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Arts and the Groupon

So, this is not an advertisement, although it is likely to sound like one. Rather it is a report about my community orchestra and our experience with Groupon. If I were to choose a word to describe it, it would be “phenomenal”.

If you are not familiar with the Groupon experience, it works this way: Groupon is now established in many cities across the country. Businesses can contract with them to offer goods or services at a significant discount, Groupon advertises the offer on the Web and interested purchasers buy “groupons”, a portmanteau of “group + coupon”. When a threshold number are purchased, “the deal is on”, and they can be redeemed for a specified time period. The pricing means that the business makes a small amount on the Groupon sale, but it is very effective for getting customers through the door. The advantage to the vendor is in potential repeat business and customers purchasing items beyond those covered by the Groupon.

How does this relate to the orchestra? The Thalia Symphony is the second oldest community orchestra in Seattle, operating since 1949, and, like most, we scrounged for a rehearsal space, played concerts in a church to small audiences of mostly friends and relatives, and somehow managed to keep going year after year. Then the bottom dropped out – our conductor retired, and with him we lost an association with a local university that provided nearly half of our musicians as well as our rehearsal space. Suddenly survival seemed questionable.

The orchestra entered a rebuilding phase – we were fortunate to have hired a gifted and enthusiastic new conductor, and found rehearsal space, but we decided that if we were really to survive and prosper we needed to become known again. Part of that plan was to move to a new performance venue, Town Hall. It is well known in Seattle, but far larger than our old church and far more expensive to rent. Our challenge was to bring in enough of an audience to justify using the space, and this was made more difficult because Thalia had been happy keeping a low profile for decades, and most people in Seattle had never even heard or us. During our first season at Town Hall our best audience filled less than half the seats, and we barely broke even. Other concerts were even less well attended and lost money. Things were looking grim.

This year we tried selling Groupons in addition to our regular ticket sales. The response was amazing! Our first concert filled 85% of Town Hall, and we are on track to 100% for our second! And though we make far less money for each Groupon, we have many new names on our newsletter, have received new financial contributions, and even added a new member to our board of directors, all from patrons attracted through the Groupon. This is a tool that has made Thalia known to a large circle of new listeners, and has given the orchestra the thrill of being able to play to a big audience, inspiring the orchestra to play its very best. We’ve never sounded better.

My recommendation to arts organizations and not-for-profit groups is to see if Groupon is available where you are, and if they are, find a way to use them. For Thalia it has been a great way to reach new people.

And if you’re in Seattle and free on Sunday, come to Town Hall and hear the rejuvinated Thalia Symphony – that is, if you can find a seat!