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.

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!

Best Practices – A Few Words

Despite differences in location, audiences, experience of staff/Board of Directors, condition of the physical facility and other tangible differences between historic theatres, there are some important elements of operation, best practices in the industry, that can be defined, areas include;

• Patron experience

• Stage safety

• Business practices

In the area of patron experience, it remains crucial to deliver a quality EXPERIENCE to the patron every time they visit. Despite what we may all feel is the overwhelming positive of visiting our venue, more than ever it is easier, sometimes cheaper and more interesting to go somewhere else. How can we continue to enjoy the audiences we have worked so hard to bring back to our venues, to our downtowns? By maintaining a unique, positive experience from the ticket purchase (on-line, phone or in person) to the arrival at our venue with swept sidewalks, a smiling face at the door, clean floors, well-stocked restrooms, good concession options, quality performances/screenings, comfortable atmosphere (HVAC), assistance if needed and a “thank you” at the door when the patron leaves. It’s amazing how much of a difference customer services means and your patrons will appreciate it when they experience it.

It seems odd to even have to talk about stage safety given the complex and dangerous equipment many of us have on site, but often new staff members or board members are not aware of standard protocol related to safety in the most dangerous area of our property. Whether you are a “hemp house” or a modern facility with motorized, computer controlled rigging systems, there are thousands of pounds of equipment suspended above your head every time you are on the stage. Facility stage staff should define and implement safety protocol that MUST be followed by all staff. In short, don’t go on stage unless you have to, or have been told to. Equally, don’t operate equipment you have not been trained on as it is expensive, costly to replace and essential to the operation of the facility.

Historic Theatres practice their own unique business practices, not many other businesses invite people into a big room, serve them food & drink and turn off the lights hoping for the best. Along with patron experiences it’s important to maintain the highest level of business practices in relation to advertising, marketing practices, legal filings, hiring and firing of staff and outside sales and rentals of the facility. It is advisable to have specific guidelines for any institution so that a “brain-drain” will not occur with the loss of any staff, and many of these areas are common sense. Make an effort to establish a reputation in your community as a model business.

By following these simple best practices, your theatre has a better chance of surviving and thriving in the long run.