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Saturday, November 25, 2006 

For several weeks now I have been in contact with a reporter from news magazine, working on a story on the survival of the tented (traditional/popular) circus in this age of giant video screens or ringless Ringling offering. On several occassions during these conversations I have found myself gently steering the topic away from the notion of the demise of the traditional circus, back toward firmer ground.

"There are a world success stories out there when you look at tented shows," I keep saying. "I really don't think that popular circus has to change to be more like an arena entertainment to survive."

This is just an opinion, in no way connected to the Carson & Barnes Circus or any other show with which I have been associated. 2006 was a great year for a handful of shows, a poor year for several others, and a down year for several more.

"We've forgotten how to sell a circus," I've heard several people say along the way. I don't entirely disagree with that. Industry-wide we are still looking for new models to sell circus replacing the earlier models that guided the business for the past fifty years. Where do you find hosts when the membership of so many franternal organizations are aging and no longer up to the task? How do you sell blocks of seats with the restrictions on phone rooms? Personally I am convinced that the new model extists, and everyone has tried it now and then with mixed success. (What is it? That's not important.} What scares me more than a collective amnesia haunting the way that we fill the seats is a collective amnesia associated with how much we sell those seats for. The basic economics of traditional/popular circus. Obviously the issues are intertwined.

During the baby-boom years of the 1960's and 1970's the price for Adult admission to a tented circus was about 4X the price of a gallon of gasoline. The price of a circus ticket was roughly equivalent to the cost of a movie. During that same period many tent shows were highly profitable. There were kids around. (And children remain an part of selling the circus.) The cost of admission was reasonable and no one ever complained too loudly about the price at the gate. (At least for a legitimate show.) Over a span of thirty or forty years there are a myriad of good reasons for inflation at the Box Office, but today for many "mudshows" the ticket price is 8X-10X the price of a gallon of gasoline and 2X-3X the cost of a movie ticket. While it's certainly true that for many shows making a buck on a $8 Adult admission would be tough, it doeswn't follow that the "average" tent show can now charge $22-$25. At $22 dollars people notice. Does that mean that a circus performance isn't worth $25? I believe that almost any circus is worth that -- infact it's a bargain. Where else would find world class performers at the top of their game for that?

Live entertainers.

But what I believe and what the man or woman standing in line at the box office believes may be two different things. The man or woman at the box office picked up a few free kids tickets at the filling station. The ticket says it's an $8 dollar value. The man or worman knows that he or she will be paying something for an adult ticket -- and it will be at least $8 -- but how much can it be? $10? $12? Certainly no more than $16. If instead that ticket is $22, or $24, or $25 that man or woman -- the customer -- feels two things. First he or she feels stupid. Second she or he feels duped. If the show is great maybe he'll get over that. If the show is run of the mill it's a good bet that she won't. We all know of very successful shows that have worked free children's tickets and $22 (or more) adult tickets, but how many of those shows play the same towns the same way successfully year after year under the same title?

Plenty of people a lot smarter than I am disagree with me on this issue. Still, I remain convinced that part of selling circus is understanding the economic realities of the towns that we play. If a ticket costs $20, why are we afraid to say that?

(Because it'll keep people away, wiser minds tell me.)

If a $20 ticket keeps people away, then we are (as an industry) charging too much money. There is an issue of price points involved. Somehow a ticket selling for $18 feels different than a ticket selling for a few dollars more. It has nothing to do with true value, and everything to do with perception.

The 1990's were pretty good for the circus business. A strong economy, job security, and mini-baby boom meant that circus-goers were plentiful, and nobody worried too much about what a ticket cost. Looking at the enormous success of Canadian theatrical based circus with Broadway box office prices, it's hard to fault any circus for thinking, "We can charge more at the gate." Besides, charging more at the gate meant less nickel and diming on the midway.

Some shows reduced the size of the midway dramatically as ticket prices soared. Somewhere along the way maybe we forget the old rule of the circus and carnival business, "The front end pays for the backend." We forgot that sometimes it's easier to lighten a wallet one dollar at a time than it is to go straight for the sawbuck. After 2000 the economy slowed significantly, the children of the mini-baby boom aged out their early circus years, and the cost of moving a show skyrocketed with increases in fuel prices and liability insurance. Just when the circus business needed those higher ticket prices, our audience could no longer afford them. To make up the difference, we raised prices even more. In fairness there's no shortage of tent shows that have thrived despite higher admission prices. Hispanic circus in particular has no qualms about tickets in the $25 dollar range. What's different about successful niche circuses is the way they route and book the show. By remaining in a community for a week or more, a niche circus can overlap pay periods, giving the audience time to find the show, and time to set aside money to pay for a circus outing. A mudshow jumping every day for weeks at a time simply doesn't have that luxury.

Would lowering ticket prices bring the audience back to the bigtop? Probably not in and of itself. The best way to sell a circus is a motivated local host with a strong pre-sale. But at some point we have to win back the trust of circus-goers who have felt burned by free kiddie ticket schemes. Free children's tickets can still work. One very successful show this season laid down an ocean of free tickets in small towns, charging $15 for adult tickets. There were no complaints. It comes as no suprise at least to me that several of the most profitable shoiws over the last decade have been circuses with lower ticket prices and thriving midways. It may not be a universally successful model, but it's worked better than the alternative. An audience that doesn't feel gouged at the box office doesn't mind spending while attending the show. It's no secret that the overall audience for traditional/popular circus is somewhat smaller than it was a few years ago (nor that it will rise again with th the next spike in the birthrate.) Still in a nation of 300,000,000 the circus audience remains enormous, and if it takes smaller, lighter, better shows to find that audience in the communities where they live, we as an industry can do that. The good news is that next year's sixteen dollar ticket wouldn't have to stay at $16 forever. Once back inside the tent, once they trust us again the circus audience will allow us to raise ticket prices back to that twenty dollar level and beyond, at least so long as they believe they are getting more circus for their money. We can't blame them if they're a bit annoyed when they find themselves paying more and getting less.

In the circus business in America we market to nostalgia and to childhood. Circus, we like to say, is something you come back to with your own children. If a collective memory of the circus is childhood touchstone reawakened by our own children, certainly it must be the job and the responsibility of every legitimate show to foster those memories. To create at least a few moments in each performance that will linger in recall. (This is at least a part of the reason why acts with animals remain so important.) Circus isn't really about magic at all. It's about business, dollars, and cents. That said, the absolute bottom line is almost never the whole story. Give the customer something to remember at what they believe to be a fair price, and the customer is yours.

I'm not worried about the future of the traditional circus. With a few twaeks here and there the popular circus will be here for my grandchildren. If we believe in the future we can build for the future. If we believe only in the season, next season will only be more of the same. In the end this is just an opinion. Just an entry in a blog.

Ben

About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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