By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Putting paying customers in the seats in a down economy can be a struggle that defies solution. But not always. Officials at the Mahoning Valley’s four major entertainment venues have adjusted their marketing efforts to meet the challenge. Their efforts have been met with mixed levels of success.
Attendance continues to decline for the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra at Powers Auditorium and for some shows at Stambaugh Auditorium. But officials at Covelli Centre and Packard Music Hall in Warren have found formulas that work.
At Covelli, programming starts with a base of events that return every year, such as the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, the Harlem Globetrotters, WWE wrestling and monster trucks.
“Our staple events are not really expensive tickets,” said Ken Bigley, assistant director of the downtown arena. “They always do well, and there is not a lot of fluctuation in terms of sales.”
The circus sold out nearly every performance of its eight-show run in March, said Bigley, a total of well over 20,000 tickets.
Promoters rarely divulge exact attendance figures, and national promoters such as Feld (Disney on Ice) and Live Nation never do, said Bigley. The number of seats available at Covelli varies widely, from about 3,000 for a circus to about 5,500 for concerts.
The Youngstown Phantoms pro hockey team fills in at least 30 more dates and averages 1,500 to 2,000 people per night, with weekend games counterbalancing the lower weeknight attendance.
Filling in the remaining dates is where it can get tricky, but Covelli has excelled at it of late.
“We had to adapt with concerts,” said Bigley. “The price of the ticket and the selection of artist is most important to selling tickets in this market. Country and rock do well here. ... Classic rock does exceptionally well.”
Shows by country superstar Tim McGraw (May 6), rockers M ∂tley Cr ºe (July 29) and Guns N’ Roses (Dec. 7), and legendary performer Barry Manilow (Aug. 27) all were sellouts. That string will continue in 2012 with country star Miranda Lambert, who will peform Feb. 18.
Shows by rising rap star Wiz Khalifa (Sept. 28) and classic rockers ZZ Top (May 22) also were nearly full.
“As we are talking to agents and seeing what’s available, we look for a new concept,” said Bigley. “Maybe a band on the upswing but still not a hundred-dollar ticket.”
Eric Ryan, director of Covelli Centre, pointed out that the arena’s reputation as a concert venue is backed up by numbers.
“We sell more tickets than the national average for a lot of tours,” he said, citing M ∂tley Cr ºe and Trace Adkins (Nov. 18) as examples. “Trace Adkins sold about 4,000 here, and that’s more than he did at most of his other shows.”
A few blocks away in downtown Youngstown sits the ornate Powers Auditorium, where a less optimistic story is unfolding. The 2,300-seat theater is the home of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, which averages eight or nine concerts a year.
Like its counterparts in cities across the country, the YSO has been suffering from static or falling attendance.
Patricia Syak, executive director of the Youngstown Symphony Society, which operates Powers, blames the persistent economic downturn, a declining population base and changing entertainment tastes among younger residents.
In an attempt to reverse the tide, the society cut prices for the current season.
“We discounted all subscriptions, both new and renewals,” said Syak.
But it didn’t help.
Despite the discounts, the symphony still witnessed a 5 percent decrease in Masterworks and an 8 percent decrease in Flex series subscriptions as compared to last season. Pops series subscriptions showed a 5 percent increase, but the aggregate of total subscription sales was a 7 percent decline, said Syak.
In a trend reflected across the country, single-ticket sales are up 4 percent over last season, but the uptick wasn’t enough to offset the loss of subscribers.
“Despite this little glimmer of sunshine, our attendance at concerts has grown smaller,” said Syak.
The YSO sold between 1,000 and 1,100 tickets for most shows in the 2010-11 season, which was a decline of 400 to 500 from the previous year.
Adding to its woes has been a sharp decline in revenue from government grants and private donors. The society also has seen fewer hall rentals by national touring acts and local promoters, although the decline seems to have leveled off, said Syak.
In an attempt to lure newcomers to Powers, the symphony society has modernized its offerings. Examples include the YSO’s Rock Fusion concert (Oct. 1), which mixed classic rock with the orchestra, and this fall’s inaugural Singing Star Competition, an “American Idol”-style series.
Perhaps the greatest success story in the Valley is at Packard Music Hall, where — in sharp contrast to the YSO — the Warren Civic Music Association sold out in advance every show in its series with full-season subscribers.
“We emphasize season subscriptions, and that’s the key to our success,” said Robert Balson, president. “We sold 2,216 seats [to subscribers] this season and 2,184 last season.” Packard holds a little more than 2,400, but some seats close to the stage have obstructed views and cannot be sold.
Before the 2010-11 season, the WCMA hadn’t seen such numbers since the 1980s.
The nonprofit WCMA, now in its 71st year, offers six shows for $70 with all seats general admission. The low price, plus the fact that it doesn’t have the competition that exists in Youngstown, are key factors to WCMA’s success, said Balson.
Acts booked for the current season include the Texas Tenors; the Phantom’s Leading Ladies (women who have sung the lead roles in “Phantom of the Opera”); The Diamonds (doo-wop); Double Grande (piano duo); Rhythm of the Dance (Irish step dance troupe); and The Duttons, a musical family.
“We get quality shows,” said Balson. “Some might not have name recognition, but they are outstanding performers. Our talent committee really does its homework.”
To thank its subscribers, WCMA will add a free seventh show with La Flavour, which specializes in ’50s and ’60s music.
Elizabeth Balson, Robert’s wife, is subscription director of WCMA, a volunteer post that she has held for seven years. When she took over the post, the WCMA had just 1,300 subscribers.
Elizabeth assembled sales teams to compete for subscribers, and periodically reassembles them. “It’s a senior audience, and we lose some each year,” she said. “The key is enthusiasm. I truly believe in WCMA, and people tell me I’m obsessed, but it’s the personal touch that does it. We had one lady from Pennsylvania who kept getting lost on her way here, so I drew her a map and mailed it to her and made sure I found her when she got here.”
Both Robert and Elizabeth Balson will be retiring at the end of the year. As of Jan. 1, Don Senne will take over as president , and subscriptions will be handled by Theresa Massucci, Barbara Wood and Jan Poncar.
At Stambaugh Auditorium, the Monday Musical Club has run a similar series since before the building opened in 1926.
The MMC has felt the pinch of the down economy and Youngstown’s oversaturated entertainment market. Two years ago, it reduced its season from five shows to three in order keep costs in line.
Series subscriptions have sharply declined in recent years, but single-ticket sales are picking up, said Laurie Antunez of MMC.
“It’s a generational thing,” she said. “People have busier schedules and are pickier with their entertainment dollars.”
Attendance at the two shows so far this season — Little River Band and an ABBA/Bee Gees tribute show — drew about 1,000 each with only about 25 percent coming from subscribers. Season tickets are $90, $75 and $55 depending on the seat. Stambaugh has 2,553 seats.
“There is a lot more competition here,” said Antunez.
Tickets sales are holding steady for Opera Western Reserve, which stages one show each year at Stambaugh.
“Our ticket sales hit a record high in 2010 despite the bad economy and were nearly the same in 2011,” said Elliot P. Legow of the OWR board. “We have developed a greatly expanded ticket base over the years, which provides us a degree of financial certainty.”
The opera company looks to have its best attendance ever in 2012, when international opera star Lawrence Brownlee will perform a lead role in a production of “The Barber of Seville.”
For Brownlee, a Youngstown native, the show is an opportunity to perform for his hometown — something he has always wanted to do.