Case Study: Boston Ballet

Record-breaking Nutcracker:
$1.3 million increase in two years, breaking $8 million for the first time

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Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

“What’s the big deal about a ballet company having a successful Nutcracker?” you may be asking yourself. “We all know that holiday programming practically sells itself.”

It’s true that holiday programming attracts a large audience and has huge revenue potential. It also means that the stakes are high. Holiday events often make or break an organization’s revenue budget. In many cases, holiday programming can account for over 50% of annual earned income so even a one percent achievement over goalor an equally “small” misscan add up to big dollars.

Saying that holiday programming sells itself removes arts managers from the situation, when the reality is these arts managers have tremendous impact. It’s easier than you might think to leave money on the table. And, it’s harder than you might think to keep an annual holiday show looking fresh enough to drive full houses and command top dollar. The challenge of attracting a high volume of new audiences and encourage repeat patronage, especially in markets where there are many good holiday options, requires constant vigilance. Arts managers lead the way in setting messaging and pricing to catalyze and capitalize on the demand.

The case of Boston Ballet illustrates what happens when strong leadership galvanizes the organization around holiday programming best practices.

The scenario:

Boston Ballet and TRG have been partners for ten years. Together, the two organizations have grown subscriptions and single tickets, reduced the attrition of new-to-file buyers, and collaborated on scale plans and resource allocation.

In 2013, Boston Ballet brought on a new chief marketing officer, Jennifer Weissman. She was determined to increase demand and optimize revenue wherever she could, in partnership with the new executive director Max Hodges. Working with a strong in-house team and their partners, TRG, MediaWorks, and Capacity Interactive, their goal was to further advance Boston Ballet’s marketing and pricing practices for The Nutcracker, including:

  •        Integrating and empowering teams around pricing and content decisions
  •        Making dynamic pricing even more data-driven, organized, and assertive
  •        Creating multi-channel, well-segmented campaigns anchored in compelling content
  •        Implementing strategic targeting to speak to both new and current patrons


Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Results

Boston Ballet’s 2015 production of The Nutcracker over-achieved its budget by more than 9,000 tickets and $1 million, achieving gross sales of $8.1 millionthe highest-grossing Nutcracker in the company’s 53-year history, and the second-highest ticket sales in over a decade. 

 

Fueled early in the season by The Nutcracker, Boston Ballet has hit every production revenue target, surpassing their revenue goal for the season by $1.5 million and their paid ticket goal by 12,000. The 2015–2016 season has been the biggest year for revenue on record, as well as garnering the highest paid attendance in over a decade.

 

In their own words:

What made the difference? Jennifer Weissman attributes it to a staff orientation around content creation and inventory management that leverages dynamic pricing and strategic discounting.

Campaign: Same budget, different tactics.

We approached it differently this year. We didn’t spend more overall, but instead reallocated mass marketing dollars so we could invest more in content creation, which we disseminated through increased direct response and video-based media. We wanted to maximize our paid, earned, and owned assets in order to assert ourselves as THE holiday show in our crowded marketplace. Our strategy basically followed the mantra “go big or go home.”

With MediaWorks, we leveraged our new video content using “traditional” mass media like out-of-home advertising with digital billboards, as well as TV and online newspaper advertising (often coupled with our print buys). We also got really targeted with our radio buys, using streaming services like Pandora, with demographic and geographic filters.

For direct response, we did more segmenting and testing of email marketing, as well as increased our organic and paid social media, with more re-targeting and “look-alike” digital advertising campaigns. We’ve been working with our digital marketing partners at Capacity Interactive to heighten our digital marketing efforts and sync them with other channels. Our direct marketing is now bolstered with display, social and video so the patron gets a postcard in the mail, followed by an email, and may also see a Nutcracker post on Facebook and a Nutcracker pre-roll video on YouTube, for example. (They call it “re-targeting;” we jokingly call it “cyber-stalking.” Either way, it works!)

 

We look at every communication channel as a touch point to foster interest and engagement. Especially with The Nutcracker, you’ve got so much time to sell that you don’t want people to get bored and tune out. Our newly-formed digital content team does extensive collaborative planning for every show. We’ve become very disciplined in our weekly meetings where we brainstorm, implement, assess, and then readjust based on sales performance data in real-time.


Photo by Jordan Jennings

We are relentlessly focused on ways to share new perspectives on this 50-year-old holiday tradition. We refreshed the best performing content from earlier Nutcrackers, repurposed lower performing content to see if we could improve it, and also added a lot of new content. The team created 30 behind-the-scenes videos, photo albums, and social media posts—including a freeze-frame video of the “snow scene” shot in the style of The Matrix, a time-lapse video showing the quick costume changes of dancer who plays seven different roles, and behind-the-scenes interviews with our Sugar Plum Fairy and new lighting director. This approach attracted new patrons and encouraged repeat buying from our existing patron base.

In prior years, our messaging was more focused on pricing and timing. Now, we lead with this type of product-based content, which is occasionally paired with a discount or notice when new seats are released. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in ticket sales—it’s very satisfying to see the immediate spike in sales after we send out an email or post on social media. Often our best-performing sales come from content that isn’t overtly trying to sell anything, but rather features something fun or interesting about the show.

Pricing: organized, assertive, data-driven

Boston Ballet’s pricing strategy included many basic best practices. When leadership transitioned, the discipline around pricing practices was not a key priority and doubts around dynamic pricing’s impact re-surfaced.

