Leadership / 10.19.22
Smaller Venues Tout Their Strategic Advantages Post-Pandemic, Part 4
As evidenced by the return of college and NFL football and the ongoing Major League Baseball playoffs, larger venues are “packing ‘em” in again post-pandemic. Concert tours at the major arenas are also thriving, with everyone from Carrie Underwood to Lizzo to Harry Styles’ recent string of dates at Madison Square Garden proving to be hot tickets.
But smaller venues have also done a terrific job coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, and many are once again filling seats. This is Part 4 in our ongoing series of articles that looks at such places and how they are faring, separating them by geography. Part 3 looked at New York state and the U.S. Northeast. Part 2 in this series covered the U.S. South. Part 1 focused on the U.S. West. This installment looks at the country’s mid-Atlantic region.
Many of the top smaller venues in this part of the nation are on college campuses. So in times of crisis, such as the pandemic, what advantages do such venues have over their larger counterparts in riding out the turmoil? Amber Patton, Ticketing & Box Office Manager at The Pullo Center at Penn State York, says, “Honestly, one of the things for us as a small venue was the backing of our members, donors, sponsors and regular customers who have supported us since we opened. They are our biggest supporters, and we rely on them especially in really difficult times. We know we can count on them to be the first ones to buy tickets, but also encourage their friends and family to come along as well. That small town, small venue feel makes it so easy for us to connect to our regulars who get us through these tough times. I think there is more of a closeness when it comes to us, especially since we only have 1,000 seats to fill instead of 10,000.”
Jonathan Boulter, Associate Director of Patron Services for Virginia Tech University’s Moss Arts Center, agreed with Patton. “One advantage that a smaller venue has over a larger venue in riding out a turmoil is the fact that we know our audience and our audience knows us,” he says. “It is easier to turn on a dime and refocus efforts across an organization when you have a small team that can be really focused.”
Susan W. O'Connor, Assistant Director of Audience Services for the TCNJ Center for the Arts in Ewing, New Jersey, was equally insightful in answering: “For the most part, I believe that our strengths and our weaknesses are basically two sides of the same coin. We are a small Center for the Arts in a small liberal arts college in New Jersey. I operate with fewer people, fewer resources, and less technology than larger venues need and usually have. Sounds a bit dismal, right? However, it meant that I had less 'bulk' to move when the pandemic hit so that I could pivot more nimbly. I love the challenge of creating new strategies. How do I use the staffing and the resources I have to create a new, successful operational normal? How can I envision what the arts can do to help the world navigate this threat creatively and compassionately? I think this must be easier for me as I try to figure everything out in a smaller venue than in a larger one.”
The ticketing and live event professionals interviewed for this article also confessed that working for a smaller venue has brought its share of pleasures and fun that might not otherwise be had at a big arena or theater. Jamie L Brouse, Manager of the Campus Box Office at Bucknell University, has loved the personal contact with customers and staff over the years. “The customer that might frustrate you one moment is bringing you the best homemade fudge the next,” she says. “I enjoy getting to know people on a personal level while maintaining professional relationships. I especially enjoy working with a diverse student staff. Their versatility is beneficial for a supportive working environment.”
Tracy Rae Noll, Sales and Development Services Director for Penn State University’s Center for the Performing Arts, says, “Working at a smaller venue allows you a level of intimacy that you can’t get at a larger one. Because we don’t have a large staff, many of us must pitch in the night of show to assist in different ways.”
Noll’s absolute favorite memory was when she got to be Yo-Yo Ma’s escort/bodyguard for an evening. She and her marketing director had to make sure Yo-Yo was secretly transported from the performance venue to the building next door for a private reception without being mobbed by fans and then back to his car after the event. She says, “There were a few stalkers waiting at the back door, but he was cordial to them and then we quickly swept him into the building. He was so engaging and quite witty and was happy to pose for a picture in his SUV at the end of the night!”
Transporting a world-famous cellist past his adoring admirers is just one of the leadership challenges the interviewees have faced in their jobs. Some challenges have been unavoidable. Patton says, “I am the youngest person not only on our full-time staff, but also all of my ticket office staff is older than me by 20 to 30 years. This intimidated me early in my ticketing career, because almost always, I have been one of the youngest staff. I had employees who would try to use their age and experience against me. I had to learn to step up and make not only them believe in me, but I had to believe in myself, too. It sounds corny, but it’s true. You can be a good leader no matter what age you are. You just need to trust yourself and make those around you believe in your goals, as well. And don’t forget to use the experience of those older than you.”
O’Connor’s biggest challenge has also been of a personal nature. She grew up painfully shy. “So, in my own head, I think that it must be the universe's joke that I somehow became the Assistant Director of Audience Services. The challenge, then, for me becomes balancing the needs of the individuals with the needs of the entire group and remembering to not take it personally. So very ‘Star Trek [The Wrath of Khan]’ of me! The pandemic seemed to make so many people angry, impatient and needy. It takes a different kind of energy to manage an entire audience while not losing track of the fact that an audience is made up of individual patrons — and, these people are arriving at our doors post-lockdown needing us to provide good, safe, easy experiences.”
Noll’s biggest challenge has been more practical: finding large revenue sources. She says, “Most large venues have large endowments and big sponsors to help offset their costs. We are in a rural area, which lacks huge corporations with big pockets. We are also faced with the challenge of competing with Penn State Athletics and the Bryce Jordan Center for the same sponsorship dollars.”
For his part, Boulter says, “It’s challenging to look at various data we get after an event — ticket reports to guest feedback — and take that information and improve our guest experience. The hope is that we build loyalty for our business, which then turns into more revenue and hopefully loyal donors.”
Despite such challenges, several of our interviewees expressed optimism for what lies ahead for the remainder of 2022 and beyond. Brouse says, “I am optimistic that our live performance crowd will continue to grow. The social aspect of attending a live performance can be more intriguing than the event itself.”
Boulter’s take? “I am very optimistic! We are seeing, as most people seem to be in our business, a downturn in our subscription packages — almost 25% down. However, our numbers of last-minute sales, especially in the last two weeks prior to a show, are higher than we have seen in the past. We are monitoring this very closely and tailoring our marketing plans around these changes to hopefully propel us forward with positive sales and exceeding our goals for the season.”
Patton was also brimming with positivity: “I am so optimistic for this season! Our season has started out with a bang. We have two sold-out shows coming up, and the rest of our events for the season are doing well. Our patrons are psyched to get out and about again. We also have an amazing schedule this season thanks to our wonderful director. She really went out and got shows for all demographics. That definitely helps!”
But caution is still in order for others who agreed to go on record. O’Connor says, “The pandemic brutally reminded us to be afraid of the unexpected. People are still struggling to find their resilience and to emerge from their caves of COVID-19. I see progress. People are buying tickets. It seems to me that many of those people are then coming to those events, but not all of them. They really want to come, but they are still afraid.”
Noll concludes, “I entered the 2022–23 season optimistic that our patrons were ready to come back to live events. But, unfortunately, we recently had to adjust our sales projections due to a lack of sales. When we originally re-opened, we had more people than expected returning to our venue, so we were confident that many more would be ready to come back this year. I’m truly afraid that people have become comfortable with staying home or have found other versions of entertainment. They are willing to come out for an artist they are truly passionate about, but seem less willing to take a chance on more adventurous or lesser-known performances. Many of our ticket buyers are seniors and are less likely to risk attending live events due to health concerns. I am hopeful that we can pivot and program performances for the 2023–24 season that will attract a younger audience who is willing to attend live events.”
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Tags: Venues , Leadership