By Nina Koch
The Ballet Company of East County (BCEC), in Brentwood, California, has been producing a Nutcracker for 10 years. In that time we have tried many different internal and external marketing techniques, including the expected ones like newspaper articles, local parades, farmers markets, flyers, and posters. But we like to come up with new, fun ideas.
For our 2014 show, two members of the advisory board had an idea: do a surprise cast reveal. We ordered lawn signs printed with our name, URL, and “Nutcracker Cast Member Lives Here,” and we wrote in the roles. Overnight, while the cast of 90 kids slept, the board members and choreographers delivered the signs to the dancers’ front yards. The next morning the dancers woke up to a surprise.
We included requests for the students to post pictures of their signs on social media with the hashtag #bcecnut2014. Pictures of happy, excited kids were posted all over Facebook and Instagram. A few weeks later we made a video montage of all the pictures and posted it on the BCEC Facebook page.
Another marketing tactic we use is to advertise the show on local buses. It can be pricey, but we get the most out of our investment by adding a contest element. People who spot a bus with our ad can snap a photo and post it on social media, tagging the ballet company, and families that post such photos are entered into a weekly prize drawing. Not only do we get visibility on the buses, we also get free advertising when families spread the word on their social media pages.
Our biggest fundraising event is a great marketing opportunity; and, more important, it has become a community-wide holiday event. We rent a hall for Tea With Clara, a tea party with Clara and the rest of the cast. The tables are decorated in Nutcracker themes—Snowflakes, Russian, Flowers, and so on. The event now brings in almost 150 attendees, the maximum number the venue can accommodate, and parent volunteers do all the coordinating.
During the tea party, our community relations director reads the story of The Nutcracker to the guests while cast members act and dance a condensed version of the show. Afterward the dancers sign autographs and have their photos taken with guests. We hold a raffle for prizes donated by parents and local businesses, and the guests leave with an autograph book and a thank-you gift from the table where they were seated. For example, the Flower table had decorated flower cookies, the Spanish table had lace fans, and the Snowflake table had glittered snowflake ornaments. The students’ parents decorate the tables using supplies they provide, and they donate the thank-you gifts. The parent volunteers go all out and make the event fabulous.
Another new idea we had last year was intended for our little ballerinas. For our 2014 production we decided to raise the minimum participation age from 6 to 7. When we made that decision there were 6-year-olds who had been waiting to participate since they were 4, and they were disappointed to have to wait another year. So we started Sugar Plum University (SPU). Children in SPU are 5 or 6 years old and come to Saturday morning rehearsals, before the rest of the cast, to learn a dance they perform at Tea With Clara. During SPU’s 10-week session, the cast members who portray the Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara visit, in costume; they dance with the young girls and stay afterward for photos. The SPU attendees also participate in local parades and have special seating for The Nutcracker.
Having a strong community presence and involvement is one of our priorities, so we participate in all local parades and festivals. Before one holiday parade we set up a “meet and greet” station so that parade-goers could meet some of our Nutcracker cast members, take pictures, and pick up ticket information.
At parades and festivals there is always a photographer from the local papers roaming around. Last year we ramped up our PR efforts: between making ourselves visible at events and doing some simple PR, our Nutcracker got free newspaper publicity on three different weekends before our show.
Most of our marketing efforts do double duty by building a positive culture at the school. Parents are willing to help if they feel that they and their kids matter. We are constantly trying to create magic for our audiences and the dancers and their parents. That magic is what everyone comes back for and what keeps our parents motivated to give their time, talents, and energy.
Nina Koch, owner of East County Performing Arts Center in Brentwood, California, majored in dance at San Jose State University and founded the Ballet Company of East County.