Thoughts on Providing the Experience

American Folklore Theatre (AFT) administration and box office staff met for breakfast this morning to share a few laughs and bolster ourselves for the remaining and busiest period of our summer season. Yesterday marked mid-season at the AFT amphitheater and we typically sell almost half of our summer tickets between now and our closing performance (this year on Saturday, August 27).

This is the first year in my tenure that we’ve had to worry more about heat than rain. “It’s always something,” as Gilda Radner used to say. And while day-to-day attendance fluctuates at the whim of Mother Nature, we are thankfully on track to have another strong summer.

I’m currently reading a fascinating book on marketing titled The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, by B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore. The premise is that businesses must learn to stage a rich, immersive, compelling experience. According to Pine and Gilmore, businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product – the “experience.” Effective experience-centric businesses can begin charging for the value of the “transformation” that an experience offers.

I suppose it is only natural that such a business philosophy would appeal to the Managing Director of an outdoor theatre company. Fortunately, we have brilliant box office and house management teams that focus on one overriding premise – enhance and protect the AFT experience for the customer at all cost. They all have wide discretion to make sure, to every reasonable extent, that our patrons are cared for like family.

Our fans tend to come to the park with a strong sense of expectation. After all, attending an AFT musical takes a little extra effort. Not that driving through one of the most beautiful parks in the country is any great hardship, but the “AFT Experience” requires folks to drive a few extra miles, enjoy a short walk to the theatre and be ready to meet nature halfway. But the payoff…like an idyllic picnic, a sublime day at the beach, or a perfect first date…can be profoundly meaningful and memorable. Research tells us that if someone visits us once the odds are very high that they will be back the next time they’re “in county.” On any given night approximately half of the audience members are returning patrons.

We have, for the most part, an entirely new park house management crew this season. We’re training four very smart young people to take on these critical roles for, we hope, the next several years. Dan Gorchynsky, our senior House Manager, will be leaving us after four years of superlative summer service to spread his wings and take his forthcoming degree in theatre management from UW-Milwaukee to some fortunate new organization. Gorchynsky’s experience at AFT apparently was all Milwaukee Repertory Theatre needed to hire him as their Assistant House Manager, a role he juggles while at university.

At a recent training meeting I shared two letters with these new house-managers-in-training – the very worst letter we’ve ever received from a patron (from a very thin file folder, I’m happy to say) and one of the most moving and positive letters we’ve been blessed to receive over the years (from a very fat “Positive Correspondence” folder, I’m happy to add.)

The negative letter was long, caustic and completely justified. It complained about a crowd control issue we have long since taken great care to correct. It was written by a long-time supporter whose negative experience compromised their faith in an organization that they obviously truly loved.

The positive note was from Kristi Johnson, wife of a longtime fan Curt Johnson, who had recently passed away. It spoke of this gentlemen’s love of the theatre and how AFT was integral to so many treasured family memories. The letter also expressed thanks for permission to use Fred Alley’s song “I Will Arise” at the memorial service. The letter concluded with, “As our family attends AFT this summer there will be one person missing from the bench, but I know he will be watching from above. Thank you for the memories.”

The lesson was obvious. The art of theatre has and will always have transformational potential. But the business and customer service models that support this art also affect people in big ways, for better or worse, which we might not anticipate. The customer’s memory of the show itself is clearly not all that patrons walk away with. And the experience they will remember can be greatly influenced by the most routine practice or smallest caring gesture.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, Inc., is a coalition of non-profit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.