Theatres, think twice before imposing extra charges

Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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A recent visit to York's Illuminate Festival focused my attention towards the continuing ticket service fee debate which has been raging for a number of months resulting in comedians Dave Gorman, Jason Manford, and Sarah Millican all boycotting ATG theatres as a result of their ticket service charges.

My experience was a smaller affair but quickly illustrated how something can escalate and a reputation become damaged.

Every year at the end of October, the City of York lights up many of its buildings with various installations. This year one of the showcase pieces was entitled The Storyteller, a 15 minute outdoor light show performed at regular intervals between 6pm to 10pm nightly over four days.

Tickets for this event could only be purchased from York Theatre Royal's box office and no other ticketing outlet.  The price was £3 per person plus a £1 booking fee applied by the theatre for its ticketing services. At first glance you may think "well it's only  £1"; however, looking at this in context, the service fee was a third of the ticket price. This alongside the fact that over a 1000 people a night could attend this event (with the majority of customers booking in person at the box office on the night where this charge was being applied to each booking) then those service fees amount to a significant sum.

The production was not produced by York Theatre Royal. However, it was interesting to observe the patrons – purchasing tickets and questioning the box office about this applied service fee and briskly told by a box office assistant "that's just the way it is" and "the same for all events".

I wondered why they just did not make it £4 a ticket, because the £1 additional service charge saw a line of customers leave feeling ripped off in an appalling example of ill-thought and potentially long-term damaging customer care by the theatre’s box office.

I have produced at York Theatre Royal and know it to be a terrific theatre, but for many visitors they were walking into this theatre for the first time and leaving disgruntled with the wrong impression of it.

ATG has keenly pointed out in defending its ticketing charges that customers booking in person do not incur any booking fee. I believe that no one would unnecessarily begrudge a small fee to a theatre if these funds go towards restoration or certain aspects of reasonable administration costs in the process of ticketing, but how this is conveyed to the customer is vital. The box office is the first point of contact for the patron and for many the only direct contact they will have with a member or representative of the theatre. How they are treated and the value of the experience will resonates on whether they choose to come back.

Despite these headline comedians boycotting certain theatres, there will be audiences willing to pay to see them. But where ticket service charges are important to consider carefully is when you want a patron to take a chance on booking a new or perhaps less mainstream piece of work alongside the familiar. If they are faced with large additional ticketing charges, their own theatregoing may become infrequent. That is concerning for everyone but particularly for our industry's own future especially in its regional houses where patrons may have once booked a mix of shows across a season.

Suddenly with all this in mind even a £1 service fee can appear irrevocably damaging if conveyed in the wrong context for any theatre’s own profile and reputation.