Never Say “Gala”

How the California Symphony Killed (and Resurrected) Its Special Events

Aubrey Bergauer
Apr 12, 2017 · 10 min read
California Symphony was the first orchestra to collaborate with Postmodern Jukebox, whose vintage cover songs have garnered over 500 million views on YouTube.

“You say you want to change and want to attract new and younger audiences, but everyone says that. Do you actually mean it?” asked Aubrey Bergauer of Board President Bill Armstrong as she was interviewing for the job of Executive Director in 2014.

“Well, we just cancelled our longstanding annual gala if that’s any indication,” Bill replied.

Fast-forward a few months: Bergauer took the job with the directive to “get new people in the doors” and knew there was a giant revenue line in the budget for some sort of new, to-be-determined fundraiser event in place of the old gala Ball. Her first week on the clock she reached out to Postmodern Jukebox — a band with a tremendous YouTube following for their vintage renditions of pop songs, led by trained jazz pianist Scott Bradlee — and asked if they would be interested in collaborating with an orchestra for a Roaring Twenties style party. What a “supremely awesome request” was the response from the band’s manager. The event went on to achieve triple the attendance of the last gala with more than half of attendees being new to the organization. And, here’s the kicker: the average revenue per patron who returned in the year after the event (i.e. their value to the organization in the 12 months following their first interaction with us at this event) was $438 in ticket sales and donations, all completely new money the organization had not previously seen. That’s not chump change, especially given these people’s previous value to us was zero. In fact, the ROI per each returning patron was 1403% in just one year.

“The ROI per each returning patron was 1403% in just one year.”

How it Was Done

Unpacking this success, there were a lot of things we did as we revamped our special events. In this business, it’s never build-it-and-they-will-come; it’s always work, and a lot of work in a very short period of time is what we hustled to do:

Location/venue. We knew if we were going to attract a different demographic, the country clubs of yore were out. Instead, we held the event on a rooftop in nearby Oakland.

Introduced a new ticket type. Not everyone can afford a $500 ticket, so we introduced what we called a “Cocktail Ticket,” which was $125 and included the performance, plus two drinks, plus appetizers. No full dinner, and no guaranteed seat, but plenty of ambient seating options and cocktail tables to gather around. We sold a lot of these, and this was the entry point for most new people. We also offered our standard $500 dinner ticket and hosted tables, and those folks enjoyed the best seats at tables right in front of the stage, a full three-course meal, and hosted wine all night as usual for high-end special events at that price.

Intentionally sought out young volunteers. Younger audiences need to see others that look like them lest there be any hope of them returning. So we sought out young, fun, smart volunteers. They dressed the part, and we received many compliments from our long-time patrons that the volunteers brought a great energy and were incredibly friendly and helpful.

Black tie, schmack tie. Newsflash: some people like to dress up and some people don’t. So we said either way was ok. And we encouraged dressing up in the theme even though we weren’t sure how that would play out among our guests. Almost everyone dressed up — whether as the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties or in their designer gown — and everyone looked pretty fabulous either way.

Memory elicitation. If you’ve read our other posts on patron retention, you know this is something we care about a lot (even more than attracting new people). We knew that getting these new attendees to come back again was where the real challenge resided in terms of making all this work worth it, so we created a station where guests could write postcards (fitting with the theme and the new invention of airmail in the 1920s), to themselves or to friends, to whoever and as many as they wanted. After the event, we stamped and mailed all of them, and all those guests received their own memory elicitation device reminding themselves what a great time they had. Note: we also followed up with our regular first time attendee retention efforts.

Stellar performance. We (i.e. all performing arts organizations) blow people away at our regular concerts, and we (i.e. the California Symphony) wanted to do that here, too. Postmodern Jukebox is known for putting on incredibly entertaining shows (they even have a professional tap dancer!), and we knew that adding an orchestra would only enhance their performance. And we were right; PMJ and the musicians of the California Symphony rocked it. A question we’re often asked is how the musicians felt about it. The answer is good, and almost all their comments were in fact very similar to what we heard from patrons: “What a fun show that was! That was so awesome to see so many new people! Everyone was really into it!”

