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No Act: Keeping the Cirque de Soleil Show on the Road

by Marquette Turner

in Real Estate Radar

If the logistics of mounting Cirque du Soleil’s signature big tent productions seem daunting, so is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep entertainers and other employees properly insured and protected.

That task continues to grow as the privately held Montreal entertainment enterprise adds to its eight touring troupes, five resident shows and related projects.

Coordinating benefits for Cirque du Soleil can be as complicated as the somersaults performed by acrobats in the troupe’s giant spinning German Wheel act.

How can an employer provide health insurance for workers who travel 100 percent of the time? How should it calculate risk for employees whose daily routines include fireworks, martial arts and hanging from ropes 50 feet off the ground?

It’s all in a day’s work for Hélène Thibault, a senior benefits manager for the avant-garde circus. Her background as an accredited actuary makes her especially well suited to the job. It’s not the usual career path for actuaries, the highly trained professionals who use math, statistics and finance theory to calculate the business impacts of risk. But it’s one Thibault, 30, enjoys. It brings imagination to a profession that’s typically black and white.

“Cirque du Soleil is a creative company, so working in benefits can’t be that straightforward,” she says. “We need to be creative and adapt to everything the company is doing. We always work in the gray areas.”

On the road
In her role as senior benefits manager, Thibault is responsible for planning health care coverage for a majority of Cirque du Soleil’s approximately 4,000 employees. She is one of 70 employees on Cirque du Soleil’s HR team in Montreal, and her charges include 1,600 employees in Montreal and 1,000 permanent expatriates—the performing artists and support personnel who travel continuously around the world. Thibault and her team of four assistants were also responsible for developing and financing a health insurance plan for Cirque du Soleil employees in Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, where the company stages permanent shows at hotels. A stateside HR staff administers it, however.

With such a diverse global workforce, one-size-fits-all benefits are out of the question. Expats pose particular problems because they change addresses—and often countries—every six to eight weeks. One of the first things Thibault did after joining Cirque du Soleil in October 2006 was reorganize the company’s health insurance coverage. Until then, the company had used one carrier for its U.S. employees and a second for everyone else. But the setup caused problems.

For a venture as risky as a circus, Cirque du Soleil’s accident rate isn’t out of the norm, Thibault says. “For sure we have some accidents. Things happen, but probably not as much as people think,” she says.

In one such case in mid-November 2007, two performers in the circus’ Zumanity show at the New York New York hotel in Las Vegas were hurt during an aerial performance and taken to a local hospital. One performer was released the next day and the other was still being treated for undisclosed injuries two weeks later. At the time, a spokeswoman said all company emergency procedures had been followed.

Cirque du Soleil’s workers’ comp program is partially self-insured. Each year, Thibault uses historical claims data and other factors to calculate how much the company will pay per workers’ comp claim, a number the company doesn’t disclose. Anything over that amount is covered by outside workers’ comp insurance, also from Cigna.

Cirque du Soleil hasn’t encountered a major disaster, but there have been scares. When Hurricane Katrina devastated Biloxi, Mississippi, in fall 2005, Cirque du Soleil was in the final stages of prepping for a six-month show that was to open there the following February. In a short time, the company came up with a Plan B and sent the show to South America instead, Thibault says.

In the event that a show can’t go on, the circus carries cancellation insurance. Since joining the company, Thibault has also begun planning for other catastrophes. For example, she has used computer models to calculate how many days of work the company’s employees would miss in the event of a worldwide outbreak of the flu or another pandemic. “I don’t think anyone else in the HR department could have built that,” she says.

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