Mahaffey Theater needs to carve out a niche and increase revenue to be successful, review finds

ST. PETERSBURG — In a crowded performing arts market, the Mahaffey Theater needs to sharpen its identity in order to thrive, according to an independent analysis of the city-owned center.

The theater has been struggling to fill its seats and book acts since a $20 million renovation in 2006. After two lackluster seasons, Broadway Across America terminated its contract in September, a year early.

To succeed, the Mahaffey needs to find ways to increase net revenue and carve out a niche, according to a report by AMS Planning & Research presented to the City Council Monday. For example, the Mahaffey could market itself as a diverse music hall or, conversely, one of the few places to see the Florida Orchestra.

"If it doesn't have a brand or an identity, why not go to Tampa or Clearwater or Sarasota or whatever is closer?" said AMS president Steven Wolff.

Among the report's findings:

• The Mahaffey is not effectively marketing itself to people outside the city and spends less on marketing per patron than other performing arts centers.

• The theater is booked 47 percent of its available days, below the national average of 52 percent.

• Only 34 percent of Broadway performance tickets are sold, compared with the national average of 66 percent.

• Family and variety performances are the theater's most successful programs.

• The Mahaffey ranked fourth, behind Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the St. Pete Times Forum, in a recent survey of local venue patrons. It ranked higher than the Tampa Theatre, Ford Amphitheater, Jannus Landing and the USF SunDome.

The findings are based on the Connecticut firm's analysis of the theater's marketing programs, events and operations.

The report suggests the city survey nonattendees to understand program preferences.

To reduce the city's $1 million annual subsidy, the city must launch an aggressive fundraising effort to engage the private sector, the report concludes.

SMG, the national performing arts management company that oversees the theater for the city, is doing an effective job, the report found.

The Mahaffey is currently selling tickets to performances showcasing popular singers Kenny Rogers and David Cook, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Ballet, the Florida Orchestra and Stomp, a nontraditional dance troupe, according to its Web site.

The Florida Orchestra has been in tentative discussions with the city to increase its allotted performance nights.

The city could refuse with hopes of landing a more diverse showcase of performers on nights when the orchestra doesn't perform.

"But if it doesn't, we end up with an empty night," said Wolff.

Mayor Rick Baker didn't seem inclined to increase orchestra nights.

The Mahaffey already is establishing itself as a go-to attraction for patrons looking for an evening of art and dining, he said.

"Our theater is uniquely located in areas where you have so much going on," he said. "You can help sell downtown as a component of the theater itself."

Focusing solely on increasing orchestra performances wouldn't be wise, he said.

"I'm very supportive of the orchestra. I think they're great," Baker said. However, "my sense of the community is that they want a mix of things."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

Mahaffey Theater needs to carve out a niche and increase revenue to be successful, review finds 11/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 9:36pm]

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