Not Your Everyday Attendance Woes In Cincinnati

At least, that’s the picture depicted in the Cincinnati Enquirer from an article written by Janelle Gelfand and Cliff Peale…

The 8/18/2007 article reports that Cincinnati Symphony "[a]verage attendance slid 10 percent, single-ticket sales were down 16 percent and subscriptions fell nearly 14 percent for the symphony’s 53-concert season that ended in May." The article goes on to demonstrate how this dip in attendance fits into the historical picture.

According to figures published in the Enquirer article, since the 2000-2001 season the organization’s average attendance has slipped by 24.138 percent. The change in average attendance from season to season is illustrated in the chart to your left.

At the heart of the article is a discussion around what could have caused such a large reduction in average attendance. In a move that I think is right on mark, the authors point out that "average attendance has dropped markedly since it raised ticket prices by an average of 25 percent three years ago."

It should come as no surprise that price is an issue and the Enquirer article invites readers to weigh in on the topic via their Classical Music blog (overseen by Janelle Gelfand). At the time this article was published there are 20 comments, many of which present some interesting viewpoints, not the least of which focus on ticket prices, fees, and related concert going expenses. I was particularly intrigued by one reader who focused on the "elitist" attitude she claims the organization projects through their marketing and advertising efforts.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Cincinnati Symphony pegged some of their attendance woes on the size of their 3,400 seat Music Hall. Granted, that’s a barn no doubt about it, but the fact remains that they are only selling 1,540 seats per concert which would still only amount to 77 percent capacity in a 2,000 seat venue. All in all, a figure that is a good 13 percent lower than an acceptable standard. As such, even if the organization eliminated 41 percent of their seats via a hall rehab, last season’s sales figures would still fall short of acceptable attendance levels.

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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3 thoughts on “Not Your Everyday Attendance Woes In Cincinnati”

  1. It’s interesting to note that if we assume that the decline in attendance was caused by the increase in ticket prices we find that the higher ticket prices didn’t just hurt attendance but failed to help the bottom line as well.

    Rather than using the 24% decrease figure that compares against 2000/01, let’s compare with the attendance for what I assume is the last year before the price hike. The attendance drop between 03/03 and 06/07 was 20.41%

    Revenue = R
    Number of attendees = N
    Ticket Price = P

    R = N x P

    With the reported changes in attendance and ticket prices:

    R = N x .7959 x P x 1.25
    R = N x P x .9949

    So Revenue is about 99.49% of what it was prior to the price hike. (This assumes the missing people averaged normal ticket prices — if the loss was disproportionately from more or less expensive seats, things shift a little.)

    Obviously we have no way of isolating other variables. Maybe only part of the attendance loss is attributable to the change in ticket price, in which case maybe the higher ticket price does help the bottom line. But it sure looks like they sacrificed 20% or so of their audience for nothing.

    Or almost nothing — there’s one other important consideration. The decline in attendance took a few years (and might continue, for all we know) so the first and second year would have seen boosts to the bottom line.

    04/05 saw only a 11.78% attendance drop from 03/04, but still had the 25% boost in ticket prices:

    R = N x .8822 x P x 1.25
    R = N x P x 1.1028
    That’s a 10.28% increase in revenue over 03/04

    05/06 attendance was only 11.58% lower than 03/04:

    R = N x .8842 x P x 1.25
    R = N x P x 1.1053
    That’s a 10.53% increase in revenue over 03/04.

    So for those first two years the increased ticket prices probably looked pretty good from a bottom-line perspective, but by year 3 the added revenue would have collapsed and they would have been left with lower attendance, which means a smaller donor pool and less word-of-mouth recruitment of new audience members. Are those two years of increased revenue worth the cost? I don’t think so.

    Once again, I’m making a boatload of assumptions here which might turn out to be faulty — maybe the reality in Cincinnati is a lot different from what I’m describing. But I think my analytical model is valid, and even if my calculations are only approximately right there’s still real cause for concern, especially about the lure of the short-term gain paid for with a long-term loss.

  2. Here’s another way of looking at it.

    -average attendance at concerts: 1540.
    -average attendance for the week (two concerts): 3080.
    -population of Cincinnati metro area: 2,000,000.

    3080/2,000,000 = .0015 = 00.15%

    Please check my math, but this seems to indicate that something like one out of ever 700 people in the Cincy metropolitan area attending concerts.

    This, by itself is not too bad. Certainly 1400 people is a reasonable number to attend a concert, and one out of 700 is about what I’d expect.

    What is nervous making is that the attendance is declining.

    My position is this: So long as the number of people in the auditorium is greater than the number on stage, then . . . well, no. I’m being facetious.

    My position is this: 1500 people, more or less, is a respectable audience for a symphony concert. We’d like more, but we don’t need size to justify the existence of an orchestra.

    However, we damn well need to work on ensuring that there will be future audiences of at least that size and — it is to be hoped — larger.

    Paul A. Alter

  3. more revealing than ticket prices is the sociological transformation of the the city. Music Hall is in downtown and there are crime worries and inadequate parking. Redevelopment of downtown cinci has historically been a conflicting mess of incompetence, politics, and greed.
    If the Cincinnati Symphony performed in a concert hall 40 minutes north of downtown there would be no attendance worries at all (in my opinion)

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Not Your Everyday Attendance Woes In Cincinnati