by David Johnson
Getting bums on seats has long been the adage of the performing arts, and ticketing for theatres as well as museum exhibitions, library events, and other parts of the sector absorb a great deal of time, effort and resource.
In a recent analysis of data by TRG arts and Purple Seven, advance theatre ticket sales in the UK were seen to drop by 92% as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Where organisations sell tickets, this on average accounts for 40% of their turnover, but it is often a much higher figure, with as much as 95% of some business models based solely on box office revenue. With this in mind, the implications of the government’s recent lockdown and social distancing policies are potentially profound and far reaching on those parts of the arts sector where ticketing plays a significant role.
Audiences are seeking refunds for their tickets in their droves, whilst an industry tries to maximize its cash flow and to work with audiences and donors to maintain its financial viability. Organisations are responding to this in several ways, including encouraging ticket buyers to donate their ticket value to the charity instead of getting a refund; allowing open ended exchanges through applying credit to accounts to be used at a later date; and offering Friends scheme subscribers credit towards the following year’s renewal.
For these charitable organisations, there is also the potential to claim gift aid on donations to further contribute to vital core funding. Contractually, a refund on a purchased ticket must always be offered in the first instance, but the language and approach that is used when communicating with ticket holders is imperative in terms of maintaining the relationship with the booker over a longer period of time. Your audiences are already facing the same unprecedented crises that your organisation is; the uncertainty, the risk of unemployment and the stress of illness and self-isolation. This is therefore the time to be understanding, supportive and compassionate.
Several ticketing software providers have stepped up to the mark in offering technology solutions to support organisations to process mass refund and donations efficiently, including Spektrix and Ticketsolve. Where organisations sell tickets through third party agents, there is also an opportunity to connect with them to discuss their approach during this time. Stay22 in Montreal has offered 100% commission to new partners, and has increased commission by 20% for existing partners. Similarly, ticketing platform Eventbrite has increased its functionality to support ticketed events moving from live to virtual. Where organisations are moving work online this is also providing a new opportunity to reach out for potential financial support. London’s Phoenix Artist Club recently moved its cabaret programme onto a digital platform and launched a ‘tip the artist’ scheme alongside it.
The UK ticketing agency body – the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) has urged ticket holders to be patient whilst box offices handle refunds, and there appears to be much goodwill from UK audiences. Arts Professional magazine recently reported that two-thirds of total ticket sales have been turned into donations or credit, and whilst this is highly encouraging, organisations are still advised to assume that there will be at least a 50% drop in traded income over the next 6–12 months.
Venues can also start to think beyond the immediate shock to the bottom line and consider ways they can build resilience into their earned income and ticketing strategies for the future. Internal policies that directly impact ticket buyers such
as exchange and refund processes may need to be reworked, and businesses should continue to review PCI payment compliance standards to ensure that staff working at home can accomplish tasks efficiently and responsibly. Donations policies and stewardship processes will also need to be reviewed so that new donor relationships established through this time can be sustained and cultivated. Organisations might also want to revisit their pricing methodologies, reviewing opportunities to sell to a more price-sensitive consumer, including models like dynamic pricing or ARC in Stockton on Tees’ much applauded ‘pay what you decide’.
Globally, we just don’t yet know how consumer behaviour will be impacted longer-term as a result of the pandemic. Despite forecasts to the contrary, ticketing flourished in the period after the recession with one theory that audiences increased nationally due to more people staying in the country rather than going abroad, therefore having money to spend on entertainment and nights out. Indeed, the UK may be reliant on mass social interaction and a morale boost following enforced home time.
Behind the scenes, established financial models of producing may need to be reviewed with existing contracts of box office splits, guarantees or 1st calls being thrown into the air and new ways of financing and balancing the risk for artists and venues arising.
The role of public subsidy to arts organisations here will become paramount, allowing venues to continue to produce challenging work and develop their artistic risk-taking with less reliance on ticketed income. Regardless of what happens next though, the immediate challenge will be weathering the storm and sustaining relationships with audiences and ticket buyers that organisations have worked long and hard to develop and grow. Empathy and decency will go a long way here to support the sector to recover, maintaining relationships with audiences and encouraging them to engage with the work of your organisation differently.
There is also a whole host of new potential digital audiences on the horizon. Things may look very different in 2021, and maintaining trust and getting people back into venues will be the first priority when we can. Perhaps the future adage will therefore be getting bums in buildings.