All major decisions that an organization makes are made during the budgeting process. In many cases, the budgeting process is informed by a strategic plan or multi-year proformas. However, the practical and strategic decisions that are necessary to put a strategic plan into play are primarily discussed and decided upon during the budgeting process.
Ideally, an operating budget is created and adopted by an organization’s senior staff, thereby ensuring that each department is represented. For senior managers that represent marketing and are responsible for earned revenue streams, the following are some important questions to ask during the budgeting process:
1) How accessible does your organization desire to be?
• Average Ticket Price and Percent Paid Capacity. In major organizations, earned revenue can come from a myriad of different sources including ticket sales, fees, parking, restaurants, concessions, event rentals, merchandise, advertising, classes and summer camps. However, for most performing arts organizations, the majority of earned revenue comes from ticket sales. When adopting sales figures for tickets, a manager must consider two variables: average ticket price and percent paid capacity. When a budget is being developed, the higher these two variables climb, the less accessible an organization becomes. For example, if an organization adopts a budget with an overall average ticket price of $60 and an average percent paid capacity of 80%, it will be forced to enact pricing and marketing strategies to fulfill its budgetary requirements, meaning that only 20% of its inventory can be sold at less than $60 (and this includes all complimentary tickets).
• Complimentary Tickets. All earned revenue budgets should include a well thought out complimentary ticket budget. In many cases, organizations will find themselves with competing interests. Economic pressures can force an organization to increase its percent paid capacity and average ticket price, but doing so will also force a change to how an organization uses complimentary tickets. Many organizations use complimentary tickets for charitable donations, community outreach, publicity, donor cultivation, staff benefits and artist relations. However, only the budget will determine the amount of tickets available to use in any given year for these purposes. It is the responsibility of marketing representative to remind the budgeting team that no matter what current standard operating procedures are or what the desires are of staff members, the higher the average ticket prices and percent paid capacities go, the fewer tickets, especially for prime seat locations, will be available for complimentary tickets.
2) How much risk are you willing to take? The budgeting process can be pressure filled. After several rounds of budgeting, the pressure mounts on the marketing representative to increase his earned revenue forecasts. In doing so, there is only one question the budgeting team needs to ask—how much risk are we willing to take? A couple of bits of advice:
• Let the Data Do the Talking. A marketing representative should have years of data at his disposable, and he should use that data to produce the most accurate earned revenue projections he can. In projecting ticket sales for individual projections, one needs to do two things: 1) study the micro sales patterns of similar productions in recent history (3-5 years), and 2) study the macro sales patterns of all productions in recent history (5-7 years). The sales patterns of similar productions should give you a good indication of what is both possible and probable. I try to select at least three similar productions: one that under-performed, one that performed as expected and one that over-performed. Using the data from all three gives you a statistically probable figure, with room to do better than your projections. The macro sales patterns gives you an overall sense of standard operating revenues as well as outliers. If you notice during your budgeting process that you are forecasting that each of your productions will perform in the top 10% of all productions in your recent history, you might want to leave a little more room for failure. If the organization you are working for is taking the appropriate amount of artistic risk, you will need it. Final word of advice—no matter how much you are encouraged to do so, never go with your gut or “a feeling.” Decisions like these are should be left to the data.
• If You Are Uncomfortable, Say So. Marketing representatives have one primary responsibility in the budgeting process—they must be honest and transparent. If a budget makes you uncomfortable, voice your opinion. Ultimately, the budgeting team and the executive staff have final authority over the budget, but as part of the budgeting team, you must tell people when you are uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pass a budget that makes you a little nervous. All of us have passed budgets in the past that have kept us up at night, particularly in the past few years during the global economic crisis. However, you should never support, present and defend a budget that is irresponsible and dishonest. I am fortunate that I have never been placed in the position where I have been told I must present a budget that is irresponsible or face the consequences. However, if am ever faced with that position in the future, I would immediately start my search for new employment.
• Tell the Truth No Matter How Uncomfortable. I am fortunate to have a close working relationship with the senior staff at my current position, which allows for open and honest discussion. However, even in the best of environments, it can be uncomfortable to tell the truth. As the marketing representative on the budgeting team, you are in your position because the organization requires your truthful analysis and opinion. To not provide it for any reason is tantamount to dodging your responsibility. That being said, you also must be open to hearing sometimes painful and uncomfortable analysis as well.
3) Do you have the capacity to fulfill the budgeted expectations? My boss at Arena Stage has a great way of phrasing this question during the budgeting process. He diligently asks throughout the process if we have the capacity and resources to match our ambitions. It is a succinct and direct question that focuses the entire budgeting process. I am afraid that too many times arts organizations extend themselves by having unrealistic budgets because this question wasn’t asked. In terms of marketing, even if demand warrants a high budgeted goal, one needs to ask if you have the infrastructure to execute, which can include a multitude of actors such as staffing, technology, and operating procedures.
The final question I like to ask myself in terms of revenue projections is the ultimate litmus test—do we have an equal or better chance of over performing on budgeted revenue goals as we do under performing? If there is evidence that a greater likelihood exists that an organization will under perform rather than over perform, then I encourage you to adjust expectations to mitigate your risk.