Mary Bensel Reviews The 2014/2015 Season

Well Mary the new season has just been announced I personally believe that the 2014/2015 season promises to be our most intriguing season yet since it offers a wide range of performances with shows which have appeal for all audiences.


Can you give us some insight into how you put together this highly anticipated new lineup 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 that you attend your shows.  With over 100 performances 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 will not always stay multiple times since it usually means 12-hour days on performances 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 shows.


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 at different locations each year.  The exchange involves many booking agents and   presenters whose main area of operation is the Eastern US. 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 the 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 Actor’s 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 (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 participate in 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?  Does the Hall have any facility limitations?


MARY: This year the Van Wezel will book well 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 fundraising galas, weddings, proms and Bar Mitzvahs.  We have the capability to book many shows and the Hall is busy most days during the “Season”.  The type of shows booked is factored by the artist’s fees and their “tech” requirements.


You mentioned the “Season”.   What is the Hall’s policy about booking shows 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 the year.  This summer we produced two “big” shows that were highly successful.   We presented “Move Live on Tour” starring Julianna 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 after its announcement.  These successes certainly make the idea of summer shows appealing! In addition we again produced our summer season of outdoor concerts.  This summer we featured “Yesterdaze”, Come Back Alice”, “SoulRcoaster” and our fourth and final show “Adrian Ray.” These Bayfront shows continue to be very well attended.  We are already investigating several possible shows for next summer.  Anything that is available will be considered!


What criteria do you use to decide which shows to book?


MARY: The first consideration is availability.  Am I booking the performer independently? Or is the show part of a tour? This factor then involves the second criteria…cost.  A touring show with “block bookings” allows for the sharing of travel and production expenses, these factors 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 makers as to the shows we present.  The next two considerations are ones which are dependent on networking are 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 is 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 fairly and accurately represented? What was the audience’s reaction?  Would you re-book the performer or show?  This input is of great value and becomes available only after years of building relationships.


You mentioned relationships 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 2000 seats. We were also ranked number 4 among all Halls with a capacity of 5000 seats.  This ranks us with theatres in markets such as Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Clearwater and Orlando (who all have a larger seating capacity than do we and attendance is the major criteria of this designation). The Van Wezel was also awarded the “Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence”.  This award is given to establishments that consistently achieve exceptional travel ratings on “Trip Advisor” and maintain an overall rating of 4 or higher. The Van Wezel received a 4.5 rating.  These recognitions combined with the reputation of trust that I have established over decades of work with my profession puts 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 cost.


In the final analysis however, our most important asset is our staff. They approach their work with pride, professionalism and passion.  We certainly are a winning combination!