The Demise of Ringling Bros. Circus Was Not a Surprise Among Some

For all one could tell, the performances of late could have resembled shows dating to their inception one hundred and fifty years ago. Meanwhile, one of their competitors, Cirque Du Soleil, is now the largest theatrical producer in the world. They found success tapping into a new market—one of their own creation. Ringling Bros. ended in May 2017 due to dwindling audiences, the company said in a statement. Owner Ken Feld blamed the closing on the decision to remove elephants from the big tent. A ringleader interviewed on 60-Minutes, offered that he believed today’s youth prefers apps and online games to live entertainment. However, that version does not square with the success by Cirque Du Soleil, which got its start building on concepts and ideas from the Moscow Circus. I remember attending that Circus as a teen, thinking it was unlike any other. Performers would flub and fumble along a cleverly choreographed performance of Russian myths and lore—leading audiences to anticipate a spectacular failure as each trick became increasingly difficult. But of course, at the end the trick came off beautifully, leaving audiences wanting more. Cirque crafted its performances similarly, with the intent to defy audience expectations. “If you have watched any of its performances you will notice a new definition of a circus,” Kelly Luo wrote in an article on her LinkedIn profile. “It was familiar yet strangely new.” Catering to the audience has been the company’s mantra since its beginning and is carefully implemented. Audiences are polled on their experiences: from when they first considered attending, to buying a ticket, their journeys to the performance and back, and to learning about their lasting impressions. Meantime, audience reactions are gauged during performances to assess how performers interact with audiences and any resulting emotions. “The company also solicits ideas from within. Once a year, Cirque assembles its roughly five thousand employees to learn about the shows and ways to improve. These assemblies turn into brainstorming sessions for ways to meet audience needs for the future. The process follows along this path: creative teams accumulate audience and staff input; they sort the feedback and select those ideas that lend themselves to new themes and storylines for upcoming shows. From there, the characters, scenery, and music are crafted to fit. The performers for new shows depicting characters are only partly based on their skills, talents, and tricks. They are also chosen by audience reactions to them with any emotions they evoke. To that end, Cirque catalogues its performers’ traits, stored into a database that is accessible to show directors. Ultimately, every aspect of every performance is singularly intended to create an unforgettable experience—one that leaves audiences satisfied and hopefully eager to buy tickets for another show. Shows, such as “O,” have been selling out at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, NV, for more than fifteen years, where a theater was built just for that performance. Against this backdrop, one wonders whether Ringling Bros. could have survived. For the entire 20th century the traveling circus was a popular form of family entertainment. It appealed to audiences of all ages for its G-rated content, which at the time were unimaginable feats, including acrobatics and animal tricks; and of course, there were the clowns. In fact, the entire experience was cloaked in a large wink and a nod to its youthful attendees. They certainly knew their audience. However, one could argue, as did the ringleader, that today’s youth have much more stimuli—the breadth, intimacy and affordability of the internet, and the immediacy of communications. Its impact to Ringling cannot be overstated. Their ideal audience was no longer satisfied by a Ringling Bros. experience. And if the youth were no longer tugging on their parents to take them to the circus, well then, the audience was no longer satisfied going to the circus, year after year. Ringling was forced to close not because elephants were no longer a part—but because the Ringling Bros. circus was no longer filling a need, unable to satisfy an audience in sufficient numbers. The experience was no longer relevant. Circuses are in our past; they have just merely shifted in a new direction. Through listening to its target audience market, infused with innovation, lively colors, action and contemporary music, Cirque du Soleil thrives. The company earns more than $200 billion a year by selling tickets and merchandise, according to estimates by Dun & Bradstreet. Its shows have been seen by more than 100 million spectators in nearly 300 cities on five continents. It has achieved its success mostly by satisfying an adult target market whose needs for entertainment include seeing a magnificent show. This type of extravaganza is appealing to those with disposable income, provided they can be convinced of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A service designer would instantly recognize all the techniques used by of Cirque De Soleil’s for a quality service.

Steven Slater

Steven has spent decades in the service industry, aligned to building programs (services) for membership organizations, consumer brands, professional services, and, public agencies and non-profits reach the general public or specific demographics. Steven has a Master’s in Marketing Sciences (MBA program) from the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University; a Master’s in Arts in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University; a Bachelor’s of Arts in International Relations and Communications from Syracuse University; and an International Baccalaureate from the International School of Geneva, Switzerland.

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