Leadership / 09.28.22
Smaller Venues Tout Their Advantages Over Larger Ones Post-Pandemic, Part 3
Larger venues such as the major stadiums and arenas certainly get a lot of the press, especially when discussing the largely successful return of live events post-pandemic. But smaller venues are not to be ignored for how they’ve come out of the COVID-19 crisis and are once again filling seats. This is Part 3 in our ongoing series of articles that looks at such places and how they are faring, separating them by geography. Part 2 in this series covered the U.S. South. Part 1 focused on the U.S. West. This installment looks at New York state and the U.S. Northeast.
Most of those interviewed for this feature agreed that in times of crisis, such as the pandemic, smaller venues have definite advantages over larger ones in riding out the turmoil. John Vetter, Box Office Ticket Specialist at Brooklyn College, says, “Having worked for most of my career at a large performing arts venue that was dissolved two years prior to COVID-19, I can give you a unique perspective on the challenges facing both types of venues. I don't think either type of structure had an advantage as each faced a very different set of challenges. Larger venues definitely had the bigger problem of making ends meet, especially having larger staffs. Also, not all of the bigger entities had endowments or reserves to see them through the unprecedented length of time being dark.”
Scale leapt to mind for Russell “Russ” Thompson, Box Office Manager & Event Coordinator at State University of New York at New Paltz, when posed this same question. He says, “Because smaller venues like ours have lower capacity for audience attendances, things like vaccination checks and ensuring proper social distancing … was somewhat more manageable for the facilities operations and the staff.”
In agreement is Harmony McGivney, Box Office Manager at the Kaye Playhouse in New York City: “In times of turmoil, I think one of the main benefits of being part of a smaller venue versus a larger one is we can approach ‘problems’ as a small, yet mighty force. My colleagues and I can band together and focus on the circumstances at hand, then evaluate where we would like to go. I appreciate being part of a tight-knit team where we can voice our needs and easily ask for help without having to go through a corporate chain.”
Staffing was also top of mind for Corissa Bryant, Patron and Visiting Artist Services Manager for Williams College’s '62 Center for Theatre and Dance in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “I feel it’s easier for smaller venues to really listen to the needs and demands of their staff,” she says.
“Our top goal in this pandemic is to make sure our staff feel safe and protected. Every member of our team has a voice in what protocols and guidelines we put in place. Although we may not be able to please everyone, we are able to create a space where everyone can be heard and are open to questions and concerns about policies we choose to implement.”
Sarah Meemken, Ticketing & Membership Coordinator for The Palace Performing Arts Center in Albany, New York, notes that smaller venues such as hers have had the advantage of producing shows at a smaller capacity for patrons who may not have felt safe attending larger arenas and stadiums for live entertainment.
At the same time, she recalls that the return to live events after a long period without them has forced her and her staff to be more focused than ever “on educating the public about rules that will keep us all safe, showing etiquette and navigating the online ticket-buying process wisely.”
The interviewees spoke candidly of the on-the-job challenges they have faced these past couple of years. Raleigh T. Hawk, Acting Ticketing & Customer Service Manager at State University of New York at Fredonia, loves his office being in a college setting.
But with employing students, he says, “Our turnover rate is abnormally high. I don't think I have or ever will have a year without at least 40% of my office being brand new. Constantly working with a brand new team can be extremely challenging. However, it is also extremely rewarding. I have found quite a few students who take to ticketing like a fish to water. It is always exciting to see them start out as brand-new ticketing agents and seeing their journey as they develop into ticketing superstars!”
Lenore Schwartz Heller, Box Office Manager for The Palace Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, states that her biggest leadership challenge has been “getting good people to fill the hourly spots in the box office. Being a 501(c)(3), we start our hourly employees at minimum wage. And, as the saying goes, ‘You get what you pay for’ all too often. Therefore, I have several retirees from other professions or young professionals who are still in or just graduated college who eventually will/do leave for better paying positions in their field of study.”
