Pardo discusses strategic planning, programming at Trustees Open Forum

Saturday’s Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees Open Forum was a chance for the board to update the community on strategic planning initiatives, the Institution’s finances and program diversity.

Roughly 80 percent of the Institution’s operation costs and ongoing capital needs are covered by operating revenue, according to James A. Pardo Jr., chairman. The Institution relies on philanthropy for the remaining 20 percent of operation costs and 100 percent of new construction and endowment of new capital projects, he said.

Pardo stressed the importance of philanthropy, which will enable the Institution to continue to provide first-rate programming for guests and Chautauquans.

There are three “levers” the board can pull to keep the Institution financially sustainable.

The first “lever” is reducing expenses through fiscal efficiency. For the past few years, the board and Institution President Tom Becker have worked to keep costs low without sacrificing the high standards of the Institution, Pardo said.

“The Institution has squeezed just about as much efficiency out of its expenses as it possibly can,” he said.

The second “lever” Pardo mentioned is increasing revenue, which would mean increasing ticket prices. This is something that the board wants to avoid, especially because it is “undesirable from a community standpoint,” and Pardo said it isn’t easy for all community members to meet those standards. He said with inflation, ticket prices rise about 1 percent each year, which is a sustainable amount.

Increasing sales and census on the grounds is the last “lever” Pardo discussed. This involves attracting more people to the grounds and keeping them here longer.

Pardo said attracting new visitors to the grounds is something the Institution is very good at, but keeping them longer and enticing them to return is a weak spot.

The board wants to reduce what they call the “churn factor” and increase the percentage of visitors who return to the grounds. Pardo said trying to get visitors to stay longer than a week isn’t an iniative the board is focusing on because it isn’t realistic.

“If you believe that is a strategy, you are a salmon swimming upstream,” Pardo said.

Pardo said he believes re-imagining and enhancing overall customer experience and keeping the high standard of first-rate programming will drive census volume and financial sustainability. The variety of programming offered on the grounds is what the board calls the “Chautauqua Mix.”

“[The Chautauqua Mix] is what differentiates Chautauqua from others in the marketplace of ideas,” Pardo said.

Chautauquan Bob Hopper asked about programming and suggested that partnerships and repeat programming could be used to increase financial sustainability.

Other Chautauquans also gave suggestions for future programming and how to improve the current programming at Chautauqua. For example, Bob Barker suggested using an electronic network to allow people off the grounds to experience the programming.

“We should be extending from a nine-week, on-site experience to year-round engagement of a wider audience,” Barker said.

George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer, said this is something he has been working on, but initiatives like this require a re-formatting of the way Chautauqua records and packages its lecture material.

From a non-programming standpoint, the Institution could do better in communicating news and events to people on the grounds, Pardo said. The Institution is working on ways to make the website more user-friendly. Administrators are also seeking to deliver information via email in a way that is better for the community overall.

The Chautauqua Board of Trustees will meet again at 10 a.m. on Aug. 8 in the Hall of Philosophy.