This weekend, the Pablo Center at the Confluence in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, held its grand opening celebration and open house. This event, for the $65 million performing arts center, has been something the community and I have highly anticipated for years. Pablo Center is going to be an amazing asset for Eau Claire, and the story of its founding is equally amazing. It was formed through a series of public and private partnerships and collaborations that included the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (my alma mater), State of Wisconsin, County of Eau Claire, City of Eau Claire, and hundreds of donors who collectively gave millions. For a town of 65,000 to have such a venue is truly an accomplishment.
That is why I couldn’t wait to come to the open house. Last Saturday, my son, Evan (10), and daughter, Rachel (7), and I joined thousands of other people who trekked downtown to see the Pablo for the first time. It was a festival-like atmosphere with food trucks and live music. As we entered the foyer, we were greeted by four-story vaulted ceilings and giant windows overlooking the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. We started in the smaller Jamf Theater, a 404-seat black box theater…the largest in the Midwest and the fifth largest in the US. It was beautiful and has so much potential, but it was time to see the Pablo’s crown jewel: the 1,229-seat RCU Theater. With its iconic blue walls and state-of-the-art design, newspapers reported that the RCU Theater was ready for everything from the symphony to a full Broadway show.
Only it wasn’t ready for me or my kids. There was a sign on the door that said, “Closed for rehearsal, do not enter.” I was initially surprised, so I went to ask a Pablo Center employee about it only to find that the RCU Theater would be closed for the entire open house. Moreover, the backstage, dressing rooms, scene shop, recording studio, and labs for sound, lighting, costume design were all off limits. Surprise turned to anger for me…it left a sour taste in my mouth, especially considering how excited I was about this project (I love the arts!) I had thought I might have been a little over-sensitive until I connected with others in town who had similar feelings and experiences.
After years of garnering support from tax payers and donors, the Pablo Center’s open house was truly not open. The irony is that part of Pablo Center’s mission is to ensure “that people of all ages and financial standing have access to the arts.” Closing the RCU Theater was not only tone-deaf but was in direct conflict to its mission. In essence, the only way to see the theater now is to buy a ticket. While prices are affordable compared with other performing arts centers across the nation, they still will be a big stretch for low-income people. Moreover, when was the last time you got to see the back-of-house at a world class performing arts center?
Closing the RCU Theater and the back-of-house is what I consider an “unforced error” on the Pablo Center’s first community impression. It left a sour impression on visitors…a sour impression that you don’t have to make when you celebrate your capital campaign. After reaching the goal and building the building, every capital campaign should host an open house or community party. To frugal board members, this can seem frivolous, but hosting a celebration actually has strategic implications:
- Thank Donors and Supporters. A great open house celebration not only expresses appreciation but shows donors just what can be accomplished when they come together to support a grand idea. For your best donors, consider a more intimate private pre-reception.
- Acquire New Donors. This is an opportunity to make a fabulous “first impression” with many in your community who may not have considered your agency as a place to donate, so invite the neighborhood!
- Grow Annual Giving. Showcasing a new building or program builds pride and excitement in donors. That excitement can be converted into annual gifts with careful and strategic fundraising efforts.
- Enhance the Brand. A successful capital campaign and building project demonstrates to the community that your organization is capable of accomplishing great things.
The Pablo Center leadership had the right idea launching a community open house, they just fumbled on its implementation. You can avoid unforced errors during your celebration event with careful and thoughtful planning to create a great first impression.
Want to someday host a campaign celebration party of your own? DB&A has a team of experts with the track record of taking a campaign from concept to celebration. Contact us today to learn how we can help you build your vision.