McGivney, meanwhile, admits that it has been a struggle to “maintain positive morale among staff throughout the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. Like many other organizations, my box office associates were laid off for months. When they were greenlit to return, I fought really hard to make sure their health and safety was a priority since they’re in such a public-facing role. I think you can boost morale in little ways. For example, on two-show days, I like to bring in cookies or order a pizza as a sign of appreciation. I think acts of kindness and gratitude can go a long way. Everyone wants to feel appreciated.”
Julia Elbaum, Director of Finance for the Palace Performing Arts Center, has been personally challenged by the realities of working at a venue in New York’s state capital of Albany. “I will probably never live this down, but dealing with the politics of New York [has been a challenge],” she says. “I am from the Rocky Mountain west and speaking politically rather than plainly is a challenge I will probably never conquer. Anyone who knows me knows that at the end of the day, I will always speak the truth rather than let my tongue bleed from the biting!”
But as challenging as these times have been, all concerned concurred that they have still found a good deal of fun and fulfillment in their work. Among them is Brittany Meegan, Director of Patron Relations for Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York. She says, “I’m very proud to say that I work for an independent venue that strives to give back to our community. We have the ability to be as creative as we can to give back through educational events and other outreach opportunities. This gives us the chance to bring a personal perspective to engaging our patrons and donor base, which is also important for selling at the box office. Patrons want to talk to real people!”
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
For Thompson, it’s the fact that he is the only full-time professional currently in the event coordination/marketing/box office manager role: “It’s beyond rewarding when you hire a first-year student to work and after four years, they graduate and ask you for a recommendation and they get the job in your industry! That’s a fun recommendation to write, and it doesn’t get much better than that for me.”
Meemken, meanwhile, says, “My favorite part about working for a small venue is the relationships. Working with a small team has given me the chance to form close bonds and collaborative relationships with each of my coworkers. Working at a small venue has also given me the opportunity to truly connect with patrons and members who continually donate to our organization and buy tickets to our events. Being able to serve my community through the arts is a dream come true.”
Hawk expressed similar sentiments regarding the personal connections he has formed with each his employees. He’s also enjoyed seeing the bonds his employees have forged with one another. “We are able to get together at least once a month for an office dinner and just connect about school, hobbies and so forth. We genuinely enjoy one another's company.”
Because of such pluses, most of the interviewees expressed optimism for where their venues and live events, in general, are headed for the rest of this year and into 2023. “I’m very optimistic,” Bryant says without hesitation. “We started last academic year opening our events only to the campus community after a full year of being virtual. In the spring, we invited the general public back, but with very strict guidelines. This academic year, we are even more relaxed. We are comfortable again presenting live events with live audiences and want to continue to push forward.”
Heller was a touch more measured in her optimism. She acknowledged that her Connecticut theater has some shows coming up that will likely not be big money makers. “But we want to keep the doors open, so some of the programming is to keep us in the community’s thoughts,” she says. “We have a few [shows] that should be ‘home runs’ and some that are good to have but will probably only break even. We don’t do runs, only one-offs. So, I compare it to my airline days. Once the show goes up and the seat is empty, that seat isn’t going to be sold sometime in the future!”
Meegan was similarly cautious in her optimism for the near future, saying, “I am optimistic that we will continue to present performances at our historic theatre. But as the industry is now highly saturated with many different opportunities to see live music or events, we are competing with a lot of different venues that were not our direct competitors before to bring audiences back to our events while inflation rises and disposable income decreases.”
For her part, Elbaum admits that some of the people she works with chuckle at her optimism sometimes. But that’s only because as finance chief, she is often tasked with being the “cautious nay-sayer,” as she puts it. “But live entertainment is what has gotten me out of bed every day for many years, including the darkest days of the pandemic. I truly believe that people like to get together and enjoy themselves, listen to some music, watch people dance, imagine a different life through live theatre, or laugh off the troubles of the day with a comedian. I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to make my living in this industry!”
Vetter’s insights started this article. His look ahead was only appropriate to close it: “We will endure, advance and succeed! I believe that our industry — while hurt as hard as any other customer-based industry without receiving the same attention as the airlines and restaurants received — did an amazing job of surviving the sometimes ‘unsurvivable.’ The show didn't always go on. But this vital contributor to cultural survival has hit a grand slam. We not only endured, but we adapted and implemented changes that will make experiencing live theater even more vital during times of crisis.”
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