asoline prices are substantially higher than they were six months ago, and disposable income is still an issue in many homes. And yet, despite those challenging market conditions, family shows continue to exceed expectations and new ones are on the horizon, according to show promoters and buyers.
"Our family show business continues to flourish," says Global Spectrum VP of marketing Bob Schwartz, who oversees marketing for all of Global Spectrum and the 115-plus venues the company manages, including the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. "We had a great run with the Feld [Entertainment] shows, [Disney] on Ice and the [Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey] Circus," he says. "Cirque [du Soleil] did great business for us."
John Graham, associate athletics director at the University of Texas in Austin, who oversees the school's Frank Erwin Center, has seen similar success.
"Our Sesame Street date in February was up about 15%-18% over last year," Graham says. "Our Globetrotter date was equal to the previous year, but the previous year was a great year for us, so it would be hard to match - that previous year was a record."
Still, Graham believes family shows are more susceptible to economic conditions than concerts, "because that constituency can be affected pretty seriously by a layoff or some kind of change in their situation," he says, adding, "We think [family shows] are coming around and I've heard that anecdotally from other arenas as well, that family shows are a good barometer of where the economy is locally."
While driving vacations may be affected by gas prices, Feld Entertainment senior VP of event marketing and sales Jeff Meyer believes consumers stick closer to home when money is tight, and that benefits family shows.
"When families run their budgets for vacations via car, the cost of fuel is a factor," he says. "They may not be making the choice to travel now, but [they] still want to entertain the family and that's where we come into play. We bring trusted, quality entertainment to the people at a family-friendly price."
Tim Reese, manager at Thompson-Boling Arena on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, says he's more concerned about the rising price of tickets than that of gasoline, but that "the family shows have a pretty good grasp [of ticket prices]. They afford folks a pretty good value for their dollar," he says. "They're still cognizant of children's prices, particularly with [Feld's] Monster Jam. It's a huge aspect of their business."
But, Reese says, he has seen a slight downturn at the concession stand. "People are spending money to get into the building, but may have been a little more discretionary in what they were buying," he says.
Sometimes the most important thing a family show can do comes from outside the confines of the show, Reese says.
"Monster Jam did a pit party before both of our shows and the Globetrotters have their Globetrotter U before our event starts, and that entices people to interact with what's going on. The [riders at Professional Bull Riders events] stay forever after the show for autograph sessions and the Globetrotters do the same thing. We have seen continual growth with the Globetrotters over our last three or four years."
While such tours as Feld's Disney on Ice, Disney Live! and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as Vee's Sesame Street Live, have long dominated the family show market, there's still room for new ventures to compete. Walking With Dinosaurs is a recent example of breakout success, and this fall Batman Live (a joint production of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, DC Entertainment and Water Lane Productions) hopes to make its mark in North America after launching last year in England and touring worldwide.
"It tours like a rock'n'roll show, but it's fundamentally a theater piece," executive producer Nick Grace says of the show that features a cast of 42 actors and circus performers portraying the iconic crime fighter, his allies and his enemies.
Grace calls taking Batman on tour a "tremendous responsibility. It's the first time Batman has been on the live stage.
"We spent two-and-a-half years working with Warner Bros. and DC Comics to make sure that whatever we do stays within what they call 'the Batman universe,'" Grace says. "They approve everything, from the script to the costumes to the music."
"He's been around so long that we don't want to go in a different direction that would horrify the Batman fans," Grace says, adding that "you don't need to be a Batman fan to see the show."
The audiences in Europe and South America have included people ages 5-95, Grace says. "It's an incredible cross-section of people that come see the show. Batman does appeal to all ages and both sexes . . . As a parent you can come and enjoy it as much as your kids."