TAFTO 2012 Contribution: Paul Helfrich

It’s tradition to include a contribution from an orchestra manager and one of the most difficult aspects of paring down the number of annual contributions is determining who to invite as there are so many terrific people throughout the field. But I couldn’t be happier with this year’s manager contribution from Paul Helfrich as he offers up a thought provoking piece from the perspective of someone who doesn’t always have the luxury of setting aside pragmatism: an orchestra executive. ~ Drew McManus

I’m pleased to be part of TAFTO for 2012. I have to admit, though, I’ve often been a bit cynical about the endeavor. A lot of past contributions seem to fall in one of two camps. The first group typically focuses on the evangelical power of classical music, its ability to effect sudden conversions in listeners of a quasi-religious nature. These usually feature stories of truck drivers and jackhammer operators with tears in their eyes upon hearing their first classical concert. I call these “exceptions that prove the rule,” because we all know that oftentimes, a first exposure to a classical music concert does not bring about such an immediate conversion; in fact, sometimes the opposite happens, and is probably more likely.

The second group tries to address the reasons why this is so; I think of it as rules that provoke objections. These are often tales of how we can interest folks in concert going as long as we steer them through the thicket of items surrounding orchestra concerts that are confusing or alienating to new patrons, including high prices (or at least the perception thereof), costly parking, concert halls in “dangerous” downtown locations, difficulties obtaining tickets, grumpy ushers, confusing program notes, and social anxieties about what to wear, when to clap, and so on. We have to explain and apologize for all that just to get them to a point where they can hear a musical performance for which they may have no point of reference whatsoever. Pardon my cynicism, but I’m on the front lines of this battle every day, and I’ve learned to be realistic.

So here’s a new concept – why not offer concerts of music that new concertgoers really want to hear?

Why not program this music with enthusiasm and embrace it – and then, maybe, we won’t have to apologize and explain so much? If the programming really interests them, then the peripheral issues will be of less importance. After all, none of those issues stopped huge numbers of people from going to see Wicked or The Lion King, typically at the same kinds of venues at which orchestras play, with all the same issues, and at much higher prices!

Orchestras often think of non-traditional repertoire or concerts as something they have to hold their nose and do, in hopes that it will bring about one of those quasi-mystical conversion experiences so they can get around to doing what they really want to do, i.e. playing REAL music. It’s gateway drug thinking. “If we can bring them in with a free concert in the park, maybe next we can get them to a pops concert, then a classics, and before we know it they’ll be buying four seats for the all-Lutoslawski festival. “ I don’t think it actually works that way. I think orchestras that don’t embrace non-traditional concerts will increasingly be in trouble.

So here are a few things we’ve done in Dayton that have helped us reach new audiences without abandoning a commitment to traditional series and repertoire as well.

New series

We’ve launched two new series in Dayton since 2008. The first is a classic rock series aimed at baby boomers, and it’s been a great success. Called “Rockin’ Orchestra,” it features tribute bands and the occasional original group performing with the orchestra. We piloted it with a few stand-alone concerts in 08-09 and 09-10, then rolled out a 3-concert series for 10-11. It’s now expanded to 4 concerts, and it’s far and away our biggest area of ticket revenue growth. In its first year we did $105,000 in subs and $108,000 in singles.  This year, we did $165,000 in subs and expect to do about $200,000 in singles.  One concert sold so well we had to add a second show. It’s been a ticket sales powerhouse.

So far, we’ve done concerts of the music of The Beatles, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Three Dog Night, and Queen. Future concerts will feature music by Michael Jackson, The Doors, and The Beach Boys. This series draws a huge new audience of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who don’t otherwise participate. The classic rock repertoire is a powerful point of reference for them. But you know who always gets the loudest ovation and cheers at these concerts? The orchestra. The enthusiasm shown for the Dayton Philharmonic in presenting and performing these concerts has been really overwhelming. I know we’ve made a lot of new friends in the community and have gone a long way to shatter the perception that the orchestra only plays for a rarified crowd that already understands classical music.

