Lessons Learned from the Sight and Sound Theater – Part 4 of 5: Marketing and Training for the Unexpected and Expansion

by Tom Grandy

This has been a fun journey. We have been taking a close look at the business practices of the highly successful Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, PA. We have looked at their mission statementhiring and training practices and long range planning. Now let’s turn our attention to marketing, training for the unexpected and expansion.

Like any business, marketing is a key element. It’s really hard to sell something that the potential customer does not know exists. The theater markets everywhere possible from billboards to toll booths. Their website is amazing … check it out. However, after many years of providing top quality performances guess what happened? You got it. Referrals (word of mouth from satisfied customers) have taken over. How else can you explain the need to purchase tickets months in advance before the performance is sold out! Now I don’t have the facts to back it up but I would suspect a high percentage of the theater seats sold are sold to past satisfied customers wanting to see the next show. Hey, my wife and I are two of those people. We live in Kentucky and my sister lives in Baltimore, a couple hours from Lancaster, PA where the Sight and Sound Theater is located. We made plans in June to fly up for a visit in August which includes driving to Lancaster to attend the latest production titled Samson. Yes, we bought our August tickets in June.

Everyone reading this post is familiar with marketing at least to some extent. Most successful trades company spends a lot of money on marketing at least during the initial years in business. However, the true indicator of the quality of the products and services you offer can be easily measured by the percentage of repeat customers you have. If you are not already doing this, begin tracking your calls to determine what percentage is created by referrals through your current customer base and/or what percentage are repeat customers. If that is a significant percentage and it’s growing, that is really good fruit. If that is not the case I would strongly suggest you take a really close look at the “show” you are presenting.

Training for the Unexpected
If you are at all familiar with the Biblical story of Noah you are aware there were a lot of animals involved. Two of all animals were on the ark and seven of the animals were used for sacrifice. Guess what? The show Noah had a lot of animals as well, over 60 to be exact. Training that number of animals to “do their part” was no small task. The animals had to have housing, food, and trainers were hired. They had a full time vet because animals are like people in the sense that they occasionally get sick. Training was unique for each animal. The birds were trained to follow a light source. The pigs followed a food chain on the floor (surprise) while others responded to sounds and/or motion. Learning the parts is one thing but performing under pressure with a live audience is another. To help de-sensitize them, the soundtrack for the play was played continuously to get them used to the music and singing.

Do you remember a professional golfer named Tiger Woods? His dad would purposely drop him golf bag during his backswing and/or make distracting sounds while he was swinging. Why? It was to train him to perform under pressure when unexpected distractions occurred. The animals were trained in a similar way. During rehearsals they were intentionally distracted until they were so used to the process that an unexpected distraction did not hinder their performance. As a side note, all customers were told NOT to turn on their cell phones. That sounded like a reasonable request but not for the reason you might expect. Remember, the birds were trained to respond to a light source. Our guide told us that during one of the performances a theater attendee turned on their cell phone which produced light. You guessed it; one of the hawks was soon in mid-flight and landed on the customers head!

We talked about training earlier but this section goes beyond basic training. This section speaks to training your staff and technicians how to react under unusual and unexpected circumstances. All professional golfers can hit any club in their bag with a yard or so of where they want it to land. However, the eventual winner of the tournament is often the golfer that made a mistake but recovered well. That is what your staff needs to be trained for. How do they act or react when things don’t go as expected. This requires unique training.

Most successful companies grow. Some simply expand coverage from the current location while others open up new locations many miles away. By that point in a company’s history training has become standard and they know how to market to get the business. The Sight and Sound Theater is no exception. They had everything down to a system prior to even entertaining the idea of expanding to a second location. The second location ended up being in Branson, Missouri. When the season is over in Lancaster, PA the entire show is moved to Branson for the following season. Wow, what a task. That meant the all props; costumes and scenes had to be moved by truck to Branson. That also meant the all scenery had to be designed to be disassembled in order to fit into transfer trucks. The last show required 42 trucks to move everything!

So what is the lesson for our businesses? It is pretty obvious. Make sure all systems, policies, training, marketing and procedures are in place BEFORE you even think about expansion. Each new location will have its own unique challenges. If the basics are not in place it will be a disaster when the new unique problems arise.

Next month we will wrap up our journey by recapping what we have learned.

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