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Slightly Exceeding Expectations As An Ideal Outcome

A recent post on Ken Davenport’s The Producer’s Perspective caused me to engage in a bit of internal debate.

Ken says a one of the worst things you can do is greatly exceed audience expectations:

“..But it also means that before they step into the theater, they have no clue what they’re about to see . . . and they aren’t expecting it to be anything to write home to Mama about.

Exceeding an audience’s expectations isn’t a creative problem. It’s a marketing problem. It means that however you are promoting your show, from the title to the blurb to the website, it’s not generating enough excitement with your potential buyer. And, unfortunately, when audience’s expectations are low, that means that most of them won’t make a purchase. People buy tickets to things that they expect to be good great. They are buying entertainment, remember? They want to be entertained. And in 2016, with the cost of tickets as high as they are . . . entertaining an audience isn’t enough. They want to be wowed.”

This is all contrary to the outcome I want.

One of the greatest pleasures I get from my job is when people enjoy a performance they didn’t expect to. There isn’t a lot of financial remuneration in non-profit arts, but hearing people say “Wow” when they leave the performance hall…and having them continue to talk about their experience weeks, months and even years later, is pretty gratifying.

The mission of most non-profit arts organizations is to provide an opportunity for exploration and learning versus the profit making goals of Broadway shows, so you might argue that you aren’t going to want to emphasize the entertainment value of the event.  If you aren’t charging Broadway prices to enter the door, then the burden of expectations is relatively lighter as well.

The problem is, most people, even those who attend your events, don’t know you are a non-profit organization. They aren’t discerning between the entertainment or education value your organization is offering versus those of a profit seeking entity. Chances are, it is all the same to them.

Regardless of whether you think people want to come for the entertainment value or to learn new things, Davenport has a point that if people are arriving not knowing what to expect, then you are probably under- or mis- communicating the event to the wider community.

Note, he is just talking about generating enthusiasm for being there. People may have an entirely wrong concept about the event and have their minds blown and that is okay. If they are tentative about being there in the first place and hoping they have a good time, that is another thing altogether.

The reasons why non-profits aren’t doing a better job at this are myriad. In some cases, it is a matter of bad decision making when it comes to allocating money and personnel to marketing efforts.

There is often a desire, and perhaps a sense of obligation, to invest money in the artistic product rather than advertising and personnel, both of which can be regarded as overhead expense.

As has been noted many times before, donors and funders want to know money is going toward results and impact, delighting people and changing their lives.  Even though marketing isn’t explicitly listed as something most foundations doesn’t fund, there is less support and tolerance for the costs to reach those people and generate interest and excitement in them.

It definitely requires a careful balancing act. Some organizations are good at it, some aren’t and some probably aren’t really making an effort.

It really feels strange to read Davenport brag that his team did such a good job marketing Altar Boyz, seeing the show only slightly exceed audience expectations. But if the audiences truly expressed a high level of satisfaction with the experience and seeing the show only slightly added to that, then it a measure of success if their satisfaction extended hours, if not days prior to, and after the performance.

Is that a feeling your arts organization can lay claim to generating?

Even though the discussion inevitably circles back to issues of time, personnel and money, these questions and ideas are worth regularly revisiting, regardless of your situation. Sometimes just thinking about them provides a little inspiration about a resource or opportunity specific to your community that can be tapped into.

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Flyover, USA, Broadway Needs You!

One of the reasons why I like reading Broadway producer Ken Davenport’s blog, The Producer’s Perspective, is that like a lot of non-profit arts managers, (though he isn’t one), he is constantly asking how the experience of attending a Broadway show can be made better.

It may interest you to learn that this examination extends to the national tours of  Broadway shows. Back in March, he took a look at a study the Broadway League did on the demographics of people who attend Broadway touring performances.

It may come as no surprise that audiences for the tours are older, whiter and trend more slightly more female than audiences on Broadway. Among his insights that caught my eye were the following:


    • In the 2013-2014 season, Broadway shows touring across North America drew 13.8 million attendances.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  Broadway saw only 12.21 million attendees.  The Road Audience is 13% larger than the Broadway Audience.  Now do you see how important The Road is?)


    • The most commonly cited sources for show selection (other than being part of the subscription) were: the music, personal recommendation, Tony Awards and articles written about the show.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  This is all the same as in NYC, with a little less dependency on advertising, because shows aren’t in these towns long enough to have big advertising budgets.  Want to be big on The Road?  You better be big in NY first.)
    • The reported influence of Tony Awards in deciding to see a show continued to grow.  Twenty-four percent of respondents said that Tony Awards or nominations were a reason they attended the show, compared in 8% in the 2005-2006 season.


    • Theatregoers said that the most effective type of advertising was an email from the show or presenter.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Everyone should look to double their email list every year.)


    • Advance sales to single-ticket buyers have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years.Thirty-eight percent of respondents said that different performance times would encourage more frequent attendance.

He makes many other observations, but these were most interesting to me in terms of providing some insight into how best to promote performances to audiences.

In his commentary on the study’s final finding, he suggests touring productions may be important to the health of shows on Broadway by getting people interested in visiting NYC.

    • Thirty percent of respondents said they made a visit to New York City in the past year.  Of those, 81% attended a Broadway show while in town.  (NOTE FROM KEN:  And this is the stat I was looking for.  81%.  That’s huge.  Like 3.35 million huge.)

