Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Recessionary Holdover: The End of the High Roller Ticket Buyer

Many of my wonderful colleagues will soon be heading off to the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York, looking to purchase the touring acts, artists, and events they will offer for their 2010-11 seasons. Last year, just as the conference was underway, I received an urgent call from one such presenter. “$50,000 is the new $40,000!” said he. “I don’t know what everyone is thinking – they are buying and buying the most expensive acts like there is no worry at all in the economy, and they will have no choice but to sell these tickets at $80, $100, or more! But if I don’t buy at that level, my bosses in city hall will think we are no longer competitive. What do you see, Louise?”

Well, last year I did see everyone still buying at vastly inflated prices that left no margin for error in the number of tickets sold, and a lot of my friends and colleagues got burned when the box office sales didn’t come close to their optimistic projections. This year, my hope is that the field won’t make the same error.

Don’t just believe me. A powerful WSJ front page story last Thursday should be your must read (and be sure your boards and city commissioners read it too) before you shop this year. Titled “Spendthrift to Penny Pincher: A Vision of the New Consumer” the story notes the vast and lingering change in value systems among consumers away from “flashy shows of wealth” to much more conservative buying patterns, even as they feel the recession easing.

Here’s a very important line from the story: “Much as the 1930s shaped the spending habits of an entire generation, many companies now anticipate a shift in consumer behavior that persists even after jobs and growth get back closer to normal.”

My parents, avid arts goers both, were very much children of the 30s. So while we went to more live performing arts and museum exhibitions per year during my childhood and youth than most people attend in a lifetime, we always found the least expensive-but-good seats. We always found the free days or lower admissions for museums.

Lately, I’ve been seeing the same behavior from a lot of vastly wealthy people who may not have been children of the Great Depression but have lived through this recession and have clearly changed their buying behavior. On behalf of a client, we recently built a direct mail campaign targeted to high net worth ($2 million liquid assets or more) households who self identify as performing arts goers. This was a subscription campaign. And in response, what did these folks buy? Bargain-buster, mid-week, inexpensive single tickets. Nary a one bought those Saturday night flashy box seats. Not one.

The WSJ article notes that today’s buyers haven’t reverted to their old consumption patterns the way they did after 9-11. It cites BMW’s US sales for 2009 as down 22.5% as compared to 2008, and that in focus groups with customers Ritz-Carlton found that its customers now feel guitly about lavish spending. This is cautionary to anyone in the arts field who continues to believe that the most expensive tickets will always sell first and that attenders who really want to come will buy the higher priced seats. The Senior V.P. of Sales and Marketing for Ritz-Carleton, Bruce Himelstein, is quoted saying,”I think the consumer’s mind has been reset on how to spend.”

My deep hope is that with careful product selection (at the right price) and even potentially with repriced seating offering more better bargain seats, we’ll see more people acting like my parents once did – going more often, but carefully saving on every ticket and admission. Given what experts such as Himelstein have said, this may well be the arts ticket sales model for the next decade, not just the next few months. For everyone in the arts and entertainment field, this deserves careful attention.

Beauty, Culture, and Communities

Beautiful Places-Florida-Mellander-Stolarick 2009As a cultural planner, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about culture and community development, culture and our economy, the arts and culture as community priorities. Heading into the new year, I’ve been seeking new inspiration along these lines. I’ve found that inspiration, and want to share it!

I just finished reading the research paper “Beautiful Places” written by Richard Florida (University of Toronto), together with Charlotta Mellander (Jonkoping International Business School) and Kevin Stolarick (University of Toronto), published by the Martin Prosperity Institute. The three studied the role of aesthetics and beauty in community satisfaction and determined that both beauty and perceived aesthetic character have a highly significant positive impact on perception of a community by residents. They also tested the importance of these so-called “higher order” factors in location choices – for example, how important these might be in selecting a community in which to live, or in a corporation’s selection of a new location and how perceptions of aesthetics and beauty relate to other community elements such as quality schools, transportation, and cultural offerings. Does the aesthetic quality of a community improve civic engagement, and to what degree? (Answer from the study: YES, and HUGE.)

To answer their questions, the trio worked with the Gallup Organziation, which conduct telephone surveys of 28,000 respondents throughout the US.

