Day 45: Should you attend the Western Arts Alliance conference?

Dance Resource Center (who I am very honored to be working with) holds monthly gatherings for the Los Angeles dance community on the first Thursday of each month, 9-11 am. The group welcomes everybody, and it was one of the first places that made me feel like somebody in this bar godforsaken megalopolis beautiful city knows my name and is happy to see me.

Today's topic was the Western Arts Alliance conference, happening in LA at the end of August 2016. For those who are unfamiliar with WAA (as I was), it's a big conference for presenters and arts organizations to gather, network and, y'know, do business together. In their own words, WAA is a "membership association of touring and performing arts professionals engaged in promoting and presenting performing arts throughout the western states and provinces". They've been around since 1967 and claim a membership of more than 680 artists, presenters, etc.

These kinds of events tend to bring up the same questions: Is it worth it? Should we go? What will happen if we do? How do we make the most of this opportunity?

Before I went to my first Dance/USA conference, I had a lot of the same questions--how will I fit in? What will I get out of it? I don't mean socially, either--I mean from a business perspective. Conferences cost a LOT of money and unless you're swimming in extra budget (and if you are, call me, we can do great things on the internet together!), make sure you're going to get something out of all that money. (Example: My little jaunt to DrupalCon in New Orleans cost about $2200).

I found the conversation today really helpful and thought some of you might be curious as well:

Is it worth it? Should we go?

I do not know. This question can only be answered once you or your organization are clear on what you want. If what you want is to tour and be presented by conventional touring/presenting options, it's probably a pretty good place to be.

However, we had an interesting detour about unconventional options. Plenty of theaters don't go to WAA at all--the money they save by skipping the conference means they can put on one more performance, and since they have plenty of relationships already, there's not a lot of incentive. Felicia also talked about a company who toured Texas by reaching out to community groups related to their performance (in this case, Chinese American associations) who then paid for the company to perform their work about the Chinese-American experience in the South. Brilliant! If you don't necessarily need the specific types of presenters who are likely to be at WAA, maybe it would be more advantageous to directly contact groups that share a smaller niche with you and see what you can put together.

From what we were discussing, the variety of performing arts groups at WAA ranges widely, from dance to folk music to puppetry and beyond. So if you're looking for artists, this seems like a great place to be. In general (pure speculation here) it sounds like WAA might be more set up for presenters than artists--not that they don't accommodate artists, but the venues are the ones buying.

How do we make the most of this opportunity?

...speaking of, this is a sales opportunity for the arts orgs attending. I just want to make that as clear as can be. Arts people often take a soft approach, building a relationship for ages before we make the approach to see about getting something together. We like to do convenings, and discussions, but sales is a dirty word. Maybe you have a staff person who's good at this stuff, but if not, here are a few tips for making the most of it:

Do your homework

Once you register, you'll get a list of attendees. Look for other attendees that might be a good fit for you. Reach out to them in advance. WAA is going to be busy and they are going to be busy; this is not a time to cross your fingers and hope. Let them know you're interested and why.

Give them the appetizer, not the meal

If you're showcasing work, be aware that this is not exactly an Ideal Concert Venue. It's a showcase. It's three hours long. The presenters will be in and out during the show, they will be distracted and having conversations. Don't show a piece where they need to see the whole thing. They're going to miss parts of it, so give them something that fits the evening.

Pick your niche

All performing arts organizations put on shows (I think that's a safe assumption, but I totally want to hear about anybody who is breaking that rule), and most of them also teach classes. If you do something more specific--maybe you work with a particular population, or you have a favorite theme, or you teach amazing week-long clown classes to city administrators--make sure they know what that is. It's the old conundrum of sales--get specific to make sales. It's counterintuitive but it works.

Go to the hotel bar

Yes, I know networking is the actual worst. Still, this is how we build relationships--late at night, when we're feeling a little unbuttoned after a few drinks and a long day of awkward conversations. Show up, have conversations. It's unlikely to go badly.

Pretty up your website

Okay, we didn't talk about this, but it's critical and I have met so many people at conferences and then looked at their website to find it advertising events that happened three months ago. Make sure your contact information is prominent. If you're shopping a specific performance around, make sure it's easy to find from the home page. Like, find it in two clicks or less easy.

I wish I had written down the names of everyone who was there, so I could give credit. There was a lot of great discussion around the table, though extra credit goes to Felicia Rosenfeld (ED of DRC) for the most useful info. I have no particular opinion of whether or not you should attend WAA (though I wish I could be there!) On the other hand, if you're in the dance world in Los Angeles, I highly recommend attending Dance Resource Center's monthly Coffee & Conversation get-togethers. Like their page to find out when and where the next one is happening.


If you join the Smilodon Creative mailing list, I'll send you an updated version of the unofficial preconference prep list I put together for Dance/USA. It covers some of the basics we talked about here along with a few more practical items.

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