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Author Archive | Joe Patti

We Make Cancellations Look Easy

It is fortunate that I am not often able to relate how I personally handled a crisis. However, we recently ran into a situation where we had a signed commitment for a show and the attraction backed out.

We were fortunate in that the event falls near the end of our season so we have plenty of time to communicate the change. In addition, we were able to replace it with another performance around the same date.

This sounds all very simple which is great for public relations because it appears that everything is being handled with grace and aplomb.

The reality is, you don’t realize the limitations of your ticketing software until you try to do a refund of one event on a subscription package. I am glad I had created a choose your own flex subscription package this year. Otherwise, our only option would have been to cancel all the seats for the subscriber and replace them with full price tickets–not something that maintains good relations with the audience.

Obviously, had it not existed already, we could have gone in an retroactively created a structure similar to what we had in place for the flex subscription.

The other issue is that now these people who got refunds are not recognized as subscribers by the ticketing system so their seats won’t automatically carry over to next season. We have had to keep track of those subscribers so that we can lock in their seats again next year.

I don’t list all this in order to vent my frustration at the ticketing system we use, but rather to illustrate some of the hurdles involved with problems like these. (I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties of trying to process cash refunds through a university system.)

The audience should never know about these problems. There was a moment where people in the box office were saying “Well, we will have to tell the subscribers that next year they will have to….” I emphasized the steps we would do instead so that the concept that asking for a refund might result in the loss of seats one held for 10 years was never introduced to the subscriber.

In order to inform our ticket buyers about the change, we sent out releases and went on the radio to make people aware of the substitution and ask them to watch their mail boxes for letters outlining their options. After the letters went out, we followed up a week later with an email mentioning the same options.

One positive element to this situation was that we could use the tickets we already issued for the replacement show. The ticket scanners will register them correctly. Since many people consult their tickets for the show dates, we included pre-printed stickers in the letters that could be placed over their tickets to remind them about the correct date.

Since most tickets to this event have been purchased by full season subscribers, we offered the option of either buying tickets to one of two non-season shows at a steep discount or receiving a refund.

Now my hope was that by putting the refund option last, we wouldn’t get a lot of people who wanted refunds. Out of the hundreds of tickets we have sold already, we have only had to refund around 10 which represents about 5-6 people, but that still is more than I would have liked personally.

My other goal in offering discount tickets was to generate good will and awareness. I figured there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy with the replacement show and wouldn’t want a refund. However, by apologizing for the inconvenience and offering a discount on other shows, we will hopefully rise in their estimation.

In addition, there have been some who were not aware that these shows weren’t part of their season subscription despite our efforts to differentiate them so the letter helped reinforce this.

We haven’t had too many people take advantage of the discounted tickets at this point. While I always want to be selling tickets, our immediate goal was to at least maintain goodwill.

One last thing we did was set a time limit on when you could request a refund or purchase discounted tickets. Since the show is more than 6 months away, we didn’t want to have a deluge of people calling for refunds a week before because they decided not to attend at the last minute. The date we set was 6 weeks after the letter was mailed out and I expect we will be flexible through a few weeks after.

Whether this stance ends up creating problems for us remains to be seen when the show arrives.

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Not Ready For Some Football

If you are wringing your hands over the difficulty you are having attracting students to your performances and events, you are not alone– university football programs are having difficulty, too.

An article on Inside Higher Education’s website reports some pretty significant drops in attendance by students at football games.

Student attendance at major college football games is declining across the country. By how much varies greatly at each institution, but a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of turnstile data at 50 public colleges with top football programs found that average student attendance is down more than 7 percent since 2009.

In 2013, the University of Georgia’s designated student section was nearly 40 percent empty. The University of California at Berkeley has sold about 1,000 fewer student season tickets this season than last year — a season that already saw a decline from the previous one. Since 2009, student attendance at the University of Florida has dropped 22 percent. Three-fourths of the University of Kansas’ student tickets went unused last season.

The article blames cold weather, lack of cellphone/wifi signals and alcohol in stadiums, along with the option to watch the game on a wide variety of media as reasons why attendance is dropping.

And by the way, none of these problems are new. A little over a year ago, Jon Silpayamanant wrote about the exact same attendance issues facing professional sports. Inside Higher Ed mentions that universities are using many of the same solutions the professional teams were adopting including more robust wi-fi, better access to food and beer, and more promotions and giveaways.

One of the concerns expressed about the lack of student attendance is the poor image it provides on television.

“Fundamentally, students are part of the show and that’s something that folks don’t always recognize,” Southall said. “If you watch a college sports telecast, where do the cameras go for in-crowd shots? The cameras are in the student section. If that section is not there, it’s like having a movie without enough extras to walk in the background of the shots. I always joke to my students, ‘You understand you’re paying to be extras. You’re just there for the show, so everyone else can keep consuming it.’ “

The long term concern is that disinterested students will become disinterested alumni who won’t support the athletic program and the university down the road.

As always when we talk about sports and the arts, there are a number of parallels here. One of the big one being the concern that the lack of interest/exposure as “kids” will translate into lack of investment as adults.

This article made me wonder about the real viability of Tweet Seats programs. If students aren’t motivated to attend a football game by the opportunity to be on television or, at the very least, being able to make “I am here participating” posts on social media sites, then are Tweet Seats programs really valuable as a way to attract and retain young audiences?

Given that many Tweet Seats program segregate social media users to their own section, the participants may feel even less engaged than students in a stadium surrounded by tens of thousands of others. (Though I suppose they could feel like they are part of an exclusive group if the environment is right.)

