Focus on: Habitual Attendance

This is a photo of the box office of a well-known American concert hall. It’s hard to think how you could make your audience feel less welcome.

It’s interesting to consider how often you hear people say the phrase “our favourite restaurant” but how comparatively little you hear “our favourite theatre”. Restaurants survive on repeat business – customers eating regularly, making their favourite restaurant like a second home, bringing friends there etc. – but theatres somehow seem to miss the boat.

This post is mainly about theatres, but this applies to all cultural venues, from museums to concert halls, art galleries to public civic spaces. There’s no better way, in my experience, to increase attendance than to ensure your venue achieves the status of the audience member’s regular “favourite”.

Habitual attendance – where audience members attend monthly, weekly or even more frequently, regardless of what’s on, just because they like coming – is the best way to develop your audience.

It creates a loyal core of supporters who are also ambassadors for your venue. It reduces your marketing spend and allows you to take programming risks which aren’t also financial risks. It’s part of a two-way process of trust between a venue and its audience. And it costs little more than a change in the way venue management think about their offer and how it is experienced by real people.

There seems to be a belief current amongst many theatre managements that the quality of programming is the single most important element of maintaining and growing audience share. And it’s certainly true that without a certain level of quality, it’s very hard to sell tickets. But it’s also critical to ensure that the audience’s experience of attending the event at your venue is so inspirational that they want to come back again and again. Understanding the ‘personality’ of your venue is a good way to start thinking about this.

This is not a new idea – Ericke Neher has made some very intelligent comments about the importance of the classical music venue in The Hudson Review, and there is a growing international interest in putting the audience experience at the heart of a cultural institution’s offer. Sarah Lutman recently wondered whether more arts organisations should appoint a Chief Experience Officer who brings together marketing, programming and front of house activities into a coherent audience offering.

The experience of going out to dinner at a restaurant is not a million miles away from attending a theatre. In fact, it’s a good comparison.

Consider that the restaurant is the theatre building, and instead of watching a live event, the product you consume is a dinner (the show) prepared by a brilliant chef (the artist(s)). The analogy below is based on my own experience at innumerable theatres that haven’t given any serious consideration to the experience of their audience.

Imagine you go to a restaurant with a friend because you have heard there is a new chef in residence who has received rave reviews elsewhere. You meet your friend in the heart of town and head to the grand old building in which the restaurant is located. There’s a sign outside but it’s in poor repair and it looks like some of the lightbulbs have blown. There’s no one on the door to greet you.

A notice tells you that the restaurant is not open every night and the brilliant chef is not guaranteed to be on duty when the restaurant is open. The opening hours of the restaurant are not fixed – they vary from week to week. There is a list of the days when the restaurant is open on their website, apparently. There is no printed copy of this list for you to take away.

When you get inside you find that the restaurant is busy, but there is an institutional feel in the air – it’s decorated a bit like a conference venue or a three star chain hotel. Never mind though, the food will be amazing – you hope. You find a member of staff and ask him when the restaurant will next be open and which chef will be on, in case you wish to return. He tells you to look at the website or call the centralised restaurant booking service on a pay-per-minute number. He doesn’t know when it will next be open, and he doesn’t know who the chef will be.

There’s a queue to be seated. When you meet the maitre d’ she is sloppily dressed and clearly poorly trained. She’s doing some paperwork. In fact, you appear to be interrupting her work. You ask her if you can have a drink before dinner, and she points you in the direction of a small, brightly lit bar upstairs. There’s a queue three-deep to get a drink. There’s nowhere to sit, and a gin and tonic costs around twice as much as you expected.

As you walk to your table for dinner you notice that the restaurant is in fact pretty shabby – and not in a chic way. There are no decorations on the walls except for signs telling you what you can’t do and where you can’t go. You get that strong ‘conference’ feeling again. The plates and cutlery are like the ones you used to have at school. The menu font is comic sans. It’s hot, and the seats are very uncomfortable. You begin to get a bit worried – maybe the food isn’t as good as you thought it would be….

