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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 4, 2015 4 years ago

Birkenstocks and ball gowns

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It takes a deft combination of patience and persistence to sell something like the opera.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Selling ice to Eskimos is a cinch compared to what Carlos Vicente and Sam Lowry do: They sell the opera.

Beloved by millions, opera is foreign, literally and figuratively, to a large segment of the population. “Opera is an incredibly intimidating art form,” says Lowry, director of audience development at the Sarasota Opera. “It encompasses all the arts in one giant pot.”

Intimidation is just the beginning. While Sarasota is an arts-infused city, acknowledges Vicente, marketing director at the Sarasota Opera, that means people have a lot of options. And past ballets and orchestra, the opera also battles leisure budgets. “You compete with any type of entertainment that's in town,” Vicente says.

Beyond that, opera officials fight a litany of misconceptions. That goes from high costs (tickets in Sarasota start at $19) to a dress code (there is no dress code in Sarasota; people wear everything from ball gowns to Birkenstocks) to fear of a foreign language (subtitles are projected above the screen).

That's why selling the opera, for Lowry and Vicente, is a long cycle of product education in a one-person-at-a-time approach. “We try to pique their curiosity,” Lowry says, “and lessen the intimidation.”

The strategy works. The recently completed fall season, a three-week run of the iconic “La boheme,” was the most successful fall season at the Sarasota Opera since the organization started an autumn program in 2008. Ticket sales were $30,000 more than projections and 800 new households came to a performance — double the amount in the previous two seasons.

Lowry and Vicente, professionally trained musicians, attack the opera sales challenge from different sides.

Lowry targets various segments of people, from business executives to young professionals. He does that through brown-bag lunches, backstage tours and other outreach efforts. That work, combined with digital and social media marketing, including behind-the-scenes video interviews with opera principals, has led to another boost: a demographic that skews younger. “It's about planting a seed,” says Lowry. “There's not an immediate return.”

Vicente, meanwhile, spends a chunk of his time, and budget, targeting either past opera goers to return or newcomers to town to check it out. “You have to focus your efforts on small, specific groups of people,” he says.

Vicente's two favored forms of marketing are direct mail and online. Direct mail, while not necessarily for younger customers, works well with baby boomers. Vicente says that's because even in the digital age, good copy and a compelling image, or a brochure that showcases an entire season, remains a powerful approach.

The Sarasota Opera, a nonprofit, was founded in 1960, when it was called the Asolo Opera Guild and performances were held in the Asolo Theater at the Ringling Museum of Art. Its current home is in downtown Sarasota. The opera bought that building in 1979, began renovations in 1982 and began performing there in 1984.

Both Lowry and Vicente, in addition to several other Sarasota Opera officials, up through Executive Director Richard Russell, add one more element to the overall approach that complements the welcoming strategy: They greet patrons before and after every show. “The experience starts when you come in the door,” says Lowry. “Not when the curtain goes up.”

Sales Tips
Have heart. Sam Lowry, director of audience development at the Sarasota Opera, says in any sales role, particularly in the arts, it's essential to “embrace the brand.” Adds Lowry: “I believe we are successful in bringing people to the opera because they respond to the sincerity and excitement we as representatives of Sarasota Opera have for the art form and the company we work for.”

Think big. Being in sales shouldn't mean slacking on customer service, says Sarasota Opera Marketing Director Carlos Vicente. That covers every interaction with a potential customer. “It's not just the actual show we are selling,” Vicente says. “It's also our organization as a whole, and even the art form in general.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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