In many respects, it feels like years ago, but in March the country was shut down, because of the coronavirus pandemic, suspending one of the most vibrant economies in recent memory and ceasing everyday life overnight.
All businesses were affected. Some worse than others.
But today, as stores and restaurants slowly re-open, and life gradually returns to a new normal, some industries remain in limbo not knowing when or if people will walk through their doors again. Concerts and other live performances with an audience have yet to return to touring, and hosting venues have taken it on the chin.
The Elsinore Theatre in Salem, OR, a nearly 100 year old house that seats up to 1,290, hosts live performances from rock concerts to local troupes and represents one of thousands of stages across the country that went dark after the shutdown and scrambled to reschedule performances or altogether canceled dates.
I saw the G3 concert in January 2018 at the Elsinore Theatre and was immediately struck by its majesty. Its architecture crafted in Tudor Gothic style, the Elsinore reminds me of ornate theaters in Europe I’ve only seen in magazines or on TV. I had tickets to see Kansas (for the first time!) in March when days before, the concert was rescheduled for November, then rescheduled again for next year.
Economic Impact of Covid-19 at Elsinore Theatre
In total, the Elsinore canceled 79 events as well as some non-event rentals. Tom Fohn, executive director of the Elsinore Theatre said they lost 87 usage days and only three of those shows were rescheduled. Additionally, some of the renting organizations are no longer in business.
“To make matters worse, we were working on the release of our 20-21 season which we’d publicize in late May,” Fohn said. “Although we hadn’t announced these publicly, I still had to cancel most of those future shows and reschedule the rest.”
The Elsinore Theatre has not hosted any live events since the shutdown so I spoke further with Fohn to find out how they are holding up, how they have managed this unprecedented event and what the outlook for 2021 looks like in terms of returning to a healthy concert calendar.
- Looking back, with so much unknown early on, at what point did you realize 2020 was over in terms of keeping the scheduled event dates?
I’d have to say it was all the way until May before I really though the entire year was going down, wishful thinking I guess.
- Did management discuss whether to postpone or outright cancel dates, or is that determined by the artists and theater groups?
For us, it was both to some degree. We promote our own shows as well as being a rental venue for promoters. The tricky part was some of the promoters were in regions that were slower to shut down than Oregon, so that created some anxiety amongst ticket holders. One of our promoters was international, and in their country, shows were still going on so it took some time to work through the details which included rescheduling, and that time span was pretty stressful on staff, Eventually, all shows were either cancelled or postponed.
- Do you know the approximate percentage of ticket holders who requested a refund compared to those who hung on for any rescheduled dates?
It really depends on the show. For one rock show, we returned less than 10 percent while others were well over 50 percent.
- Did you have to lay off employees?
I furloughed the entire staff with the exception of our marketing and development managers. Both of their hours were significantly reduced but we needed to keep messaging and communicating with our stakeholders and community.
- I know there was a push to get state funding for stages and other concert venues, whatever came of that?
We were awarded a state grant during that funding. It’s allowed us to bring back staff to start planning for future shows, as well as the way our business will look moving forward.
- Did it help the Elsinore keep its doors open?
Right now, we’re in the planning stage with hopes of reopening in the next six weeks. All of this is pending Covid rates and where we are with occupancy.
- Save Our Stages was a nationwide campaign earlier this month from Oct. 16-18, can you speak to that and how it may help the Elsinore?
Anything that brings awareness to live music and the arts is a good thing. The formation of NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) has shown how the industry can come together and advocate for our common interest of entertaining our communities.
The Elsinore is a business and has bills to pay just like any other business how have you managed to keep from shutting the doors forever?
With no roadmap, we’re feeling our way through. First and foremost, we cut expenses by closing the doors and furloughing staff. I spent a good deal of time trying to renegotiate our expenses in terms of insurance and utilities. We created a gift certificate program to give our customers an opportunity to invest in future shows. It was our way of saying “please help” without just asking for money. We got customers to invest in future shows. We also have been communicating with the community that we’ll be here when they’re ready to come back.
We are direct in our communication with customers and if they want money back for a show that was rescheduled we happily oblige. We need our customers to have faith that when they invest in a show at the Elsinore their money is guaranteed.
- I have heard other venues, mostly movie houses, selling popcorn, I assume just to get some income coming in, has the Elsinore been able to do anything innovative like this even if it’s simply to stay engaged with the community?
I mentioned our gift certificate program. We’re also presently negotiating theater swag as a way for people to support us and get something in the process. We donated all of our concessions candy to local nonprofits that were functioning as well as to first-responders.
- Oregon has begun to open ever so slightly, can the Elsinore open with limited seating right now?
Yes, our capacity is 100 currently. With staffing and production tea, for live music that puts us around 60 so we’ll be waiting on that for sure. We’ll test the water with films to lower our risk and still offer the community the opportunity to come in and be entertained.
- We’re mid-October, how does 2021 look in terms of getting back to live performances?
We’re looking at some options in the spring. Most promoter action is in the fall.
- Have you received feedback from the public about opening and whether the interest is there to attend live performances again at the Elsinore?
We have received public feedback with a survey we recently did. The survey found our audience was mixed almost right down the middle about when is the right time to open. Over 40 percent said open now while 39 percent said wait until 2021. A small percentage said they’d be ready this holiday season so all in all, folks are ready to start venturing out again.
- Can the Elsinore survive another year without hosting any events?
I don’t think we can survive another year being down. More importantly, neither can the industry. I’m confident that although things will look different in the short term the music business will come back eventually. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that it’s sooner rather than later.
- Lastly, what do you miss most about with concerts and other events on this long pause?
Connecting people is what I miss most about this pause. There is nothing that replaces the feeling of live performance, and that’s the business we’re in. A night at the theatre is more than about what happens on stage, it’s about bringing people together. Music is transformative. It can take people back to a different time. Seeing an artist live is like taking that powerful message of expression, and amplifying it times 100. As some venues pivot to digital offerings, we’re working on improving the personal experience for our patrons. While we’re used to entertaining 800 people a night, the new world is forcing us to figure out how to effectively entertain 80. The bottom line, we’re planning on gaining our customers back one at a time, with service.