Arts organizations tend not to employ sales staff who can walk into executive offices, corporate board rooms or professional trade gatherings and engage with executive peers in the commercial sector. It just isn’t part of our culture. If we do invest executive-level energy into our business communities, it’s almost always to raise money.
Imagine for a minute that a senior VP at a local corporation is hosting some thirty executive peers from around the world for a business gathering and wants to show off his city by organizing an event at a local cultural venue. He wants excellent top-dollar seats, a first-rate dinner at the nearest dining establishment and a private reception in the venue at intermission. Assuming your organization is on his radar to begin with (which isn’t a given if you don’t field outside sales execs to engage with the business community), who is he going to call?
In most arts organizations he’s going to call a telephone number that was set up to facilitate discount-hungry little old ladies who were meant to fill the seats that couldn’t be sold to the real customers. There he can leave a message about the tickets he wants to buy so a low-level staffer who knows nothing about his business or how he intends to use the tickets can return the call and quote seat availability and discount pricing. The sales rep will probably describe severely limited and largely off-limits inventory in the best seating sections then outline the onerous rules and restrictions that describe how people who want to buy a lot of expensive seats and bring new audiences into the venue must behave in order to earn the privilege of spending their money there. Then, maybe, the staffer will give him the phone number or website for a separate contact at the on-site catering company or a list of nearby restaurants he can call to set up his dinner.
This is where the business executive decides to call his contact at the local major league sports venue instead.
Now imagine a different scenario where the conversation goes something like this: “James, how great to hear from you! I had so much fun at the mixer the other night. That DJ was a nut and Phil Kimball certainly stole the show on the dance floor. I hope he got home OK. Now what can I do for you?…Wow. that sounds like a great evening. Let me start by having my box office manager pull back some house seats and unused subscription inventory so I can get you seating, then I’d like to set up a call with my colleague Joan at Verdigris – our in-house caterer. She was the one at the party in the green outfit with the red hair…Uh-huh. I think Dennis McDaniel introduced you…Yeah. We’ll have a chat about your dinner plans and see what we can put together in the lobby for intermission. I’ll drop a note to your assistant Dana to set up the call so we can walk through your event. I’m really glad you called. Anything we can do to help you show off the city to your colleagues is our pleasure.”
If you can’t imagine your senior outside sales staffer having that conversation (or if you can’t even imagine having an outside sales staffer), it’s time to start thinking more seriously about community engagement. No, not the warm and fuzzy stuff your funders expect you to do for the little people, but real, purposeful, goal-oriented, executive-level engagement with your local business community.
There are many businesses in a variety of industries that would be glad to buy tickets to arts events for a number of social and business-oriented reasons, but they tend to want to do business with other business people, and with vendors and partners who understand and defer to their business needs.
If the arts don’t do business-to-business sales because it’s not a part of our culture, wouldn’t it make more sense to change the culture than to cut artists’ pay or go out of business when we
can’t don’t sell enough tickets?