Jennifer Sowinski
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Grow arts and culture revenue

CASE STUDY: How Ballet Arizona is Adapting to the Times

130503_BAZ_0122-Ballet Arizona dancer Jillian Barrell in Serenade. Choreography by George Balanchine. ©The Balanchine Trust. Photo by Rosali.jpg

Ballet Arizona dancer Jillian Barrell in 'Serenade'. Choreography by George Balanchine. ©The Balanchine Trust. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

For cultural organizations across the country, the 2020–21 season has been a constant cycle of planning, re-planning, adjusting, and adapting as new information about COVID-19 emerges. Amidst the uncertainty, many organizations have found ways to move forward with programming that is new and often unconventional for them, whether that’s producing in outdoor venues, creating content for online viewing, or designing performances for physical distancing.

One such organization is Ballet Arizona, which is planning fall performances in a venue that is a tiny fraction of its usual space, in order to allow for physical distancing, while also planning for online viewing. We spoke recently with the staff at Ballet Arizona, and asked them to share their plans and process for presenting their season.

Could you explain how your 2020–21 season will be presented? How is this different from your typical season? 

Our season originally consisted of six shows: two in the fall, The Nutcracker, two in the spring, and a special performance at the Desert Botanical Garden. We are replacing our fall series and The Nutcracker performances with a mixed repertoire production called Inspire (October 14- November 15), and selected scenes from The Nutcracker called Nutcracker Suite (December 4- December 24).

We are presenting this shortened season in our Dorrance Theatre, which is a 299 seat venue that we have on site in our building. We will be socially distancing our patrons for these shows and limiting total people to 40 attendees per show. We usually perform in Symphony Hall, which has a seating capacity of 2,312, so this is quite a big change.

We have not announced our spring performances yet as we are continuing to monitor the ever changing landscape that is COVID 19.

With only 40 tickets available for each performance, who will have the opportunity to attend?

The in-person portion of our fall season is open to our subscribers only. We will also offer these productions digitally for free to current subscribers and for a nominal ticket price to the community.

How do you plan to maintain physical distance in the lobby and performance space?

We will be seating our patrons one party at a time as they enter the building, leading them directly to their seats. We will also be enabling the contactless scanning feature that Tessitura just released last month, and are putting down social distancing markers on the outside of our building, filtering through the box office.

Once seated in the venue, there will only be two parties in each of the center sections and one party on each side. Each party is a minimum of four seats and one empty row away on either side from any other party.

We have abbreviated each performance in our season to be an hour long, and therefore eliminated intermissions. After the show we will escort each party out one at a time, while staffing the restroom to ensure social distancing standards.

Ballet Arizona’s Dorrance Theatre.

How did Ballet Arizona arrive at these programming decisions?

We came to this decision from several different angles:

  • We want to continue to engage our donors and subscribers by creating this alternate season to carry Ballet Arizona over to our 2021–22 season.
  • We own and have access to the 299 seat Dorrance Theatre, where we can put on a performance while enforcing social distancing and cleaning standards, and limiting production costs.
  • We are currently under an executive order where there cannot be any event with more than 50 people in the same room.
  • We also want to increase interaction between our staff and subscribers so that communication is at an all-time high during these crazy times.
What options are you giving to subscribers who already renewed into the 2020–21 season before this announcement?

Renewed subscribers have several options:

  • They can attend our alternate season in place of the originally planned season, either in-person or digitally. Plus, we created additional subscriber benefits for each subscription level for this alternative season, which include tickets to the popular Desert Botanical Garden production, 10% off of the 2021–22 season, dancer exclusives, and more.
  • They can donate their tickets to the fall, and The Nutcracker performances, to Ballet Arizona.
  • They can receive Box Office Credit for the value of their tickets, which they can use towards their subscription next season.
  • They may receive a refund for the value of their tickets.
  • Those subscribers who choose to not participate in our fall season will still have their seats reserved for the 2021–22 season. We will call them in the spring to check in and encourage them to purchase a “spring pack” of tickets.
Will you be recruiting new subscribers for the 2020–21 season?

Currently, we are not accepting or marketing to new subscribers for a couple of reasons:

  • We want to give our existing subscribers and donors the benefit of a socially distant season, so we can increase our visibility to them and keep our most loyal patrons engaged.
  • We believe the acquisition rate would be too low to make marketing to new subscribers beneficial during this uncertain time.
  • We may look into acquisitions in the spring, but we expect that our efforts at that time will shift to renewals and acquisition for the 2021–22 season.

Ballet Arizona dancers Ethan Price and Mimi Tompkins in ‘The Nutcracker’. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

What is your strategy for communication with subscribers? How are you making sure that they understand their options?

We started our communication plan by calling top donors to tell them what the season will look like.

We then sent a letter to all subscribers and donors, outlining the new season and benefits, and inviting them to the alternate season.

About 5-7 days after the letters hit households, we began calling all of our subscribers and donors, 843 households in total.

