When lockdown restrictions are relaxed, theatres will need to discover new ways to maximise income and build more than a transactional relationship with audiences in order to survive, says arts consultant David Reece
If social distancing is going to be the new normal, theatres need to find a solution that works for them or risk being closed indefinitely.
Covid-19 hit the theatre sector like a hurricane, forcing a complete shutdown of the industry in a matter of weeks.
As the initial melee gives way, questions are now being asked. How long will lockdown last? In what circumstances will theatres be able to reopen? How can performers, crew, staff and audiences be kept safe? Will audiences come back? What happens if there is a second wave?
While planning in the face of so many unknowns is a challenge, it is essential for the future health of the industry.
Planning is a challenge, but it is essential for the future health of the industry
Some countries are planning to allow cultural attractions to reopen sooner, provided they follow strict guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and visitors. This can be seen in Germany, where small museums have begun to reopen and in China, where new measures at outdoor attractions include temperature checks at entry, distance markers for social distancing, cashless payments only, extra cleaning measures, and PPE for staff. A new normal indeed.
Spain is one of the first countries to announce a timeline for the reopening of theatres, which could be as soon as late May. However, social distancing measures will mean they must be no more than a third full.
For many, a socially distanced auditorium is impossible – particularly receiving houses, or those with large fixed costs of opening. But for the rest, what exactly could a socially distanced auditorium look like, and how might it be sold?
Right now, the House of Commons serves as an unlikely example of how theatres could operate a socially distanced auditorium. Every other row is out of use, as is every other seat in an occupied row, and capacity is augmented through the ability to join a digital live stream from home.
If you apply this approach to a typical theatre, taking out every other seat reduces your capacity by just under half, and taking out every other row reduces capacity to less than 30%. According to UK Theatre in 2018, 61% of available seats were filled, so even if you make the obviously false assumption that demand is spread evenly, then the best-case scenario is that ticket sales have just been halved.
In this simplistic checkerboard approach to the socially distanced auditorium, you quickly realise seats that could have been filled within the guidelines end up going to waste, and that the original price banding no longer makes sense, costing a disproportionate amount of financial capacity.
What about parties from the same household? There is no need to prevent them from sitting next to each other by taking out every other seat. For many, going to the theatre is a social outing after all. In fact, the more people who can sit together the more you increase your available capacity, so there’s actually an incentive to encourage households of bigger party sizes (within reason).Proving that everyone in the party is from the same household will be another challenge, however.
Let’s not forget that there will still be a range of prices customers are willing to pay. Some people may be willing to pay more for something they have been desperately missing, while others will have become acutely price sensitive due to changes in their circumstances. That’s before we even start to consider the impact all the free digital content is having on customer perceptions of value.
If socially distanced auditoriums are one of the conditions for reopening, the consequences will be profound
To get the most income, as well as maintain accessibility, price differentiation will still be important; but with less emphasis on differentiation by seat location and more emphasis on other factors such as time of booking, ticket restrictions, priority seat allocations and so on.
Could this even be an opportunity for dynamic pricing? Or has this become a dirty word? If it is a solution then communication is key, making a virtue of early booking with lower prices as a reward and helping the theatre get cashflow moving again.
Until ticketing suppliers have developed new ways to maximise capacity while maintaining social distancing, theatres might be better off suspending select-your-own-seat online, allowing box office staff to allocate seats manually to make the most efficient use of inventory. This could also form another point of differentiation, with more expensive tickets getting higher priority allocation and lower priced options being used to fill in any gaps, squeezing every bit of available capacity out of each show.
What about theatres who have shows on sale far into the future, when social distancing might end up being relaxed? Going on sale at full capacity runs the risk of then having to selectively cancel some tickets to bring the performance back within the limits for mass gatherings. If this is case, how do you decide which customers can attend? Conversely, if you are too cautious and go on sale with reduced capacity, might you miss out on sales if, by the time of the performance, you could be selling at full capacity?
Reduced capacity also puts more pressure on other earned income streams such as affiliation (donations and memberships) and ancillary (retail and catering).
Donations could be encouraged from those customers willing to pay extra for their tickets to support the venue, and theatres could ask people whether they would be willing to donate their ticket in the event a show is cancelled.
Where theatres have strong demand for shows, the limited capacity makes a membership benefit such as priority booking or priority seat allocation more attractive. Shifting the emphasis of membership to the philanthropic rather than the transactional might encourage more people to consider becoming a member. And without a raft of costly benefits, there’s also the potential for additional income through Gift Aid.
Fewer people in the building also means fewer people to buy other products at the venue, which places a greater need on (safely) maximising what is on offer to the available audience. Even if shows no longer have intervals, there could still be pre and post-show drinks, especially if these are booked in advance so that venues can control capacity and manage their inventory.
Successful planning will need to address a number of possible scenarios and while best practice guidelines for how theatres should operate in this new normal will take time to emerge, each individual theatre will still need to find the right solution that works for them.