difficult.”

Nevertheless, most organizations maintain some sort of low cost tool to communicate with existing subscribers and beyond good old face to face interaction at concerts, one of the most useful tools is an email list. Add to that some of the free survey tools available online and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement a worthwhile survey. In fact, an article here from August 9, 2006 examines one such free survey tool at surveymonkey.com (which was used by the Charleston Symphony to implement a recent comprehensive audience survey).

Furthermore, the Utah Symphony musicians were not informed of the new seating program until after the decision had been made. According to one orchestra musician, they were only notified about the plan prior to one of their recent rehearsals. Consequently, this sort of planning, which focuses on implementation more so than preparation, may result in the US&O inadvertently suffering from subscribers canceling subscriptions due a “Ready, Fire, Aim” strategy.

According to Toomey, who designed the “smaller virtual hall” plan, the US&O “will do everything possible to meet [subscriber’s] needs.”

“Our intention is to find solutions for as many people as possible,” wrote Toomey. “If our renewal rate for the closed sections is less than our renewal rate for the open sections, then we have failed; we are committed not to fail.”

Whether or not that commitment includes allowing subscribers into closed off sections is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the US&O’s decision to reopen the Third Tier demonstrates some level of flexibility and the value in having patrons respond in masse with a collective message.

Conclusions
The US&O’s plan to create a “smaller virtual hall” is, at best, a risky gamble. By setting no firm attendance targets at or better than 90 percent capacity in lieu of revenue targets, there is too much temptation to gravitate toward plans which rely mostly on increased ticket prices to meet revenue goals.

Perhaps most puzzling, the plan fails to recognize the normal socio-psychological tendency for people to maximize personal space. You witness this trait every time you go to the movie theater: most people in this country don’t readily sit in a seat adjacent to another patron when there are ample vacant seats in the immediate vicinity. You also witness it during air travel, how many people out there will willingly move to a nearby seat which offers an empty seat “buffer” between them and another passenger?

It brings to mind some of my recent flying experiences on United where the company recently began implementing their “Economy Plus” seating program in force. Essentially, these are seats toward the front of the economy cabin that have a few extra inches of legroom which Untied typically charges an additional $30.

During three of my most recent flights on United in the past month, the aircraft has been at or near capacity in the standard economy seating area but no more than 20% full in the Economy Plus. As such, at the beginning of each flight, just after the flight crew closed the door to the aircraft, there was a mad scramble (nay, stampede) among standard economy passengers in for the empty seats in the Economy Plus section.

Unfortunately, by the third flight, the machine behind United decided that things were getting out of hand (likely due to complaints from crew members and passengers). However, their solution was to have the captain make a preflight announcement (in a very stern captainesque tone of voice no less) stating that passengers must remain in their assigned seats and may not move to the Economy Plus seats unless they already had an Economy Plus ticket; compliance would be strictly enforced. This doesn’t exactly set the tone for a welcoming flight experience (or one that invites you to return).

In the end, the US&O’s plan brings to mind an old adage: you can’t cut your way to success.

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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7 thoughts on “When It Comes To Attendance, Is Less More? Part 2”

  1. I really enjoyed your analysis. The graphics are great. Where do you get them? . . .

    The issue of policing the closed seating areas reminds me of a concert I attended at the CSO where the ushers, under the direction of a different house manager than usual, decided to stop the audience from switching seats at intermission. It led to some uncomfortable exchanges. In particular, I remember watching one conscientious usher threaten to call security on a young couple that had moved into an open row in the lower balcony. I don’t think that they felt very welcome.

  2. For as long as I can remember, the guy in the box office who could “dress the house” was a valued member of the staff of any theater.

    Said guy knew how to distribute the tickets so as to make the hall always seem more populated than it actually was. I was an art.

    I haven’t noticed it much, lately. Aren’t BO’s in concert halls practicing it any more?

  3. Blake: Thanks for relating your account of your CSO experience. The two graphics for this article are something I put together from stock graphics. I’m glad you enjoyed them; as such, make sure you stop by for tomorrow’s post…

  4. To me, the Utah Symphony marketing needs to look how Pro Baseball deals with the same problem. If you ever look at some of the games on TV, you’ll notice that many games are far from half full. No worries, the game continues and occasionally the base ball that flies into the stands won’t have a battle over it. The way this “problem” is being treated almost is as if the marketing department took the same class as the mattress store that put up mirrors everywhere to make it look full.

    Personally, I would not put up with being told where to sit. The rebel in me would want to bring friends along just to sit in the forbidden seats. The grown up in me would not come. That leaves me thinking, what if everyone is just as disgusted with this as I am. Then, truly, there wouldn’t be a problem. You wouldn’t have an audience at all.

  5. The overarching issue for discussion isn’t dressing the house. It is that most halls are too big for the audience of today and the audience trends of the future. It would be great, Drew, to read more from you re how communities need to rethink the hall-size issue, especially for those that are in the planning and building mode.

  6. Louise: I agree, the issue of house size and audience trends of tomorrow go hand in hand. however, I would also say that the issues examined in these articles on the US&O’s current program are a critical component to that discussion. I don’t know how long you’ve followed this blog, but there have been a series of ongoing articles since February 2004 which examine the exact issues you mention. I wish I had a better indexing tool at my disposal to help readers find those articles but in general, you can find them by doing a search for any of the following: “Size Matters”, “concert hall” “Schermerhorn Symphony Center” “Nashville”, “Kansas City”, “Dayton”, and “Richmond”.

    You can always contact me directly via email with specific questions if you have trouble locating the articles. Nevertheless, with the exception of venues such as the 3500+ hall Cincinnati Symphony uses, most halls aren’t beyond the capacity for most organizations and the communities they serve. If you look at a case like the one I used in these articles from Nashville, the organization is required to sell more tickets per series in their new venue, which has fewer seats than their previous hall. Certainly, using the 1800 seat configuration gives the organization more flexibility by offering events over the course of more evenings (in their case three as opposed to two)

    The important point to notice here is when Nashville designed their new hall, they didn’t use it as a platform to reduce the number of patrons they should reach in the course of a given year, instead, they increased their required ticket sales considerably. The smart move was to find a seating configuration which fit within their budget and allowed them the greatest number of opportunities to bring in the new audience.

    In the end, the product is still worthwhile and the audience is there. In most cases, shrinking audiences aren’t a result of supply & demand, they are self inflicted. As such, building smaller halls based on that premise alone won’t solve the problem, on the contrary, it will only exacerbate the problem.

  7. Sad to say, it seems some things don’t change. A friend and I recently went to the Beethoven season opening concert featuring Andre Watts. We purchased our tickets about 45minutes prior to the start of the concert for the 3rd balcony. We were told there were only singles available to which we agreed. We arrived to once again find the 3rd and 4th rows totally empty. Since the concert was about to start in just a matter of minutes we seated ourselves together in the 3rd row. A few moments into the opening chords a female usher came up on my friends’ side and said “You can’t sit there”. He of course responded ‘If you think I’m moving you’re out of your mind”, to which she responded “that’s not what I said”. He then shushed her and went back to enjoying the performance. Now really, just who were we hurting? Just what sort of professionalism does it infer to make such a scene by the usher after the program has already started? Furthermore, what does it matter where we sit in the 3rd balcony? We prefer the sound and sight lines there and don’t even care that the price for sitting there has almost tripled from what it once was. It’s time to end this nonsense.

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