Nella Vera
Director of Marketing at BFV Management

Arts and Culture organizations were hit particularly hit hard by the Covid lockdown. As restrictions were lifted, audiences were slow to come back. One thing is clear, in many ways, we are not going back to normal anytime soon. I prefer to call it the Next Normal, as what comes next will be very different from what we’ve experienced before. To get an idea of where we are now and where we might be going, Pillaltalks will have a series of conversations with Arts Marketing Leaders to get their views on what’s going on out there.

Our first conversation is with Nella Vera, the current Director of Marketing at BFV Management and oversees marketing and sales for 54 Below (“Broadway’s Supper Club,”) as well as the company’s theatrical ventures, including the long-running sensation STOMP and the recent Broadway productions of The Encounter, starring Simon McBurney, and The Parisian Woman, starring Uma Thurman. Prior experience includes serving as a Group Director for Broadway’s largest advertising agency, Serino Coyne, as well as consulting work for various organizations. She has held senior roles at theaters such as Theatre for a New Audience, The Public Theater, Center Theatre Group, Signature Theatre Company, and Manhattan Theatre Club, among others.  She is an Adjunct Professor at NYU and Brooklyn College, and sits on the board of Waterwell, a civic-minded theater company.

ME: I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I am looking to get the feelings, impressions, and insights from arts marketing professionals about the current state of the business.

This is a very difficult time for the arts. I don’t think anything is going to be normal for quite some time. So, I basically want to know how are you doing. How are your clients doing?

NELLA: All of the projects I am involved with are struggling a bit. 54 Below is my main project. I’m also working on with Stomp and a new digital art center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, called AD/BK – Arts District Brooklyn, among other projects.

…we’re holding all of our campaigns a little bit later, and we’re learning not to panic if the houses seem empty the week before a show.

Our office is also producing and co-producing a number of commercial projects, including Back to the Future, The Musical, which is headed to Broadway from London, where it’s won a bunch of awards, including the Olivier for Best Musical.

ME: Well, that has a big name, to begin with, Back to the Future. You don’t have to do a lot of pre-selling for a popular movie with a built-in following.  Are there any particular techniques you find that are working? Is there anything new that you’re doing that you weren’t doing before

NELLA: Across the entire industry, ticket sales are all happening closer to the opening of the show. With 54 Below, we used to sell the bulk of the tickets about three to four weeks out. Now it’s really a week or two out. So, we’re holding all of our campaigns a little bit later, and we’re learning not to panic if the houses seem empty the week before a show. 54 Below is a small venue, it’s about 140 seats, but we do 700 shows a year so it’s quite active and we have upwards of 70K people coming through our doors each year.

We’ve learned not to panic if we’re at a low percentage of capacity a week before opening, which normally, would have been a sign of a show in trouble.  But now, we’ll go into a week and we’ll sell as much as 30-60% of tickets in-week for some shows. We’re finding that there are late sales. It really just has to do with delaying some of the marketing tactics.

Looking at new content strategies, we’ve always done well with the very reliable Facebook, Twitter, Instagram platforms. But we’re discovering that we’re getting quite a bit of new traffic from TikTok.

We’re tracking some decent sales from our TikTok. And that’s not just our TikTok, it’s also our performers’ TikToks. Content for us right now is really the key. Advertising is our bread and butter. It moves a certain amount of tickets. But great content can really take you to a different level. Luckily, I have quite a bunch of young creative people on my team that have amazing ideas.

We’re looking at an influencer campaign as well. We’re working with an influencer agency for one of our projects. We did a first round of influencers. It was kind of small because we’re still in previews with this project, but our reach was enormous. The second round of influencers we are looking at is for the next NYC Fashion Week because we know they’ll be L.A. influencers in town. The vendor that we’ve hired will be activating some of the top influencers who will be in town for those events. Beyond our traditional kind of bread and butter strategies, we’re looking at those two newer ideas.

ME: That’s fascinating. Locally I’ve found that a lot of the ticket sales didn’t happen until a week before the show opened. We also found that email marketing was extremely effective at the last minute to “shake the trees” a bit.

NELLA: We’re still doing banner advertisements. We’re still doing the bread and butter emails. On occasion we do a direct mail piece depending on the project. We’re still doing very selective print. We haven’t done any radio since we came back, but in the past radio worked really well.

One of the projects that I’m working on, is going to rely heavily on a mix of digital marketing as well as influencers. It’s nightlife, it’s a cool new technology.

ME:  You’re talking about influencers. So what kind of influencers? Are they just theatre influencers? Lifestyle?

