2013 U.S. Historic Theatre Survey Published

We have recently published the 2013 Historic Theatre survey containing great insights and best practices for those restoring or operating a historic theatre. More than 75 theaters from 32 states, responded to the survey.

If you are interested in a copy of the newest annual survey, email us at herb@historictheatreconsultants.com with the name of your theatre and state.

Historic Theatre Building Safety

Building Safety

It is important, obviously, to protect the asset of the theatre property at all costs. For that reason a monitored system is recommended that will notify the police as well as you in the case of an intruder or fire issue. It is important to also monitor closely the issuance of keys to employees as well as a regular re-keying of important spaces. Keep the “call list” up to date so the security company knows who to wake up at 4am when they get a false alarm. Even though I lived just 5 minutes away from the theatre, I was wide awake by the time I would get there to meet the police and would tend to charge in to protect my the theatre only to find nothing.

Patron Safety

In regards to patron safety at events, as well as performer safety, an important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as “crowd control”. You can “manage a crowd” but not control a crowd. Key elements of the management of an audience include the obvious areas of adequate lighting and backup generators, a trained staff, but also it is crucial to have the correct number of professional, trained security people on hand relative to the audience. Depending on the local rules related to security in a venue (and relative to liquor sales if applicable), a minimum of 1 trained security staff per 250 guests is a must. Some cities may require uniformed off-duty police officers, while others just want to see trained staff with no other responsibilities. At my former theatre, I hired out for security as opposed to having staff. This was due to liability issues as well as the uncertainty of a four-wall rental with limited self-presenting. With rentals, I would set the security based on the attendance and my research on the type of audience I was expecting. Of course the talent’s rider would often specify security outside the artist’s dressing room door, at the front of the stage, as well as in the loading dock area which is often non-negotiable.

The adjunct to this discussion is the use of volunteers as ushers and de facto first line of security. This is not an option. I had a rule to not put volunteers in harms way or in a position where they would be exposed to potential large problems. So, I kept volunteers away from selling tickets or concessions and did not ask them to get involved with security issues. They were expected to “observe and report” and I never had a problem.

2013 Historic Theatre Survey

We’re proud to announce we are now conducting our 3rd annual Historic Theatre Survey. Last year the survey compiled data from more than 90 different theaters from coast to coast. Information in the survey covered all aspects of business practices as well as trends relative to restoration and programming. If you are interested in participating in this year’s survey go to :

2013 Historic Theatre Survey

If you are interested in receiving a copy of last year’s survey, email us:

Herb@historictheatreconsultants.com

All who participate in the 2013 survey will receive a copy of the final document.

Know Your History

Historic Theatres have a unique opportunity to continually celebrate their history. From old newspaper ads and clippings to oral histories, our theatres are a virtual gold mine of nostalgia. Having said that, its often hard to find the time to “work” that material to our own ends, given the other tasks that fill our days. With changing audience demographics, it will become harder and harder to engage patrons in our history, if we aren’t masters of it. Here are some suggestions to consider as we all struggle to stay relevant in the future, but pay homage to our past.

Use Volunteers to Research your History – Many times your volunteers can be the perfect resource for research. Not only have they demonstrated an interest in your theatre, but often they have the free time to spend at the library, on-line or interviewing the public for stories. Establish some goals and assist with direction and recognition and prepare to be wowed by what comes in.

Look Everywhere – Many times we forget to ask for help from obvious sources. Might there be plans of your theatre in the local historical society or building department plans review department? Will the local paper help to solicit stories and photographs from readers? You don’t know until you ask – or have a volunteer ask for you.

Celebrate Your Finds – Once you have some significant research/history at your fingertips, don’t keep it a secret – let the world know about it. A simple lobby display, page or two on your website and press release to the media, will no doubt lead to more information.

