When you run a business that makes 75 percent of its revenue in a seven-week period, you need a clear understanding of your expenses. For Ed LeClair, executive director of Circus Smirkus, that means knowing when to stock ice cream over water.
“Our ticketing system gives us all our sales by site and date," says LeClair. The data goes back eight years and tracks concession sales down to the most minute detail, including the weather of each past event.
What does all of this data tell LeClair? People buy ice cream in cool summer weather, while bottled water dominates in scorching heat. It's just one of the few tricks LeClair has learned under the spotlight at the youth circus based in Vermont.
LeClair uses this data during the development of Circus Smirkus' yearly projections. Circus Smirkus is a nonprofit, leaving LeClair looking for ways to raise funds throughout the off-season, which runs through much of the fall, winter and spring.
While traveling, Circus Smirkus partners with the local communities it visits. LeClair provides the performers and the marketing materials while the towns do the outreach and promotion. The two sides then split the ticket revenue.
“You bill everything initially in costs and equipment, then you hope that you go out and make money," says LeClair. “You spend all your money before you make any."
That's why the data is so important. In its yearly projections, LeClair takes all of the factors — from which towns they're performing and typical weather for that date, to projected costs of losing a generator — and performs a cost expectation prior to the season beginning. Amazingly, he's rarely more than two percent off.
Revenue, though, is more fickle in the circus industry. “The Circus has been a trend lately," adds LeClair. “A lot of it has to do with Cirque du Soleil. A lot of the success of the industry, is related to the trend of the change in public perception. When the public discovers the next trend, tickets will fall."
But LeClair can't predict that; and it could vary based on location. Plus, while revenue may be unpredictable, it's almost routine to anticipate something going wrong when you're moving generators and large vehicles from one location to another.
While the circus predicts these types of headaches, the ability to easily respond to issues depends on the revenue figures. LeClair is able to look at ticket sales on a nearly daily basis, and provide on-site managers with an understanding of how attendance has matched projections. “We constantly measure the variance of how well we did against budget," says LeClair.
He's then able to tell his managers how much of the contingency budget is actually in the circus's hands. They revise their contingencies based on what's available.
“Every week is a month. We don't think about monthly results, we want to know weekly results and even daily results," says LeCLair. “It's imperative to be in touch with what's going on on a daily basis."
That balancing act is the only way Circus Smirkus can provide laughs and cheers underneath those big top tents.
Ryan Derousseau is a journalist with nine years of experience writing about investing, technology and leadership issues. His work has been read in Fortune, Money, U.S. News & World Report and Fast Company, among other publications.