The last few weeks have been busy! Over Chinese New Year (the second week in February), Paul and I went to Paris for a holiday which was fantastic but cold and rainy (the museums, food and sights all made up for that though). The day after our return, we both began a crazy workweek with long, long days at our respective offices compounded by serious jetlag. And so, the week after that I got the flu and spent three days at home. The two weeks since have been a little more settled although neither of us ever gets home from work before 8:00 p.m. We are a bit tired.
Nevertheless, I am really enjoying my work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Working in a totally different culture brings with it a whole new set of challenges, so I thought I would write a bit about that.
My vulnerability is in not knowing the culture. I am very dependent on my staff to help me understand what audiences are used to, where and how to find certain segments of the market and how our messages will be received. I am trying to make changes that I think are positive, but how far can I go? How much change can my staff deal with and what kinds of changes can I make safely – meaning, without alienating our audience? I am walking a fine line between taking cues from my staff and not letting them put up barriers between what they are used to and what I think is progress.
The language is sometimes an issue, and sometimes not. All of my staff speak very good English, as do almost all the administrative staff (about 35 people). There is no problem conducting meetings in English and only occasionally does the staff have to resort to Cantonese. However, their English writing skills are uneven so I am spending a significant amount of time re-writing and editing. Our materials and promotions are almost all in both languages so the quality of the English is important. I do miss out entirely on the conversations that take place in the office kitchen.
The seven people in my marketing department are smart, hard working, and supportive. While some of them have a music background, they have limited professional experience marketing the arts. In spite of the unusually high number of arts administration programs offered here in HK, it is rare to find solid, progressive experience in arts management among Hong Kong people. The reasons are complex: the arts sector is not highly regarded in Hong Kong; arts organizations tend to be small and offer a limited number of annual productions over short runs (this is largely a matter of available performance space); and parents, no matter how talented or accomplished their child might be, do not encourage their progeny to pursue a career in any aspect of the arts. Training and developmental experience, particularly at a high level, is hard to get and that applies to every aspect: performance and visual arts, technical theatre and production, design and management. I really enjoy working with my staff though and it is exciting to see what we can accomplish together.
There are a couple of things about marketing here that are surprisingly old-fashioned. One is that leaflets and flyers are the single most important way people get information on what’s going on around town. Go into any performance venue and you will find row upon row of flyers. There is no general online source for complete listings; you have to go all over the various ticketing sites and venues to find anything. That means the market is fragmented and hard to target.
But the hardest, most mind-boggling thing is the HK ticketing system. Here, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) basically serves as a culture ministry. It administers grants and allocates space for their performance venues; I’m guessing but it’s probably about 90% of them in all of HK. LCSD also controls the ticketing system, called “Urbtix”, which all arts organizations must use if they perform in or want to promote their concerts in any of the LSCD venues. The thing is – and my Canadian marketing friends will get this – Urbtix will not share ANY patron information with the arts organizations for which people buy tickets. This means that I have no information whatsoever on my single ticket buyers, or more than 50% of my patrons. This is like marketing with both hands tied behind my back. It is most definitely an approach to marketing that is easily 30 years out of date.
And because most people in arts administration here have limited experience, they don’t know what a proper customer relations management system (CRM) can mean to an organization in terms of building audiences and raising money. There is no movement from LCSD to help organizations in this respect. A few organizations are buying their own ticketing system and selling tickets concurrently with the Urbtix system. The HK Phil isn’t there yet, but this will definitely have to be something I address while here.
That poses interesting challenges and every day is a learning experience. Recently, for example, I learned that radio ads in Cantonese have a syllable limit! And that there are no volume contracts with print or outdoor advertising sources and the rate changes with each event you advertise! I am constantly alert to the next surprise.
Last week, there was an article on a local Chinese online news site about the HK Phil’s search for a new assistant conductor. In it, the writer noticed that I am the new Director of Marketing for the HK Phil. He said he will wait and see if this Canadian could bring blessings from God to the orchestra !!! How did he know I am Canadian? But “a blessing from God?” Wow, those are big shoes to fill! I think the only person who would say that about me is my mother!!