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How We're Approaching Our 2021 Summer Planning

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Good morning. We reach out today following two days of online meetings of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees. As promised in my email and video message to you last month, I am reporting now on the meeting outcomes, the status of planning for our 2021 Summer Assembly, and to invite your input.

I want to thank you for your patience this fall as our staff has focused on keeping our grounds-based community safe while also planning for our forthcoming 148th gathering as a Chautauqua community.

The context of this planning is influenced greatly by:

  1. The Institution’s current financial status following a year when earned revenue streams were significantly disrupted;
  2. The addition of CHQ Assembly as a year-round means of mission fulfillment online; and
  3. Market uncertainty resulting from a months-long pandemic, a declining national economy, and political and social unrest in the nation.

While we have designed our time together today to center greatly on summer 2021 planning, I want to start our conversation by reviewing some details about our current financial position and providing a brief report on the outcomes of CHQ Assembly to date.

As I reported to you last month, we are planning to host programming on the grounds next summer in addition to presenting programs online at CHQ Assembly. As the pandemic calls us to think differently about the scope and nature of an on-grounds Summer Assembly that would include programs hosted in our venues, we are proposing some new ways to think about how we assemble, how we build back our program schedule and how we enable access to the grounds.

Much of what we propose for the summer of 2021 is informed by suggestions made over the years by Chautauquans who have, for example, asked for different ticketing options or suggested our program schedule is too congested. While we need to take steps to address the anticipated unique challenges of the summer of 2021, we expect there may also be opportunities to learn from this experience of “building back” and potentially carry forward some ideas born in a time of crisis to future assemblies during more normal times.

Our plan prioritizes community health and safety, mission impact, and operational flexibility. We are prepared to respond to changing safety conditions, including state and federal regulations on the pandemic, as well as patron response. The Nov. 6–7 Board of Trustees meeting focused on reviewing two planning scenarios which we outline below.

I fully acknowledge it may seem offkey to hear this hopeful news of a potential summer 2021 assembly as our country confronts record numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Indeed, our home Chautauqua County, largely spared from previous spikes, is currently experiencing its worst rate of hospitalizations to this point in the pandemic. We are neither immune or insensitive to this reality. Simply put, if we are to achieve the goal of hosting any sort of on-grounds Assembly next summer, planning needs to continue on a timeline that began in September.

What we proposed to the Board of Trustees are planning scenarios which take into consideration a range of assumptions having to do with:

  1. Mission fulfillment;
  2. Anticipated state and federal regulations regarding the pandemic and safety;
  3. Patron experience, needs and decision timelines;
  4. Timelines and contract parameters for booking speakers, preachers and artists; and
  5. Financial and operational implications.

The Board endorsed our planning assumptions and framework and authorized the administration to continue our planning and seek feedback from property owners and other existing and prospective patrons.

Let’s take a look at the scenarios we propose:

Scenario A

In “Scenario A” Chautauqua Institution can safely and legally host events in its venues but at a reduced venue capacity due to COVID-19 regulations.

This scenario is based on our observations and analysis of New York state’s evolving regulations regarding activities that resemble Chautauqua’s, including church gatherings, movie theaters, colleges and schools, and cultural and recreational tourism. Since we do not expect to receive guidance that would specifically apply to our situation until much closer to our planned June 26 opening day, the progress and experiences of similar organizations and operations are informing the assumptions that ground Scenario A.

We will continue to work closely with the state government at the highest levels; last week, in fact, I had a call with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to request state support for our approach to planning. She offered support for our approach.

Operating at a reduced venue capacity requires us to shift staffing, venue use, programing, and sales.

  • We expect there will be demand for attendance that frequently exceeds our reduced venue capacity.
  • Safety protocols will add material costs to operations.
  • We will continue to leverage both on-grounds and online programs to meet or exceed patron needs and expectations.

Based on these assumptions, we recommend the following:

  • The Amphitheater and Norton Hall will be the main venues for Chautauqua mainstage programs, as they are the only venues large enough to operate efficiently at a reduced patron capacity.
    • Norton Hall may require additional ventilation infrastructure, which is currently under review.
    • The Hall of Philosophy, while an outdoor venue, is too limiting in covered capacity, and affords little ability to manage audience flow and dispersal. We are considering other possible uses for this facility.
  • The on-grounds program schedule in our venues will be re-established in 2021 as space and safety regulations permit.
  • The gate pass structure will be modified to offer a traditional pass that does not include popular entertainment and a no-Amp weekly pass.
    • Requiring single tickets for all popular entertainment events for all interested patrons up to venue capacity will enable us to better manage the audience experience and safety protocols while also ensuring revenue better matches anticipated artist fees.