When it came to dynamic pricing, there was this sense that we were being greedy. After seeing the results of effective dynamic pricing, it’s clear that all that is relevant is what our customers value. We don’t need to place our judgements on whether something is affordable or expensive; they will tell us. If we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves and increased the price too much, we’ll see it in stalled sales. If we do it right, we encourage people to go to less popular dates with a better price, and we get top dollar for the most desirable dates. A pricing strategy that uses both data-driven price increases and targeted discounting has helped us fill houses and make more money. The average house for this year’s Nutcracker was at 92% capacity, with 23 (of 42) sold-out performances, and we handily beat all prior sales records.


Photo by Ernesto Galan

Grounded in data, we became more organized and assertive with our pricing. TRG has helped us approach new triggers to our decision-making, like velocity and absorption. This re-examination has led to a more sophisticated portfolio of practice around dynamic pricing.

Last year, we rewrote the job description of our senior box office manager to make her directly responsible for managing inventory daily. She also runs a weekly team revenue pacing meeting to review sales and adjust inventory. Our Executive Director Max is a key member of that team, and she has been instrumental in encouraging discipline around data-driven pricing. We look at how capacity and revenue are tracking, velocity, absorption by price level, seat holds, and we address any holes in the seat maps. That diligent monitoring drives price bumps and rezoning, and contributed an additional $370,000 in revenue for this year’s Nutcracker.

Dynamic pricing was coupled with a targeted discounting strategy that fueled early sales and enabled us to increase prices later in the run. This year, we focused on three early “events,” a September weeklong kick-off sale, and two one-day sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Our first Cyber Monday was in 2010, and this year’s was our most successful yet. The biggest change was that we offered an attention-getting “up to 50% off” discount on select dates that were typically lower capacity performances. Happily, while it drove sales for those limited dates, we also got increased pickup for the more desirable full-price shows. This year, we also introduced a Black Friday promotion, which drove a 43% increase in sales year over year. And we put more promotion behind our already successful annual September kick-off sale. These three sales helped drive a big revenue lead and then we basically stopped discounting. We were $675,000 ahead of projection before the show opened and we kept building on it.


Photo by Whitney Cox

 

Discipline and structure:

Report. Evaluate. Meet. Innovate. Repeat.

When leadership transitions, there’s not always discussion around how or whether to take the best practices further.

A world-premiere
Swan Lake, last year’s season opener, created an early and big opportunity. It gave us an immediate reason to add discipline around pricing to leverage the almost overwhelming demand. That’s when we started leaning into our weekly revenue pacing meetings. To our surprise and delight, we sold our first $220 and $250 seats—430 of them. And most importantly, we learned a lot, since pricing can be both an art and a science.

Everyone on the team really knows their stuff and cares about the ballet so they’re actively contributing in the revenue pacing meetings. When Swan Lake showed results, the staff felt an increased sense of ownership. When you can say, “I helped us earn an additional $400,000 because of my actions,” it’s a good feeling.

This orientation has an immediate and very visible effect on the ballet’s well-being. It’s helped empower our team to think positively and entrepreneurially. When budgets are tight (when aren’t they?), we are proactive at looking at how we can maximize revenue instead of just cutting costs. For example, I’m so proud of our Director of Audience Services, Lisa McCullough. In the midst of our recent budget discussions, it was her idea to add another performance to a show that was opening in just three weeks. It was a calculated risk that paid off handsomely. I love that staff members like Lisa are asking themselves, “What can I do to bring in more money?” I love that our team is nimble and bold.

TRG has coached us to push ourselves farther, orienting our team toward the metrics that are driving us to meetingand often surpassthe goals. I work with a great group of people who are setting the bar ever higher. Our recent successes further encourage us all to push hard on what all is possible for Boston Ballet in the future.


Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

Watch a video interview with Jennifer Weissman of Boston Ballet
Boston Ballet's record-breaking Nutcracker

 

 

About Boston Ballet

Since 1963, Boston Ballet has been one of the leading dance companies in the world on stage, in the studio, and in the community. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, the Company maintains an internationally acclaimed repertoire and the largest ballet school in North America, Boston Ballet School.

Boston Ballet maintains a repertoire of classical, neo-classical and contemporary works, ranging from full-length story ballets to new works by some of today's finest choreographers. Boston Ballet's second company, Boston Ballet II, is comprised of pre-professional dancers who gain experience by performing with the Company and independently, presenting lecture-demonstrations and special programs to audiences throughout the Northeast.

Boston Ballet is working with TRG Arts in a Capacity Building Consultancy, TRG’s premier engagement for organizations who want to affect an institution-wide shift toward a patron-centered approach. To explore a Capacity Building Consultancy for your organization, email



Learn more about marketing holiday blockbusters in this webinar!

Christmas in July: 

Turn up the heat on the holidays


Forget about Independence Day. Start thinking about Black Friday.

If not, you could be missing out on your biggest opportunity of next season.

The holiday season starts NOW for arts managers. Don’t let the heat of summer lull you into thinking holiday shows sell themselves—there’s a lot to do. It’s time to dust off and refresh your marketing plan for The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, your holiday concert, or whatever hot ticket event you have this December.

In this free one-hour webinar you’ll hear from arts marketers like you who have maximized their holiday programming and gone on to break revenue records. Just when these arts administrators thought their perennial programming couldn’t garner any more, new highs were reached. These experts as well as the consultants from TRG will share the newest best practices for turning up the heat on the holidays.

Learn more & register here




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Posted June 27, 2016




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