In the great battle of sports versus arts, among the advantages sports had were the ability to be a loud part of a large group at an event where the outcome was unknown. I found it somewhat worrisome that even with these advantages, sports were losing its audiences. What chance do the arts have then?

If you have been reading the results of audience research studies over the last decade or so, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the answer university athletic departments have arrived at is focusing on the audience’s experience, not on the “performance”.

“…according to a recent survey conducted by Ohio University‚Äôs Center for Sports Administration and stadium designer AECOM. The top three priorities for that spending — enhancing food and beverage options, premium seating, and connectivity — all focus on the experience of fans, rather than the players.”

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May A Large Donation Destroy Your Rating!

This story can’t be allowed to pass uncommented upon. Or at least, I feel the need to comment more extensively than did Thomas Cott when he tweeted this link.

In a case of damned if you have too much overhead and damned if you don’t have enough, ALS Association is in a panic about their rating as an effective charity due to the windfall they received thanks to the ice bucket challenges.

Since they didn’t expect such a surge in donations, they don’t have a plan formulated to use it. As a result, they are in danger of having their rating fall from a B+ to an F.

“You can get in trouble for having too much money in the bank,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of Chicago-based CharityWatch, part of the American Institute of Philanthropy. “We want to see that there is a plan for spending down this money.”


Borochoff said having so much cash and no plan for what to do with that money could lead to an automatic F. Newhouse said those plans are in the works, which I ‘ve written about here in a separate post.

Concern over a potential downgrade lead ALS Association CEO Barbara Newhouse to take a peremptory step of writing to three rating agencies asking them not to penalize the association.

So let me get this straight. A commercial business makes five times their normal annual income and they are celebrated for it. Even if someone takes a close look at how this amazing feat was accomplished and sees something fishy, it is often difficult to get regulators, who wield legal authority, to take effective action. (Not to mention the business can sit on the cash as long as they want.)

However, a charity experiencing unprecedented largess starts to react with panic that the judgment of unofficial entities may result in bad will for them. This despite the fact that the process by which this funding is acquired is transparent, public and clearly unexpected.

The one glimmer of hope is that two of the three rating agencies she sent letters to, Guide Star and Charity Navigator, were signatories to the letter sent out last year urging donors not to use overhead ratio as a prime criteria for giving.

Hopefully there won’t be any problems for ALS Association as they consider their next move.

Otherwise, we may see spiteful people leveling the curse of prosperity in this post title.

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How Green Is My Theater

Last week we were having a conversation to create a repair and replacement plan based on life cycle expectations for our performing arts facility. Of course, there are already a number of issues that needed to be addressed with some immediacy. The head of facility operations mentioned that these days there is little funding to be had for capital improvements. The only way to get much needed repairs and upgrades accomplished is via energy savings performance contracts. (ESPC)

The wikipedia description I linked to about performance contracts being a program for federal government entities is a little narrow. Nearly every state has a similar program, (Oregon has a good description), for themselves and their municipalities and many companies with large physical plants can benefit from them as well.

The benefit of a performance contract is that there is no up front cost to your institution. The company doing the work takes out loans and guarantees that the project will save you money in energy costs. Over the course of 25 years, you pay off the contract with the money you save.

As to whether ESPCs might be an option for arts organizations, I have looked at the programs of about 4-5 states. Other than Oregon’s which suggests a minimum of $100,000 in annual energy bills, there isn’t any clear guidance about what level of energy expense is appropriate to undertake such a project. Presumably your current bills should be relatively high as should the potential for energy saving to make it worth the while of your organization and the company undertaking the work.

You don’t necessarily have to be a governmental entity to have the work done. A couple of the vendors who provide ESPCs list retail and libraries as potential customers. Granted, they may be thinking supermarkets and libraries in need of excellent climate control for their collections rather than clothing stores and my neighborhood library.

But I think about the power use of theaters in particular with all their stage lighting and the energy savings that can be realized. LED lighting still has some color temperature and control issues which make them unsuitable for some uses, but the improvements come very quickly. Many theaters can benefit from upgrading their general lighting and HVAC systems.

When I was working in Hawaii the lighting in our lobby, offices, scene shop and exterior were all replaced. The illumination levels went up and the power use dropped immensely. My only gripe was that even with diffusion filters, the LEDs in some of the exterior stairwells were so sharply defined that it felt like you were furtively moving between pools of light.

My state arts council just sent out a survey yesterday and one question was about how they could better serve my organization. It wasn’t until after I finished the survey that it occurred to me to wonder if state arts councils couldn’t act as coordinators and guarantors on energy savings performance contracts.

Since many foundations aren’t providing capital improvement funding any more, this might prove to be a viable alternative. If a single organization wouldn’t realize enough savings to make a contract worthwhile, perhaps serving the needs of two or more organizations in the same community would be. The organizations could then turn around and use their energy savings to pay off the arts council (if not the energy contractor).

I am not sure what would happen if the organization went out of business or moved before the contract was paid off, but I am sure those considerations are already included in contracts for hospitals and other businesses.

Obviously, I am not fully acquainted with all the details of ESPCs to know how viable this would be. However, given how energy efficiency is becoming an area of increasing concern, I would not be surprised at all if the incentives for upgrading systems improved so over the next 10 years that it became easy for many arts organizations to do.

[Title of the post comes from the novel and movie, How Green Was My Valley]

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