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Editor’s note: The following story will appear
in the upcoming issue of “SPEA Magazine,” published by the
IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. For a copy,
or call 812-855-6802. See SPEA on the Web at:
When times are tough, they’re always toughest for the arts. Whether the attraction is a Broadway road show or a night at the opera, ticket sales all across America are sickly and so is philanthropic giving, while artist fees—the costs to book an act—climb higher every year.
Doug Booher is intimately familiar with the plight of the arts. As director of IU Auditorium, Booher knows that keeping his organization fiscally buoyant is as much a priority as booking Les Miz and considerably more challenging.
Booher, who also teaches in the Arts Administration program of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, must be doing something right. Over the last two years, private funding of IU Auditorium is up by 10 percent. Facility use by community groups—a key measure of organizational vitality—has grown by 16 percent. And here’s the real crowd-pleaser: despite rising expenses, the auditorium has managed to maintain the same ticket pricing model since 2001.
Consider where IU Auditorium was only 10 years ago. Electrical and mechanical systems hadn’t been upgraded since the 1950s and desperately needed replacement. The carpeting was shabby, the lighting outdated. “The management at the time was working diligently to increase revenues but the space was so tired that it hampered every effort,” says Booher.
The shows weren’t exactly fabulous either; since Bloomington was a smallish market with a tight budget, IU Auditorium had trouble attracting top quality Actors’ Equity productions—they were too busy playing major cities. (The Actors’ Equity Association is the union of American theatrical actors and stage managers.) Therefore, IU often had to settle for second- rate productions.
In 1998, the university tackled the auditorium’s physical woes with a $13 million renovation. In the meantime, the problem of booking top-rung shows virtually solved itself because an interesting thing happened in the world of Broadway road shows: Job opportunities for Equity productions started shrinking at the same time non-union salaries were growing more attractive, thanks to visionary new producers willing to spend big money to increase production values and lure better talent. Now IU could have the best of both worlds. “Suddenly the quality line between Equity and non-Equity shows began to blur,” explains Booher. “We saw lots of Equity actors working in non-Equity productions under assumed names and some who chose not to join the union in the first place.” Faced with serious competition, Equity productions developed a new appreciation for smaller markets like Bloomington and it became easier for IU Auditorium to book these shows.
There is more to the auditorium’s metamorphosis than a refurbished building and better quality “product.” In 1996, with fund-raising for the renovation still underway, the auditorium surveyed the community, from the loyal but diminishing core of season ticket-holders to the perpetually broke students. Market research revealed that:
• Ticket buying
Theatre-goers didn’t like the all-or-nothing approach to ticket buying, in which customers chose among the “artist,” “celebrity” and “Broadway” series. “We learned that our patrons have more eclectic tastes than we had thought,” says Booher. Today the auditorium uses a “choose your own” model of season subscription,” allowing patrons to pick any five shows out of a roster of 15 to 18 possibilities.
• It was time for a new seating system
“In the past,” notes Booher, “season ticket holders bought the series, got the same seat for each and every show and for those folks who’d been around a long time, they got the seats they wanted, sat there forever and life was great.” Life wasn’t so great for anyone stuck with lousy seats, however. Under the new “best available seating” plan, the auditorium assigns a priority seating number to everyone who buys the five-show season; that number is maintained or improved as long as the customer buys a season every year. (The 100 or so veteran patrons were grandfathered into the system and got to keep their coveted seats.)
• Students deserved deep discounts
“We wanted students to come and not just sit in the balcony for half price, but to sit in the first row of the theatre,” says Booher. “Like everyone else, students want to sit in the best seats possible. We needed a system where students weren’t treated like second-class citizens.” Now more than half of audiences for some events—52 percent—are comprised of students.
• Online ticketing holds promise
After a wildly successful trial geared specifically to students, the auditorium decided to expand and refine its online ticketing system and plans to roll out a new Web program this year. “By the same token,” Booher is quick to add, “we’re not getting rid of the tried and true personal interaction.”
These revelations and subsequent changes they triggered have this thing in common: all are geared toward better customer service. Over the last decade, notes Booher, the IU Auditorium has worked harder to “listen to the needs and desires of our customers,” and, in some cases, even anticipate those needs and desires. The auditorium now has an integrated data base of all its customers and the capability of sending targeted E-mail messages to promote specific events. Says Booher: “We can say, for instance, ‘You indicated in your show selection survey that you’re interested in family programming so we thought you’d like to know that the National Acrobats of Taiwan are coming to the auditorium.’” Booher says he hopes this will be an appreciated service to patrons, “not something that’s over the top to the point of spamming.”
Booher is optimistic about the future of performing arts, even as the government continues cutting its funding. Those cuts simply mean that “we have fewer political constraints when it comes to choosing which artists to present and support,” he observes. “Some arts organizations, including ours at times, have become too complacent, relying on grants and government funding instead of working to be efficient and effective. As that efficiency becomes more important in the face of diminished traditional funding, arts administrators have an exciting opportunity to redefine our operations.”
It’s a message that Booher works hard to convey to his students in his SPEA course, Performing Arts Center Management, and he is inspired by their response. “They are ready to take on the daunting responsibility of being arts administrators in the 21st century,” he says. “They’ve tempered their idealism with the sometimes harsh realities of funding shortfalls, diminishing audiences and escalating artists fees, and they’re facing these challenges with creativity and resolve.”
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