The Philadelphia Project: Audience Development in a Lively Opera Ecology
Opera America Magazine •
An array of cultural attractions is part of the appeal of living in a major metropolitan area. City dwellers typically have their choice of several theater companies, as well as multiple museums and galleries. Until recently, however, most cities have been served by a single opera company. This is beginning to change: Across the country, the lone local opera provider increasingly has company. New opera companies are springing up on a regular basis, allowing the opera-hungry — or the opera-curious — new ways to encounter the art form, often sharply differentiated from those offered by the establishment company.
At Opera Conference 2006 in Seattle, a group of producers met to discuss the phenomenon of "One City, Many Opera Companies." The response to the changing opera landscape ranged from wary to welcoming, and anecdotal evidence could be found to support a variety of positions. Whether the newer entrants were viewed as competitors or collaborators, one thing was clear: their existence changes the dynamics of producing and marketing opera. If opera providers that share a city are to further their own missions, they may benefit from developing strategies for fostering a healthy, cooperative local opera ecology.
Because of the tremendous interest in the topic, OPERA America, with the generous support of the William Penn Foundation, commissioned TRG Arts and Shugoll Research to provide the industry with a better understanding of the impact of having a relatively large number of opera companies in one community. Philadelphia — with seven opera providers — was selected for the study. Of particular interest was the relationship among the audiences: Did they inter-relate or crossover among companies? Were they different demographically? How do they perceive opera in Philadelphia? The research also sought knowledge that could help each of the seven companies build and maintain audiences. Excerpts from the study — both TRG's database analysis and Shugoll Research's attitudinal research — are provided below. For detailed findings, log in to www.operaamerica.org to view the full report.
From the Executive Summary by TRG
The Philadelphia market supports a robust array of opera offerings from seven companies: Opera Company of Philadelphia, Center City Opera Theater, ConcertOPERA Philadelphia, Opera North, Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theatre, Curtis Institute's Curtis Opera Theatre and Temple University.
Dual-pronged research was designed and implemented in April and May 2008 to measure and illuminate understanding of this model multiple-company opera community. To examine patron behavior, TRG conducted a proprietary database study of four years of transactions (subscription and single ticket purchases, as well as donations) among 36,000 patrons of the five Philadelphia opera companies that could provide study data. TRG's project partner, Shugoll Research, studied perceptions and attitudes through a mail survey of a selected sample of those 36,000 patrons.
Expectations and Surprises
At the outset of this work, there was an expectation that Philadelphia's opera patrons would demonstrate crossover behavior among several of the companies performing in their community. The research findings proved otherwise.
Some 94% of the operagoers studied are ticket buyers for only one of the seven companies. Just 6% were crossover ticket buyers for two or more companies (also called multi-buyers). Nine out of 10 multi-buyers attended Opera Company of Philadelphia, the city's largest company that stages the most performances.
The attitudinal research, detailed below, yielded another surprising finding: Philadelphia operagoers do not appear to be aware of the rich opera landscape in their city.
The research team observed that the level of crossover and levels of awareness and familiarity combine to create an audience-building opportunity for Philadelphia's opera companies. Operagoers need to know about and understand the performing options available to them before making any purchase decisions. Clearly, each of the companies will benefit from sharpening their communications messages, as well as increasing the reach and frequency of well-targeted ticket offers.
The Power of Community
Further analysis revealed that even the relatively low level of crossover activity creates audience development opportunities for all seven companies.
Transactional data showed that Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) is generating 85% of all new ticket buyers for the city's other opera companies. (This is unsurprising, given that OCP produces and markets opera on a greater scale than any other company studied.) Patrons who first attend OCP and then cross over to make a purchase with one of the other companies represent a significant portion of the other companies' new patrons. Crossover patronage overall accounts for 29% of new patrons at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 23% at Center City Opera and 24% at the Curtis Institute.
OCP benefits from communal patron behavior in Philadelphia, as well. The benefit was found in further examination of the way patrons are retained as they move toward greater investment within the organization and the community. While the patron migration study found that OCP brings in the largest number of new patrons, it also revealed that OCP has the highest rate of patron attrition. (In this study, attrition is defined as patrons who were active anytime during the study period and were no longer active by the end of the study period.) OCP's attrition rate is 74%; its colleague companies' is 53%. Sadly, as TRG studies and other industry research has documented in recent years, losing three out of every four new patrons is normal in American performing arts organizations.
The silver lining in this situation appeared in data analysis of patron retention. TRG compared the behavior of patrons with transactions in only one company (unique buyers) to behavior of patrons with multi-organization transactions. Patrons who attended more than one opera company had a retention rate of 85%, while those with transactions at only one company had a retention rate of 50%.
This, TRG concludes, is good news — especially for Opera Company of Philadelphia. The company accounts for 90% of crossover with the other opera companies. OCP also has a program that communicates schedules for other operas in the metro area. The data suggests that OCP's practice of encouraging crossover ultimately can help OCP retain patrons over time as it creates patronage for the other companies.
Opportunities, Assets and Further Inquiry
The cross-pollination of audiences within a community has benefits for organizations in Philadelphia as this study and other TRG work in the field has corroborated. Increasing crossover will create new buyers for some companies and stronger patronage through retention at other companies. Joint discussion of these findings already has generated productive dialog among Philadelphia's opera companies. They are looking for more ways to collaborate effectively and with cost-efficiency. This study also contributes to the industry's growing evidence surrounding the significance of patron retention to audience development and growth. Stronger, longer retention patterns for multi-buyers reported here should encourage each of the companies to work for repeat and crossover attendance.
As noted above, OCP is able to market on far greater scale than any of the other local providers, so it is the best-positioned to develop audiences for opera in general. Given the demonstrated link between crossover attendance and retention, OCP has a vested interest in encoura