This extensive level of surveying is rarely afforded within arts and cultural realms, so its import is high. This large sample made it possible to study perceptions of the importance of aesthetics based on demographics and as related to jobs and economic security and positive or negative expectations about the future. The key question they asked was: “Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with the city or area where you live?” And they asked: “How would you rate the city or area where you live on” a whole host of factors, ranging from the ability to meet and make friends to cultural opportunities, quality health care, quality colleges and universities, nightlife, climate and more.

Here’s one of the really interesting outcomes: they found that there is NO relationship between community satisfaction and life stage factors such as age, presence of children, length of residency and other demographics. This contradicts many other studies that have found community satisfaction increases with length of residency, or that have found young adults to be less satisfied with their communities than older residents.

On the other hand, they found aesthetics, beauty, and culture to have statistically important relationships with levels of community satisfaction. Beauty and aesthetics appear to be the among the very most important factors contributing to community satisfaction, right up there with economic conditions and what I’d call community friendliness – a place to meet people and make friends. Cultural opportunities rank nearly on par with affordable housing, and are more important than climate, job opportunities within the respondent’s own field, and the “urbanicity” of the area. Cultural opportunities did not rank as important as “religious institutions that meet your needs” or as important as outdoor parks, playgrounds and trails. Of note, the respondents rated their own communities “vibrant nightlife” and “quality of colleges and universities” negatively – but but important.

What does this mean in cultural development and planning?

1. Aesthetics, be they natural or built, are obviously very important to community satisfaction, but are often under-considered and stressed within the context of cultural plans, development, preservation, and funding.

2. There is a considerable linkage between community satisfaction and cultural opportunities – remember, on par with or ahead of other critical factors. The authors were surprised that cultural opportunities didn’t rank higher. I wonder if question wording/understanding played a role in this. “Quality parks, playgrounds and trails” is very easy for a respondent to understand and rank. I find most people have difficulty when asked to quickly do a mental sort of “cultural resources” and almost never come up with similar or thorough lists of what these include. That said, culture offerings came out of this study as clearly very important.

The rubber hits the road in cultural planning when the finished plans, complete with aesthetic and cultural development aspirations, reach the desks of community prioritizers – city councils, county executives, key local foundations, and the many other stakeholders who weigh the investment importance of each priority they fund. Many a time I have heard them say flat out that cultural development can’t possibly be as important as affordable housing or job opportunities, but this huge Gallup survey sample shows that they are wrong. Culture matters. And aesthetics and beauty are right up there – ahead of “being able to get from place to placd with little traffic,” quality health care, and parks – in a cluster of the high ranking important factors: 1) current economic conditions; 2) Beauty; 3)quality schools; 4) good place to meet people and make friends.

This means that historic preservation, design regulations, landscape, public art, street scapes, civic facilities that facilitate public gatherings and interaction, cultural districts, and wide ranging cultural amenities are all of demonstrated and tested high order importance to communities throughout the US, with implications for any community, anywhere. It also means that the creators, the artists, the nonprofits, the cultural entrepreneurs whose enterprises create meaningful aesthetics, civic gatherings, and cultural infrastructure are vastly more important than most civic leaders have dreamed.

Our field often uses what can be, and is often dismissed as, a basic level economic justification – the jobs and economic impact of cultural organizations and particiaption. This study finds a much higher economic justification in the elements we plan for in cultural development – the very future of community satisfaction, growth, and choice.

The impact is huge. To every civic leader, every developer, every funder, planner, and prioritizer: beauty matters, aesthetics matter, culture matters.

In the End, Everything is Customer Service

Sorry, we can’t refund single ticket sales.” “We only offer date change options to our preferred subscribers.” “We can’t do anything about the parking problem: the garage is operated by the city and we have no control.” “No infants or small children in backpack baby carriers allowed in the Museum. No, it doesn’t matter if your child can’t see the art from down there and will cry all the time.” “No use of your own strollers: you must rent one of our strollers.” “There is nothing we can do if you lost your ticket. We don’t issue duplicates.” “To reach the box office, hang up, and dial the following number between two and five PM.”

I’m sure you have heard thousands of similar lines. Does your organziation empower people to be problem solvers?

Imagine…a family with three or four young children, dressed in holiday best, shivering in the outer lobby…”I’m sorry, but you made a mistake, your Nutcracker tickets are for next Saturday, not tonight…no I can’t help you…I understand you already paid for the parking and, yes, that you drove 40 miles…but there is nothing I can do about it…”

“I will find a solution to your situation right now.”

