Misunderstanding Your Competition

To pick up from my last post about the Set In Stone report, the one aspect of the research I was intrigued by was their survey of people’s perceptions of the impacts (or lack thereof) of a new construction project.

As you might imagine, those who perceived themselves to be direct competitors were the least enthusiastic about a new building project. However, the groups who were most enthusiastic were those who were in the same district as the project, but didn’t view themselves as competitors.

Nope, No Impact Here

The report writers note both the positive and negative impacts of a new project- It might compete for audiences and revenues on one hand, but could also bring additional vibrancy to the area attracting businesses and traffic. Interestingly, the perceived impacts of a new project were pretty low.

• No higher than 28 percent of organizations in any subsample believed any change in their attendance was due to the new project opening; that subsample was the most closely linked to the project (competitors in the same district). The full sample result was only 12 percent believing the project opening affected their attendance.

• While 40 percent of competitors in the same district believed the project opening had an effect on new businesses opening in the area…Only 23 percent of the full sample believed the project opening was the key cause of new businesses in the area.

However, in terms of general impact, people were quite positive in their outlook about the project.

• When the question about community impact is posed in general terms, dramatically positive views are expressed. The question “Do you think the project makes the city a more attractive place to live?” generated a uniformly enthusiastic response, with the full sample generating 88 percent positive responses, and competitors within the same district reporting a 96 percent positive response.

There was also a lot of enthusiasm about the impact the new project would have in the community in advance and immediately upon the completion. However, according to the report, after the completion, enthusiasm dropped about 8% for the overall sample. However, for the group that was most enthusiastic–those in the same district who didn’t view themselves as competitors that I mentioned earlier–their optimism about the impact on economic development dropped 16 points.

I should note that the report writers emphasize that it is difficult to separate general economic conditions from project specific conditions as factors in the decline in optimism. They don’t know if the decline is due to problems with the greater economy or specific to the projects.

Foes Are Just Friends Who Compete With You

What was also interesting to me was the perception of competition versus collaboration people had in relation to projects. Those who viewed themselves as direct competitors were most likely to view the project as creating a more competitive environment while those who were located in the same district but did not view themselves as competitors felt the project created a more collaborative environment.

And yet,

Ironically, the group with the highest percentage of organizations believing that cultural organizations feel more competitive (competitors in the same district, also had the most optimistic view about increased tourism (52 percent believed it had increased). Thus, there is no evidence that community organizations link their views about changes in tourism to their views about the effect of the project on the competitive/collaborative climate.

The section of the study about competitiveness was very intriguing to me because so much of it was based on perception rather than reality. Just because people didn’t identify themselves as competitors, doesn’t mean that is really the case. The study found proximity was often a factor in identifying a project as a competitor, even if the cultural discipline didn’t match. You might expect that a museum might view a nearby performing arts center as a competitor.

Yet the study found (and I paraphrase for clarity) that a slightly higher percentage of those who identify themselves as non-competitors were located in the same district and were a cultural discipline match for the expansion project. The report authors state this “is inconsistent with expectations and inconsistent with the results observed for the “competitor” subsamples.”

You Can Have My Audience, Performers and Employees, Just Leave The Money

It made me wonder if there was a degree of wishful thinking/willful blindness among other cultural organizations that the expansion project represented a threat to them. These results left me wondering and wishing the survey had included data on whether local conditions improved or not in the wake of a project. I suspect given the scope of the study, they were unable to assemble a dependable data set to make this comparison.

Still it raises a lot of questions about how accurately cultural organizations, and I daresay businesses as a whole, assess the impact of developments on the economic conditions of their communities. I suspect the assumptions arts and cultural organizations make are little different from those other businesses make about the impact that will result upon the arrival of a big box retailer like WalMart, Best Buy or Home Depot.

Not surprisingly, money seems to be the dominant factor. The study found that the greater the funding for the expansion project came from non-local sources, the less people expressed concern that the environment had become more competitive. The perception of the economic climate seemed to be based mostly on whether the expansion project was making it more difficult to fund raise rather than whether the project was competing for audiences or talented artists and employees.

I wonder if this is something of a statement on the relative importance/availability of funding versus audiences and talent for cultural organizations: People are more easily replaced than money.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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2 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Your Competition”

  1. Of course, there is a marked difference between performing arts organizations (particularly theatre companies) and retail outlets. Most theatres run a production for several weeks; if you are a patron that wants to go out every week to see a play, the chances are very slim that you will go back to see the same play again and again. No, you will have to go to a different theater every week if you want to see a new play every week. And that’s why competition amongst theaters is largely fictional.

    If people like to see a new play every week – or, gods willing, several times a week – they will be going to several different theaters. You’re not in competition, not really – because you can’t be. I remember a study done in Palm Beach County about 25 years ago – the first survey of theater subscribers in the region. The results; most of the theaters shared most of their subscribers. There were only a handful that only attended the closest companies, or the ones that did the kinds of plays they preferred.

    Sure, there’s an upper limit to how many theaters people will support; but it may be wiser to form coalitions with similar companies than to try to dominate the landscape. Perhaps three or four companies could offer a “super-subscription” that covered all the venues; they couls coordinate their openings so that patrons could always make opening night of a production, or whatever night of the week they preferred. I could see coordinating various subscriptions through a single box office would simplify the lives of theater patrons.

    Just a thought.

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