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Backstage: How do theatres welcome audiences?

The box office at the Bike Shed. Photo: Matt Austin The box office at the Bike Shed. Photo: Matt Austin
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Front of house is the first point of contact between the customer and the theatre. Every theatre manager knows that it is vital to make this an agreeable experience, especially for infrequent visitors, but equally every London theatregoer knows it is often anonymous to the point of indifference.

Outside London, customer service is accorded far higher priority. Treat your audience members with courtesy and respect, and they’ll keep coming back.

Ahead of the UK Theatre award for most welcoming theatre, we hear from four very different venues about their approach to customer service.

Stephen Skrypec, head of communications, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

interval drinks at the New Wolsey
Interval drinks at the New Wolsey. Photo: Aaron Weight

Theatre can be quite closed. We should always be looking outwards to what other industries are doing and learn from them.

Before I came to Ipswich I worked as a customer service manager for Virgin Atlantic, which helped me appreciate the focus you need on a welcoming environment to foster loyalty and repeat attendance. What could we do to make sure that our audience felt as easy and relaxed as they would when walking into a shop?

Our front-of-house team at the New Wolsey is 14-strong, with a communications and ticket sales team of nine. We look for a diverse FOH team that reflects the community. We’re more interested in what they’ve got to offer as individuals than what qualifications they have.

You must invest in training your staff to become more emotionally intelligent in the way they deal with the public. Different personality types require a different approach to customer service. You must give your FOH staff the tools to make each individual feel special.

It’s like running a hotel – you must have your eye on everything to ensure the best possible customer experience. We hold group sessions to find useful ways of improving customer service, and to give our staff the opportunity to make suggestions.

On first nights, we always host a drinks party for the cast to which the audience is also invited. We try to provide as many opportunities as possible for the audience to connect with the actors, because that encourages ownership.

We are a community venue, and it is their theatre as much as ours.

David Lockwood, artistic director, the Bike Shed, Exeter

I used to work front of house in a restaurant where the most senior member of staff would meet the customers, whereas in the theatre it is the lowest-paid member of staff. I think it is important for the leaders of the organisation to have a presence as the audience arrives.

In bigger venues (the Bike Shed seats 75) artistic directors are happy to get their hands dirty in the rehearsal room, but are seldom there to greet the paying customers.

What makes a theatre welcoming? Attention to detail, really caring about the audience experience, being helpful, being polite, being positive and accommodating. A lot of theatres are focused on the artists’ experience at the expense of the audience experience.

There is a sense of community in regional theatre that you don’t find so much in London – except at venues like Battersea Arts Centre or the Yard in Hackney, which have a strong community ethos. The bigger regional theatres attract tremendous loyalty and sense of ownership from their staff.

Ours is a very relaxing space, with a big cocktail bar in the foyer, where people come to meet friends for a drink without feeling they have to see the show. We invite our artists to say they’ll meet the audience in the bar afterwards, so that the audience gets a sense of ownership of the experience. I think a lot of theatres believe their responsibility ends when the curtain comes down.

As far as training goes, it’s more a question of choosing the right people for the job. Being good with people, courteous and charming, it’s about the kind of person you are. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Donna Marsh, head of customer service, Glyndebourne

The bar at Glyndebourne. Photo: Leigh Simpson
The bar at Glyndebourne. Photo: Leigh Simpson

Welcoming people to Glyndebourne is one of our biggest priorities. During the season we have about 94 people working front of house, all of whom must attend a four-hour customer service training course. A lot of them live locally.

Our audience can be with us for up to eight hours, if they arrive in the afternoon to enjoy the gardens and the facilities, so we want to make sure it is a special occasion for them, whatever the weather.

If people travel by train, we meet them at Lewes, our nearest station, and take them by coach to Glyndebourne. This summer there has been a lot of disruption on Southern Rail, so we have had to bus people to Haywards Heath station or even, on occasion, take them back to Victoria station, free of charge. We never leave our customers stranded.

Similarly, we have people in the car park area to help any first-time visitors or answer any questions, and ready with umbrellas if it’s raining.

Visitors to Glyndebourne like to dress up in black tie, but there is no obligatory dress code. We have black tie items people can borrow if they wish to, and we have people on hand who can tie an old-fashioned bow tie. We tell people about the dressing up, so they can decide whether they want to or not. We would never turn anyone away for not wearing the right thing.

Laurence Miller, commercial director, Nimax Theatres (including the Palace Theatre)

We spent a lot of time looking at the customer experience for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It is unique in the West End because it is in two parts, so the audience can be with us in the building for six hours at a time if they watch the two parts back to back.

All the FOH staff went through a new training programme before the opening to raise customer service to a new level. It involved not only how to serve and present yourself to the customer, but also how to introduce them to your world – the world of theatre. Many people coming to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have never been to the theatre before, so we wanted them to be able to find their way around and understand things. We introduced door numbers to help them find their seats more easily.

We also looked at the way the FOH staff interact with customers when they are leaving the theatre after Part 1. They’re trained to say, “See you later” if it’s a two-parter on the same day, or “See you tomorrow” if it’s on consecutive days. The staff hand out badges to the audience when they leave, saying “Keep the secret”.

We sorted all the staff into Hogwarts houses – I’m in Ravenclaw – and we had different house ties made according to which house you belong to. It all helps to create a sense of team spirit which we felt was essential for this show.

We invite the audience to arrive an hour before the show starts, and if they want to they can take their seats. The level of excitement and anticipation is unlike anything I’ve seen in 27 years working in theatre.

See the full UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre award winners regional list

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