Why is the party industry on it’s knees?

The children’s party industry had its boom from the early naughties through to the GFC but now as consumer spending continues to drop we need to address the question: “Do we want quality live performance at children’s parties to continue into the future?”

There are two dilemmas facing the industry at present:

a. a huge lack of quality performers willing to do this type of work, especially after a bad experience working with a booking agent where they’ve been thrown in the deep end;

b. a large amount of freelancers and booking agents hugely undercutting on price and providing low quality improvised shows that deter the general public from ever booking anyone ever again.

I started performing in the party industry in 2000. At the time the industry was just finding its feet and as a freelance performer I was given a character name, taught a couple of magic tricks & how to twist a balloon then asked to “wing it” from there. Despite being a qualified teacher I didn’t have children of my own and being in my early twenties my friends were not throwing children’s birthday parties either. What to do? The agency I worked for told me to go and watch one of their other performers do a wizard party. It was a real eye-opener.

The performer arrived in a pretty bland wizard costume to perform what I thought was a very bland show. He’d been told by the agent to buy his own present for the child, confirm with the client & provide all costume & props as he saw fit. I think he forgot the present, his costume showed his inability to sew and the props were limited to a guitar. He was trying his best but he was not a trained performer, he was very lack lustre and he had barely any content!! He performed the two magic tricks I had also been taught then pulled out a guitar (I was unaware that Wizards were big acoustic guitarists, but I stood corrected) and played from memory something that reminded me of Koombayah as the kids were asked to walk in circles around him. By the third soothing folk song the kids had all wandered off wondering what any of this had to do with being a wizard? He then started to play some random games which were a little more successful but again had nothing to do with being a wizard. It was confusing for everyone, the performer included. The second half hour was spent making three designs of balloon animals which were a big hit and saved the show. What amazed me at the end was that the parents seemed genuinely happy that he’d come. Why? The industry was so new that they’d never seen any better and figured that was what you get.

Looking back, my first party as a freelancer was a disaster. The example I’d been given told me to sing songs as kids circle around you so that’s what I did. I did it once. The actor and the teacher in me couldn’t take someone’s money for doing that. As it turned out I remember there was a strong wind and I lost the money as I got back into my car, clearly the universe telling me I had not earned it. I can see why so many performers have tried the industry once then sworn never to return. I was set up to fail. The event was truly terrifying and after my costs made me a grand total of $40. I made more money working the register at my local servo.

Rather than giving up all together I decided to try something different. I sat down and drafted out a rough script for a show that included the two magic tricks I’d been taught. Then I added some games that related to the script and tried to come up with some structure that would keep the kids engaged. Within a couple of months I had three shows that were working a hundred times better than the improvised circle show and within a year I had my booking agent sending all of their performers to my shows to copy it. I was already running Tony Bones Entertainment as a Theatre In Education company and figured adding on a branch for kids parties was the logical next step.

Since then we’ve developed 26 original party shows with Tim Smith & Luke Hunter, the two teachers who are our musical directors and whom I compose the music with. The shows are scripted with original music, integrated games, a birthday present, magic, a main activity that relates to the character, then colouring, balloon sculpting or face painting & lollypops to finish. We provide everything for the performer so that they can just concentrate on the performing side of things. The shows are fully rehearsed and highly structured and the performers are given lots of training to ensure they can succeed and enjoy the work. But 11 years on, what is the rest of the industry doing?

The answer is…. much of the same. Back in 2000 the average price for an unscripted party show was around $150-$175. 11 years later an average Melbourne house costs over $200,000 more than in 2000 but some companies are still charging the same amount for an unscripted party show? Most of the companies performing around Melbourne continue to be run by booking agents or performers who provide no show for their performers. The poor performers are still told to “make it up” and the result is a lot of child minding being packaged up as children’s entertainment. Most serious actors refuse to do it more than once so the standard has dropped to the lowest common denominator of performer. The agents continue to undercut on price, some so low that the entire payment wouldn’t even come close to paying the performer the Federal Award minimum amount, and you can bet the booking agent is still taking a fair whack out of the payment. A year ago one agent asked us to perform Santa for the grand total of $11 an hour!!! Suit included!! you can only imagine what they would have made. Of course as a booking agent it doesn’t cost very much to load up a basic website, put a print advertisement in a children’s newspaper then forward on bookings to performers for them to organise, especially when you’re never developing shows and rehearsing them. But what do you as the customer get for the money that you spend on these booking agents?

Child minding. Child minding is not children’s entertainment, it is babysitting. Playing games. It is regrettable but childcare is one of the lowest paid industries in the country, so it is no wonder that children’s party companies are able to send this work to your home at such a low price. Because it ain’t entertainment, it’s childcare.

So what do we do to improve the future of this industry?

1. Ask for specific details of what you’re going to get at the show. Ask the company to provide it in writing. then check it off at the party. If it doesn’t happen then you should get a big discount. If it is just game playing then it should cost the same as a babysitter. If it is a varied show format then it should be between $250 to $400 plus travel.

2. If your performer exceeds your expectations, then let them know. Performers like a round of applause, that’s how audiences show them that they appreciate what they’ve done. And if you really liked them then tell your friends. Keep the good providers in business, and encourage good performers to keep performing or they’ll be lost forever.

3. Pay a decent amount of money for a decent product. Paying under $250-$300 would not cover the costs of any decent performer who is performing a quality show (advertising, costume development and maintenance, public liability insurance, website development and maintenance, providing phone and email quotes, travel expenses, vehicle, presents, props, music, stereo, balloons, face paint… the list goes on). The companies charging under this will nearly always give you exactly what you pay for – not much.

4. Understand the difference between a freelance performer and a company. A company will cost more because they have safeguards individuals usually don’t. The most common reason for last minute bookings with our company is because a client has had a performer from another company cancel on them, usually a solo freelance performer has pulled out at the last minute due to illness, hangover or an offer for more money elsewhere, though it always seems to be called “illness”. Companies will have other performers who can fill in so clients are not left in the lurch. Companies also pool the ideas of many people to create the shows and run the business. Freelance performers or booking agents leave everyone to their own devices.

Convincing people to spend more money to maintain an industry is a tough sell. You just need to look at all the people that were grounded from Tiger Airlines to see what happens when we look to use the cheapest option every time. At least the airlines have an industry that will ground their aircrafts if they don’t meet the minimum standards. If only the children’s entertainment industry had similar safeguards. Oh well, i guess it’s up to us.

Tony Appleby B.Ed is the director of Tony Bones Entertainment – “Children’s Theatre by Qualified Teachers”

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