A Picture of the Business of Circuses

21 Apr

The final article in our series highlighting Water for Elephants

By Lurker

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 [1] 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. [2] 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.[3] 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 [4] to now seating 2,600[5] 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?

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73 Responses to “A Picture of the Business of Circuses”

  1. Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 10:30 AM #

    Lurker!

    My hat is off to you and this article. Wow! I mean, just….wow! I don’t think many of us would ever consider what costs go into maintaining a circus. Thank you so much, Lurker! Can’t wait for the discussion tonight! 🙂

    • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 6:59 PM #

      Lurker,

      Awesome article. 🙂 Disney also has its own permanent Cirque show.

  2. Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:07 PM #

    Ok, Lurker, I don’t know when we are going to discuss your article tonight, so I am throwing out these questions now:

    During the Depression Era, what was covered for a performer as far as wages, housing, food, etc…? I’m assuming health care wasn’t provided.

    Do we know what is covered under modern day circuses? I do realize these companies are private, but I’m assuming there is some type of health plan, retirement, per diem….

    • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:08 PM #

      Hi!

  3. Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:10 PM #

    Hi!

    Lurker Great article!

    Wow! I think non-animal circuses are the way to go.

    • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

      Doing a rough calc with the numbers shocked me.
      Although looking at the average ticket price was sort of head scratching. I averaged them because they are all tiered. Some of the front row Cirque tickets are +$200!

      • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

        Whoa.

  4. Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:11 PM #

    Hi everyone!

    @Paris, I actually did some further research and Cirque does have the permanent show in Downtown Disney (Ozzie) in Orlando.

    And they opened another permanent show in Las Vegas at Treasure Island.

    @LB, well we know that they got food and shelter paid for by the circus in the 30’s. The train/tents etc. Healthcare wasn’t something common during that time period for anyone in the U.S. – thus the big push for the Unions.

    Today, well different story, there are employee mandates by the govt, most larger companies provide some kind of healthcare.

    • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

      THanks Lurker. I figured as much but knew you would be certain. 🙂

      Why did you find interesting about this topic?

      • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:14 PM #

        I think that it still reinforced the basics principles of running a business. Which is ‘cash flow’ matters, revenue matters. You can’t run in the black for very long. (unlike our govt)

        • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

          Sorry I meant to say – RED.
          Back then they didn’t have access to credit that allowed them to spend more than they took in.

    • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 8:14 PM #

      If I have enough money, I’m going to see the one at Disney!

      • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

        I’ve seen it three times. its great.

  5. Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:13 PM #

    I wonder what the shows will be like 50 years from now…

  6. Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:14 PM #

    It seems the Cirque show at the Belagio Hotel “O” was designed as an installation to accent the hotels water display. I love that!!

    • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

      I know, and I want to go see that!

      • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

        I have always wanted to see a Cirque show. I know they are phenomenal.

        Lurker, and others, why do you think the Cirque shows get sold out?

        • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

          I think its remarkable what people can do with their bodies. The training and all that it takes to pull that together.

          • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:24 PM #

            It creeps me out, but yes, I agree it is remarkable. I think we all are mystified by the contortionists.

            • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:28 PM #

              LB,

              There’s one lady that bends completely in half in this vid. plus i love the music.

              • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:35 PM #

                Paris, thanks for posting this!
                Incredible!

                • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:37 PM #

                  your welcome.

              • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 8:43 PM #

                Wow! Not only are the costumes amazing but the make up too. So very talented as well.

              • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:46 PM #

                WOW! LOVE THIS ONE!! I have to go see it.

                • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:47 PM #

                  it looks like an awesome show.

        • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:24 PM #

          Since I haven’t seen it, I will say the reason I want to go is because it’s a unique experience. It’s not a big venue 2,600 people is small. So it would be more intimate.

  7. Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:16 PM #

    What did you all find interesting about the article?

    • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:19 PM #

      I think the amount of food needed to feed the animals and staff. That’s insane and if people aren’t coming to the shows, no wonder they went belly up.

      • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:23 PM #

        I went back thru the book, and it’s my assumption that the 2,000 was their reserves that they blew on Rosie. Their reserves would have helped them float on the shows that didn’t do so well. However, when August flips out and they don’t show Rosie to me was a bad business decision and crippled them financially.

    • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:25 PM #

      U Said: “Cirque has over 20 unique programs running at any given time around the world.”

      I knew they had alot of diferent shows but this is just amazing, I did not know they had that many!!

      • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:26 PM #

        When I hit their website I was shocked too!

  8. Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

    Lurker!

    What’s the costume budget for one of these Cirque Shows?

    • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:23 PM #

      I could not find that information.
      I would imagine it’s pretty heafty. Have you seen the costumes?

      • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:26 PM #

        I’m impressed with costume designers who design for the moving body. I would assume that there is a difference in making a costume for someone who just stands and walks around as opposed to someone who dances or bends like a pretzel.

        • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:38 PM #

          Yes! There’s a huge difference. In fact costume designers need to really be good at creating illusions, personalities as well as allowing for movement especially with dancers and athletes.