For me, the last stat is what says it all.  See a lot of people think Broadway begets The Road.  But I think we should focus on the reverse.  See, it’s much easier for a person in Dallas to see a show in Dallas, rather than NYC, right?  So perhaps Broadway would benefit from encouraging Dallas citizens to see shows in Dallas first, before trying to sell them Broadway.  Get them to buy into what’s close to them, what’s easy for them, and they’ll work their way up to Broadway.

In a different post last week, Davenport noted the importance of touring to Broadway productions. The economics of touring is different from mounting a production on Broadway. While no one knows if a Broadway show will recoup its investment, a tour nearly always does. However, you have to have invested in the Broadway production to have the opportunity to invest in the tour.

Davenport questions why people loudly announce when a Broadway show recoups, but never announce when a tour does. He suggests the following reasons:

Is it because National Tours have an unbelievably high recoupment rate?… So since it’s more of a “given,” do we just not think it’s special enough to put out there?

Or are we afraid of putting it out there for the public for fear of getting the attention of unions and vendors who want a bigger piece? (If so, I think we have plenty of losses on Broadway to point to that balance the equation.)

Or are we afraid of putting it out there because the Presenters of the tours might be losing money, while the tours themselves are making money?

That final point resonates a bit with me. Due to the economics of our region and a mission to make attendance affordable, we lose much more on a sold out Broadway show than we do on a chamber music concert with 1/3 of the seats filled.

Setting that aside, it is very interesting to learn just how important venues in the fly over country between the coasts are to the continued economic well-being of productions in NYC.  As it is, looking at the cast bios for these shows, they are certainly dependent on artists migrating from those parts of the country to NYC in order to mount the Broadway productions and tours.

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Info You Can Use: Take A Look At The Broadway Books

Though I don’t cite him very often, I keep an eye on the blog of Broadway producer Ken Davenport because he tends to ask questions about how Broadway can do a better job of serving the public.

We often see Broadway as a monolithic behemoth to whose gravitational pull most theaters are subject to some degree. It is interesting to see someone talking about how the business process in NYC might not be living up to its potential and gain insight into some of the inner workings.

In the next two weeks Davenport is going to conduct webinars breaking down the budgets of a Broadway show. These will be held on October 22 and 29, both from 7-8 pm EDT with a recording posted afterward. (my emphasis)

Over those two nights, I’ll walk you through my philosophies of budgeting, a strategy to make sure you come in under budget on every single one of your shows, and most importantly I will walk you through each and every line and page of an actual Broadway budget.

In other words, if a budget is the engine of a Broadway show, I’m going to pop the hood, take apart the motor piece by piece, and then put it back together again . . . so you not only understand how it works, but so you can build your own.


It’s going to be fun, and if you’re a numbers guy/gal, you’ll really love it. If you’re not a numbers guy/gal, well, all the more reason for you to sign up, because budgeting is where so many shows go wrong. It is the business blueprint of your production.

I emphasize this second to last sentence because even if you never think you will ever mount a Broadway show, this is an opportunity to have someone talk about a budgeting process for a performance.

For everyone who talks about transitioning away from the non-profit arts business model, this is a good opportunity to gain insight into what factors you need to consider in the commercial realm, even if you are already pondering a third (or fifth) alternative.

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The Curse of the Experienced Eye

Ken Davenport recently talked about how he enjoyed Broadway shows much more when he was younger. Part of the reason he has a harder time now is because he analyzes the show with the eye of a producer. The other reason is because when he was younger, he was often ignorant about disparaging news about a show in the absence of social media and websites and thus approached each show without any bias.

I am much the same way. I can’t attend a show at a place I have worked earlier because I feel left out of the social interactions and behind the scenes activity that I was once an initiate of. I also have difficulty watching a show that I have contracted in because I want to be backstage checking things out.

As Davenport says “As a theater pro, I know I’m enjoying a show when I’m not thinking about what went in to making it.” In my case, it is a question of whether the show is of sufficient quality and interest to me that I want to sit in the audience for the whole show rather than watching from the wings or attending to various details.

I was wondering if other arts people out there had a similar experience to Ken Davenport and my own.

I don’t have any problem attending and watching the entire performance I don’t feel personally invested in. But there are other complications that have resulted from my training.

Attending shows first became a chore when I had to write a critique of it from some perspective. With the onus of either taking notes or trying to remember what went on, the shows weren’t as enjoyable any more.

Today, without that responsibility, it is easier to enjoy a performance. Except, now I dread being asked what I thought of the show as soon as the curtain comes down. I usually beat a quick path to the door so that I can have the time to digest what I have seen without being pressured to respond.

Often I know there was something I didn’t like about the show, but it can be difficult to pin down what it is exactly in the moments after the performance.

Then there is the issue of knowing the show wasn’t great quality and watching everyone else fly to their feet to give a standing ovation. It is times like this that I wonder if it is better to have a discerning, critical eye and know the show barely deserves enthusiastic seated applause, much less a hair trigger standing ovation or would I be happier having not developed that skill so I could just sit there and enjoy the show without reservation.

It is something of a two edged sword since the same skill will reveal delightful, intriguing choices that deepen your appreciation of artists’ work.

Some of this is unavoidable and just the cost of growing up and experiencing the world. My high school science teachers removed some of the magic from my childhood by explaining the reality, but later that same knowledge was the basis of a different sort of awe about the world.

So does anyone else face issues like this? Do you have similar circumstances where you can enjoy yourself and then others that require a degree of self-restraint?

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