I was joking with my Managing Director a couple of days ago that managing success is just as time consuming as managing a flop. On the other end of a conference call, Adrian Bryan-Brown, whose press firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown represents Arena Stage, replied “yeah, but it’s a lot more fun.” Truer words have never been spoken.
At Arena Stage, we are fortunate enough to be in a situation where we have two record-breaking productions playing concurrently: Molly Smith’s production of Oklahoma! and Marcus Gardley’s world premiere of every tongue confess directed by Kenny Leon starring Phylicia Rashad. In the past two months, I have learned a lot about what it means to manage success. Below are a couple of things to keep in mind when a mega hit hits:
1. To ensure success in the future, you need to think about retention today. Having a smash hit is exciting—orders are flooding your box office, reviews are kind and generous, and you don’t have to stress about making your sales goals. But there will be a tomorrow, and inevitably you will hit a patch that isn’t as pleasant. So take the time today to maximize your chances of retaining all the new patrons that are coming through your doors. Help prepare them for the experience by sending them a pre-attendance e-mail that discusses the show, provides dramaturgical insight, offers tips on parking and transportation, and suggests possible dinner options. Think about greeting them with a welcome kit, or maybe a complimentary drink at concessions. Go the extra distance to ensure their first experience with you is memorable for all the right reasons, and then follow it up within 48 hours with an irresistible offer to come back for another production. Studies show that if you can get new patrons to come back to just one additional production during your season, you will significantly decrease churn.
2. Have a plan for what do if inventory suddenly becomes available. Even during high demand situations, inventory becomes available as you get closer to a performance date. Sometimes group leaders can’t fill their quotas, or maybe you get lucky and you have found a way to add a few more seats. In most cases, companies just blindly throw that inventory on the market and are satisfied when it sells. These tickets have a value beyond their price as in most cases there is significantly more demand than there is inventory. Perhaps you can maximize the value of these tickets by offering them to your highest donors first as a benefit of donating. Or you could choose to sell the tickets at a significant discount to the winner of an online raffle, thereby collecting hundreds of contacts that you can use to promote to in the future. Or a little more controversial, some companies, particularly TicketMaster clients, are setting up their own e-bay style auctions to maximize revenue.
3. Monitor discounts and comp tickets aggressively. I recommend incentivizing early purchasing behaviors by providing patrons the best possible discount when you put tickets on sale. Even in high demand situations, I would encourage people to protect a significant allotment of tickets to be sold at a substantial discount weeks in advance of performances. Once you are into performances, and demand is at its highest point, discounts need to be managed aggressively. I believe that most arts organizations have an obligation to make sure that all productions are accessible to audiences that might not be able to pay full price, but that doesn’t mean you have to offer discounts on demand. If patrons want to wait for a rave review before purchasing tickets, then they can purchase them at full price. The other option is to purchase well in advance. I would also recommend budgeting your comp tickets. If each department has a maximum amount of comp tickets they can use, then you won’t have to serve as the arbitrator when people request comp tickets. It will also help you project future sales as you can factor those seats out of your projections. Keep in mind though that just like full price tickets, demands for comp tickets increase when you have a hit on your hands. However, you need to ask yourself with each comp ticket request if honoring the request is worth the full price of the ticket, because I assure you, you will be able to sell that seat.
4. Save money on advertising, and build a reserve. Normally I would suggest spending more money on advertising a hit show as you are more likely to see a higher return on investment, however if you are in a situation where you feel relatively sure that great press coverage and word of mouth is enough to drive the needed sales to move all your inventory, then pull back on advertising expenses. Many companies enter into yearlong advertising contracts with vendors, so cutting advertising completely might not be an option. But you can build a reserve of the advertising expenses you saved on your hit production to help you later in the year when you have a production that isn’t selling as well.
5. As a follow up to bullet #4, encourage word of mouth. There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth. I know I have a hit on my hands when daily sales double the second week of performances, because I know that patrons who saw a show in the first week are talking. Think about all the ways in which you can help them spread the word. Maybe a post-attendance e-mail from the star asking them to tell all of their friends. Perhaps you should give patrons a complimentary souvenir to walk away with so they can show their friends. At Arena Stage, we are giving out complimentary hand fans to Oklahoma! attendees that have a replica of the 1907 Washington Post article announcing Oklahoma’s statehood on one side, and the lyrics to a song on the other (not to mention, The Washington Post is sponsoring them so there is no cost to us for 40,000 fans). Create a viral video featuring behind-the-scenes work, record a podcast with a leading star or even do a robocall message from a celebrity. The goal—getting them talking!
If you find yourself in the fortunate position of having a record-breaking hit on your hands, make sure you do everything in your power to have that show pay dividends well into the future. I liken it to winning the lottery—you can spend all the money today, or you can put it into a savings account and have it work for you in the future.