The final article in our series highlighting Water for Elephants
In the novel Water for Elephants, we learn about the story of the Benzini Brothers Circus during the 1930’s depression in the U.S. In the story we learn that the circus’s ultimate demise is due to the financial collapse in 1931. During the story, we learn that the purchase of Rosie the elephant severely drained their cash reserves when they paid $2,000 for her with her own boxcar. Ultimately Benzini collapsed from cash flow problems due to lack of ticket sales and high expenses. Which had us wondering how much money did it take to have a traveling circus back then? How does that compare to today’s circuses like Cirque de Soliel and Ringling Bros? Considering all these companies are private, exact revenue numbers are not available. So we’ll do some extrapolation and hope to paint a picture of the business of circuses. In 1930’s America, the price of goods and food was relatively low due to the depression. The average household spent $6.07 per week  for groceries. Fortunately in chapter six, Sara Gruen gives us the food list of what was delivered to the train. By comparison these numbers, approximate $600 for the people and some unknown number for feed and grain for the animals. Maybe there were 100 people who worked for Benzini? This routine happened at stops along the way for the circus in order to resupply. Additionally these traveling circuses incurred lot fees payable to the local towns, fees to the railroad and staff salaries. According to some research, ticket prices ranged from $.50 to $1.00 during this time period and we don’t know how much Benzini charged, nor do we know how many seats were available in his tent. It’s safe to assume the circus would have needed at least ticket sales of $700-800 per week just to cover food costs. We can venture to guess that based on that number they could have sold 1,000 tickets per show. We also know that the circuses did not run all year and (when not performing shows) had winter storage and boarding costs to cover. Therefore, having a profitable season and being able to put cash away to survive the winter was critical to their longevity. Many failed while on tour because they ran out of cash and their ticket sales were not able to sustain the necessary cash flow. Many skipped out paying fees to the towns when they didn’t have the money.
By contrast to today’s circuses like Ringling Bros and even Cirque de Soliel, their business models are not very different. Ringling Bros plays in large arenas like Giant Center in Pennsylvania which seats 10,500.  Their revenue opportunity is greater with larger arenas and they are not restricted by weather. However, Ringling still has transportation costs by using train cars and other vehicles and staff costs for 300 employees, which all go to overhead. Therefore, even though the pricing structure seems to have changed over the years due to inflation, the same expenses are still being incurred. In fact, the break-even point for Ringling Bros is reportedly now $125,000 per show. Running 46 shows per year means Ringling must make at least $5,750,000 to cover expenses annually.
Cirque de Soliel also has a touring circus and tents, however, they have a lot of the same overhead issues that traveling circuses do; lot fees, staff of 100, 50 performers plus costumes and set design costs. However, Cirque does not have the overhead of animal care and facilities to factor into their expenses. Cirque does have permanent shows in Las Vegas Nevada which seats 1,800 at the Bellagio, which means they will have monthly real estate costs to factor into the overall expenses. However real estate should still be significantly less than the upkeep of animals. The average touring tent show has grown from seating 1,500  to now seating 2,600 Cirque’s average ticket price is $120 per seat which means their sold out shows should produce a gross +$300k per night. Cirque has over 20 unique programs running at any given time around the world. If you account for 5 shows a week per program, that looks something larger than $30 million a week. Since we don’t know their overhead costs and they are private, I think it’s a fair assumption that they are profitable. Cirque has a track record for near sell-outs at almost every tour and they have been doing traveling shows since their founding in 1984.
As we learned in Water for Elephants from the 1930’s, money management was critical to the survival of the company, as it is today. Are you surprised at how successful Cirque de Soliel is now that you see some numbers?