Mary Bensel’s leadership makes Van Wezel profitable
Originally published October 27, 2012 in SRQ Daily
When our country and our community face multiple challenges, it’s important to celebrate our success stories. In late 2007, as she was driving south with her Yorkie in tow, Mary Bensel learned that expectations for her as new Executive Director of the Van Wezel performing arts hall had changed. When she was hired, turning a profit was preferred, of course, but not a requirement. Most performing arts halls in the United States do not make a profit. But on her way to Sarasota, Bensel learned the City wanted to eliminate the Van Wezel subsidy (at the time about $1 million a year). In addition, she also learned the projected 2008 Van Wezel shortfall was $1.8 million. Welcome to paradise, Mary!
Bensel has decades of booking and theater management experience. With a bachelor’s degree in Theatre, Speech and English, and a master’s in acting and directing, she worked as a booking agent for Troika Entertainment where she developed relationships with venues all over the U.S. and Canada She booked tours for shows that included Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar. Mary also managed the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers for 10 years and 15 fifteen years in Philadelphia as general manager for the Walnut Street Theatre and the Merriam (former Shubert) Theatre.
In December 2007, Bensel put her expertise to work immediately. She revamped the Van Wezel’s financial reports so she could closely track spending and revenue. She made staff reductions necessitated by losing City funding, going from a staff of 26 to 12 full-time employees. She brought in a new marketing director and began implementing a targeted marketing strategy for different shows. As Bensel explains, you don’t market Paul Anka the same way as John Legend or Dame Edna. She put her industry relationships to work, networking with other Florida venues to attract quality performances by offering multiple venues instead of just one to their booking agents. And she networked with our local arts community, working to ensure performance schedules were in harmony with each other, and that having too many big shows on the same nights was kept to a minimum. A win for everyone.
The result? The Van Wezel’s 2008 projected $1.8-million deficit turned out to be $1.1 million. In fiscal year 2012, the Van Wezel has a $500,000 surplus. Utilizing grant money and the Van Wezel’s capital improvements fund, Bensel has put new seats in our theatre, a new orchestra lift and sound system. Two state-of-the-art listening systems are in place to ensure the hearing impaired are able to enjoy Van Wezel performances. Bensel’s team has created educational initiatives (for students pre-K through college age), family access programs and senior access programs, so that the theatre is accessible to those who would otherwise find it to be an unaffordable luxury. How’s that for serving our community?
When listing the successes achieved in these past four years, Bensel is quick to point out that every accomplishment is a team effort. Julia Mays (marketing), Stephen Brown (technical director), Tony Becich (General Manager/Finance Manager) and many others all wear multiple hats and work tirelessly to make the Van Wezel a premier theatre destination. Mary says that support from City staff has been super.
This summer ”Venues Today” (the Bible of theater management) named the Van Wezel the No. 1 Performing Arts Hall in North America, among all halls with a capacity of up to 2,000 seats. The Van Wezel was also recently awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, given to establishments that maintain an overall rating of four stars or higher (out of five stars). The Van Wezel received a 4.5 rating. Bensel was recently recognized by the Sarasota Arts and Cultural Council with the Artistic Achievement in Management Leadership Award.
Bensel explains that booking shows is like dealing with a constantly changing game of checkers. Artists cancel. Tours change their plans. Making adjustments comes with the territory, and it’s a challenge every day. Some years you run a surplus, other years you may fall behind. What’s clear is that the fortunes of the Van Wezel have taken a dramatic turn for the better under Mary’s leadership. And a grateful community says “Thank you!”