Leadership / 07.02.19
The Ravinia Festival Isn’t Getting Older; It’s Getting Better
The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, ranks as the oldest outdoor musical festival in North America. Its roots can be traced back to 1904 when the A.C. Frost Company created Ravinia as an amusement park to lure riders to the Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railroad. When the park’s future was threatened by the railroad’s eventual bankruptcy, Chicago businessmen and local residents banded together in 1911 to form a corporation to buy and run the park. Music has been a summer activity at the site ever since, with the Martin Theatre the only building on the grounds that dates to that original era.
“Our summer season runs from late May/early June through the middle of September each year,” says Jennifer Butler, Ravinia’s Director of Ticket Operations. “With nearly 140 events, we have something new and different every night, which is a lot of concerts packed into a great summer season.”
Indeed, in recent years, artists who have performed at Ravinia have included everyone from Lady Gaga, John Legend and Maroon 5 to Tony Bennett, Patti LuPone and Dolly Parton. The current season features such diverse acts as Lady Antebellum, Kesha, T.I., Nickelback, Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band and Mary J. Blige. There will also be an ABBA tribute concert, a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella for kids and their families, and a screening of the Oscar-winning movie version of West Side Story accompanied by a live orchestra performing the score.
Of course, managing and operating a festival that has enjoyed such decades-long longevity and is known for its summer-long endurance can be a singular challenge. Along with her staff, Butler, who’s served on the board of directors for the International Ticketing Association (INTIX) and was the recipient of the INTIX Young Ticketing Professional Award in 2017, is up to the challenge. “From a ticketing perspective, Ravinia is unique in many ways,” Butler says. “In addition to ticketing our three-seated venues and general admission lawn area, we process dining packages at our restaurants, festival shop items like lawn chairs and table rentals, VIP experiences, packages, and so forth through our ticketing system. We also manage donor benefits through the ticketing system, which may include early park entry, priority parking or complimentary lawn admission.”
Nick Pullia, Director of Communications, can also testify to the challenges posed by such a unique festival. To this end, ticket pricing has been a big focus of management. “One of the most important things we do is to keep prices low for classical music so that price is never a barrier to introducing this music to new audiences,” Pullia says. “Our mantra is “10/25/Free.” That means $10 gets an adult lawn ticket to most every classical concert and reserved seats for our chamber series in Bennett Gordon Hall, and $25 gets you a pavilion seat to concerts by the incomparable Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Ravinia has hosted in its summer residency since 1936. Children and students through college are admitted free to the lawn for every classical concert. We also employ promo codes that ensure discounts to various communities we are trying to engage.”
It’s this mix of programming that has been crucial to Ravinia’s longtime success. That and the old mantra of the real estate industry: location, location, location. “Geography is a key player,” Pullia says. “We’re close to downtown Chicago but nestled on the North Shore in beautiful Highland Park, which is supportive of arts and culture. We were originally built by a train company as an excuse to spur ridership, and the train still stops right at our front gate, which immediately solves most of the transportation issues faced by similar venues. We’ve also maintained an open, family-friendly experience where people can still pack their own picnics or have a pre-concert dinner in one of our restaurants. So, an evening at Ravinia is more like a five-hour social event than just a two-hour concert. And, despite our long history, Ravinia as an institution is incredibly nimble. We can turn ideas into real improvements almost instantly.”
Improvements do indeed abound year in and year out. According to Pullia, the organization has invested more than $65 million into Ravinia’s infrastructure over the past decade thanks to the vision of President and CEO Welz Kauffman and three different all-volunteer boards. “The improvements range from adding video screens that flank the pavilion stage and beefing up our most intimate hall to function like a true music theater to paving parking lots and building a grand entrance with a pedestrian overpass to that all-important train,” Pullia says. “We’ve also created new restaurants from fast grab-and-go to four-course dinners. Later this year, we will open the state-of-the-art Ravinia Music Box Experience Center to further encourage people to ‘bump into’ music that might otherwise be outside their comfort zone.”
So, do the people who put on the Ravinia Festival each year have a favorite Ravinia memory? As it turns out, the organizers are also big fans themselves. Butler was the first to answer. “I have hundreds of wonderful memories from the 18 seasons that I’ve been at Ravinia,” she says. “Favorite concerts, favorite artists I’ve met, favorite customer service interactions, etc. Working with such a collaborative and amazing team both in the ticket office and across all departments at Ravinia, memories are made daily. It’s a lot of hard work — like, a LOT of hard work — but it’s also a lot of laughing and fun. And listening to the concerts every night is incredible. On the rare night when I’m not working, I find myself coming here as a patron with friends and family.”
Duncan Moss, Associate Director of Ticket Operations, also chimed in. The recent winner of the 2019 INTIX Young Ticketing Professional Award, he says, “My favorite moment every season is when I get to enjoy a concert on the lawn with friends and family. There’s no experience like it anywhere else I’ve ever been. The lawn is one of the most unique areas of the park, allowing patrons to bring their own picnics — food, beverages, blankets, candles — while enjoying a performance under the summer stars.”
And there is no doubt that Ravinia will continue to change and evolve well into its second century of operation. “It takes a little dash of brilliance and a big pot of luck to stay ahead of the changes in this business,” Pullia says. “We will continue to look for new audiences, which is on the top of every venue’s to-do list. And we know what areas in the park still have room for improvement, and we’re already making plans to tackle those needs. We’ve also invested in research — and not the kind that ends up in someone’s filing cabinet. We engage our customers to find real answers to real questions and then act on those findings. People notice!”
Butler concurred, adding, “Imagining and enacting creative solutions to make all of these things work together during our season requires a lot of thinking outside of the box and a great deal of teamwork and collaboration. We are continuously brainstorming ways to enhance the Ravinia experience, and we look for innovative ways to use technology to achieve this. Every day is unique. You never really know what the next day will bring — different artists, different customers, different weather. Not knowing the next challenge means we come in every morning with a fresh attitude, ready to embrace the excitement of the day.”
Photos courtesy of Ravinia Festival.
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Tags: Arts , Venues , Leadership