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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra fighting dip in attendance

| Friday, July 10, 2015, 7:02 p.m.
Orchestras face many challenges in trying to fill their halls. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra faces filling a particularly large hall, one with 2,662 seats available.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Orchestras face many challenges in trying to fill their halls. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra faces filling a particularly large hall, one with 2,662 seats available.

After raising ticket prices for two consecutive seasons, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has seen its 2014-15 sales for Mellon Grand Classics drop from 61 percent of Heinz Hall capacity to 50 percent. The Pops series dropped from 62 to 56 percent.

Orchestras face many challenges in trying to fill their halls. Pittsburgh Symphony faces filling a particularly large hall, one with 2,662 seats for sale. Most orchestras in cities of comparable population play in smaller halls. Severance Hall in Cleveland seats 2,100, for example. Some larger cities than Pittsburgh also enjoy smaller halls, including Los Angeles at 2,265 and Dallas at 2,031.

Of course, Heinz Hall's large size is advantageous when sales are strong. The closest the symphony came this season to a sold-out house was 97 percent for the June 7 performance of the final Beethovenfest series, a concert featuring Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 9 conducted by Music Director Manfred Honeck.

The last sold-out concerts were in February 2013 for Honeck's program featuring Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Both performances sold 101 percent, with standing-room admissions.

Orchestras adjust ticket prices most years, if not every year. The changes are usually not uniform, varying between different series, such as classical and pops, between subscriptions and single tickets, and between different seating sections in the hall.

“The board asked us about raising ticket prices in the process of trying to raise revenue in every which way we can,” says Chief Operating Officer Michael Bielski about the past two seasons. “The board several times said we must increase revenue because expenses keep going up.”

The symphony has cut spending as much as possible in the ongoing effort to balance its budget.

Symphony leadership thought it had found a finesse point in the numbers, where it would make more money from fewer tickets sold. The classical ticket-price increases were 5 percent for the 2013-14 season and 7 percent in 2014-15. The Pops tickets went up 3 percent each year.

It didn't work.

While revenue per seat sold went up, overall ticket revenue was down 4 percent for 2014-15.

Challenges

All American orchestras face a challenging environment. The percentage of adults attending classical concerts dropped from 11.6 percent to 8.8 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Buying patterns have changed as well. A half-century ago, full-season subscriptions were a source of stability for orchestras. Their decline at orchestras across the country led many commentators to declare the “subscription model” a dying phenomenon, not that there is anything to replace it.

“Nonsubscriber ticket sales are relatively consistent — a 5 percent change year-to-year, up and down, over the last 10 years,” says Michael Sexauer, the symphony's vice president of sales.

Ninety percent of Pittsburgh Symphony subscription sales are for seven-week packages. Sales of six-week packages and newer five-week subscriptions are rising, Sexauer says. Subscriptions accounted for 64 percent of classical ticket sales in 2014-15.

“The good news is we're seeing an uptick in overall subscription sales for next season, 2015-16. Last year, we were at 81 percent renewal for classical at this point in the year, this year is 84 or 85 percent,” Sexauer says. “Pops subscription renewals, which had reached 71 percent and 64 percent at this point in the three preceding seasons, are now about 80 percent.”

One major recommendation presented at the League of American Orchestras annual convention in May was to increase flexible ticket-exchange programs.

“We've been ahead of the curve on offering flexible options,” Sciannameo says. The mini-six subscription is a set of discounted vouchers, while the newer five-concert package lets the buyer pick from both classical and pop series.

The symphony's internal analyses of the pattern of ticket usage have been facilitated by new ticket scanners it began using four years ago. Applied to ticket exchanges, it provides insight into what draws people to the hall.

“When we program Beethoven, our subscribers will exchange seats for those programs,” Louise Sciannameo, vice president of communications and external relations, says. “Some people internally were surprised at this result, but consumers respond to programs that resonate most for them.”

Three of the Top 5-selling symphony weekends in the past season were the Beethovenfest events, culminating in the Ninth Symphony, which sold 80 percent over the three performances.

Empty seats

A full house is important for nonfinancial reasons, too. It provides a better environment for a concert, for the feeling of excitement in the room for the audience and musicians alike. A bigger crowd provides better acoustics, too.

But analysis of data from the scanners turned up another problem the symphony has filling Heinz Hall — no-shows.

The symphony first noticed there were a few full-season subscribers who never came to concerts. Realizing they are more interested in supporting the orchestra, those people were referred to the development department.

From there, analysis turned to no-shows generally.

“What we found over the last four seasons is that 20 to 23 percent of subscriber tickets go unredeemed. Looked at week by week, there are environmental factors that may cause people holding tickets not to come to the concerts,” Sexauer says.

“Some are out of our control, such as a big snowstorm. Some we can control. We didn't schedule performances this season for Marathon Weekend because the perception is that Downtown will be hard to navigate, although the streets are open.”

The symphony calls new subscribers after they miss a second weekend to see if there's a problem it can help address and to remind them of the opportunity to exchange tickets for a later concert. Sometimes, the explanation was as simple as family coming into town.

“Some of the steps we're taking to address our issues with the marketplace come from being responsive to what our patrons tell us,” Sexauer says. “This is manifest most directly in the new subscription packages. Customization and flexibility is the new retail model, which changed based on consumer preferences. There is our opportunity.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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