Episode 2 Transcript – Charlotte St. Martin

Ken: Hello everybody, this is Ken Davenport. Welcome to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. You hear my perspective on my blog every single day, but today I’m sitting across from another one of Broadway’s superpowers. I’m in the office of one of the most powerful people on Broadway, as rated by a website that I run – Charlotte St. Martin, who is the Executive Director of the Broadway League. Welcome, Charlotte.

Charlotte: Great to be here, Ken. Thank you.

Ken: The Broadway League is the national trade organization for the Broadway industry, for those of you who don’t know. It actually represents 700+ members including theater owners and operators, producers, presenters, and general managers all over the country, all over North America, actually. And Charlotte gets e-mails from every single one of those members, I am sure. In additional to having one of the busiest inboxes on Broadway and sitting in a super-important chair, Charlotte is also one of the sweetest and classiest ladies in the industry. I’ve had the pleasure of lunching with her several times, and it’s one of the ones I look forward to. So thanks for sitting down with us today. Let’s start with a simple question. As the Executive Director of The Broadway League, what do you think the primary function of our trade organization is?

Charlotte: Well, certainly we have all of the traditional jobs for a trade association. We represent the membership federally, locally, and state-wise. We do membership functions, conferences, forums, and things like that. The League was actually formed for labor negotiations for multi-employers, but we’ve long since done a lot more than that. We brand Broadway, we work on membership audience development programs, like Kids Night on Broadway or Broadway Week, which are programs that drive theatergoers to the theater with special deals during off-seasons. So there’s a lot of traditional things. But to me, probably one of the most important things we do is we create a place where a disparate group of people, à la the farmers and the cow hands, or the producers and the theater owners, can get together, discuss differing points of view, and then come to some kind of consensus about what needs to be done. They can walk out our door, shake hands, and go on. So I think the League is meant to create a place where healthy dialogue can take place.

Ken: I was listening to all of the different things that you do, from the promotional aspect to the labor, and thinking about a document that you sent to me that I put on the blog from when the League was originally formed about what its function was. It was two things, and now it’s about 17,000 different things, the relationship one being one of the most interesting, which we’ll get to in a little bit. So you have a very interesting path for most people in these positions in that you didn’t come from the theater world. You weren’t a Broadway baby like a lot of people who hold administrative positions are. So tell us how you got to sit in this chair.

Charlotte: I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the world because I have loved almost every day that I’ve worked my entire life, and I’ve been working since I was 12. I had been working in the hotel industry for about 30 years. I loved it, but I was sick of travelling and so I got to take my avocation, which was theater, and make it my vocation. I had run three trade associations as a volunteer, and the headhunter reached out and said, “We know you love Broadway, you’re at every show that you can possibly be at, you’ve been on the volunteer side of running a trade association.” I did run a convention and visitor’s bureau, which is a trade association, but I think the fact that I was crazy about Broadway and I had run trade associations – it just became a natural thing. When they reached out I said, “They’ll never hire this little Texas girl to run that big, bad Broadway business,” and yet it’s been almost a honeymoon for eight and a half years.

Ken: As a Broadway League member, it’s been a honeymoon for us as well. One of the things I was most fascinated with when I heard about your history and that you were coming aboard was that you were from the hotel industry, which of course is another industry that has a perishable inventory problem, in that if a room doesn’t get sold on a night that’s it, it’s dead, just like a seat – so you brought a very interesting insight. In fact, I’m often preaching that what this industry needs is more people like you, from the traditional business world, to help school us on a few things, how to do things the quote-unquote “right” or the “real” business way, since we have such a unique take on things. So you came from a different world – but, again the perishable inventory makes it a related world. If you had to do it over, if someone said, “You’re going to be executive director of the Broadway League one day,” would you say, “Well I’m going to start off in the theater,” or would you take the same path? Do you think that path of starting outside the business and then coming in was beneficial, to gain that perspective?

Charlotte: I do. I’m probably one of the only people that works on Broadway that didn’t want to be on stage or behind the stage. I love business, I love the idea of finding solutions to business problems, and perhaps I would have made one or two small changes but not really. I do think, from the pure business perspective, that, whether it’s pricing or hospitality or just general customer service, there’s a lot that Broadway can do better in those areas. And I’ve watched it grow since I’ve been here – not that I’ve inspired it, but I recognize it when I see it, and I think Broadway is doing a lot of the things that perhaps we didn’t do 20 years ago.

Ken: I always say that we’re about 10 years behind every other industry, but it does feel like we’re starting to catch up a little bit, which is exciting and it’s on your watch, so thank you for that. You mentioned all of these different things you do, from marketing to labor to dealing with the farmer and the cow hand. Which do you spend most of your time on, do you think? What occupies most of your day, which aspect of the League’s activities?

