Mary Bensel views the 2014/2015 season

Well Mary the new season has just been announced. I personally believe that the 2014/2015 season has promise to be our most  intriguing yet  since it offers a wide range of performances with shows which have appeal to all audiences. Can you give us some insight into how you put together this highly anticipated new line up of performances,

MARY:  Well, as you know, planning a new season is a year-round effort. Our day is filled with the normal responsibilities of running a performing arts hall.  During the evening, we attend our shows.  The non-managerial time is spent attending booking conferences, seeing shows, attending industry conferences, negotiating with managers, agents and producers, reviewing contracts…all of the necessary elements involved in planning the new season.

You said you attend most shows.  How is that possible? MARY:  I feel that it is a necessary part of my job.  I need to see that no last-minute problems have surfaced. Then I stay to monitor the show.  If we are having multiple performances of the same show, I won’t always stay multiple times.  It usually means 12-hour days on performance nights.  And though I am fortunate to have an outstanding and dedicated staff that is well qualified to handle everything, I feel that my presence is necessary; since ultimately I am the one responsible for the overall success of the show. You mentioned conferences and shows.  What does that entail? MARY:  While we travel to see specific shows, performers and agents, our main activities are geared toward the larger booking conferences such as the Performing Arts Exchange, which meets in September in different locations each year.  The Exchange involves many booking agents and presenters whose main area of operation is the Eastern U.S.  These meetings are mainly to make contact with the agents to see what is available and begin the preliminary negotiations involved in booking shows.  The other major booking conference (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) has its yearly conference in New York in January.  APAP is much larger as it is nationwide in scope. What other organizations are involved in your Hall’s operation? MARY:  The Broadway League, which is based in New York, is involved in all phases of shows and tours. This includes national negotiations between producers and craft unions such as Actors Equity, who are co-producers of The Tony Awards. The Broadway League also handles the internal Broadway data bases, conducting historical research, producing statistical information, touring Broadway awards, etc.  A major conference is held in the spring with smaller ones throughout the year.  Two other organizations essential to our operation on the State level are:  The Florida Facilities Managers, (The FFMA) and the Florida Presenters.  The FFMA is involved with facility management and lobbying efforts and has a conference in June.  As a Past President, I sit on the Board and we have monthly conference calls.  The Florida Presenters area of focus is directed to those of us who present and book shows.   The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is actively involved in all of these professional organizations . How many shows do you book each year?  And are there any facility limitations? MARY:  This year the Van Wezel will book over 100 individual shows in addition to bookings from other organizations such as the Sarasota Orchestra, The Ringling Town Hall Series, The Sarasota Concert Association and the Sarasota Ballet.  We also book many individual productions and private events such as weddings, proms and Bar Mitzvahs.  We have the capability to book many shows.  The Hall is busy most days during the “season?”  The type of show booked is factored by artist’s fees and tech requirements. You mentioned the “Season. How do you feel about booking performances during the summer? MARY:  We certainly are interested, but within certain limitations.  It has to be a “big” show with wide appeal for me to book at that time of year . This summer we produced two shows that were highly successful big shows!  We presented “Move …Live on Tour” ,starring Julianne and Derek Hough,  The show played to two sold out houses.  In addition we produced “American Idol Live” which also sold out within just a few days.These successes certainly make the idea of summer shows appealing.   In addition  we again produced our summer season of free outdoor concerts.  This summer we featured “Yessterdaze”, “Come Back Alice”, “SoulRcoaster” and our fourth and final show “Adrain Ray”.  These BayFront shows continue to be very well attended!  We are already working on several possibilities for next summer. Anything that is available will be considered. What criteria do you use to decide which shows to book? MARY:  First consideration is availability.  Am I booking the performer independently?  Or is the show part of a tour?  This factor involves the second criteria — cost.  A touring show with “block bookings” allows for the sharing of travel and production expenses — factors which contribute significantly to the overall cost of a production.  Also of importance is the balancing of the season.  It is important for us to offer our audiences a great diversity of performers and shows.  We strive to gear our season to shows that will appeal to all segments of our audience base.  Here, the keyword is CHOICE.   Our audiences are the ultimate decision makes as to the show, we present. The next two considerations are ones which are dependent on networking and the knowledge which one gains by dealing with agents and producers over many years.  First is trust. I must ask myself, “Is the agent with whom we are negotiating, reputable?” “Does he deliver that which he promises?”  Second, comes networking with my peers.  Over the years, I have learned the importance of the communication process with other hall managers with whom I have built trust.  Was the show successful financially?  Was it fair and accurately represented?  What was the audience reaction?  Would you rebook the performer or show?  This input is of great value and becomes available only after years of building relationships. You mentioned relationship and trust.  Isn’t’ that a two-edged sword? MARY:  Without a doubt, it works both ways.  The Van Wezel benefits greatly from its national reputation.  Just recently ”Venues Today” (the bible of our profession) named the Van Wezel as the Number 1 Performing Arts Hall in North America, among all halls with a capacity of up to 2,000 seats.  And it was additionally ranked No. 4 in Florida, among halls with 5,000 or less seats (both based on box-office records).  In the 5,000-seat capacity, we are ranked with theatres and markets such as Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Clearwater and Orlando who all have more seats than us and in larger markets.  The Van Wezel was also recently awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, given to establishments that consistently achieve exceptional travel ratings on TripAdvisor and maintain an overall rating of four or higher.  The Van Wezel received a 4.5 rating.  Those recognitions combined with the reputation of trust that I have established over decades of work within the profession, put us in a strong position.  Reputation is of critical importance when we are competing with other halls for performers and shows; it helps greatly in our ability to negotiate dates and costs.  Our staff approach their work with pride, professionalism, and passion.  It’s a winning combination!