Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Behind the Scenes: The Driving Force of the Entertainment Industry

After several posts highlighting some of the many wonderful entertainers in Branson, I thought it would be interesting to gain a different perspective into the entertainment industry by interviewing somebody who spends most of the time working behind the scenes. This type of person is partially responsible for the success of the entertainers by working tirelessly to ensure there is a good audience and that the audience always has an excellent experience. One of the best choices to fit this description is Linda Merkling, the general manager of Branson's Starlite Theatre

Linda Merkling, GM of Starlite TheatrePhoto courtesy of Starlite Theatre
A lot of education and experience went into eventually becoming Starlite's general manager. Linda's journey started out by attaining a degree from Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, MO. While attending school, she also worked in food service. After college, she stayed with that same company and rose into management. After ten years there, she began working for a furniture business managing retail stores in Springfield, MO. She stayed with that company until it went out of business, and then she entered into the radio business. Initially, she was responsible for working on sales, advertisements, marketing strategies and promotions, etc. She entered into sales management with the company and remained there for 15 years. At that point, she realized the value of networking when one of her clients in Springfield happened to be one of the owners of the Starlite Theatre in Branson, MO. He encouraged her to look into becoming the theater's general manager. Now, a year and a half later, she is full of ideas and plans to continue building the success of Starlite. Her job is full of its own challenges and responsibilities, but the results are memorable and exciting.

As a general manager, Linda has many responsibilities. These include, but are definitely not limited to, providing customer service, working with other employees to control labor and expenses, collaborating with the city of Branson to increase tourism, and always being two steps ahead and ready for the future. Linda's primary focus is on marketing and customer service. She believes that by emphasizing these two areas, ticket sales will be increased. By maximizing the number of seats filled, business will be brought to the other areas of the theater (gift shop, concession stand, diner, etc.). According to Linda, there are three types of customers in the theater business. The first is the external customer, or the people that buy the tickets. The second customer is an internal customer, or the employees of the theater. The final customer is the entertainer. She says that it is important to understand each customer and respect everyone. Then everyone will be able to work together by building teams and relationships to build the best business possible.

Linda believes that one of the major reasons she is so successful in the theater business despite being fairly new to the entertainment industry is that she is so new to the industry. Instead of trying to do what other theaters have done, she has come in with new information on what has worked in other businesses. She maintains that the entertainment business has the same concept as any other business. A successful person learns the product, controls expenses, and applies relevant business concepts as needed. However, the entertainment industry is definitely not without its unique challenges. 

Fortunately, Linda loves the challenges associated with the industry. One of the biggest challenges is trying to manage so many different businesses under the same roof. As mentioned earlier, by focusing on ticket sales, business will improve in all areas. Another challenge is that each entertainer has different needs that must be understood. Additionally, each entertainer brings in a different type of audience, so Linda must understand the different audiences in order to know how to market to those individuals. Along with this, it is a challenge to find the right group of people to employ that will care about the service and treat each customer right. Finally, a huge challenge is one that cannot be controlled: travel. It is impossible to control how the weather will be or the prices of flights or gas. Yet these are also important factors that drive ticket sales. This means that Linda and Starlite's team need to plan for handling situations that are out of their control. 

By facing and overcoming all of the challenges, it is possible for Linda to experience what she notes as the exciting parts of her job. She loves to watch the theater's guests have a great time and create lasting memories as a result of her (and everyone else in the theater's) hard work. The best part is when those people return and tell her what the theater means to them. Linda mentioned a couple from Pennsylvania that comes every year and tells her what a wonderful job she is doing and how the theater is the greatest theater in town. They even took her out to dinner to thank her. It is in moments like that when everything becomes worth the effort. 

As was previously mentioned, Linda strives to always stay two steps ahead. This means that she has many goals outlined for the future of the theater and for herself. Primarily, she wants to ensure that Starlite is providing top notch entertainment. This means that she needs to make sure that she is bringing in acts that people want to see and that will fulfill the theater's needs and goals. Additionally, she wants to work on growing the diner, a plan that she intends to begin implementing next year through menu changes as well as layout changes. She also intends to have the theater involved in more promotional events that will improve the theater's standing and recognition in the community. At some point, Linda would like to be able to step away somewhat so that she can pursue other projects. For instance, she hopes to eventually be able to help other businesses with the marketing aspect so that she can share her wide array of knowledge and experience with others. By hiring and training a great staff, it should become possible for her to do just that. Being able to delegate tasks to others is one sign of great leadership according to North Carolina State University. Delegation is important because it increases both efficiency and development. 

On the more personal side, Linda would like to make more time for her husband, her family, and her spirituality. She strongly believes that God wanted her in Branson, and she intends to utilize this opportunity to its fullest. Finally, she has several hobbies that she would love to indulge in more if possible. These include hiking in the woods/on trails, mountain biking, camping, antiquing, enjoying girls' days, visiting wineries, and traveling (especially to Italy, Ireland, or Hawaii). 

Throughout Linda's journey, she has acquired enough experience to be able to provide helpful advice for those looking to enter into the business and/or entertainment industries. From the management aspect, she cites the importance of managers being able to multi-task. They also need to be able to train and instill trust in their employees so that they can step back and give those employees the autonomy to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Mistakes are experiences--they can be corrected for the next time. She understands that good managers do not micro-manage their employees. Instead, they learn every aspect of the business as well as understand the strengths of their employees. Then, it is possible to capitalize on those strengths in order to be successful. Managers also need to be good planners and organizers; they need to be able to see ahead and make plans for the future. On the entertainment side, in addition to being able to multi-task, it is also important to be unique, open-minded, listen to input from many people, be flexible with constant changing, and think ahead at all times. Linda also recommends reading the book Soar With Your Strengths by Donald O. Clifton and Paula Nelson. This book focuses on developing strengths and acknowledging weaknesses based on years of research. It is an excellent tool for managers or any person looking to enter into the business world. 

One of Linda's favorite parts of her job is the diversity of what she does. No day is ever the same. Although there is a lot of time and effort put into becoming an effective manager in the entertainment business, in addition to many challenges that must be overcome, in the end, it can be an extremely exciting and rewarding experience. Or in Linda's words, it is one "wild ride". 

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