Leadership / 08.17.22
Smaller Venues Tout Their Advantages Over Larger Ones Post-Pandemic, Part 1
When articles are written about how ticket sales are rebounding and live performances are back in full swing, those features are usually focused on the larger venues — the stadiums and arenas that pack in pro sports fans, major concertgoers and so forth. But what about the smaller venues? How are they faring? We decided to start a series of articles over the next month or two that looks at such places and how they are faring, separating them by geography.
Looking at the U.S. West first, one venue that has done well is The McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, California. Director of Ticketing Linda Bowlen came aboard as the worst of COVID-19 was waning in July 2021. She has gleaned that there’s been a major reason why people have been so supportive of The McCallum and its mission, especially in the last year or so.
“I feel people form more of a connection, a sense of community, with a smaller venue such as ours,” she says. “When I have worked in big arenas and amphitheaters in the past, the large volume of patrons coming through every show makes it difficult to get to know them on an individual basis. In a smaller venue, we have the luxury of knowing patrons’ names, remembering what seats they prefer, etc. That translates into the patrons feeling a bond and almost feeling like this is ‘their’ theatre or go-to place. Therefore, they show their financial support in times such as this.”
A newer venue, the Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix, has tried to capture this same sense of community as it moves forward post-pandemic. The 900-seat theater is part of the Madison School District. Ground was broken in 2016, and the venue’s inaugural season was 2018. Box Office Manager Jill Nunez says, “It has been some trial and error, because we are so new. We have had to learn what it is our community wants, because your goal is always to put on performances that the community here in North-Central Phoenix will be excited about. Their bond dollars built this place. So, it’s about getting the right shows that hit the right niche.”
“The pandemic gave us a chance to reset as a theater,” she says. “Since we are a relatively new theater in the area and run by the K-8 school district, we’re a bit different. Yes, we are here for the student performances. But we also run a professional season with season tickets and collaborations with Ballet Arizona, the Phoenix Symphony, the Arizona State University Music Department and so forth. We also rent our facility out for any community-based event that our schedule allows for. We went from no one knowing who we were and having a pretty open schedule to now being scheduled out two to three years!”
Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix.
She believes the Madison Center’s small size really helped in the early days of social distancing. “Our size helped because having a smaller house allowed for fewer people in the facility, while still socially distancing but not feeling like you are in a huge, cavernous space. Even though it was a lot fewer people, it didn’t feel as empty as, say, a 5,000-seat venue that was subject to social distancing.”
While Nunez’s venue is relatively new, Bowlen herself is relatively new to her job having started at the McCallum in July 2021. Prior to that, she was the Manager of Ticketing & Administration for the historic Folly Theatre in in Kansas City, Missouri, for 13 years. For her part, Nunez worked as a performer and stage manager for a number of years before moving to front of house.
Both women agree that staffing has been their biggest leadership challenge. Bowlen says, “Many of our part-time staff were very nervous to return. Even with weekly COVID-19 testing and us wearing KN95 masks at all times in the building, the virus was still going strong and many people did not feel confident in their ability to stay protected from it.”
Nunez reported similar difficulties: “Even now, keeping staff has been hard. We still have openings we can’t fill, because there just isn’t the personnel out there with the experience we need. Selling tickets and dealing with a customer base is tough. We have a high turnover rate.”
Bowlen says, “I did my best to assure everyone that we are all in this together, that our goal is to stay healthy and protect each other while, at the same time, instilling that feeling of safety in our customers. We had a very ambitious reopening season last year with 132 shows, I believe. A few did end up cancelling due to travel issued or uncertainty over COVID from the artist, and we had an extremely generous COVID return policy. Our policy allowed us to still sell a high volume of tickets, with patrons knowing they could be refunded at any time during the season if they felt nervous about attending.”
Looking ahead, both professionals expressed optimism over what the future holds for their respective venues. Nunez says, “People once again want to get out of the house. They want to come out and see live performances. We’re getting our voice out there and establishing ourselves in the community.”
Bowlen agreed, saying, “People are indeed sick of being cooped up, looking at the same four walls. They were beyond ready for live entertainment, and we had several amazing sell-out shows last season — Kristin Chenoweth, Vanessa Williams and Chris Botti to name a few. We have even more shows booked for this season. Rarely is the house dark. While some still feel apprehensive about being out in large groups, I believe the majority of our patrons just want things to get back to as normal as they can. They miss the social aspect. Dinner before the show, meeting up with groups of friends in the lobby before to have a drink, and then an evening of quality entertainment. I think we are back to stay!”
You May Also Like
Want news like this delivered to your inbox weekly? Subscribe to the Access Weekly newsletter, your ticket to industry excellence.