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Putting front of house front and centre

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre shop and box office. Photo: David Tett/RSC The Royal Shakespeare Theatre shop and box office. Photo: David Tett/RSC
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Over the course of last year, audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company consumed a staggering 318,464 alcoholic beverages, 226,373 hot drinks and 82,000 ice creams. The company sold 29,408 books, 25,601 badges and 10,683 fridge magnets in its shop, and around 20,000 people took a tour of its Stratford-upon-Avon base. All this, plus commercial hire of its spaces, the sale of merchandise associated with Matilda the Musical, catering, programmes and licensing, earned RSC Enterprise Ltd, the charity’s trading subsidiary, around £5.5 million.

With the subsidiary’s expenditure for the year totalling around £4.5 million, the RSC made a profit of about £1 million, up £200,000 on 2012/2013. When you consider the fact that the RSC’s grant income from Arts Council England fell by £900,000 over the same period, it’s clear that front of house business is big business indeed.

Soho Theatre bar. Photo: Johnny Birch
Soho Theatre bar. Photo: Johnny Birch

This holds true for smaller organisations too. Drinks sales account for around 20% of annual turnover at Soho Theatre, which took over management of its bar four years ago and now runs it through a subsidiary trading company.

“The profits generated through this operation support our charitable activities and have helped us to offset the effect of the recent reductions in public and local authority funding,” says Mark Godfrey, Soho’s executive director. “We can significantly leverage our Arts Council England funding with bar sales.”

Crucial to the success of front of house operations at both Soho and the RSC has been a concerted effort to turn these venues into destinations in their own rights.

Sara Aspley, director of commercial services at the RSC, has witnessed significant changes to this side of the company’s business since she joined in 2002. The three-and-a-half-year redevelopment project of the RSC’s Stratford home had an impact, she says. “Our buildings are open every day irrespective of performance schedules and we offer a range of daytime activities and free exhibitions .”

Of the million or so people that come through the doors at the RSC each year, in fact, only around half buy tickets to see shows. But that’s not to say they won’t do so on their next visit.

“Often a trip to our cafe or a purchase from our shop will be the first point of engagement for a future ticket buyer, member or potential donor and our aim is to create a point of difference in everything that we do,” Aspley explains. “Which means that whether you take away an item from our shop, a programme for one of our shows, or the memory of a really great meal in our restaurant, it feels truly connected to the work on stage.”

Godfrey describes the bar at Soho as a “genuine creative meeting place for artists and the industry, a place to sit all day and write a script or to meet a new playwright or director”. Yet it’s also popular with the after-work crowd, punters who may not even be aware that this fun, buzzy bar has not one but three performance spaces attached. “It’s a really important way of getting people through the doors for the first time and introducing them to our programme of vibrant new theatre, comedy and cabaret,” says Godfrey.

Not all theatres can moonlight as nightlife destinations or tourist attractions. For most older theatre buildings, front of house space is so restricted that simply getting audiences to their seats with a drink in hand can be something of a challenge.

The Piano Bar at the ATG-owned New Wimbledon Theatre. Photo: Ben Fisher
The Piano Bar at the ATG-owned New Wimbledon Theatre. Photo: Ben Fisher

It’s a problem with which the Ambassador Theatre Group is acutely familiar – 14 of its 38 UK theatres are more than 100 years old, built at a time when expectations for front of house provision were strikingly different to those of today. ATG has been investing heavily in this area in recent years, having installed piano bars and VIP lounges – the latter open to customers who have pre-ordered ‘exclusive’ ticket packages – at 26 of its venues since 2012.

Bars at all the group’s venues also now open 90 minutes before performances begin. So while you won’t find non-ticket holders having a drink in an ATG bar (as you would at the Soho Theatre), you might find theatregoers getting to the venue earlier than they used to, spending their money with ATG rather than at the pub across the road. Retail sales – the largest proportion of which come from bar sales – account for approximately £30 million a year at ATG, or around 10% of its roughly £305 million turnover. “Improving our customers’ experience through investment in both our teams and our front of house spaces, and progressing new initiatives, has seen this income grow significantly,” says a spokesman for the group.

It’s not all about the money. In 2014, Minor Entertainment – the company behind the mobile touring show In the Night Garden Live – earned 29% of its income through selling merchandise, popcorn, cups of tea and photo opportunities with the show’s characters.

“When I first started doing these children’s shows I perceived the merchandise operation to be this slightly grubby thing you did because there was a bit of money in it,” explains Andrew Collier, the company’s creative director.

“But actually the merchandise is a really important part of someone’s visit, particularly for a children’s show. We did a survey of the parents asking them about their first trip to the theatre, and the memories that people have in their 30s are much more often to do with the journey, often because it was at night, and the merchandise and the ice cream.”

He’s aware, however, of the danger of “creating an environment where people feel excluded because they don’t want to buy or can’t afford to buy something”. Programmes are included in the ticket price at performances of In the Night Garden Live, and while ‘goody bags’ of merchandise are available to buy in advance and on the day of the show, staff are careful to use ambiguous language in the presence of children to avoid “putting parents in a difficult position”.

Punters at the How To... Festival at Slung Low's Holbeck Underground Ballroom Simon K Allen
Punters at the How To… Festival at Slung Low’s Holbeck Underground Ballroom. Photo: Simon K Allen

Alan Lane, artistic director of Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low, is also concerned about ensuring audiences feel welcome, whatever their means. The company presents two performances a month at its development and rehearsal space, the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, with payment taken after the show on a ‘pay what you decide’ basis. “Everything we do is focused on making it easier to access the venue,” says Lane. “And drink is a part of that. If you’ve only got a couple of quid in your pocket, there is real embarrassment about the risk of being charged £2.50 for a coffee. So tea and coffee are by donation at the HUB. And the bar is all drinks £1.”

Even at such low prices the company still makes 50p per bottle of beer, adding up to around £900 profit from bar sales annually. Not bad going given that Slung Low’s annual turnover is around £300,000.

Whether big or small, publicly funded or purely commercial, in London or the regions, theatres and theatre companies in the UK are more aware than ever of the potential benefits of improving their offer front of house. From developing additional income streams, to marketing to new audiences, to creating more satisfying theatre experiences for existing patrons, there’s a huge amount to be gained.

Putting on a good show is still the most important role for theatres, but for most organisations operating within an increasingly crowded entertainment marketplace and challenging funding environment, front of house provision is an area that very few can afford to ignore.

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