NELLA: No, they are lifestyle influencers who generally have over 100,000 followers. We’re currently not paying anybody to post—we can’t force them to post, they get a free ticket in exchange for posting, but they don’t have to post.

I am looking at a budget to pay some higher-level influencers for one of my larger projects. You know, a few years ago I did a project where I was kind of forced by the producer to pay an influencer. And to me it was a bit of a waste of money, but it looked good for the producer, who was a corporation, to have this influencer there.

But I’m not looking to do that. One of the projects that I’m working on, is going to rely heavily on a mix of digital marketing as well as influencers. It’s nightlife, it’s a cool new technology, it’s not theatre so this makes sense.

This project has elements of theater, but it’s mostly nightlife and we’re banning everybody on the marketing teams from using the word “show,” from using the word “audience,” from calling it a “ticket.” Instead, we are leaning into that this is a timed experience with guests who check in at a guest list, rather than set an expectation that it’s a theater piece only because it’s a bit “cooler” than that. For that project, we feel like the strongest thing we have is the influencer campaign.

ME: It’s a little surprising because you would think something that’s sort of new and exciting would generate its own buzz that I wouldn’t need someone I’ve never heard of telling me I should come and see it.

NELLA: Well, you may not follow but others do. The firm that we’re using works with Netflix. They’re doing the Stranger Things exhibit that’s very popular right now in downtown. They have mostly L.A.-based clients, we’re one of the few New York clients.

ME:  It’d be interesting to see how that works and if it actually translates into ticket sales

NELLA:  You know, in the theater we always dream of attracting small groups. We always ask where do people find things out? For example, birthday or bachelorette parties, this show would be great for a bachelorette party. It’s more about trying to find other categories of people outside of your traditional audience.

ME:  You’re expanding the audience basically in unconventional ways. Again, I’d be interested to see how well that works.

NELLA: I mean, you know, it’s not for every project, like I said. The firm that we’re using, they work with brands that are kind of in alignment with our brand. For example, they work with Netflix and are attracting crowds to the Stranger Things experience that is happening downtown. We think those same influencers that helped to sell that show would work for us as well.

Nothing is a sure thing, you know. I don’t think I would use influencers for some of my other projects. If somebody has a ton of engaged followers, why not give them a free ticket and they’ll put a reel up on Instagram for you.

What I wouldn’t do is pay a high-priced influencer, like Kim Kardashian, half a million dollars to post about my little show. Because as much as she would get seven million people to look at it, those seven million people aren’t going to buy tickets. She can sell a lipstick. She can sell her shapewear. But they’re not there to buy theatre tickets, so that I wouldn’t do.

The gold standard for all these immersive shows is Sleep No More. Partly because it came into the market without any advertising and has thrived primarily from word of mouth.

ME: So, these would be theatre influencers or, like we said, just general lifestyle?

NELLA: More lifestyle, nightlife, adventurous. Like, people who like to have those experiences.

ME:  Yeah, I’d appreciate that. I’ve been to a few things like that, I just find it to be fascinating. I went to one thing, what is it? The McKittrick Hotel…

NELLA: Sleep No More.

ME: Yeah, right, that was an interesting experience.

NELLA:  The gold standard for all these immersive shows is Sleep No More. Partly, because it came into the market without any advertising and has thrived primarily from word of mouth. They had that kind of mystique where people just know about it from friends and friends tell friends ‘you should go to this.’

ME: Are they still in business?

NELLA: They’re still in business, and I have now noticed that they are running ads. They previously existed strictly on word-of-mouth. And they did quite well for many, many years. But, I am guessing that because of the pandemic, things have changed even for them.

ME: Is COVID a problem? With something like Sleep No More you’re in a small, relatively confined space with a bunch of strangers. It sounds like a breeding ground for an epidemic. Is that something you’re running into with your other projects? Are people, like shying away from sitting in crowded small dark rooms with poor ventilation? Is the thing?

NELLA:  Well, we have a supper club where people are eating and drinking every night. I think there is a group of people that are done with the pandemic and are ready to go out. And, frankly, there’s plenty of people who were never that concerned with the pandemic who have been waiting around for things to be open. Then there’s people who come and wear their masks, then they eat and drink and put their masks back on.

ME:  But you’re not running into any resistance?

NELLA:  There’s plenty of resistance from the general public. There’s a segment of the population who don’t want to go out, and then there’s a segment who got used to not doing things and have found other things to do. Going out doesn’t seem so attractive anymore because they’re home knitting or cooking or baking.

