Sitting in the middle of Sydney Harbor is a tiny island called Pinchgut.
Formerly a military fortress island, today it is a nature reserve. Pinchgut Island lies less than a kilometer from the Sydney Opera House and is symbolically its opposite: a small, little-known curiosity in the shadow of the grand, instantly recognizable icon.
With this in mind, when a group of iconoclastic Baroque opera enthusiasts founded their own tiny opera company in 2002, they named it Pinchgut Opera.
It was a shoestring affair. They set out to serve the nichest of niches: original instrument Western opera written between 1600 and 1800. Their audiences and donors were friends, academics or amateur aficionados. An entire season of performances might have the same attendance as one weekend of Aida by Opera Australia at the Opera House.
Still, the founders forged a new company out of thin air, made great art, squeaked by with just enough resources, and employed a series of part-timers to help in the office.
This is where Sarah Gilchrist enters the picture. Sarah was an arts manager looking for a part-time job after having a child, and the Pinchgut founders were looking for a part-time marketer.
Not long after Sarah arrived, the founding leadership decided to move on from the company, and Sarah accepted the role of CEO.
Members of the Tessitura and Pinchgut Opera teams. From left to right: Jeremy Dixon, Tessitura Network; Ilona Brooks, Sarah Gilchrist, Candice Docker, and Andrew Johnston, Pinchgut Opera; and Chuck Reif, Tessitura Network.
Sarah had a mandate from the board to stay true to their artistic mission and program while growing their footprint in Sydney, and ultimately to expand their reach throughout Australia to become a national Baroque opera company.
It was a mandate fraught with risk. Sarah was stepping into an organization that had been led for its formative years by charismatic founders. She would need to maintain the integrity of their mission and grow the business without alienating a loyal base of donors and ticket buyers.
So what did she do?
“I went back to basics,” she said. If her mandate was to better engage and grow audiences, step one was understanding the audience she had.
Sarah saw that Pinchgut had almost no organized audience information at all. Donations and ticket sales were in a variety of unrelated systems or spreadsheets. She couldn’t answer even the simplest questions about their customers.
Back to basics, indeed. But this isn’t unusual.
Pinchgut had survived those early years by relying on a close-knit group of donors and ticket buyers built through friendships and word of mouth. Sarah realized that to move to the next stage, she needed to build data-driven decisions into the mix.
Through a partnership with Opera Australia and the Sydney Opera House, Pinchgut Opera became a Tessitura user organization. For Sarah, the customer insights that started spilling out of Tessitura became a daily exercise in busting myths and realigning strategy.
Of the many examples she shared with me over coffee, two myths have had the most immediate and far-reaching impact:
Myth 1: Ticket buyers are loyal to the Pinchgut brand.
The prevailing wisdom that Pinchgut had a loyal stable of returning ticket buyers was false. The data showed them that people weren’t coming to Pinchgut as a brand, so much as responding to specific works. Outside of their most loyal fans, there was surprisingly little overlap in audiences from production to production.
Myth 2: Their subscribers are also their donors.
There was a long-held perception that their subscribers (people who purchase a whole season of tickets) were also their primary donors. When Sarah saw the numbers, she learned that only 5% of subscribers were also donors. This number was alarmingly low – in the performing arts this percentage is usually many times that.
With just these two data points, Sarah had enough information to take decisive action:
1. Market based on program rather than brand
While they have a long-term goal to sell tickets based on their name rather than the individual works, Sarah was pragmatic about what the data told her. Even in a very niche genre, there are some works that attract more audiences than others, so the leadership team considered whether they could program their own “blockbusters.”
They had research suggesting that Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea was among the most popular of operas with the Baroque music crowd, so they programmed and marketed it like a half-pint Hamilton. It was a huge hit! A hit for their scale: a micro-blockbuster, if you will. It did wonders for their bottom line and they are now working on their next Baroque-buster.
Pinchgut Opera’s production of The Coronation of Poppea. Photo by Brett Boardman.
2. Audience education around donations
The fact that almost none of their subscribers were donors pointed to a need for audience education about how the work is funded. By being more forward in donation asks during subscription season, and more direct about the costs of putting on Baroque opera, they have seen that percentage steadily rise.
* * *
“Go back to basics” was Sarah’s mantra, and it is exactly what she did with the data. Which is why I like this story so much. “Data-driven decision making” can sound complicated and scary. But it needn’t be. So often, simple is best.
And clearly in Sarah’s case, simple works.
In the three years since Sarah took over, Pinchgut has grown overall revenue by 100% — an unprecedented number in the opera world, no matter what your size. In addition, they have begun a concert series, are touring for the first time outside Sydney, and recently received their first nomination for a 2019 International Opera Award.
What Sarah shows is that to grow and survive, you need to understand, then engage, then educate your audiences. Exactly what Pinchgut has done to great success.
Because at the end of the day, no opera company is an island.
This post is part of my Small World Tour: my round-the-world trip focused on the innovations of small Tessitura organizations. Spending time on the east coast of Australia was amazing and memorable. Next week I fly to the wild West Coast of Australia to learn about a small cultural organization in the most remote large city in the world.