MBA students fine-tune Philharmonic’s business strategies

They were MBA students who needed experience. He was an executive director for an orchestra that was struggling in its message. A business professor put them together to make beautiful music.

Eric Douart, professor at Rivier College in Nashua, directed a recent class of MBA students to work with Paul Hoffman, executive director of the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, and its board to develop a strategic plan and a marketing plan.

“Our MBA classes always have a project with a real for-profit or non-profit business,” said Douart. “We met with Paul and the board, and established an outline and an approach.”

Darlene Pina, a Douart student in the spring 2005 semester, is a volunteer for the Philharmonic and suggested they use the orchestra for their case study.

The 36 students worked in teams, doing a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, obstacles and trends), looking at demographic trends, competitors and competition for audience and donations.

Hoffman said the board was at first skeptical of the idea. “They were a little tentative at doing this project in the beginning. They were students, some in their 20s, they didn’t know the arts. We didn’t know what we would get.”

The students also found searching for a common dialogue to be difficult.

“The most challenging aspect was to understand where the board wanted to go and find that niche where classical music and business students could meet,” said Pina. “We had to learn that this was not a profit-making business in the typical sense.”

She also said the time constraints were challenging. “A consultant would have a year or more to come up with something; we only had a few months to produce something quick and usable.”

The students met monthly with the orchestra’s board and produced an in-depth strategic plan. “When they did such an extensive analysis, the board was very impressed,” said Hoffman.

So impressed, in fact, that the summer MBA class was asked to put together a marketing plan for the Philharmonic.

“One of the most important things to come out of the projects was not to change our core product, but just to communicate who we are more effectively,” said Hoffman. “All orchestras face challenges of getting donations and audiences, and sometimes they change who they are or just throw money at a problem. We haven’t done that.”

Beefed-up marketing

As a volunteer for the Philharmonic — or the Phil, as it is called — Darlene Pina knew getting the word out about the orchestra was key to its success.

“I wanted to get more volunteers,” she said. “The suggestions from the group were fabulous, but who’s going to do them?”

The orchestra’s “leanness,” especially in terms of personnel, was as much of its strength as it was a weakness. “We worked on what we could do to entice people to volunteer, and not just show people to their seats, but to really commit to the organization,” said Pina.

That led Hoffman to start more of a grassroots marketing campaign. “We wanted to get the people who already love us to spread the word. Research has shown that people attend a concert based on a trusted recommendation,” he said.

The orchestra’s board also developed an associate board composed of young up-and-coming businesspeople and volunteers. Pina and two of her fellow classmates are members.

“This is giving volunteers a piece of the organization,” she said.

Consistent branding to convey the orchestra’s performances was essential. “The orchestra identified itself as a ‘living laboratory.’ Our reaction was, ‘What does that mean?’” said Douart. “Although the orchestra does have talented, advanced amateurs and students as well as professionals, the idea of a ‘laboratory’ connotes that it was experimental in some way, almost negative.”

To understand the orchestra better, students attended a concert. “They said it was a powerful experience, all these disparate ‘workers’ putting forward this wonderful experience. The reason why this is so is because of the conductor, Anthony Princiotti,” said Douart. “The orchestra is Princiotti; he pulls it all together.”

Thus the students suggested focusing on the final product of good music and concentrate on marketing the passion of the conductor and orchestra. “They developed a tag line of ‘Powerful, passionate musical performance,’ which can be seen in current marketing collateral, Douart said.

The MBA classes also suggested updating and streamlining the orchestra’s Web site, “One of the students remarked it was like a ‘58 Oldsmobile; it was so antiquated it was almost retro,” said Hoffman. As a result, visitors can now purchase tickets on the site.

While the orchestra certainly benefited from having a strategic plan created, the students themselves benefited from the experience.

Pina, a human resources administrator for Bruker Daltronics, a Billerica, Mass.-based manufacturer of life sciences equipment, said working on a real-world problem helped her gain better understanding of the strategic planning process. “I was able to understand planning from various viewpoints. I don’t look at it from just one angle anymore, I look at it from four of five different places.”

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