Case Study: Washington Pavilion

Case Study: Washington Pavilion

New subscribers triple in one year

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The Situation

Washington Pavilion's production of Elf

Washington Pavilion, located in a beautifully renovated historic building in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is one of only a few facilities in the world to bring together under one roof the performing arts, visual arts, interactive science, and educational opportunities. Washington Pavilion is TRG’s only client with an active patron base from all 50 U.S. states, plus multiple provinces in Canada. This multidisciplinary model strengthens the organization’s audience development potential. Yet the model is a challenge in complexity on both the patron and administrative sides. 

In 2012 Washington Pavilion engaged TRG Arts to help build sustainability by integrating pricing into their patron approach. The most immediate gains and growth materialized in the performing arts side of the business as TRG counseled around scale of house, pricing, and subscription campaign management. From the start, the Washington Pavilion team demonstrated a confidence about their patron base and community with a willingness to learn and implement best practices to grow sustainability. As a result, they nearly tripled the amount of new subscribers in one season, and have moved those new subscribers into renewing subscribers in the following seasons. 

The Strategy

Scale of Hall & Pricing 

Mary W. Sommervold Hall at Washington Pavilion

Before engaging TRG, the Washington Pavilion offered one date only for their subscription performances. However, Washington Pavilion needed to increase the number of performances, as the demand for certain seats was greater than the supply. In the 2012–13 season, the Washington Pavilion box office refunded dozens of new subscriptions for patrons who only wanted to subscribe into the best seats in the house. The inventory plan and the number of performances simply didn’t accommodate this demand. 

What held them back from increasing the number of performances? The scale-of-hall plan was traditional, with the most expensive seats across the orchestra floor and the least expensive seats across the top of the balcony. As a result, when performance didn’t sell well, their 1,848 seat Mary W. Sommervold Hall had many visible empty seats. The scale plan inhibited the Washington Pavilion from expanding their subscription series to two performances per production—for fear that audiences for each production would not fill the venue. 

In addition, the Washington Pavilion’s pricing strategy had the following challenges: 

  • The best seats in the house were not priced to honor demand. 
  • There was no low entry-level price point for single ticket buyers. 
  • There were no smaller, less expensive “choose-your-own” packages—a proven, valuable option for attracting new subscribers.
  • The subscription pricing was not aligned with key value propositions (like discounting subscriptions to offer five shows for the price of six).

Pricing the back rows of the balcony at the lowest price point created visible empty seats (circled in blue) when a performance was at low capacity. (This heat map shows how frequently seats are filled. Each box represents a seat. The darker the box, the more frequently the seat is filled.)

In their October 2012 pricing summit, TRG recommended a scale-of-hall plan that used the Washington Pavilion’s historic sales data to ensure a perception of success at all capacities sold. The Washington Pavilion’s team also rallied around John Seitz, their patron services manager, who pushed for expanding the subscription series to two performance dates as he recalled the current season Price Level A refunds to new subscribers.

“It was clear to me that it was time to expand,” Seitz said. “During the 2012–13 season, we had a number of subscribers ask for refunds after they found out their seating assignment. Our VP of Finance was horrified when she learned about all of the refunds we issued.”

A new map was devised based on the needs and demands of patrons, and all price points were offered on the floor so that Washington Pavilion could hold seats in the upper mezzanine and the balcony when demand was low. This ensured that patrons filled the hall from front to back and side to side so they had a successful live event experience on any night. The new price points reflected product demand, valued the patrons, and created more entry-level opportunities. In addition, the Washington Pavilion incorporated the best practice strategy of selling an introductory, Choose-Your-Own 4-show subscription package. This too created entry-level opportunities for new subscribers.

Campaign Planning and Upgrading

Washington Pavilion's production of Million Dollar Quartet

Pre-TRG, the Washington Pavilion relied on mass media (newspaper ads, TV spots, radio and billboards) to drive subscription growth. Research shows that mass media generally works best for attracting new audiences (i.e. new-to-file single ticket buyers), while targeted, direct marketing works best to upgrade existing relationships (i.e. turning single ticket buyers into subscribers). TRG recommended a reallocation of resources to focus on direct communication with the Washington Pavilion’s best prospects.

For the 2013–14 season, the Washington Pavilion created a multi-wave direct mail campaign, using best practice segmentation and messaging. This plan, combined with the expansion of prime inventory with two subscription nights per show, sparked rapid growth.