Venue Capacity 50% Proposed Use
Amphitheater  4,491 2,245 Mainstage program
Norton Hall 1,330 665 Ticket programs (Theater, Opera, etc.)
Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall  500*/320  250/160  CHQ Assembly studio
Bratton Hall  600  300 Special Studies, Shakespeare, weddings (possibly)
McKnight Hall  150  75 Closed to public/schools rehearsals
Fletcher Music Hall 252 126 Closed to public/schools rehearsals
Smith Wilkes Hall  465 232 Special Studies
Hall of Christ 150/86 75/43 CHQ Assembly studio or Special Studies

Here you can see our major venue capacity and why we’re recommending consolidating programming. If we go by what is currently permitted in places like churches and restaurants, which is 50% venue capacity, we have few venues that can operate efficiently at that capacity. We also need to be aware that implementing COVID-19 safety protocols will add material facility and staffing expenses to our operations.


Leveraging the Amp as our primary programming venue, here is a snapshot of what we are considering the program schedule might look like. As we build back our summer season, we’re attempting to honor the historic program schedule within what we anticipate will be the restrictions we need to operate under.


Here, we present a comparison of the two major types of gate passes we are proposing and how they differ from each other. These are long-term passes. In this scenario, we would continue to also sell day passes and passes to events, as long as there is space to accommodate single ticket sales.

These structural changes are indeed spurred by a response to the pandemic, but they’re also an opportunity to experiment with and test different program and operational models and revenue-generating enterprises. We expect to learn much that will help inform future seasons, ensuring we truly are meeting your preferences, needs and expectations.

Scenario B

Chautauqua Institution cannot safely and legally host events in its venues in the summer of 2021 and will use the CHQ Assembly online properties introduced in 2020 to again serve as the primary way our community engages with programming, with on-grounds activities centering on recreation and food/beverage service.

This scenario comes into play if New York state does not permit us to convene events in our venues and/or if we forecast that attendance will be below a minimum financially viable level to justify the expense of hosting programs in our venues

This scenario is modeled after the summer we just experienced, delivering Chautauqua programming via the CHQ Assembly platforms. In Scenarios A and B, we will more significantly leverage and showcase the recreation pillar and food and beverage service on the grounds, including waterfront and other outdoor activities and offerings. And, because, as we learned this past year that even a summer with no in-venue programs carries a significant cost to ensure security and amenities for those who visit the grounds, we will institute appropriate gate pass and parking rates.

Monitoring and Risk Management

As we plan for Scenario A, we will monitor our performance plan on a monthly basis, and more frequently as necessary, to ensure the plan remains viable from mission fulfillment, operational and revenue perspectives. This will guide decision-making for plan adjustments and whether a move to Scenario B is prudent.

This process also highlights our requirement for operational flexibility, if at any time during the months leading up to or during the season, major regulatory or market forces call us to change our plans.

We will have identified a series of performance indicators and release dates which will guide the monitoring and risk management process. For example:

Performance Indicators:

  • Pre-Season Gate Pass and Single Ticket Sales (indicators of patron plans and confidence)
  • Pre-Season program booking success (indicators of speaker/preacher/artist confidence)
  • Philanthropic Gift Receipts (indicators of donor confidence)

Release Dates to be Determined:

  • Date by which we need to have assurance of NYS approval to offer programs in our venues
  • Dates by which we need to have achieved 50%, 60%, and 70% sales projections.
  • Dates by which we need to have achieved segmented fund raising goals.
  • Dates by which we need to have accomplished program planning goals.
  • Dates by which our financial risk increases as expense control opportunities decrease.

The Board will convene again on Dec. 9 to consider for approval more fleshed-out versions of these scenarios. We will seek broad community input on these plans, and your input will be reflected in the final proposal to the Board. At the same time, we need to be looking beyond 2021 to ensure the Institution remains on a sustainable and successful pathway to our goals as outlined in the strategic plan 150 Forward. We invite your feedback and questions through this webinar, surveys that will follow as soon as Wednesday of this week, and email.

In conclusion, as this week commenced a month of thanksgiving, I want to thank you for your continued care for and dedication to Chautauqua. What is proposed here represents adaptive change, but it also represents an organization and a community that has options to explore toward securing our future by proactively shaping it. Thank you for the role you will play in that important work.

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