Cirque du Soleil Head Lamarre on Emerging From Bankruptcy and Lessons for Success

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Cirque du Soleil; HarperCollins

In a new book, Balancing Acts, former Cirque du Soleil CEO and now executive vice-chairman of the board, Daniel Lamarre, shares his experience in his 20 years at the helm of a world-class, entertainment juggernaut with over $1 billion in pre-pandemic annual sales. The business lessons he learned while heading up the company—which had to shut down productions for almost a year and a half due to the pandemic—translate to creative and traditional fields alike. In this Q&A with Lamarre, he discusses his thoughts on Cirque's recovery from the months without any performances, how digital fits into the future of Cirque and live entertainment, the essential place of creativity in business and more.

Newsweek: What's the most important thing for success in business?

Daniel Lamarre: Creativity. If you are not prioritizing creativity—the dictionary definition of "making or bringing into existence something new"—you are wasting your time. No company deserves to exist unless it is constantly discovering new ways to make its customers' lives better. Without creativity, there is no business.

How can creativity be incorporated in an organization? What about in non-artistic fields or more traditional ones?

First, forget about the traditional pyramid corporate structure—that tends to stifle experimentation. Employees need smaller, more intimate "innovation cells" to express themselves and innovate in a supportive environment. At least one cell should be devoted exclusively to research and development to discover new ideas in areas appropriate for your business.

During COVID-19, you jumped on the digital bandwagon and launched Cirque Connect. Do you envision this remaining a significant part of your brand?

Absolutely. Cirque Connect has attracted more than 65 million views since launching in March of 2020. Cirque Connect reached younger, more digitally savvy fans, inspired a documentary film about the reopening of our Las Vegas show O and led to talks with streaming platforms like Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix about developing original artistic content for them. The lesson is that sectors like retail, manufacturing and live events that may perceive digital as an existential threat should keep an open mind about its tremendous power.

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Cast members perform during the grand reopening of "The Beatles LOVE By Cirque du Soleil" at The Mirage Hotel & Casino on August 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty

In 2020, Cirque filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off 95 percent of its workforce. What factors necessitated this? What has changed since Cirque emerged from that process with new owners?

Our bankruptcy protection filing was 100 percent caused by the pandemic for a simple reason: You can't run a business with zero revenue. Before that, we were thriving, with 44 profitable shows playing around the world. In late 2020, we were acquired by our creditors, who absorbed our debt and invested an additional $375 million. That put our market value, even in a crippled state, at a stunning $1.275 billion. Today, many of our shows are back up with lots more in the pipeline. We are still the same company, with fantastic new owners who have learned how our unusual business works but leave the creative side alone to work their magic.

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Building wraps for the “The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil” show are shown on the exterior of The Mirage Hotel & Casino as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 14, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty

Have you been able to fully staff your shows with the Delta and Omicron variants surging? What other challenges are you facing with the ongoing pandemic?

We are obviously respectful of all the rules and regulations in place in each of the cities and countries we perform in. The U.S. COVID-19 situation allows us to present our shows right now, and we are fortunate that the return of our productions in Las Vegas, Orlando and other key markets has been successful. We are confident, with the current booster blitz, that the situation will return to normalcy in the near future. In the meantime, we have observed a big trend of people attending live shows—which is also a very positive thing for us.

Do you think there will be long-lasting effects on how the entertainment industry and live shows operate as a result of the pandemic? Anything positive that will remain?

Despite this crisis, live entertainment will remain a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. Many live-entertainment companies, including us, embraced digital, reevaluated their business models, and became leaner. Going forward, we will launch new productions at a more measured pace, continuing to focus on quality, while touring major cities in North America, Europe, and Asia more often—all positive steps that will increase efficiency.

Are you a daredevil in your own recreation?

My temperament is probably the opposite, though you might say that dealing with the crises that crop up constantly in a global live-entertainment company has made me quite familiar with the concept of risk. Quitting my secure job as CEO of a large Canadian television network to join the circus in 2001 was a daring move but one I've never regretted for a single moment. It's a thrilling ride that I'm still enjoying every single day.

What goals are next for you?

To continue being an evangelist for creativity. As the great German poet Goethe put it, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."