Communicate/Educate – It’s crucial to also share what you find with your staff and volunteers. There’s nothing worse than overhearing a volunteer tell inaccurate information to a patron. Make an effort to educate any staff that comes in contact with the public, as well as all volunteers, about the history of your building.

Who’s In Charge?

Management of a non-profit organization presents an unusual structure that can be both successful as well as prone to failure. While many historic theatres operate under a non-profit management structure, with a board of directors, there are as many horror stories as there are success stories.

Finding the right mix of talent, passion and ego in support of an organization’s mission can often be challenging, and smooth operations can often be cyclical with troubled times, depending upon the composition of key members of the management staff and board of directors. An important starting point is a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each party. For example, a non-profit board is tasked, by definition, to guide the overall actions of the organization and make sure it stays true to its mission. They are responsible for the fiscal health of the entity, as well as the legal compliance related to the tax-exempt status. They are responsible for the evaluation and performance of the C.E.O./executive director. A good board operates at a level far above the daily operations. By contrast, a board is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of an organization, they are not responsible for acting as the chief spokesperson, or for reviewing staff performance issues.

An executive director of an historic theatre also has specific roles that need to be filled while not doing the board’s job. A good director will interface with the board to keep them up to speed, will offer counsel on how board decisions relate to operations and will support board activities in regard to fundraising. A good ED will also represent the organization to the community, be the liaison to the full staff and will be accountable for implementing the board’s vision of the organization.

So who’s in charge? Ideally a partnership should exist between a board chair and an executive director. A relationship based upon trust, respect, shared goals and communication. The challenge is to keep that relationship intact through changing board leadership and both good times and bad times in a theatre’s life. Much like the hiring process for an executive director, board leadership should be carefully vetted with the goal of an harmonious working relationship as the goal.

The separation of politics, religion & entertainment

When is an event at your historic venue a time bomb? Just like in polite conversation, when you bring in religion or politics, you’re asking for trouble. Obviously we all want as many paying, quality events in our venue as possible, but it is crucial to remember that when you cater to any one group exclusively, you are potentially alienating others. The real trick is to manage your rentals so as to not create the impression of being to closely associated with any one side, religion or issue.

Political rallies and small fundraisers can be great, as they expose a group of people to your venue, create a positive experience and memory, and can create return customers. However, it is best to closely monitor the diversity and frequency of your “political” events. It’s always best to balance them if at all possible, (like print and broadcast media do during an election cycle) and to avoid any differential treatment to any one side. It is essential that you provide the same service, billing and exposure to both sides of the fence. Be careful to avoid undo exposure on your marquee, website or print ads, and avoid special “thank you’s” on printed materials if at all possible.

Recognition of any religious holiday is a potential minefield. While it is possible to try to make everyone happy, it is inadvisable. It is best to avoid any stereotypical representation of religious holidays both in marketing materials (ads, posters, website, holiday cards) and in building displays.

To many Americans in the 1930’s, movie palaces were considered the “church” of the American middle class. Theatres also played an important role in many political campaigns (not to mention Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln assassination) and important war bond sales efforts in the 1940’s. While the public’s use of and appreciation of historic theatres has changed over the years, the best thing we can do as stewards of these properties is to make sure we don’t alienate any of our audience members regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

Free events – a good idea or just bad for business?

Our historic theatres are often the showplaces of our community.  They act as a link to a past that valued craftsmanship, décor and a bygone era of style and sophistication. And as such, we often fall prey to the notion that we need to show them off as often as possible, many times as part of a free event.

The great film tycoon Marcus Loew once was quoted as saying, “We don’t sell tickets to movies, we sell tickets to movie theatres.” How true those words, especially in the era of the movie palace (1928-1935) when many Americans just wanted to escape for a few hours in the entertainment palaces of the European expat movie moguls like Fox, Loew and the Warner Brothers. Often we hear that the movie theatre became the church of the common man at the height of period with their regular patrons, schedules and passionate followers. The challenge many of us faced was to get that audience back, while competing with a much larger cast of distractions today.

