TRG case study: Pensacola's smash Carmen

Case Study: Pensacola Opera

Carmen sells out, single ticket revenue 33% above goal

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The Situation

Carmen at Pensacola Opera: Audrey Babcock as Carmen, Chad Shelton as Don Jose, Anne Slovin as Frasquita, Eamon Pererya as El Remendado, and the Pensacola Opera Chorus.
Photo by Michael Duncan, featuring Audrey Babcock as
Carmen, Chad Shelton as Don Jose, Anne Slovin as
Frasquita, Eamon Pererya as El Remendado,  
and the Pensacola Opera Chorus.

Pensacola Opera is a $1.3 million organization which stages two productions a year with two performances each. For the past several years, the company had been focused on institutional stabilization—paying off debts, completing a capital campaign for establishing cash reserves, bolstering its endowment, and making capital improvements. In the meantime, the company was having trouble consistently meeting revenue goals for their productions.

To Executive Director Erin Kelley Sammis, it was clear that the company needed to shift its attention to growing sustainable patronage and revenue. In the summer of 2013, Sammis engaged TRG for a consultancy that would begin by focusing on increasing single ticket revenue and volume. 

Erin: I hired TRG because I knew we weren’t reaching our potential and that we could no longer afford to do so. We had grappled with our inventory, pricing and marketing strategies enough that we had developed a long list of questions to which I could not find the answers and still tend to all the other parts of my job. We needed to make swift and smart changes in our marketing and sales practices and we needed to be as efficient and effective as possible. With a small staff and only two shows through which to demonstrate change, I knew we couldn’t manage this alone. TRG’s expertise and support was exactly what we needed to focus our energies and make possible the change I knew our staff, board, and existing audiences wanted, and needed, to see. 

Pensacola Opera had scheduled Bizet’s Carmen as their first opera of the 2013–14 season. The Opera had not produced Carmen in many years, but the last production had been one of the most successful in the company’s history. Sammis wanted to make the most of this blockbuster opportunity.
The Results
The company surpassed their ticket goal for Carmen by over $20,000, or 33%. The production sold out and broke revenue records for the last five seasons.

Patrons bought earlier because the company put tickets on sale earlier and began marketing campaigns earlier. Four weeks before performances began, Carmen revenue was pacing ahead of goal by 172% and was three times higher than previous productions at that point, on average.

Per capita revenue for Carmen single ticket buyers was $52, a 13% increase over the previous season’s average.

Overall, the two productions in the 2013–14 season finished 10% over the single ticket revenue goal, which was also a 10% increase over the previous season’s single ticket revenue. What’s more impressive is that overall sales for the two operas in the 2013–14 season trumped 2012–13, which had an added third production in honor of the company’s 30th anniversary.

How They Did It

Budgeting for a blockbuster

In the past, Pensacola Opera had only established goals for gross revenue per production, without breaking the goal out by subscriptions and single tickets. TRG consultants helped the opera company examine the overall revenue goal in light of projected subscription sales. They could then focus on and plan for the revenue they would still need from single tickets.

TRG wanted the Opera be realistic about how many single tickets they could expect to sell, so they next looked at the production’s marketing budget. As a small company with a small budget, Pensacola Opera would try to save on marketing expenses whenever possible. The Opera had budgeted $5,250 to sell $64,800 in single tickets, a cost of sale ratio of 8%. TRG typically recommends that organizations invest more in blockbusters, especially a big opportunity like Carmen. The company increased their marketing budget in order to sell more, spending at a 19% cost of sale level.

Erin: I instinctively knew we needed to do more marketing, but the question we always struggled with is ‘where, when and how?’ It came back to resource management and education—which media would deliver the biggest bang for our buck because every penny had to count. TRG gave us insights on how to direct our resources based on best practices. They also helped me educate our board about why these investments, though scary, were absolutely necessary.

Early marketing means early sales

Photo by Michael Duncan, featuring Audrey Babcock
as Carmen and Michael Mayes as Escamillo

The Opera started marketing campaigns with strategically defined segmentation and increased frequency. Before, the Opera would announce all tickets going on sale two to three months out with single ticket focused brochure; then they’d market each opera four weeks out via a postcard. Their sales history showed sales picking up around three or four weeks out because that was when they had started marketing.

TRG advised the Opera that patrons will buy earlier if they receive marketing materials earlier. In the 2013–14 season, the first opera of the season, Carmen, was to take place in mid-January. The public on-sale date was in early November, but the Opera sent many early on-sale offers to targeted segments from their database beginning in mid-October. They sent both the brochure and the postcard out one month earlier, and added three more mailings throughout the sales period. Ticket revenue was higher the week tickets went on sale; plus, sales picked up sooner and were steadier overall.

Targeted Messaging

In past years, Pensacola Opera had mailed their brochure and postcard to large, unsegmented mailing lists. Because of the decision to spend more on marketing Carmen, the Opera was able to send additional mailings that were segmented based on patrons’ previous experience with them:

  • Patrons who had previously bought tickets to other blockbuster productions like Show Boat and Madama Butterfly.
  • New single ticket buyers from the previous season.
  • A broad prospect pool, including lapsed subscribers and previous ticket buyers from the last five seasons, as well as traded lists from the local arts community and regional opera companies in Georgia and Alabama.
  • Lapsed subscribers and previous single ticket buyers specifically.

Pensacola Opera also marketed the next opera in the season, Cinderella, to those who bought tickets to Carmen.

Early sales fuel demand

Tickets sold early in the sales cycle helped Pensacola Opera maximize revenue with demand-based pricing strategies. Consultants had helped the Opera plan trigger points to increase prices. When a section of seats reached a set percent sold, prices would increase slightly. Marketing materials went out with messaging like “Current prices guaranteed through December 20,” to communicate the possible price increases and fuel urgency to buy early.

TRG developed a strategic hold-and-release strategy for Pensacola Opera, allowing sections of the house to sell out early on. Some of these sections were already partially filled with subscribers; early single ticket buyers bought the rest. The Opera, in turn, sent out materials with the message “some sections already sold out,” which further increased demand and justified their first foray into dynamic pricing.

Erin: Demand-based pricing was the best, and most fun, aspect of our Carmen campaign. It was exciting and gratifying to have a show that was so in demand and seeing how our patrons understood they were buying a ‘hot’ ticket! We would immediately see and feel the impact of our messaging, and existing and new patrons were responding so positively. Plus, it felt great to have earlier sales, knowing sooner that our houses would be full and that there was cash in the bank.

About Pensacola Opera

In 1983, a small group of people interested in opera created a grassroots opera company called Pensacola Chamber Opera. Today, its performances and array of educational programs serve over 35,000 people annually. It is one of only five professionally-affiliated opera companies in the state of Florida and it is the only opera company in North Florida. Pensacola Opera continues its mission of enriching Northwest Florida by producing professional opera performance, educational programs and other opera-related community events for people of all ages, interests and backgrounds.

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Posted June 9, 2014

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