Bob Papke, SMG VP of live entertainment theaters, observes that operating and managing a theater or performing arts center isn’t the same as operating and managing an arena or stadium. And therein lies the difference between his company and others.
“We know theaters,” says Papke, who has been with SMG for more than 23 years and has run the company’s theater division since 2010. “We put theater operators in our theaters and performing arts centers. We understand the importance of rehearsal schedules for the local orchestra. We understand preserving traditional dates for the dance companies and how important their ‘Nutcracker’ dates are. We understand how booking a theater season works in terms of Broadway series, operas, symphonies and ballet companies, because that’s what we do.
“Those things are different in other lines of the business and other lines of the company, but we spend a lot of time making sure that our operators understand that [we know the difference] because [our clients are] theater people,” he says. “Almost without exclusion, the local arts organizations are our biggest fans because we come in and help to not only preserve the dates and make sure that they have what they need, but also bring a lot of marketing and operational support.”
That said, there are best practices that can be applied to SMG’s 63 theater clients.
“We’ve worked hard to develop a management system that works as well for theaters as those that we have in place for convention centers, arenas and stadiums,” he says. “We were able to cull the best practices of each and apply them in an appropriate manner and in appropriate ways to each division.”
While some of the theaters SMG works with are attached to other SMG facilities in a given market, Papke says the company has also developed strategies to work with stand-alone venues.
“One of the reasons we’ve been able to grow is that we have branched out into stand-alone theaters and performing arts centers,” he says, citing the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center in Midland, Texas, as an example.
The company also works with theaters in markets where it has existing contracts. “The Orpheum in Wichita, Kan., and the Saenger Theater in Mobile, Ala., which are two of our most recent additions, are not necessarily part of our existing contracts, but we figured out ways to come in and run those facilities and share some of the back-of-house resources.”
Customization is key. “It’s about really being creative and sitting down with the client and figuring out what they need, how we can help and how we get there. There are multiple ways to get there and sometimes we take the scenic route,” he says with a laugh.