  • These calls were coordinated by the box office, but were made by full-time staff from all departments of the organization.
  • We started our calls by asking how they are doing during COVID, and providing a personal touch from our team, in order to connect and offer a space for them to talk with us. We then mentioned that we were following up on our letter, answered any of their questions, and invited them to the upcoming season.
  • We separated the outcomes of our calls into three categories:
    • Decided - The subscriber/donor has made up their mind about the alternate season and there is no need for a call back.
    • Undecided - They are not sure what they want to do about the alternate season.
      • They will get an email campaign in 2-3 weeks after the conversation. The paid subscribers will receive a follow up call 1-2 weeks after the email goes out. The unpaid subscribers will receive another email 1-2 weeks after the first email.
    • Voicemail - These are subscribers and donors who have not returned our voicemails.
      • They will receive an email 2-3 weeks after calling them. The paid subscribers will receive a follow up call 1-2 weeks after the email goes out. The unpaid subscribers will receive another email 1-2 weeks after the first email.
  • Most of the staff making these phone calls were not Box Office staff. So, we used notes (CSI’s) on the subscriber’s accounts in Tessitura, along with a Google Sheet to double check CSI entry, as well track attendance for each show as the requests come through.
    • We also added reminders to the Box Office Manager, who was in charge of seating the patrons.
    • The Google Sheet gave us the flexibility to shift patrons to performances with fewer patrons, before seating them in Tessitura, in order to even out the attendance throughout the run.
What challenges have you faced in communication with your subscribers and donors? Do you have any advice for other organizations considering a similar method of communication?

The hardest part was trying to gather all of the information for our subscribers and conveying our season to them in the clearest way possible. In order to facilitate clear communication, we trained our staff on our anticipated FAQs so they could (hopefully) answer any questions received. We learned that we had to remain flexible and extremely communicative with our staff members when a change was needed. 

Advice we would give is to ensure that your communication system is tailored toward fast and clear answers. Each subscriber is different with different needs and wants. You will not know all of the answers, but the most important thing is that you get the answers to them as soon as possible.

Also, understand that your procedures may have to be edited and tweaked along the way. Things will change all the time. Constantly re-evaluate and listen to what the patrons are saying, so you can match their frustration, excitement, or concern for the new season.

What has been the subscriber reaction so far?

Subscriber response to our alternate season has been incredibly varied. Some patrons did not think twice about signing up, while others immediately refused our alternate season. Of those who declined, some felt we were being overly cautious (they did not want to wear masks), while others did not feel safe coming. When offered the streaming option, some subscribers either were not technologically savvy, or said that going to the ballet is more about the experience of getting dressed up and going downtown. Still, some subscribers gladly accepted the digital option and expressed that if the situation improves, they might be able to switch to in-person.

  • About 35% of our paid subscribers signed up to attend our alternate season.
  • Of the subscribers and donors who have signed up for our season, 85% have chosen to come to see it live, while the remaining 15% have opted for our digital season.
  • Of all who declined our alternate season, most preferred a refund instead of receiving credit for future performances or donating.
  • The older generations are definitely wary of the digital option, but some are also resistant to the digital season because they seem to be more interested in seeing it live or not seeing it at all.
For those who choose to attend digitally, will the performances be streamed live at designated time slots, or will they be recorded and made available for consumption when the patron chooses?

In order to enhance the production quality of the digital performances, we have opted to pre-record the performance. However, we are planning to treat the digital versions like an event and have them available on a certain day/time. We are currently working through music rights issues, and once we have those details finalized, we will know how long we can have the digital version available for subscribers on-demand. Right now, our thinking is to kick off the digital event on a weekend evening and then have the stream available on-demand for 24 hours following the debut.

How will the performances themselves need to be adapted to meet social-distancing restrictions?

For ballet, we have adapted Inspire to be mostly solos and pas de deux (2 dancers on stage, dancing with each other). Some of our dancers live together and therefore can dance together without the necessary social distancing measures. Our Nutcracker Suite has been edited and adapted to encourage social distancing on stage, while maintaining the intimacy and artistic excellence that our patrons expect. At this time, it is uncertain if our dancers will wear masks during performances.

What options do single ticket buyers have to attend performances this season? How are you pricing your digital performances?

Currently, the in-person aspect of our fall season is only open to subscribers. There are no options that will allow single ticket buyers to purchase tickets to those shows.

We will be offering our Inspire and Nutcracker Suite digital performances to single ticket buyers. The ticket price is still being finalized, but we do not imagine it being more than $20/digital ticket.

Do you anticipate doing more digital performances once you are able to perform on your mainstage again?

We are certainly going to evaluate the reach, cost, and feasibility of more digital performances down the road. One concern we have with adding digital performances while also having a mainstage performance is the demand, and how that might affect the single ticket sales inside Symphony Hall. On the other hand, what may also contribute to the decision-making is our desire to expand our audience. The more people interested in and exposed to ballet, the better!

Ballet Arizona is one of the many clients of ours that are launching dynamic new seasons in the face of COVID-19. We’re happy to share our clients' journeys, and provide advice for your 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Contact us directly or learn more about our consulting offerings at our Relaunch Center.


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