British theatre has so far been hit significantly harder by Covid-19 than venues in North America, according to the first major study comparing the impacts of the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic.
Comparative annual ticket sales in the US and Canada fell by 71% over the course of one week in March as the outbreak intensified, however sales in the UK collapsed faster and more steeply, with an immediate year-on-year loss of 92% in the first two weeks of theatre closures.
This is according to arts consultants TRG Arts and data specialists Purple Seven, which are working together to analyse real-time sales figures from 250 box offices across the UK, US and Canada.
The first release of data from both the UK and North American markets showed that while advance sales in the UK plummeted almost immediately after theatres shut on March 16, North America suffered a less severe impact early on.
TRG chief executive Jill Robinson said a stronger sense of audience loyalty in the US could have lessened the impact on ticket sales during the pandemic so far.
"I am not surprised to see that the initial impact of Covid-19 has been more pronounced in the UK. Many North American organisations place a far greater emphasis on building a loyal customer base and our analysis shows that proportionally, ’loyalists’ are booking more during the pandemic," she said.
She also pointed to the subscription model of ticket buying – where audiences buy an upfront pass for a theatre’s entire season rather than buying tickets on a show-by-show basis – which is much more common in the US and Canada.
"Subscription revenues continue to be the bed rock for many North American arts organisations, and we are hearing of record subscription sales in 2020 from some of our clients despite the virus," Robinson said. Most venues in the UK do not offer subscriptions.
Sales in the UK have not recovered from the initial shock, TRG said, and have maintained similar levels to late March. However, ticket buying in the US and Canada has continued to decline during the past two months despite lockdown easing in many US states, prompting TRG to warn that sales could fall to the UK’s levels if the current trend continues in June.
The most recent data suggests that UK venues have so far been more likely to take all future events off sale than their American counterparts, a move that is impacting smaller organisations more.
These venues are seeing the biggest reduction in year-on-year sales, with most UK organisations that have annual ticketing revenues of less than £1 million selling no tickets at all between May 4 and 24, TRG said.
In the US, states are beginning to ease lockdown restrictions, with cinemas expected to open in some areas within weeks, pointing to a potential restart for theatres sooner than in the UK.
Robinson said this should encourage theatre bookers in North America, however the data suggests this is not yet happening.
"We’d expect to see confidence in and bookings for performances in North American beginning to rise again. However, this has not been the case across our participating venues. Having access to near real-time data in the coming weeks will be crucial to track whether as a sector we are on a pathway to recovery, or if the shadow of the pandemic is continuing to have a major impact on customer behaviour," she said.
It is not yet clear whether the UK will follow a similarly hesitant path when it comes to audiences booking once more. However, the first major survey into audience attitudes, conducted across April and May, indicated that around 40% of regular bookers would not be ready to start booking again until September at the earliest, with the number that plan to wait until next year before booking again increasing as time goes on.