The meal arrives, and it is absolutely outstanding. Delicious. Everything you hoped for. But as soon as you have put down your spoon after dessert, a waiter arrives and clears everything from your table. Everything, including the tablecloth. Clearly, it’s time to leave the table and pay the substantial bill. It was great food, you think, but it’s a lot of money. To add insult to injury, there’s a massive transaction fee. Seriously.

As you’re enjoying seeing your friend, you decide to stay for a last drink, even if it isn’t a great bar. You wander upstairs, still talking – but the bar is closed. It closes when dinner is served, a bored looking waitress tells you.

You pay the exorbitant bill. As you walk through the litter-strewn foyer to leave, the Manager of the restaurant approaches you. “Thank you for supporting our restaurant,” he says. “We need your support to stay open. Please will you make a donation to support our work? You can become a friend of the restaurant for just $50 a year and we’ll give you priority booking.”

‘Well,’ your friend says as you leave, ‘that was a great meal. But I don’t think I’ll be going back there in a hurry…’

All of these things happen at more theatres than you’d hope. I have personally experienced all of them. You wouldn’t tolerate this sort of experience at a restaurant, but it seems to be fine at a theatre.

You know, it’s hard to get people to leave their comfortable homes and come to your venue. Great programming will do that. But it’s not enough by itself.

So the key points are:

  • pay attention to your venue’s street appeal and make sure the magic starts from the moment your audience see your building.
  • fix your minimum opening hours, publicise them, and stick to them.
  • have someone, smartly dressed, on the door half an hour before every evening event. If it’s a full house or an important event, that person should be the CEO or next best. Seriously. It goes with the job.
  • Even with the best website in the world, you need hard copy information on forthcoming shows available for people to take away.
  • A theatre that feels like a conference centre is not a theatre, it’s a conference centre. All theatres are about an artistic experience. Every detail of your front of house areas should reflect this. Work with local artists to design functional, aesthetically pleasing signage. Display old showbills and posters. Be individual.

Audiences do not make personal connections with conference centres.

  • Your box office staff are ambassadors for your theatre. For many audience members, they’re the only interaction with your team they’ll have. Make sure that your frontline staff have the tools they need to make a great impression. If the answers to box office FAQs are complex, provide your team with a short printed explanation to give to the audience member complete with contact info if they have any further questions.
  • The bar at a theatre is not a service that you begrudgingly provide for customers. It should be a social hub for the venue and the wider artistic community. Appoint a dedicated bar manager and make this post part of the senior management team. Decorate the bar space lavishly – preferably with an emphasis on theatre. Keep some prices low. Staff it well at peak times. The main bar should be guaranteed open seven nights a week, including post-event. Make it a destination in itself. On full house nights, open crush bars selling only a limited range of drinks. The bar is critical to your success.
  • Booking fees. They are really important to your finances, but audiences HATE unexpected charges. Where possible – and especially where all forms of payment attract them – include them in the published ticket price and advise promoters/artists that this is how its going to work right from the beginning. Its bad business to hit customers with unexpected, vague fees for service or administration. Make the fee a targeted, restricted one for a clear purpose – refurbishment, or education, for example – and publish why you’re charging the fee in a poster and printed slip at box office. Venues that don’t do this increasingly look greedy, uncaring, and amateurish.

Multiple transaction, booking or ‘service’ fees are a bad look and audiences are seriously turned off by it.

  • Theatres come alive at night, when their events take place. Yet that’s when the senior management go home. To run a theatre well, senior management need to regularly spend at least one evening a week at the theatre watching what’s happening, meeting the audience and learning about how to make the theatre a better place for your audience to spend their time – and their money. If you or your senior management team are not able to or are unwilling to do this, you should seriously consider working in a different industry. Change your start times, work flexibly, take time off in lieu – do whatever it takes. This is probably the single biggest obstacle to a theatre’s success.

We can safely assume that when you pair brilliant programming with a brilliant venue, you’re looking at an indispensable, busy and successful venue.

Comments, thoughts and anecdotes welcome.

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