A Visit to Lancaster County’s Sight & Sound Theatres®: When the call came to Nathan Claycomb five years ago to come back home to South Central Pennsylvania from Branson, Missouri, the 1,075-mile drive back to Lancaster County was almost as long as the learning curve he had set for himself by returning to take on a new job. Claycomb, you see, was (and still is, at times) a techie. For years, ever since he graduated from Millersville University (Pa.) in 2001, he was involved in stage and lighting operations at Sight & Sound Theatres, first in Lancaster County and then in Branson, when the theatre group had opened its second attraction there.
But when he came back home, he had to learn and absorb quickly anything and everything about selling, marketing and promoting the two theatres from the group’s home base on a 63-acre campus that sits aside a postcard-perfect setting off a country road in the heart of Amish Country.
The boyish looking Claycomb—even though he’s in his mid-thirties—is now one of Sight & Sound’s business development managers and has become proficient in expanding the reach of the attraction’s customer base. The U.S. tour operators he works with cover a wide swath of territory in the routes that their bus groups travel from in the Northeast, the South and Midwest to Sight & Sound.
On the early evening that the Inbound Report paid a visit to Sight & Sound in Lancaster County, we noticed in the attraction’s parking lots at least two dozen tour buses, and automobiles with license plates from Ontario to Maine to Florida.
Altogether, it is estimated that all visitor market segments will generate 810,000 visitors this year for the Samson show now running at the Sight & Sound in Lancaster County and an additional 600,000 guests in the Branson location. No matter how one filters the number, it is large enough to make the theatre a major attraction for the region. Hotels, bed and breakfast inns, restaurants and shopping areas near the theatre tailor their own packages, programs and promotions to the nine-month performance calendar that Sight & Sound produces early each year.
More Visitors, Please: One thing that Claycomb and his sales team noticed, as they began to review more closely the visitor numbers for Sight & Sound is that travelers from international markets numbered in the thousands–even if they came for different reasons and through different channels. All had learned about the product, enough that the theater was able to identify the following as its top five international source markets:
- Puerto Rico
In fact, during the past year alone, guests from more than 40 countries have attended a “Samson” performance, which have translation services for some languages.
Not all of these visitors, however, booked through a tour operator. The majority of overseas guests booked their tickets on their own. What to do about this? Claycomb is enough of a technician to know that all the enthusiasm in the world (and beyond) won’t yield increased international visitor counts on its own. This will require some time, additional resources and some targeting of those resources. Here is part of what he is doing:
—Sight and Sound went to IPW the past two years and will be back again next year.
—The attraction will also be attending NAJ’s Tour Operator Summits in Los Angles (Feb. 8-9, 2017) and New York (Feb. 15-16, 2017).
—It will have someone attending NAJ’s Active America-China Summit in Portland (April 23-25 in Portland, Oregon)
In addition, Sight & Sound’s principal destination partner, Discover Lancaster, along with some other Lancaster area attractions, will be going to the same shows and will be working to cross-promote and channel interest in the theatre from region’s top three overseas source markets—the UK, Germany and China, with travelers from all three already expressing strong interest in the Amish culture that abounds in Lancaster. Indeed, one is likely to see an Amish-driven horse and buggy, as we did, on the 3½ mile stretch of Pa. Route 896 from the Lincoln Highway to the Sight & Sound Theatre. One will also see reserved parking for horse-drawn buggies at a nearby supermarket (left).
The sticking point for Sight & Sound, as a new entry into the international market, is finding an itinerary that it can be a part of, or finding an operator—receptive or international—that will include Sight & Sound in a new itinerary or an amended itinerary already in place.
Currently, some itineraries that start from New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., will pass through Hershey and Harrisburg, which are about 30 miles (45 mins) west of Sight & Sound, on their way north through New York State, ending with a visit to Niagara Falls, before returning to their base city for departing the U.S.
With some markets looking more toward such non-gateway tour products, Claycomb hopes to find interest in a loop route that would start from Washington, D.C., and then go from to Lancaster to Hershey to Niagara, to Corning, to NYC to Philadelphia before returning via Washington, D.C.
Some tourism professionals in the area that we have talked to seem to think that Sight & Sound could very well anchor some future itineraries.
Now, what about the product that is supposed to make this happen?
Some Thoughts on the Product: The Inbound Report’s editor (he is a sometime actor who still maintains his membership in SAG-AFTRA and has had minor roles in the past decade on film and television and in live theatre—he is just mediocre enough to recognize and appreciate real talent) was blown away when he attended a recent performance of Samson. Some highlights:
—While the story of Samson takes up just 3,000 or so words in the Old Testament of the Bible, this is more than enough for the writers of Samson to develop a two-and-half-hour musical drama performed by a little more than 50 professional actors, along with horses; camels; alpacas; potbelly pigs; foxes (actually Pomsky dogs, “but they sure do look like real foxes,” says Claycomb); sheep; donkeys; water buffalo; doves, pigeons; llamas; and trained cats.
—The actors, especially the principals, do not miss a note, cue or take, while working from a script that, the audience is informed as the performance begins, exercises artistic license and imagination in furnishing the dialogue as well as the lyrics for the musical numbers. The Inbound Report’s editor thought the musical numbers were so precise that they were lip-synced—but was informed that all the actors are miked (they are almost impossible to detect) and do the show live for every performance.
—The sets and props are imposing and convincing at the same time, even if a few are almost 40 feet high. But it only takes 18 stage technicians, with the help of a few actors and lighting techs, to move over 60 set pieces in full audience view without being seen. In addition, a special GPS system moves five powered units around quietly and remotely—at the same time the back lighting gives many scenes a force perspective and a three-dimensional look.
The more than 2,050 theatre-goers in their seats are immersed in the action: animals and actors are occasionally on either side of the theatre or use the aisles to make entrances and exits to and from the action. As such, there are no curtains dividing audience from action—as they would be were this a traditional proscenium arch theatre.
Period authenticity is important. The numerous creative teams study all sources imaginable—they even travel to sites, museums and libraries in the Middle East to do research—before sketching and producing the outfits worn in the production.
The Bottom Line: Ticket prices vary by date and location. Generally speaking, adult weekday pricing is between $45-$54 and weekends are $74 for adults in Lancaster, Pa. Children ages 3-12 are discounted. Most prominent guest types: seniors, families, faith-based groups and internationals. Student groups are an emergent market for both Lancaster and Branson. The Branson, Mo. location offers a behind the scenes tour for a small fee. Group rates vary.
And Finally, or First—This Note: The Sight & Sound Theatre’s shows are Christian presentations, although there is not a hint of proselytizing in Samson until the last two minutes of the 150-minute show. Most of the people who make the trip to the theatre seem to know this before they come. Besides, the themes explored in the story go back for millennia. The story is, after all, from the Hebrew Bible. Even non-believers who visit Sight & Sound Theatres will likely find the story appealing and the experience worthwhile.
(Should you want to know more about Sight & Sound Theatres, contact Nathan Claycomb at: [email protected].