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Richard Howle: How the NT’s Travelex scheme launched a revolution across Theatreland

National Theatre billboard promoting Travelex-sponsored cheaper tickets in 2010 (prices later rose to £15). Photo: Catherine Gerbrands National Theatre billboard promoting Travelex-sponsored cheaper tickets in 2010 (prices later rose to £15). Photo: Catherine Gerbrands
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As it comes to the end of its 15-year deal with the National Theatre, Travelex should take a bow. It has been a fantastic sponsor for the NT and helped to set in motion a welcome trend in theatre ticketing that has benefited millions of people – and many more are still benefiting to this day.

Back in 2004, when I was working for theatre marketing agency AKA, we were brought on board to rejuvenate the NT’s marketing and to help it attract new audiences. This was just after the regime of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr had begun.

While several people lay claim to the idea behind the Travelex ticket scheme, what is in no doubt is that it played an important role in making the NT more accessible to a wider audience.

Very quickly, more and more of our clients – including commercial producers – cottoned on to the fact that having a ‘cheap’ tickets scheme wasn’t something that would devalue or damage their brand, but that actually could work as a positive marketing message.

Soon, it became de rigueur to have day-seat rates, lotteries or special schemes for young people, and quickly it became apparent that such initiatives had knock-on benefits.

At a time when internet bookings were beginning to become more popular, here was a way to get people to come to the theatre box office to buy tickets. Who doesn’t like a queue outside the theatre to make a show look popular? Also, having people arrive early in the day to buy tickets helps you shift a few extra when you’re not quite as busy as you would like. Many’s the time a box office will sell beyond the allocation of day seats to fill a draughty stalls.

I know from having sat with producers on hundreds of shows that genuine altruistic reasons were and are the driving force for these cheap-ticket schemes

While that is a cynical, commercial view of why the idea behind the Travelex season caught on across the river in the West End, I know from having sat with producers on hundreds of productions over the years that genuine altruistic reasons were and are the driving force for these schemes.

The National has been lucky to have such a supportive corporate sponsor to soften the financial blow of cheap theatre tickets. Most commercial producers do not have that luxury. As I discussed in my article on ticket prices back in March (see link below), tickets sold for £10 or £15 are tickets that are being sold at a loss – on many shows, a producer could get far more for those tickets.

Most producers I know are all too aware of their responsibility to develop new audiences and to make their productions accessible – something for which they are rarely given credit. But they also have a responsibility to their investors, to provide a return.

As production budgets rise and low theatre availability forces runs to be shorter, that pressure to maximise income becomes greater. The knock-on effect of this is that ticket prices are getting higher and higher, which makes the need to provide accessible tickets even more important.

Walking around the West End at 10am seeing the queues outside theatres as people try to get cheap day seats proves the need for this. It is a legacy of which the National Theatre and Travelex should be proud.

Richard Howle is the director of ticketing for the NEC Group

Think West End tickets are overpriced? Why a breakdown of the costs proves they’re not a rip-off

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