Charlotte: On an annual basis, I spend about 30% of my time actually working on the Tony Awards. Several years ago my colleague, Heather Hitchens of the American Theater Wing, and I took over the general management of the Tony Awards, so I do spend a lot of time doing that. But, secondly, we have a lot of committees, both standing committees and new committees, task forces, and I’ve tried to go to every single committee meeting, where I hear what our members are interested in and I understand what it is they’re needing. I feel like committee work, board work, executive committee work should help us structure what needs to be done in the business, and give us the strategy, and then let the staff go develop the plans to actually execute changes. You really need to be in the room and understand the context in which people make recommendations or state needs, so I spend more time than anything else in committee meetings for our members and with our members.

Ken: When you first got here I imagine that a lot of people gave you a lot of advice on how you should run the League, how you should deal with producers, how you should deal with theater owners. Do you remember the best piece of advice you got that you still think about? Is there anything specific that stands out? You don’t have to say who said it, although I will certainly try to guess. Is there anything that stands out to you?

Charlotte: Actually yes. I set out and I had breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails, coffee, one-on-one social periods with 450 members and vendors and partners, and I asked them three questions. What is the League doing that it shouldn’t be doing? What should we be doing that we’re not doing? And if you were in this job, what would you do first? And the number one thing I got when I assimilated all of that, after listening for a year was, “Create a place where you can solve problems.” Right now we’re a community that can’t build consensus around tough issues, and I think that’s what I’ve spent almost eight and a half years trying to do. Because everyone here wants Broadway to be successful and, basically, most everybody really likes everybody, but everybody comes from a different point of view. As trade associations are developed, of course they come from a different point of view, and I think if you create a safe place where you can say what you feel, you can say why you think something is not going right and let the other person do it, then you have an opportunity to develop consensus. And then have an objective source (and hopefully that was me) say, “Well, what if we did this and this?” And I think there’s some of that going on.

Ken: You’ve run these other trade organizations before. Often, in the theater, you hear, “The theater owners and the producers shouldn’t be in the same organization!” And you hear that they should be separate. This is something that’s whispered about all the time, and I think that somehow we think we’re the only trade organization that has different opinions or different points of view. But it sounds like you’ve seen this before – this is not uncommon. Or do you think we are unique?

Charlotte: Oh no, absolutely we’re not unique. One part of my career was running a major hotel in Dallas. It was the largest hotel in Texas, and every major trade association in the United States met at that hotel, whether it was American Bankers Association or the Oilwell Drilling Contractors of America. They all had the varying components of an industry sitting together in conferences and in board meetings to enhance or protect that business. We’re no different. One of the simple mistakes I made when I took this job, because I did know associations so well, was that I assumed that you find out what each category of member needs and then you go about fulfilling those needs. Well, a producer is also a theater owner and a theater owner is also a presenter and a presenter is also a producer, so it would be impossible for the producers to separate themselves from the theater owners because they’re all in this together. At the end of the day, they can’t do it without one another. So why not be in the room together, around the table together, to help fix the problems that need fixing and expand the business where you can?

Ken: It’s like a Thanksgiving dinner, it sounds like.

Charlotte: There is that component.

Ken: A big family that gets along sometimes and fights over dessert afterwards. Now, over the last several years, Broadway has boomed incredibly. We’ve had record grosses, just last week we posted the highest grossing Thanksgiving week in the history of Broadway ever. The Lion King became our first billion dollar show a couple of months ago. Is there one thing you credit this boom to? What do you think is happening out there to cause such a boom when other industries around the country and around the world are still struggling from the recession?

Charlotte: I have some personal viewpoints, because if I knew that, really knew for sure and could prove it, I would be really, really rich. But I do think, and I’ve been saying it for several years – at least five – that I think we weathered the 2007, ’08, ’09 recession better than almost any other industry because we continue to diversity our audience. The day I walked in here I heard, “We want to make Broadway more accessible to everybody,” and I think that’s what we’ve been doing. If you look at what’s showing on Broadway, there is something for virtually every age group and every diverse interest level. And I think we continue to do that, we’re not cutting back on that. I think we’re enhancing that. When I came to Broadway, I think there were basically three kinds of shows, and Disney. There was the serious play, the comedic play, and the big musical, and then you had Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Today there’s stuff for teen-ers and tween-ers and 20-somethings and 30-somethings. You see more diversity onstage and backstage, you see new shows that take traditional casting and throw it out the window, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that’s traditionally been an all-white production, and you’ve seen an all-black production, and you’ve seen a production where there was diverse neutrality of what the cast looked like and acted like. I think the more we do like that, the more successful we’re going to be. Yes, there are going to be big, popular musicals where everybody knows the brand, and when somebody doesn’t know what to see they’ll go to see that, but once you have a great experience on Broadway then you want to explore and go a little bit deeper and I think that’s what’s happening.