In the years that followed, the Washington Pavilion has refined these best practice strategies to ensure a sustainable growth pattern. In addition, they are using strong upgrade strategies to encourage patrons to invest more, such as renewing CYO subscribers into full series, and renewing Price Level C subscribers into Price Level B. They are using strong in-house sales strategies, like seat tagging, during subscription renewal time. And while the new subscriber growth is the big headline, continued renewing subscriber growth is also noteworthy. For the 2015–16 season, Washington Pavilion has a 91% renewal rate for full subscribers, a record high.

The Reaction

Patrons vote with their feet. If they subscribe and renew, data will prove the success. Yet ownership of best practice strategies with an administrative team are also essential. All signs point to success at the Washington Pavilion as they continue to see strong subscription sales. The personal experiences of the Washington Pavilion team also illustrate this fruitful alignment:

TRG: What have the patrons said to you, the public face of the institution, about these changes described in the case study?

Larry Toll, Co-President: Patrons have been thrilled to support our efforts because they really want us to succeed! Having a facility like the Pavilion in the community and region is an asset they don’t want to see wasted.

TRG: What was most difficult to accept in the first TRG pricing summit?

Jane Hathaway, VP of Finance: Moving all of the lowest price tickets out of the balcony was initially a very difficult concept for me. The new scale of hall and inventory strategy have been a huge success for us, both in terms of patron experience and additional revenue. I’m so glad we were open to new ideas.

TRG: What has been the most fulfilling part of expanding the subscriber series to two nights?

John Seitz, Patron Services Manager: Adding the second series night was a hoot… Our sales team was ready for it and the rest of the management team trusted me to make these changes successful. Our subscribers loved the process. It was so much fun having them stop by my office to talk about the changes. Almost 50% of the subscribers ending up moving to new seats and we surpassed our sales goals.

TRG: Have there been any unique challenges in working with Broadway producers as you implement these strategies?

Regina Ruhberg, Director, Husby Performing Arts Center: The 17% subscriber discount proved to be a bit of a challenge at the beginning, but the agents are very impressed when they hear of our high subscriber rate. All in all we have received a very positive response to our new scale from our Broadway agents and producers. Everyone enjoys seeing the average ticket price increase as the performance gets closer!

TRG: What campaign planning advice do you offer your fellow marketing colleagues?

Rebecca Sevening, Director of Marketing: Use data to drive your marketing strategy. Research, know, and target the right prospects—the best targets are most likely existing patrons. Most of all, plan ahead and stay the course while keeping a close eye on results; use that information to tweak or incorporate new campaign tactics as needed.

TRG: What has been your biggest management lesson in leading your team through these changes?

Scott Peterson, Co-President: Working with TRG really brought home to me the importance of alignment. We aligned our pricing and subscription strategy and what a difference it has made. Our pricing now rewards patrons who do more with Washington Pavilion, and the new scale plan allows us to confidently give the subscribers the seats they want while filling the hall from front to back and side to side.

The Results

New subscribers nearly tripled from the 2012–13 to 2013–14 season. While the increase leveled out in the 2014–15 season, Washington Pavilion is still retaining these new patrons and there has been a 142% increase in new subscribers over two seasons. 

They’ve upgraded over 34% of last year’s Choose Your Own 4-show package to full subscribers. 

By the end of the 2014–15 season, Washington Pavilion had seen 46% growth in packages and 56% growth in revenue. 

About the Washington Pavilion

The mission of the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science is to educate, entertain, inspire, and enrich the community by making arts and science part of our lives. Our vision is to be the region’s premier arts and cultural institution and a national model for multifaceted, community-based institutions.

The Washington Pavilion, a public/private partnership with the city of Sioux Falls, is the region’s home for the arts, entertainment and science. Located in a beautifully renovated historic building in downtown Sioux Falls, it is one of only a few facilities in the world to bring together under one roof the performing arts, visual arts, interactive science and educational opportunities.

The Washington Pavilion makes art and science part of the daily lives of thousands of people with programming from Broadway tours to intimate chamber recitals in two state-of-the-art theaters in the Husby Performing Arts Center; more than 100 hands-on interactive science exhibits and the newly renovated Wells Fargo CineDome in the Kirby Science Discovery Center; and regional and national exhibits ranging from noted South Dakota artists to our annual Blockbuster Exhibition in the Visual Arts Center. Additionally, the Washington Pavilion offers quality education through the Community Learning Center and Graham Academy Preschool and delectable delights at Leonardo’s Cafe.

Photo by (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pricing jargon: Talk the talk.

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Posted August 4, 2015

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