A new approach can work for traditional repertoire, too. We had a somewhat moribund Chamber orchestra series here. A pair of performances in our main concert hall (capacity 2,200) were drawing about 500 people each. It didn’t look good. So we blew it up (the series, not the concert hall!) and created something called “Symphony Sundaes.” They’re 80 minute concerts, performed without intermission, done on Sunday afternoons at a venue where there is free parking. Repertoire is familiar classics centered on the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and prices are low (top ticket is $24). Soloists are mostly from the orchestra. A local ice cream company sponsors a free social after each concert where every concertgoer may receive a delicious scoop of ice cream. This venture, too, has been successful in attracting new audiences. We see many older people who can’t get to evening concerts as well as families with children. And the performances are great. We just had a Beethoven “Eroica” on this series that was one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Newbie program

I give credit to the DPO’s gifted Marketing Director, David Bukvic, for developing this innovative undertaking. It goes back to March 2009, when we first launched a unique customer trial program informally called the “Newbie” program. In the preceding several seasons, the DPO appended data to its past and current transactor base revealing the key VALS (Values & Lifestyle Segments) of DPO customers. The top-scoring household segments (in a 30 mile radius) were then purchased from the CAS Equifax. All current/past customers were then purged out of this data leaving a base of leads who had never (or not recently) attended a DPO event of any type.

Postcards inkjetted with PURLS (Personal URLs) were sent to these targets with an offer of two free tickets to their choice of a concert from a list of about a dozen dates. The choices include a wide variety of programs, from traditional classics to family concerts to the rock series. To sign up, the prospects logged onto a private web page and provided full data which we keep and manage in our MasterFile database. These “newbies” were sent two tickets per household. Those who attended are called within five days of their visit. Many purchase subscriptions; many come back to subsequent concerts.

The program is ongoing and the DPO is now in Wave 9 of this program. The campaign has been instrumental in helping us achieve 3% overall subscription increases in the last two years. In fact, in a two-year period, these new customers provided over 15% of our total (subscription and singles) ticket sales. It also provides full, excited houses reinforcing the need for current subscribers to renew. Newbies tend to purchase at the lower end of the scale on subscription packages, mostly purchasing flex packs or other smaller subscriptions.

But there’s nothing wrong with that – any new subscriber is a victory in this day and age. The newbie program has become a core component of the DPO marketing process. To give you an idea: for the two year period from March 1, 2009 to February 11, 2011, our total ticket revenue from all sources was $3,280,000. Total revenue from participants in the “newbie” program was $514,000 or 15.67% of the total.

Groundbreaking merger

The biggest innovation we’re working on at the moment is an unprecedented merger of three arts companies. As of July 1, 2012, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Ballet, and Dayton Opera will all come together as a single 501 c 3 organization to be called the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. There are some administrative efficiencies in the new model, but this isn’t really a cost-saving merger. We’ve all cut staff already; there’s not much more to be done in that regard. Instead, what is really exciting about the merger are the opportunities for new artistic collaborations and new opportunities for audiences to participate. For instance, at a time when more and more dance companies are moving to recorded music, we’re going to buck that trend here in Dayton. When the overture starts for The Nutcracker this coming December, that will be the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra playing the music, not a CD. And the four-performance series of the Dayton Opera and Ballet will become even more attractive, once we roll out the option to choose up to 2 additional performances, for the same price, from the combined offerings of the three companies.

So in the future, we will be “taking our friends to the orchestra” not just when it’s on stage to play concerts, but when it’s in the pit for opera and ballet performances as well.

Let me hasten to add that none of these new projects have been a panacea. We still have many issues and challenges. We feel, however, that we’re trying new things and reaching new people – and ultimately, good things will come of that.

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to TAFTO, and I welcome your comments!

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