Revenue / 05.05.20
For Some Ticketing Professionals, the Show IS Going On
“The show must go on!”
With the coronavirus pandemic shuttering theatres, stages, arenas, stadiums and other venues where large crowds gather to watch people perform, you can either shout that age-old show biz declaration with a sense of melancholy or a hint of sarcasm — or you can really mean it. With so many stages and performance spaces dark for the foreseeable future, it’s important to note that there are some ticket offices that remain open and staffed by industry ticketing professionals who are still doing their job.
One such pro is Matt Cooper, Assistant Vice President for Ticket Philadelphia, the ticketing service for the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket Philadelphia sells tickets for all the events that happen at one of the largest performing arts centers in the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philly Pops and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
“What we are selling are subscription tickets for the fall,” Cooper says. “All of our resident companies right now are in the midst of subscription campaigns, and all are enjoying some level of success despite the current circumstances. We’re seeing a core group of constituents who remain committed whether it’s being hopeful about having fall performances or whether it’s an expression of support for the future of the organization.”
Shawn Robertson, Ticket Sales Director for Center Theatre Group, and his staff are busy selling subscriptions to the Ahmanson Theatre’s 2020-21 season, which includes such popular touring shows as Dear Evan Hansen, Hadestown, To Kill a Mockingbird and Les Misérables. “We previously announced our season in February and were in the midst of renewing our 25,000-plus subscribers,” he says. “At the time … we closed our theatres on March 12 due to COVID-19 for the current season … we were at 34% renewed with another month to go for our campaign.”
Also still on the job is Samuel Biscoe, Ticketing Operations Manager for Selladoor Venues. “We’re not selling huge volumes of tickets, but people are still booking ticketing to performances that were already on sale for the autumn in actually what is an increase on advance buying compared to the year before,” he says. “That’s exciting, especially if we can continue encouraging a behavior change in buying patterns.”
Deirdre Naff, General Manager of Smith’s Tix, describes the current ticket sales market as somewhere between “wait and see” and “full steam ahead.” “Our state fair [Utah] in September is still selling tickets to their concerts,” she says. “Clubs still have shows on sale, and we just started the process of putting a July rodeo on sale.”
Some ticketing professionals have the luxury of taking a “wait-and-see” approach while still marketing to patrons. One such executive is Jeffrey Norman, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, California. “This is the time of year when we would normally go out with our season anyway,” he says. “Because we are a destination market and because it gets really, really hot here in the summer, our season is essentially from November to April. We lost our last month, having shut down on March 12. We still had shows going into the middle of April.”
He continues, “But we had our new season booked. So, we decided that, in the spirit of giving people something to look forward to, we [marketed] initially to our major donors and then to our members, and then we have a ‘rolling rollout’ to the general public that has included TV commercials. All things considered, we’re doing pretty good business. We are certainly not at last year’s numbers. But we get together every morning for senior management Zoom meetings, and we look at this as somewhat miraculous.”
There has definitely been a “selling hope” component to some of their respective marketing strategies. After all, people do want musicals and plays and concerts and recitals to return. “We have some of our close family of donors and ticket buyers that buy 20 or 30 shows a season,” Norman says. “And they fully intend on sitting in that theatre come this November. We want to be ready on day one to open the doors and turn on the lights.”
Robertson concurs, adding, “Our audiences have shown that they are committed to returning when we open our doors again, and they trust that we will make the right decisions on an appropriate timetable to return. Our continued outreach to our audiences has shown that they feel they are being heard.”
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that communication has been and will continue to be key in this time of uncertainty. People indeed want to know they are being heard. “We’re fielding a lot of ‘What’s going to happen?’ and ‘When are you coming back?’ questions,” Cooper says. “Like many, we just don’t know for sure. We’re trying to follow the best guidance of our local and state government. We’re also getting a lot of questions about what steps we are going to take physically inside the hall. One of the things that I think we have done a good job with is being responsive to our guests. I am really proud of the fact that we have been able to have our call center open throughout all of this. It’s enabled us to talk directly to customers and respond to them.”
He adds, “And we’ve used that communication to funnel back to our presenting partners and tell them, ‘Hey, here’s what we are hearing, and here is what our guests need.’ That’s really led to the development of a lot of new features and flexibilities with regards to subscriber benefits and so forth. It seems to be working for us at this point.”
Biscoe stresses that venue operators and ticket sellers should also make sure that people that “have yet to book with us know that we’re indeed open to the future of the theatre.” As part of any communications strategy, social media and other public-outreach technology should be heavily relied on. “Confidence comes from the way that we talk and communicate to audiences via social media and the emails that we send,” he says. “Language is our strongest tool, and positivity in our approach should always be considered. Make sure you’re taking the time to check that you’re really saying what you want your customers to feel.”
Striking a positive, optimistic tone was echoed by several of these professionals. Among the most upbeat is Norman. “We’ve chosen to stay optimistic,” he says. “We’ve put the message out that if, in fact, the government mandates that we continue to stay closed, refunds will be forthcoming immediately as we did for the shows that were canceled in March and early April. So, there is no risk for people to buy tickets now if the shows get canceled. Bottom line, we’re putting a message out that ‘We’re going to be back and better than ever. We can’t wait to see you. But, in the meantime, please stay safe and healthy.’”
But there is no denying the harsh realities either. Selling tickets, at this time, in this environment is a hard job. “We’re hanging in there,” Naff says, “and I don’t think you can measure success with numbers right now. If I drink under a gallon of bourbon in a week, I consider it a week ending with a win.”
There are signs of optimism. A majority of states and regions in various countries have begun the early stages of reopening other areas of their economies — from retail to restaurants to church gatherings. Live events will follow at some point. Shows may not be permitted to book to full capacity. And people may no longer be allowed to congregate in lobbies afterwards or during intermissions. But the show will go on at some point.
When those days come, our interviewees urged INTIX members to be prepared. “If you’re sitting on shows ready to go on sale, then I would certainly encourage you to get them out there,” Biscoe says. “The longer we wait, the less chance we have to create a continued dialogue with our customers that isn’t just ‘here is what we’re not doing.’ Make sure that your terms and conditions are updated to reflect new policies and processes and to ensure that your customers know that if a show is canceled or rescheduled, that they’ll be able to have a refund if it comes to that. Ensure that you have all the relevant upsells in place online, confectionary, bar vouchers, VIP seats, backstage tours, all the things. Your audience is out there, they’re waiting for you, but you’ll have to go get them!”
Robertson says, “Trust that your patrons want you to succeed and thrive and trust your importance to their lives. Be flexible with your options. Many will want to support you right away, while others will need assurance and time to do so.”
Cooper adds, “I can’t stress how important it is to not get stuck in ‘This is how we’ve always done things.’ Now is a different moment. It’s an opportunity to re-examine why we do the things we do. All those things had reasons when they were started, but those reasons may not exist anymore, or they may be completely different. So, be open to trying things differently. So far, it has served us well.”
And, by all means, rely on your team. There is an all-hands-on-deck mentality that some venues and ticketing operations are fostering now that is keeping hope alive among staffers and operations moving forward. At the McCallum Theatre, Norman says, “Even some of our people who are not trained in ticketing have been on the phones, taking orders, walking people through our website, and just providing that one-on-one and personal customer relations management. That is very important. And they are also on the phone with our robust list of donors saying, ‘Hi! How are you? We’re thinking of you.’ It’s important to stay as top of mind as possible. This, too, shall pass.”
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Tags: Venues , COVID-19 , Coronavirus