I like the sound of The Mayflower's new Chief Executive. I mean 'sound' literally because I happened to catch Michael Ockwell being interviewed on Radio Solent last week. He's not that new, actually, since he took over two years ago this month.
As you may know, until 2006 I was The Mayflower's executive manager responsible for marketing, sales and customer services. Much as I enjoyed my time at the Southampton venue, I would have loved to work with someone as passionate about theatre and audiences as Michael.
Of course, for any theatre boss of a theatre, the job should always be about more than the shows you book or the money you're paid but Michael has gone well beyond any job description. He clearly loves theatre.
During the interview, he freely admitted that booking the shows was the easy part. As he said, The Mayflower is one of maybe six theatres that are a must for any touring show to visit. I know from my own time at the theatre that what is crucial is the Chief Executive's ability to negotiate a good deal which, given his experience, I'm sure Michael can. As Lord Sugar will tell you, 'it's all about the margin.' This is true of any business.
I won't comment on The Mayflower's marketing, which is the other factor vital to success. That's because any view from the person who marketed The Mayflower through its boom years is bound to be regarded as biased. In any case times have changed. These days a top musical is expected to sell 50,000 tickets. When I was at The Maylfower, we had a string of shows like Les Miserables, Cats, Phantom Of The Opera and Miss Saigon touring for the first time that saw attendances of 125,000 or more.
I have heard that Michael listens to his staff and is loyal to them and that they in turn have responded very positively to him. It's clear from his interview that he recognises the vital importance of customer service and that he has a vision of what The Mayflower should be doing. The latter includes programming more dance on a stage made for the genre and doing more to encourage the performers and audiences of the future. He has started a youth theatre and, most impressively, is directing it himself.
During the interview, I was pleased to hear Michael squash the myth that hard times damage theatre attendance. Theatre bosses have been known to use this to excuse their own incompetence but the truth is, theatre thrives during an economic turndown- unless it's a theatre relying on a public subsidy. Customers who have to tighten their belts may cut back on the big purchases but they spend on treats. So Michael has gone for the high prices necessary for a theatre to pay for itself, while still offering top shows at two thirds of London prices. Michael is reaping the dividend, just as I did during the nineties.
In short, he's a man after my own heart and I wish him well.