Ken: Now, one of the things that I talk about on my blog a lot is that attendance figures – although we’re having a very good year this year, double digits, percentage-wise – it’s lagged a little bit behind the gross. We haven’t grown our attendance numbers as much as we’ve grown our dollars, and that’s probably partly attributed to premium pricing and all of that. But is there another reason you think the actual body count isn’t jumping up as high or lagging a bit behind?

Charlotte: Yes, I think that’s where my hotel experience really helps. I hesitate to use the word “occupied seats,” but that’s what they are. When you have an 80-82% occupancy of all of those 40,000 seats on Broadway, that’s a very good occupancy. And then you throw in January, February and September, which are very seasonal at best. How much more can you really do? Then you add the dynamic pricing, and most people think of dynamic pricing as raising prices, but it’s not necessarily. In the hotel business and the airline business dynamic pricing is either rising the price during high demand or lowering it during low demand, and you use it to turn on the faucet or turn off the faucet. If you’ve got only ten seats left, you should get the most for those ten seats, and if you have 1,000 seats left, that should tell you that you may be priced incorrectly for this time of the year, this show at this time, and I think that’s very clear as to why attendance has had a harder time growing than grosses. Take into consideration that last season we were up over 5% in attendance, and this season we’re up more than grosses, which I’m very proud of – over 13%. You can’t keep up that growth, but if we can maintain the growth in attendance just a little bit over the next few years we’re going to have a vibrant industry for years to come.

Ken: I’ve been very excited about this attendance, and I’ve been one of the ones stomping my feet, jumping up and down, worried about attendance over the last several years. We had three years where it was flat or declined, and now we’re catching up and then some, it seems this year and hopefully – knock on something – that will continue for the rest of the season. You’ve worked with a lot of producers, obviously, all of these members. You’ve seen a lot of them in action in some of their best moments and their most challenging moments, as they scream for more time on the Tony Awards. What do you think are some of the characteristics that make up a great producer? I won’t ask you who your favorites are while we’re recording, but what characteristics do your favorite producers have?

Charlotte: I heard a saying, many, many years ago, about sales people. It was, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something,” and I really have adapted that for producers. Nothing happens until somebody produces something, and the producer is the jack of all trades. Some of them are more creative, some of them are more business-minded, but at the end of the day, the producer who is actively involved in all of those things, whether they’re personally making the decisions or finding the people who are good at making a decision in a given area, the best producers are the ones that are engaged in all of that. There are certainly some that are very wealthy who go and hire great executive producers, and we need those, but I know those that become successful over the long run have continued to develop that multi-talent and multi-interest component to their production. Your enthusiasm, Ken, is one of the things that is very healthy for a producer. I have never met a producer who didn’t believe that their show was going to be one of the five that recoups its investment, and we know that for the last 70 years the traditional recoupment averages are one in five. Or, in a great year, one in four shows recoups its investment. I’ll say it again, I have never met a producer that thought they were going to have one of those four that didn’t recoup.

Ken: It’s so true, and I will tell you, just to prove how accurate you are again, I am preparing (and it will probably be posted by the time this goes out) an infographic on recouped musicals to go out on the blog. And we looked at the last 20 years, and it’s around 20% – literally one out of five. It’s amazing how accurate that figure is. As we look ahead, I think things are going very, very well for us, but obviously I’ve talked to you many times about this and you still think there’s more we can do. It’s why we love you, you’re championing change still – what do you think our biggest challenge is right now, as an industry?

Charlotte: I think it’s getting the younger audiences engaged in theater. I’ve been hearing, for as long as I can remember, that high-tech means you need high-touch. Well, we’ve certainly never been more technologically involved with entertainment, whether it’s your iPhone or iPad or podcasting or any television or movies. We’re just so technologically involved today. You get on an elevator, people don’t even look at each other, they’re so busy looking at their iPhone. And I think, yes, it may be true that if you do more high tech you need more personal touch, but I don’t see that happening. So I think that one of the most important things the League can do is to continually work on audience development and audience engagement of our young people. We’ve got three major initiatives going on right now. The time will come when we could pull them all together, that I think will begin to help with that, but people from all over the country will have to jump in and also do it. We’re creating a kids club that will really be a family engagement club. We’re taking over the management of the National High School Musical Awards, which will give us access to those 50,000 high school kids, and find a way to talk to them and keep them engaged in going to Broadway. And of course we’re doing our traditional education programs, but we’re reaching out to Latinos through our Viva Broadway program. And we’re looking at finding other methods of getting more diverse audiences, but I think we’ve got to get them interested before they think the only form of entertainment comes from something that you plug in and charge.

