“Quit While You’re Ahead, or, How to Stop Banging your Head Against The Wall Before You Damage the Vintage Plaster”

Often we don’t realize when something is just not working, as we are either too close to it, or just not paying attention. Apart from soliciting input from those people a little more removed (theatre staff, volunteers), at arms length (board members) or even our customers, how do we figure out when we are not moving forward?

One easy step is of course analyzing data—for example, attendance at a series of events or activities. Who is coming, why are they coming and; can you do anything to make a difference in a program/activity? If not, it may be time to STOP.

Sometimes we think we know what our audience wants, but do we really know our audiences as well as we should? It is crucial to understand who is attending shows at your venue in order to plan to attract the most diverse and supportive patron of any particular program. Our historic theatres are often in an enviable position as patrons may come to a wider diversity of programming than other venues such as sporting venues, or traditional movie theatres. We have a chance to touch nearly the entire range of our local market with a huge variety of activities both presented by ourselves and by outside renters.

Make the effort to see who is in your building at every chance. This does not mean you have to be at every show, for the entire show. What it does mean is that it is never a bad idea to be in the lobby when doors open for a few minutes, or in the lobby when a show is over. Not only does this let you see who is there, but it lets the audience see YOU which is a great way of making connections that can lead to future philanthropy.

It is also crucial to know EXACTLY what it is costing you to operate. Our margins are often razor thin and when we can see what is working, and what is not, we have a better chance of making smart decisions. For example, do we really need that many concessions staff on at a particular time? Can we find a way to utilize volunteers in a way to save money with some aspect of guest services?

Commit to spending the time to attend as many shows for a period of 3-4 months as you can, and then reflect on what you have seen. Review the data that was collected and the feedback of your support staff, volunteers and board and treat this as a regular business activity. R & D for your business – it will pay off.

Know Your Statistics

How crucial are the day-to-day “numbers” of your business? How often should I spend some time analyzing the data? What should I be looking for? Who should look at this data?

All of these questions are valid, and, given the limited staff resources many historic theatres have to bring to these tasks, it is important to balance our limited time on the most important tasks. Let’s take a look at each one of these questions in turn.

1) The importance of analyzing day-to-day statistics is a crucial element of both managing cash flow and both short-term and long-term strategic planning. If we don’t notice a dip in per cap income, we might miss an opportunity to change some items out before we are left with a lot of un-saleable items on our hands. If we don’t notice a decline in attendance on specific nights of the week, regardless of the program being offered, we may find ourselves with a string of losing dates that will affect our ability to staff for other events. If we fail to analyze our utility bills year to year, we may miss crucial leaks or inefficiencies in our HVAC systems.

2) How often should I be reviewing my data?
It makes sound business sense to compile everything you can and review monthly, quarterly as well as yearly, the key statistics of your operation. By looking closer at these items we find that we can see further in the future.

3) What should I be looking for?
Trends will become apparent with as few as three months of data in some cases, while in other cases, it will take a full year of numbers to see what you can expect. While a newly restored building will need 12 months of utility bills to use as a baseline, small changes in an operating facility, related to one or two degrees at the thermostat, may yield a great return. What happens when we raise the cost of an item at the concession stand? Try it, and track your sales to see if the price had any impact on your bottom line. It will take time to identify the statistics and indicators that are most important to your venue, the sooner you start, the sooner you will have a rich mine of information to draw from.

4) Who should analyze this data?
The Executive Director, Business Manager and/or key senior staff should be brought into the discussion to see if there are any suggestions to improve operational efficiency. Chances are there will be some good suggestions from the people “in the trenches” everyday. Be sure to reward positive change to encourage ongoing vigilance related to a streamlined operation. After all, we all want our venues to be around another 75 years and if we can get through the hard times of today, we should be in good shape for the better days ahead.

Through the passion, commitment and advocacy of best practices by Herb Stratford, the leadership team of the Paramount Theatre was able to not only clear the debt, but create a cash positive Operating Budget. Herb’s passion and leadership role in advocating for theatre preservation and best practices has guided hundreds of theatre and arts administrators.

Mary Beth Aungier
Manager, Lockn’ Festival, Arrington, Virginia; Former Executive Director, Paramount Theatre, Charlottesville, Virginia