Capital approach

York's Strand-Capitol runs like many for-profit firms with apparent success

Area musicians perform in December at Jazz in the City at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York. Photo/The Susquehanna Photographic

At any given moment, a business opportunity could pop into Ken Wesler’s inbox.

He might only have a short period of time to decide whether to go in on a plan with other venues spread across multiple states, and he immediately has to know and crunch numbers in the same manner as a commodities trader or national corporate buyer.

It’s all about getting the right deal at the right price for resale to targeted groups — though it all might seem to be odd talk coming from the head of a nonprofit organization.

“We’re a retailer. That’s what we do,” said Wesler, president and CEO of the York-based Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center. “We buy our shows from agents and we retail to the public.”

The downtown York center last summer reported a three-fold increase in ticket sales revenue compared with the previous fiscal year.

Sales of about $660,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year increased to about $1.7 million for the 2010-11 year,
Wesler said. The center already has surpassed $1 million in ticket sales this fiscal year, he said.

One way to achieve more revenue was to drop ticket prices to help achieve sellouts while keeping a nose in complicated balance sheets to make the numbers work out and staying focused on what its audiences want, he said.

More people in the seats can create more return visitors, buzz in the community and increased concession sales, Wesler said. Or maybe an effort produces no margin but allows the center to take advantage of other benefits, he said.

People who donated through becoming Strand-Capitol members increased in the same year-over-year comparison to about $330,000, an increase of about $70,000 compared with the previous fiscal period.

The center now also provides management services to the York Symphony Orchestra — Wesler took over in 2011 as its executive director — and has given rent-free office space to the orchestra and three other York-area performance organizations.

The Strand-Capitol’s philosophical mission is to advance the arts in York community, and it has space in the facility. Rent-free housing of other groups also has a practical reason, Wesler said.

If the Strand-Capitol charged a fee, the groups would need to raise rent money from their donors. The same donors often also give to the Strand-Capitol and might not be happy to essentially give twice, he said.

Other mission extensions include a grants program to aid groups in covering the costs of renting space at the Strand-Capitol for events and opening up other niches of the facility for Jazz in the City on First Fridays and other uses.

Performing arts centers were hit by the recession but could adapt more readily compared with other arts organizations such as symphonies or dance groups, said Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Presenters could change the acts they book and scale back as needed to adjust to the economy whereas symphonies’ offerings and the resources needed to accomplish their performances often are less flexible, he said.

“One thing that our field is very good at, at this point, is being very nimble and flexible,” he said.

Going forward, the best presenters are those that are tapped into their communities and know what their audiences want, Durham said. And one trend that might help is that, in bad economic times, people seek out what is familiar to them, he said.

“They are an important community gathering place,” Durham said.

The Strand-Capitol’s venues are longtime fixtures in York. As the name implies, they include the larger Strand Theatre and smaller Capitol Theatre on North George Street.

In 2003, the center reopened after about two years and about $18 million in renovations that included adding more lobby space and stage depth and improving docking areas to load and unload the gear for shows.

Wesler came on board in 2010 and said there was a “meeting of the minds” between himself and a search committee in terms of what they wanted to see happen at the Strand-Capitol.

A key component of the center booking the right acts with the right deals is working through what Wesler called “the combine.”

There are about a dozen theater venues throughout the Mid-Atlantic region with which the Strand-Capitol works in a loose affiliation to identify and work out deals with various performing artists.

There is even a futures trading element to the process; a show needs to be booked while thinking about what an artist will be worth in terms of ticket sales months later, Wesler said.

In the end, maybe two theaters will go for the artist or maybe most of them will, he said. It also benefits the artist because it allows the performer to book multiple shows in a short time period and in the same general part of the country, Wesler said.

The entire process needs to happen in real time, he said.

“If you aren’t accessible and reacting from 7 in the morning here, Eastern (Standard Time), to midnight Eastern (Standard Time), you’ll lose shows,” Wesler said. “If you have to go to your desk, you’re dead.”

Community performing arts centers have moved over the years from focusing on high art to adding more mainstream performing artists and events, said Stephen Bailey, executive director and CEO of the Wilmington, Del.-based Grand Opera House.

The Grand is a member of the ad hoc combine and is Wesler’s former employer; Bailey said Wesler hired him there years ago and is a leader for seeing market shifts and responding to them.

One of the most important shifts over the years has been the increased speed required to book the performing artists baby boomers want to see, Bailey said.

The combine helps local theaters play the same game as larger corporate promoters who often set up multiple-venue deals and scoop up performances shortly after they come on the market, he said.

“That creates an efficiency and attractiveness for the agent,” Bailey said.

Brent Burkey

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