BWW Interviews: Derby Dinner Playhouse a Success Story Entering Its 40th Year

There's a business to art as much as there's an art to business. Just a few months shy of entering its 40th season, Clarksville's Derby Dinner Playhouse has proven to have a good grasp on both.

The professional dinner theater, the fourth largest in the country, is a success story by any standard in any industry, and a dazzling one for the arts. Derby Dinner hosts over 250,000 customers a year, earning revenues of approximately $5.8 million annually. Co-owner Bekki Jo Schneider has seen the theater grow and change in her 30 years with the company and has worked with the Derby Dinner staff to maximize the theater's strengths while paying close attention to the changing nature of the business.

"We pride ourselves on being a southern Indiana tourism feature," Schneider says. "There is no year-round dinner theater in Kentucky. We have the right mix and the right niche. We are a full-service entertainment center. There's nothing else like us."

Programming is the core of any entertainment venture, and Derby Dinner has something for everyone. The company's core season, built around classic Broadway musicals, has over 8,800 season ticket holders. The Playhouse's Concert Series produces between nine and 15 live performances per year on Monday nights. The 2014 series is almost sold out and has another loyal season ticket base. The Children's Musical Theater Series produces four shows per year that fit the educational goals of both the Indiana and Kentucky school systems and sees 35,000 students pass through Derby Dinner's doors each year, with 2,200 season tickets sold just for the children's shows.

The Playhouse builds loyalty via its programming and pricing. Season tickets are offered at a 30 percent discount from normal price. The season ticket program has been in place for at least 15 years and is seeing its largest numbers in Derby Dinner history.

Schneider says the most difficult part of the company's operation is choosing programming. The Kentuckiana region offers some distinct challenges. "In terms of language, it's a conservative market," she says. "But it's become liberal on social issues. It's also more family-friendly than ever. It used to be that people never brought children to the theater."

Demographics are of foremost concern. Schneider makes extensive use of market and audience research to know all she can about Derby Dinner's customers. The average age has dropped to 55, and Schneider is putting much effort into studying the 30-to-50 demographic. In an age of constant connectivity and fractured entertainment options, attracting them presents its own challenges.

Younger audiences are also not traditional season ticket buyers, tending more toward last-minute sales. "They don't want to commit. We have to earn that commitment," she says.

Sales are also trending toward the Internet and phone. Schneider noticed business trending digital about three years ago, so Derby Dinner got in front of the trend. The theater began offering online sales five years ago and brought in a staff member dedicated to social marketing three years ago.

Derby Dinner also makes great use of Google Analytics and hard data to know what its customers are doing. "I can know all about last week on Monday morning (with the data)," Schneider says. "It doesn't do anyone any good to ask directly, 'Where did you hear about us?' It takes a lot of in-house research."

Schneider says the biggest overall trend in customers is how connected everyone is. With everything from big screens to iPad minis, there are a lot more options to keep people from coming to the theater. What does a live experience offer that a digital one cannot? "When they're here, we make them turn off," Schneider says. "We look at it as a reward for customers by giving them an escape from technology."

A key part of Derby Dinner's success is the people on the other side: the employees. Schneider says the company has a loyal employee base of 100, about 30 full-time. The average manager stays approximately 10 years, and Derby Dinner employs about 20 high schoolers, many of whom may have found their first job as a hostess or busboy. Onstage, The Playhouse employs four resident actors and splits the other roles between local talent and national performers.

"Family is a core value of our business," Schneider says. "I think our employees like it here because every day is different."




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