The Wait Is Over!

I got an email this morning from the big white performing arts center on the Potomac. The subject line was: [acronym of presenting organization withheld] single tickets now on sale for all of next season!

Scrolling took me to an image for each of 10 shows, with the show’s title, dates, and tagline, plus a link to buy tickets. (When I clicked on the links, my obsolete phone informed me that “Safari cannot open the page because the network connection was lost.” and “Safari could not open the page because the server stopped responding.”)

Never mind what I think of phrases like “bubbly comic masterpiece,” “delightful tale of love,” “riveting modern classic,” and “soaring immortal tragedy”—let’s talk about timing.

The earliest of these events will take place Sept. 18. The opening production in the season will run Sept. 22–Oct. 2 and the latest May 6–21, 2017.

Today is July 13, 2016.

If the point of keeping the single-ticket window of opportunity closed is to encourage the purchase of season subscriptions, why open it more than two months before the first performance (and nearly 10 months before the curtain goes up on the last production of the season)?

Why seek to build excitement around the start of single-ticket sales, which, to some extent, cannibalize subscription sales?

One reason is that single-ticket prices are generally at least 25 percent higher than the per-show price of a subscription. Single-ticket butts (bums, across the pond) are worth more on a given evening than those of subscribers, in other words.

Second, the subscription model is on life support. According to the conventional wisdom, no one wants to commit to so many dates, especially so far in advance. The number of subscribers, even to mini-subscriptions (Pick 3s), continues to head due south. “We’re just going through the motions until the last of the Baby Boomers is institutionalized,” the marketing director explains, fumbling for vape juice.

Going through the motions is right. The subscription collateral that’s out there looks a lot like it did in the 1980s — except it’s gotten harder to tell one presenter’s from another’s. (Now see what you’ve made me do: defend branding.)

In a couple posts from three years ago, “Act One: Autumn in the Country” and “Killing It On the Boards,” I tried to make the case that the subscription model could be given new life. If not, presenters, you will either single-ticket yourselves into exhaustion, discount yourselves into penury, or both. (“Don’t worry your little head about earned income,” the development director interjects, lighting a cigarillo.)

To reprise: Whether you like it or not, fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and most of your business has gotta come from a fraction of your customers (roughly 80% from 20%). That’s the fraction you need to build and bond with.

What if, in the middle of summer, I’m just now getting ready to consider subscribing to [acronym of presenting organization withheld]? This morning’s email doesn’t offer that option.

Here’s an idea from the museum world, where visitors can apply the price of admission to membership. If I buy a single ticket to a concert or a play, why not invite me to upgrade to a subscription for the difference in price? Let me know if you know of a presenter that does this; I bet they’re out there.

(Of course, a growing number of museums have given up on paid admission. Once they do, seeing that paid membership has become a lost cause, they consider the next step: instituting free membership — the latest stroke of brilliance!)

Another idea, first executed with panache by Amazon: Say I buy a single ticket. Why not remarket other offerings to me using the “if you liked x, then you might enjoy y” tactic? Again, please share performing arts examples.

If I go for the “if, then,” I’m on my way to subscribing. But the incentives have to go beyond a 25% discount, “early” access to the “best” seats, the right to exchange without penalty, and a free dessert at the joint up the block. Offer a lot more, amounting to genuine insider/V.I.P. treatment, and the word will get around.

As for single-ticket buyers, my recommendation is: Make them suffer! Force them to wait until two weeks before, provide only folding chairs with semi-obstructed views, and charge them through the nose (this does not apply to impoverished students, if such still exist).

Next week, still grouchy, I will share some thoughts about the current plague of musicals.

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