Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane Symphony ends season on high note

Organization boosts sales, narrows its budget deficit

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-—Treva Lind
Jeff vom Saal says the Spokane Symphony pared down its budget deficit during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and expects to whittle it down further during the next fiscal year.

A year into his role as Spokane Symphony executive director, Jeff vom Saal often uses the word momentum for describing recent work boosting ticket sales and drawing wider audiences to the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

He’s also focused on improving the organization’s financial picture in the wake of the recession and a 2012 musicians strike. 

The symphony is a nonprofit that owns and operates its venue, The Fox, a downtown Spokane historic theater that reopened in 2007 after a major restoration. 

Now, vom Saal believes with the economic recovery and the orchestra’s caliber today, it’s time to boost activity both for Spokane Symphony and The Fox. 

With its 2016-17 season ended June 30, the organization’s annual budget of just under $5 million for both the symphony and The Fox operations is in better shape, with a large reduction in an ongoing deficit, he says. It has broadened marketing efforts and has diversified programming to widen audiences.

“This organization has gone through substantial deficits in recent years, and we’ve done much to reduce that this year,” vom Saal says. The symphony’s fiscal year runs July 1 to June 30. “We had about a $500,000 budgeted deficit. We’ve worked it down to about $275,000. For next year’s budget, it looks like we’ll be able to shave about another $100,000 from the deficit.” 

He adds, “My goals are to fix operations, be smarter, work harder, bring in new systems, take some new risks.” 

Other plans include adding more symphony trustee board members, with seven people recently recruited for a total of about 30, and vom Saal hopes to boost that to 40 for oversight of both Spokane Symphony and The Fox. 

As another high note, vom Saal says the group has been successful in booking more shows and filling the venue’s 1,600 seats during the symphony’s off-season and between performances. 

For example, “Fox Presents” was introduced as a series designed to appeal to newer audiences with such recent shows as “Black Violin,” offering a mix of classical and hip-hop music, and “BalletBoyz” modern dance troupe. A new Fox Summer Concert Series will bring Lyle Lovett, Herb Alpert, and Melissa Etheridge. The Fox Family Series also is unfolding and will have family-targeted acts.

The symphony recently introduced branded partnerships such as “Beethoven & Brews,” a collaboration with No-Li Brewhouse. “Young Professionals” is an added concert series to help Gen Xers and Millennials network. And collaborations for the upcoming season offer shows like “Carmen” with Opera Coeur d’Alene and “West Side Story” with Spokane Civic Theatre.

“Momentum is hard to pinpoint, but when you have it, you know it; I think we’re in a really good place,” vom Saal says. “I think we’ve gotten over hurdles that were challenges. Now, we’re more in a growth mode. What I’ve tried to introduce is more fiscal literacy, really knowing the numbers. Collectively, we have a plan.”

The organization’s regional economic impact includes about 60 orchestra concerts a year, and an estimated 150,000 concertgoers annually for all shows at The Fox. More than 50 percent eat out on the night of a concert, and about 40 percent travel from outside of Spokane.

The symphony also provides community educational programs, such as fourth-grade concerts and going into schools, impacting about 38,000 people a year and including Music Innovates, a program directly training about 80 students.

The symphony employs just over 200 people. That includes three conductors, 70 contracted musicians, 30 full-time administrative staff, and about 100 part-time venue workers. Most of the musicians are tenured with benefits, and many of them have master’s degrees.

Overall, the organization has a mix of income from donations and earned revenue, such as from ticket sales, show bookings, and as of last fall, concession sales, which the organization took over. For non-symphony shows, sometimes the symphony receives a portion of ticket sales revenue if it promotes them. Otherwise, groups simply rent The Fox, providing rental and concession income.

For 2016-2017, the symphony itself came within 1 percent of goal for higher “Classics” concert ticket sales, bringing $129,000 income, compared with the prior year’s $123,000. “Pops” concert ticket sales drew $180,000, compared with $136,000 for 2015-16, over a 30 percent jump.

“That’s good news,” vom Saal says. “We turned the corner on marketing and developed two websites in the past year, one for symphony and one for The Fox, and an app.”

Nationally, a changing dynamic among symphonies has lessened the focus to gain season ticket holders, because people are busier, he says. But here, season-ticket sale projections actually are up about 15 percent for next season.   

Next year, Spokane Symphony will bring such rising-star soloists as violinist Aleksey Semenenko, along with other trendsetters, and upcoming “Pops” concerts have headliners such as Judy Collins, the Mambo Kings, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. As an unusual twist in the recent 2016-17 lineup, “The Music of Led Zeppelin,” on May 12 completed the symphony’s season.  

The 38-year-old vom Saal most recently was executive director for the Marin Symphony, in Northern California. He replaced former Spokane Symphony executive Brenda Nienhouse, who took a job in Rhode Island after 10 years here. Previously, vom Saal also worked as executive director of the Quad City Symphony, in Davenport, Iowa, and the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, in North Dakota. 

Originally from upstate New York, he trained as a musician, first learning trumpet at age 4 and eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001. However, symphony director jobs ended up being his calling, he adds. In Spokane, he and his wife Maria Marciales, finance manager at Downtown Spokane Partnership, enjoy bicycling, skiing, and golf.

He describes himself as someone who enjoys people, musical decisions, problem solving, and organizational development work. He praises music director and conductor Eckart Preu as the driving force behind the group’s artistic vision, while adding that Spokane Symphony holds much respect on the national orchestra scene.

In his executive role, vom Saal says he wants to raise awareness about the symphony’s impact in the community and downtown. Additionally, he considers The Fox itself as a huge asset well worth marketing. 

Considering the symphony’s size and budget, having such a venue is rare, he says. By comparison, Marin Symphony struggled with a poor facility because of substantial deferred maintenance, vom Saal says, adding, “We are so fortunate that this place is what it is.”

The upcoming 2017-18 season will mark the 10th anniversary of The Fox’s restoration, and several events will celebrate the milestone. On Nov. 4-5, Preu as conductor will present “Overtures and Arias with Thomas Hampson,” a renowned baritone. Spokane is Hampson’s hometown, and he performed at prior fundraisers to make the renovation possible.

Next year’s budget is again near $5 million, with a slight bump for artistic expenditures. That equates to a modest increase in orchestra activity but also reflects a boost in booking more non-orchestra acts, vom Saal says. 

Spokane Symphony’s contributed funding includes donations from individuals, corporations, and institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Separately, the organization has an endowment fund from planned giving that brings in about 11 percent of its income. Additional funding comes from a group with some 300 members called Spokane Symphony Associates, which raises about $300,000 a year through Christmas Tree Elegance and other fundraising efforts.

Among future strategic goals, vom Saal says he wants to make The Fox as busy as possible.

“We’re up about 25 percent for booking of acts,” he says. “We’re looking to double hall-use days in the next two years. The strategic plan is for 2020-21, that’s our 75th anniversary, we’ll be busy in this hall something like 300 days out of the year.”

That’s while developing the symphony’s long-term vision, with input on artistic planning.

“We want to broaden the complexion of our artistic profile to resonate with our community,” vom Saal says. “There is sentiment that orchestra is this other thing people do, while the rest of the world is watching something else. We’re very much part of being in the experience industry.”

Treva Lind
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