All too often we are all approached to host “free” events, by community groups, theatre board members or even a theatre staff person. What is the real cost of this event? The response is often that the positive PR, number of new visitors, sponsorship or concession income will outweigh the cost we normally collect from renters or ticket sales. In fact, the greater damage to the institution of your theatre is the real cost.

There is a term in the live performance industry called “papering the house” which refers to giving away unsold tickets in order to have a full house. This is something all venues need to avoid the reputation of doing. In essence this is what too many “free” shows is doing to your building. If the perception exists that you can always wait for a free event at theatre “X”, there is little motivation for the public to pay for a ticket. If there are too many free events at your theatre, the “special-ness” of your venue begins to fade. Of course the occasional free event (1-2 times a year) is a good practice, especially if you have something new to show off, or a special occasion (theatre’s milestone birthday), but the value of a free event to the public is nil. Try giving away “free” tickets to an event and see what percentage of no-shows you have – it will be lower with a ticket fee as there is a perceived “value” to the ticket that a free event lacks. A better tact would be to offer admission with a donation to the local food bank, or during the holidays a toy for a local “Toys for Tots” program.

We’ve all worked so hard to restore our buildings, build an audience and create/foster quality programs – don’t give it away!

Dealing with Promoters

Dealing with promoters can be a great experience, or a nightmare. With individual personalities and reputations aside, there are several simple ways to make sure that you, as an historic theatre person, can be prepared and make the most out of your experience the majority of the time.

Basically, what both parties want out of a relationship are three things:

A drama-free experience

A well attended show (full house)

A profit for all parties

What are the elements of a “drama-free” experience? For one thing, it means doing your homework. Before you even talk to a promoter, or artist’s rep you should research the act’s history. This means both researching their past appearances in your community (if any) as well as their current statistics via Polstar. This is CRITICAL data for your offer, in that you will need to know their drawing power in similar markets, ticket prices, etc.

Next you need to do a specific budget with the house scale (ticket prices), marketing/PR costs as well as rider expenses figured in. If you have to sell more than 60% to break even, think about finding a sponsor, or about creating a special benefit for some ticketholders, (like a meet & greet) that might increase a ticket value. Be aware that any savvy tour manager, promoter or even the talent themselves, will attempt to get as much cash out of the show as possible, so you need to plan ahead and make sure all of your expenses ( as well as rider costs) are figured out and are realistic. Do you need a runner? Will you have to bring in special equipment? Hotel rooms? Post-show bus food? Outrageous comp ticket list that eats into your inventory? What are the terms of the contract, ½ up front? Cash that night? Be prepared.

What defines a “well attended” show? Again, research what the act is drawing while on tour. Make sure your offer spells out your break-even dollar amount so the “house” is protected before you get into the split point. And be careful here. If the ticket sales get too close to the break even point the promoter may even buy the tickets to get to that level, which will mean more cash for them. Make sure the artist comps are spread out all over the house so if their “guests” do not come there are not big holes in the audience. Be clear on media access both for photographers and press admissions. Get your promo materials up front and make sure that you meet any approvals for ads, website and other social media activities. Settle the show with a smile on your face.

What is a good profit for all parties? It depends on what you are looking for. Know in advance that every tour has expectations for EVERY stop they play. A good night for you may be break-even for them, and remember you are delivering a show to your community, making concession income, a percentage of merchandise sales, and making a fan’s entire month, or year by having their favorite act on your stage.

Look at relationships with promoters who use your facility as relationships with family members. You may not always agree with every decision they make, but together you can create special events that will enhance your brand, make a few dollars and keep your house full with diverse acts, without too much risk if you are careful.

“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.

Herb is eager to use his experiences to assist and inspire other historic theatres and their supporters by sharing the best practices of the industry at conferences and educational sessions.

Numa Saisselin
Executive Director, Florida Theatre, Jacksonville, Florida