ME:  Or, they’re getting out of town altogether. But ultimately, that’s where your ticket buyers are coming from. We survived by watching British Baking shows. We didn’t actually do any Baking ourselves, there was something strangely comforting in watching other people bake.

NELLA: My partner and I were very locked down for the majority of the past couple of years as well until we got vaccinated then we ventured out carefully. I mean, everybody’s worried about it. There isn’t really anything to do but try to go about your day-by-day and make the best decisions for yourself.  Shows are also adjusting.

Stomp has adjusted its schedule this fall to fit people’s habits. At 54 Below, we have paused on our late-night programming as New Yorkers don’t want to be out late right now.  Everyone is looking towards the holidays, when houses tend to be full and people are in the city more. And hopefully by the end of the holidays, everybody’s optimistically thinking that Covid might be gone. But will it? Nobody knows, it’s just great uncertainty. We’re doing the best we can, you know. But do we think this thing is going away completely? Probably not. And do we think all audiences are coming back? I don’t think so. I think some people are just permanently done with being in crowded places.

We’re obviously still optimizing all our digital advertising. We’re trying a few new things. We’re trying sponsored posts. We do our own on Facebook posts, but we’re doing a lot more on other channels.

ME: Definitely. So let me go back to TikTok. You say that you’re getting sales from TikTok for the first time. Are these different people? Are they different from the people you were selling to before?

NELLA:  As far as we can tell, TikTokers are extremely young. They don’t really read emails, but they follow people that they love. And the people that they love are in shows. Like, our most popular TikTok was, we jumped on a trend where people were using the song This Is the Life. It was a song from Tick Tick Boom… oh, it’s not called This is the Life actually, it’s called Boho Days, but ‘This is the life’ is the first lyric. We jumped on that trend using the song but with our own video and that was our most popular TikTok for a while.

ME:  So they’re going to shows that also trend younger? They’re not going to Death of a Salesman, for instance.

NELLA:  Well, I don’t know about their other habits, but I know that they’re definitely trending younger and that they’re fairly new audiences to us. Most of them.

ME:  But they’re buying tickets?

NELLA:  They are.

ME:  That’s what I mean. Like they’re not buying tickets to the revival of Follies or something.

NELLA:  So far, no. The two shows that we have that did have TikTok sales for were 54 Below Sings Barbie and 54 Below Sings the Glee Version, which was a concert of the songs from Glee done the way that they presented on the show. Many of the people in those casts were, themselves, influencers. You know, they had a large number of followers who are very loyal.

ME: It’s interesting ‘cause it’s sort of a variation of what happens anyway. I mean, people go to Broadway now to see stars. And I guess the definition of ‘stars’ is changing.

NELLA: Correct.  To be honest with you, for some of our concerts at 54 Below, I’ll say, ‘who is that, and why did they sell out the show?’ And usually the answer is they have they’re famous on TikTok, or they have a big YouTube channel, or they’re on the Disney Channel on some show that I wouldn’t know about. But, you know, they have huge followings.

We’re obviously still optimizing all our digital advertising. We’re trying a few new things. We’re trying sponsored posts. We do our own on Facebook posts, but we’re doing a lot more on other channels. Sites like Playbill now will sell us a sponsored post on social media on their Playbill channel. Ticketing services are making their buyers available for social targeting now so instead of buying more banner ads, our budget is divided up to accommodate some paid social posts. We have Vanessa Williams coming in December. So, we’ve paid to access the POTUS Broadway list (she was one of the stars of that play), so that we can target people who bought POTUS tickets, but from our Facebook account.

ME: Sponsored Content is an idea that’s been around for a while,  Back in the dotcom days, I worked iVillage. as Art Director for the Sponsorship Group. We created “ads'” that were really micro websites—they functioned as ads using content “sponsored” by a particualr advertiser.

NELLA: Correct, correct.

ME:  We had an area sponsored by Ford Motor Company that provided information especially created for women.  Now things might be a bit more subtle than that. We had silos of sponsored content from G.E, PNC Bank, and Dirt Devil, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer. But, again, the idea was to do an ” ad” that didn’t just sell a  product or service. We were giving them something of value and building trust for the next engagement. The classic “Know, Like, and Trust” approach.

NELLA:  Right, which I guess is exactly what the influencers are, anyway. When you pay an influencer, it’s sponsored content—they are creating it so that it’s appealing to their people.

ME:  Right, to people that are listening to them anyway. I wonder if that burns out after a while?

NELLA: Well, that’s… yeah, there’s like the entertainment value, I think, if you’re looking in terms of commerce, you obviously want them to buy something. Otherwise, why are you using them? So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.