Arts center business plan calls for audience market research
By Risa Polansky
Upon its unveiling, the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts' business plan — vital after a rocky inaugural year — received a lukewarm turnout from board members, but much praise from the few who showed up to critique it at two study sessions this month.
The handful of trust and foundation board members who did weigh in on the 56-page budget and action plan, which foresees the center balancing its budget next year after a county subsidy following this year's $1.7 million deficit, called for staff accountability and more market research to help design targeted strategies to draw more visitors.
To address accountability, center President and CEO Michael Hardy said he plans to require monthly reports from each department to track follow-through on the goals laid out in the plan, including generating an operating surplus, stabilizing operations and serving a broader base of patrons.
"On the to-do list: coming up with an informational kind of monthly report card," he said. "A plan is a plan, the execution is what counts."
Jane Robinson, president of the board of the Florida Grand Opera, said she has felt "disengaged" as a board member of the center's foundation, charged with fundraising for the organization.
"A certain kind of information has not been given to me," she said. "I want at least to know where your successes and where your failures are on a month-to-month basis."
The report cards would also serve to cut potential problems off at the pass, Mr. Hardy said, rather than catching them once they've spiraled out of control — a necessity after a tumultuous year of budget shortfalls and parking snafus, among other issues.
"One of the things we're hoping to avoid this year is surprises," he said.
However, one aspect of running the center that will continue to be fuzzy until it has more performance seasons under its belt, Mr. Hardy said, is what shows will fare best here.
"We don't have enough data yet" regarding what sells and what doesn't, he said. "As we come to learn about this market, we take our best guess."
It's a delicate game to play, however, because the center has "no liquidity," he said. "There is no margin for a bad show or a good show. We're very vulnerable to short-term swings — if one show goes badly, it really hurts us."
Foundation board member Jerome Cohen said the center needs to step up efforts to track audience demographics to ferret out who is coming to which shows, from where and how often, a technique that could benefit both marketing and show selection.
"The information about those people is critical, absolutely critical," Mr. Cohen said. "The more we know, the more accurate your business plan is going to be."
Now, the center can count filled seats, Mr. Hardy said, "but we don't know who they are."
Events at the center gleaned 500,000 ticket sales last year — a number that reflects repeat visitors rather than just individual guests.
Because resident companies sell their own subscriptions, it's difficult to track those buyers, Mr. Hardy said.
It's easiest to capture demographic information from those who buy tickets with credit cards by walking up to the box office, said Artistic Director Justin Macdonnell, but "our walkup is relatively small."
This does, however, benefit the center in that box office fees, tacked onto all ticket sales as a service charge except those bought by walk-ups, go straight to the center's budget, whereas ticket revenues themselves are paid to the presenting organization.
Next year's $26.6 million budget anticipates a $1.1 million jump in box office fees.
Mr. Hardy said the center must rely on surveys to get the most comprehensive reading on buyers, where they come from and what they're interested in seeing.
He plans e-mail and in-lobby surveys, and "one of our big objectives is to build a larger mailing list," he said.
Programming will always be a concern at any performing arts center, Mr. Macdxonnell said, and the Carnival Center faces a challenge now in managing its time and space to include center-sponsored shows, shows by the resident companies and shows put on by outside presenters.
To reduce costs, the center plans to present 60% fewer performances itself next year and offer fewer self-sponsored commercially popular shows such as comedies and pop music artists, leaving open dates for outside presenters — but finding room for those shows on the calendar will be tricky, Mr. Macdonnell said.
The opera house is already booked for 2008-09, a positive and a negative, he said.
"It's full, it's booked out, it's terrific," he said. But "we don't have enough dates to do the number of Broadway shows we need to do."
Trust board member Matti Bower attributes many of the center's lingering problems to "growing pains. The center is young."
She expects board members to vote to approve the plan.
Trust Chair Parker Thomson, to be replaced by J. Ricky Arriola this month, remained mum at the study session, saying afterward only that "it's a workable business plan."
Mr. Arriola was out of town and unavailable for comment.