Ken: Very well said. I agree. It is a challenge to get to the late teens and the 20-somethings. We’ve got to get them and we’ve got to get them now. Which one of those is your favorite little pet project? Of all of the things that the League is doing right now, if you could only work on one project for the next three months – and not even the one that would yield the most results – which one are you most passionate about?

Charlotte: That’s really hard. I’ve got two. The family engagement club and Viva Broadway. There’s no question our country is going to be more than 50% Latino in my lifetime, and I don’t think we’ve made Broadway as accessible to the Latinos as we should. And I think Broadway is a perfect entertainment vehicle because Latinos, I’m told and I’ve learned, love family entertainment and love to do those things together. And that’s one of the best things that Broadway offers. You can get a family to go and see a show, and then you go after that show and you have something real to talk about. And I know that as we’re engaging more Latinos that that’s happening. On the other hand, I really don’t think there’s anything more valuable than a cultural background for teenagers before they go into their life, and I know that all of the studies prove that if you develop culture in your child’s life they have a better chance of being well-balanced, and having a more successful life. And that may be successful in money, or it just may be successful in happiness. So you can see why I’m torn from the business aspect. We’ve got to bring Broadway to the people, and the other aspect of it, enriching kids’ lives and helping them have better lives that will include Broadway.

Ken: One of the other areas that I have seen the League get very active in over the last several years has been in government relations, and I know producers get very excited just at anyone mentioning there’s going to be discussion of Broadway in Albany, never mind Washington, DC. We’ve dreamed about tax credits for investors and production cost tax credits, and I think it was last year or the year before we contributed over $12 billion to the New York City economy.

Charlotte: That’s correct. It’s $11.9 billion for the season that ended June 1st 2014. It will be more than $12 billion this year.

Ken: And that’s a massive amount of money, obviously. So tell me a little bit about how that has been for you. I think this is in your reign as the Executive Director, the engagement of politics, especially on the national level. I know we’ve had a consortium go down to DC. How has it been? What has the reception been like? Do you think that we’ll see some advances?

Charlotte: I absolutely do. We did a biennial conference in Washington, DC six years ago. It happened to be in January, and it was snowing, and we had about 150 producers and theater owners and presenters in Washington who called on their elected officials. They were all so inspired from that that we now have a legislative council that has members from every state in which we have a member, and we are lobbying and educating our elected officials at the city, state and federal level. And what our members are finding is that when we show up and we give our elected officials good information, that we’re getting good results. Our biggest problem is that we had not done a great job outside of New York City of educating our elected officials across the country about the economic impact and the number of jobs – forgetting all of the good, fuzzy, warm stuff that Broadway delivers to our communities. We have over 30 million theatergoers a year, we contribute over $15 billion to our national economy, we paid $1 billion in city taxes to New York City last year – that’s billion with a B – and yet you could talk to most elected officials six years ago and they had no idea. One of the things that I’m proudest of that we have done since I’ve been here is we have awakened our membership as to the value of what they do, and therefore they can go out and tell that story.

Ken: That’s such a great point. I know I’ve felt it, and it’s very related to when producers raise money as well. There is this feeling among us all that we’re in this crazy, risky business, we’re lucky to be getting a show up every year. And the fact of the matter is that we create a massive impact culturally, we know, but economically this is a major business. Money can be made here, and jobs can be created here, as well as a longstanding impact on the hearts and minds of the country. One last question. I want you to imagine that you had a magic wand, and you could wake up tomorrow morning and change one thing about the theater – one thing that drives you crazy, that you think is getting in our way. One obstacle. With a wave of Charlotte’s wand you could make it all disappear or change. What would that one thing be?

Charlotte: I know what it would be, but it would be very un-politically correct for me to say what it is. So I will say that it would be to get all of the people that work on Broadway and for Broadway, and that would include our colleagues in the unions, into a room, and get them to understand what the obstacles are for helping Broadway do even better. And I think if that happened we would have different pricing on Broadway, and we would have different union contracts, and we would have more profit-sharing when something was a big hit, and we would have profit-taking at a lower level when it isn’t a big hit. If I could do that, that’s what I would do. And I think everyone would do better if we could do that.

Ken: It sounds like you want to invite more people to our Thanksgiving dinner.

Charlotte: I do.

Ken: Which sounds like a wonderful way to improve the business and profits, hopefully for everyone, and increase that 20% to maybe 25% or 30%. Charlotte, thank you so much for doing this for me. On behalf of myself and all of the viewers and readers out there, we love having you, you’re doing a fantastic job. Please keep it up and keep working for us, and don’t go to work for a hotel any time soon.

Charlotte: Thank you.

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