          Have u seen a real balerina TuTu up close? If so were u amazed by the weight of them?

          • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:46 PM #

            No, I’ve never seen a real one up close!
            But when I went to the ballet the costumes were INCREDIBLE! Even from where I was sitting.

            Are the tutu’s heavy or really light?
            Bet they use a ton of buckram.

            • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 8:50 PM #

              Ah now tutu’s I know about! They can be very heavy due to the amount of netting used for the skirt.

              • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:55 PM #

                Really? Wow.

              • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 8:55 PM #

                http://www.rossetti.vispa.com/tutu1.html

                This gives some examples the Royal Ballet wear.

                • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:57 PM #

                  Wow, so is it just netting or something stiffer like buckram that hold the shape?
                  I’m curious.

                  • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM #

                    Never mind, Its amazing when you read…
                    It says 12 layers plus a hoop!

                • Open Book April 22, 2011 at 8:26 AM #

                  Really great sites Ozzie!

              • Open Book April 22, 2011 at 8:20 AM #

                LOL! Love it, great job Oz!

              • Open Book April 22, 2011 at 8:34 AM #

                Yep! Illusion #1. Tutu’s look so delicate and light but are quite heavy as Ozzie has so well explained.

      • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:28 PM #

        Well the costume maintenance budget must be huge?

        • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:30 PM #

          I imagine the budget is astronomical.

        • Littlebells April 21, 2011 at 8:31 PM #

          Think of all the little things they have to keep on hand: buttons, sequence, zippers, snaps, rhinestones, elastic, etc… because things fall off or break.

          Lurker, Open Book, great articles and I loved talking with you and the other ladies tonight. Thank you so much!

          I have to go and I look forward to Friday’s movie buzz!

          Goodnight! 🙂

          • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:32 PM #

            Night LB!!
            Thanks for joining!

          • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:33 PM #

            Night LB!

          • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:39 PM #

            Goodnight LB!

            It was fun tonight u kept me on my toes. LOVE IT!!

            • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 8:46 PM #

              Night LB!

        • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:31 PM #

          If a company is not ‘public’ it is hard to get their accounting information unless they publish it as part of some marketing. Its a great question though!
          I imagine its pretty significant.

  9. Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:36 PM #

    Lurker,

    How does Cirque factor the cost of a ticket with different shows? Is it because of the budgets for each show?

    • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:41 PM #

      Great question. I would assume so because let’s say the lot rent in NYC is more than in Dallas. That would be a big factor (to me).

      The prices in Disney aren’t as high, maybe they get a kick back from Disney or have less lease/rent expenses?

      I would imagine it’s high in Las Vegas those tickets at the Bellagio are the same prices as the touring shows I looked at.

      • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:45 PM #

        If I remember correctly, Disney is renting them the land but Cirque built their own stadium. Its actually quite small.

        • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:46 PM #

          When i lived in florida. I was always curious because the shows i went to were never sold out. I always got in free too.

          • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:48 PM #

            REALLY?

            • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:50 PM #

              yep. The first time i went i almost burned my apartment down. I’ll never forget that. but yeah it was never full and i never had to pay for a tkt. In fact alot of the audience members were Cast Members.

              • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:52 PM #

                O.K. did u go everyday? I would have. LOL!!

                • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:54 PM #

                  LOL no. I only went when i was given tkts. The first time my roomie got tix. She and I went. Then the next two times they couldn’t sell the show out so they gave tix to Cast members to go. I just had to say how many i wanted.

              • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:52 PM #

                Wonder how their ticket sales are in Las Vegas? More adult crowd?

                When they tour, it’s hard to get tickets last minute. Here in ATL always a sell out.

                • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:57 PM #

                  When I went it was sold out but I got tickets in advance. So I suppose it could be difficult and more expensive if u are expecting to get in at the last minute.

              • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:53 PM #

                Do you think the shows would hold any fascination for children?

                Maybe that’s why?

                • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:55 PM #

                  Well they don’t let in children younger than 3. I never saw any children (like babies or any one really young) mainly teens and their parents.

                • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM #

                  and the show is confusing when you first see it. its based on dreams. so if you don’t understand it from the get go its quite confusing. Once you understood it. The flow was incredible.

        • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 8:50 PM #

          The site said something about seating for around 600 people. So the size of the facility is a lot smaller.

          Oh well then their real estate cost they have capitalized and stretched out the expense. That’s great for Cirque in Disney, plus they get a captive audience in Orlando.

          Pretty good for them!

  10. Open Book April 21, 2011 at 8:53 PM #

    Does anyone have anymore Q for Lurker? We have about 10 more minutes to the discussion.

    • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 8:56 PM #

      no but it was fun to do two articles. 🙂

      • Open Book April 21, 2011 at 9:00 PM #

        Great! I’m glad u liked the discussion tonight.

        Everyone if u have no further Q. Have a wonderful night!!

        • Parisienne April 21, 2011 at 9:02 PM #

          bye!

          • Lurker April 21, 2011 at 9:02 PM #

            Thanks everyone! Night!

            • ozzie20 April 21, 2011 at 9:16 PM #

              Bye all!

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