Tuesday, October 24, 2006


If you're ever in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, drive by The Fireside Dinner Theatre.

My family stayed in a hotel next door one night when on vacation. I was amazed. It is not just a little rural theater. It's as big as a small college campus. In size, it dwarfs many of the live theaters here in Chicago. And with tickets as high as $60 a seat, the prices rival some non-equity Windy City venues.

How can a town with a population of 17,352 support a thriving year-round, five-day-a-week, 435 seat theater?

It's not the big name performers. Most are relatively unknown local actors.

The secret is they think outside the box. The Fireside isn't just a night out like most urban theaters -- it's a destination. People are willing to travel to see a production. My wife's aunt, for instance has been a season ticket holder for years. She travels about 80 miles, one way, four or five times a year. And she's one of the closer ones. Many travel so far, they'll stay overnight at the hotel next door.

Fireside caters mostly retirees who have time on their hands. Their theatre productions therefore tend to be more mainstream, like "Damn Yankees" or "West Side Story". You may not like their artistic choices, but their marketing savvy is indisputable. They have found an audience and serve it very well.

How can you achieve this level of loyalty?

1.) Be worth it. Give more than your customers expect. I've never seen a production, but I've heard mostly glowing reviews from Aunt Pat.

2.) Focus on a narrow market. Don't overreach. In this case, by focusing on traditional musicals, Fireside excludes many with avant-garde tastes. But, in return, draw from a larger geographic area. This is how they've built a die-hard following. By performing more cutting-edge productions they'd probably lose more customers than they'd gain.

Many of my clients fear narrowing their target too much because they fear losing sales. As this one brief case-study shows, serving one market well can create unforeseen demand. In some cases having two or three parallel marketing efforts can help you grow several niches at once. But it's easy to lose focus, too.

I'll put Fireside on my list of things to do when I retire. That's about three decades off. But I'm confident, if they keep their focus, The Fireside will still be around.

- Phil Sasso

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