I was thinking about moments like these during the nearly 4 hours spent on the phone last Friday (and three hours today) as Qwest Communications tried to figure out why it had dropped ArtsMarket’s web site and emails. We had switched from DSL to satellite in mid-October, at which point Qwest repeatedly assured us of course they would keep hosting our web site and emails. No problems. And there weren’t any until mid day Friday when everything went blip. There were a total of 17 transfers on Friday – “we don’t handle that…talk to the DSL office….talk to the satallite technician…that is an email issue….that is a website issue….here is another number…I may lose you on hold….we can’t handle that problem here…why did they transfer you to me?” The last transfer was to somplace in India, and after again being asked “what is it you want?” we were told, “Sorry, it is after five. You will have to call again on Monday.” Now, Monday, and after 8 more transfers, they still ask “what do you want?” A simple request for customer service. We recite the story again, and again. “All we want is our email back, and hey, our web site would be nice to get back, too.” But, it appears there is no one person who knows how to make this happen, anywhere in the Qwest universe. With every call/transfer, we have to start the story over from the beginning. No one seems to know about the 25 other Qwest technical offices, administrative offices, transfer offices, support centers and more that have already spoken to us and told us it wasn’t their problem.

A bit ago, a gentle soul with an accent foreign to my ears finally did figure out how to get email up, but then apologized because Qwest appears to be having problems with their servers so “email will be backed up for a few more hours. That means you should call back again in about three or four more hours…”

Does your organization do comprehensive customer service training? Is every front liner in your museum, performing arts center, community theatre, opera, box office, ticket booth, parking lot entrance empowered to know who to contact to fully solve your customer’s problem?

Audiences are hard to win, these days, and can be quick to migrate. The attitude of customer service can make all the difference.

If my Qwest tale isn’t an effective promt for your staffwide customer service and customer problem-solving training, head to You Tube and enjoy the now famous “United Breaks Guitars.”

Creativity as Community Aid and Employment Training

As our cities and towns across America face massive unemployment and what is likely to be long term joblessness, we hear a great deal about “green” jobs and shovel ready jobs, everything from weatherizing homes to building roads. But as many have observed, these are not long term re-training and employment solutions. It seems America has forgotten one of its most important training and employment opportunities, and perhaps THE most important career building direction for the future economy: creativity training and employment.

When the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was enacted in 1973 as the precursor to the Job Training Partnership Act, literally thousands of arts and culture nonprofits emerged launched by artists who were moved by the opportunity to create the jobs – including summer jobs for unemployed high school students – that CETA made possible. CETA can be credited with supporting the first wave of non-profit media jobs as it supported community access television and the training of thousands of youth in media production. If you look across the landscape of nonprofit arts organizations in your city, and track them back to their founding dates, you will find scores of theatre companies, neighborhood cultural centers, festivals, dance companies and more that began through CETA. I look around today and see a generation of executive nonprofit leaders whose start in cultural and nonprofit management came thanks to CETA. It was used to train and create jobs, and along the way it created and sustained then-fragile new nonprofits until they were strong enough to survive and thrive. The training was typically on-the-job, and in most cases the trainees went on to employment in the field, and thousands have stayed to lead the nonprofit sector to this day.

Good as those weatherization jobs are, and as vital as they are to the low income families whose homes need the benefit the weatherization can provide, how will the training and employment impact communities in 10, 20, or 30 years? As I lead cultural plans or work on cultural districts I find over and over that it is those special community-oriented nonprofits – most launched through CETA – that create the critical mass of cultural opportunity, engagement, learning, afterschool programs, diverse programming, and new/forward looking creativity that supports culturally rich communities.

We need to launch the next generation of similar cultural and creativity job training and employment, with the same opportunities as were established 36 years ago, to train another generation of creativity workers, enable them to learn on-the-job in ways that also create community engagement and audience and support neighborhood wellness. Creativity is proven, highly effective community aid. We know it works. It creates lasting jobs, training that truly engages youth, supports the development of new community-oriented nonprofits, transforms run-down neighborhoods into cool and hip cultural districts, and builds the local economy. All this, plus we know that creativity is the future of the American economy – the most important ingredient behind new innovation, new intellectual work, and new product development.

Why, then, is it so undervalued as a key antidote to unemployment and underemployment? Creativity needs the chance to work its miracles, now.