Didn’t call it a gala. Never once did we call this event a gala — not internally or externally. We gave it a name, Speakeasy Symphony, and we developed a new vocabulary for how we talk about our events. Instead of saying “gala,” we use words like “fun” and “entertaining.” We know, this is [not] deep. But before you think George Merriam and Noah Webster are rolling in their graves, consider the business we’re in, the entertainment business, and at the end of the day, we are vying for people’s entertainment dollars. In other words, we now don’t ask, “What can we do for our next gala for it to really be a great fundraiser?” Instead we ask, “How can we create a program or event that is interesting and entertaining and FUN?” We have proven that if we can do that, people come and then the money follows.

“Consider the business we’re in, the entertainment business, and at the end of the day, we are vying for people’s entertainment dollars.”

Moving Forward

What do you do after an event like that? How do you follow it? Two main tracks emerged for us in our event follow-up:

1. Use the data to see what worked.

2. Plan next year’s event to be just as good, but different.

We have said again and again on this blog that new audiences are NOT the Holy Grail. New audiences matter, and yes, as a field, we must be cultivating new audiences; however, getting someone to attend for the first time is not the end goal. Most orchestras are very successful at getting people to come once; it’s getting those people to come back a second time and ultimately cultivate a longer-term relationship where most of us actually need to focus.

So we did that. We invited those newcomers to return again and again, and it played out like this: now, two years, later, 11% of those first time attendees have returned. In the first year after the event, only 5% had returned, which on the surface, to us sounded really horrible at first. We dug deeper and learned that for those who did return, the average revenue per patron over the following year was $438 in ticket sales and donations. As we said at the top of this post, that’s $438 in new revenue per person in just one year that the California Symphony had not previously seen, and it’s a lot higher than the one-time ticket price that patron paid originally (remember, most of those new people originally came in at the $125 cocktail price….one year later they are spending $438 a year on average, which is nearly two and a half times what they originally spent — THAT’S not too shabby we decided.).

“When you only have 6–7 concert sets a year, it’s really difficult to argue that any of those shouldn’t serve your core audience well.”

As we set out to plan the following year’s special event fundraiser, we loved the idea of using a non-traditional venue and knew we wanted to keep that element. We also knew we wanted to strike a better balance between new attendees and our core audience. Side note: perhaps this is a consideration more relevant to small and mid-size budget organizations because when you only have 6–7 concert sets a year, it’s really difficult to argue that any of those shouldn’t serve your core audience well.

A new event, called Cirque du Symphonie (think Cirque du Soleil with live orchestra), was the answer to that, and we did land a healthier mix of new attendees versus core audience:

  • More of our core patrons wanted to come. Closer to a 60/40 (returning/new) split instead of over half being new like it was for Speakeasy Symphony.
  • New attendees = 37% (again, reflecting a better balance of new and returning patrons)
  • New donors realized through the event = 30%
  • New patrons who have since returned (at the time of this writing, we are nine months after the event) = 6%, which is on par with, albeit slightly ahead of, the trend we saw after Speakeasy Symphony (which was 5% first timer return in 12 months following the event).

This season, we are coming up on our third year of this revamped special event series as we celebrate the orchestra’s 30th anniversary. The theme is “Symphony Surround,” and the orchestra will literally surround guests at dinner tables as they perform. Lined up is superstar violinist Anne Akiko Meyers who had a connection to our orchestra when she first performed here at the young age of 24; she returns now in gratitude for the California Symphony’s role in launching her career. Plus, it’s at another rad venue: the Blackhawk Automotive Museum full of one-of-kind classic cars (even the non-gear heads will enjoy the vintage bling on these cars).

In summary, special events — like almost everything else we do as arts organizations — are hard and getting harder. Board consultant Chuck Loring said it best at a recent board development seminar produced by the League of American Orchestras, “We have to ask ourselves how special events fit in with our overall stewardship plan. We have to make sure we are creating repeat donors. Before you ever plan another event, you should first decide what the second date is AFTER this event before deciding to do the event in the first place.” Here, we are constantly asking ourselves if the juice is worth the squeeze, and at one point nearly four years ago, the board decided the answer was no, it wasn’t worth it, at least in its then format. We took a risk (which in hindsight wasn’t really much of a risk since something needed to change) to hit the reset button and completely re-imagine the way we thought about fundraising events for our organization. And we’ll never look back and say the word “gala” again.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base. From growing audiences, increasing concerts, and expanding programs to instilling and achieving common goals across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, Bergauer is someone you want to follow — on the nationally-recognized blog she created to discuss what actually works in a changing arts landscape, and in real life, too.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-averse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

Aubrey Bergauer

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Working to change the narrative for orchestras. Executive Director of the California Symphony.