Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. It’s not as if we didn’t see it coming. Granted, I don’t think many anticipated this virus would end in lockdown, but we knew something was coming our way. Many organisations started discussing the impact of coronavirus and the implications for their businesses back in January.
As the global crisis grew, so did planning, thinking and preparation. Businesses usually have some sort of disaster recovery plan – these were dusted off and scenarios planned for.
As the crisis deepened, plans developed and evolved. Would everything be right? Definitely not. Would planning have been different if what is known now was known a few weeks ago? Undoubtedly. But, by the time the country started working from home, most had their plans in place.
What about the theatre industry? I am certain that there has been scrupulous planning in many venues up and down the country, but collectively, as an industry, has there been the preparation and leadership necessary to guide us through unprecedented times? Beneath the surface, there is a lot of grumbling about how coronavirus has been managed. This may be unfair, but the perception is that theatre has been somewhat on the back foot since the crisis unfolded.
Eyebrows were raised when it took until March 16 for Society of London Theatre to issue a universal directive about exchanging tickets. A simple policy that should have been thought through, discussed and decided weeks earlier. While it was a welcome move, it came way too late for theatregoers who were being panicked daily by a frenzied media.
Later that day, came Boris’ ‘advice’ for the general public to “avoid” theatres – plenty has been said and written about how it didn’t do anyone any favours. In the absence of clear leadership from government, SOLT stepped in and took the decision to close theatres with immediate effect.
It was without doubt an extremely difficult situation and one can only imagine the pressures that everyone was under when quick decisions had to be made. In these circumstances, there is never one ‘right’ decision that suits everyone. SOLT has been criticised for acting in haste, shutting down with barely an hour’s notice.
Indeed, when the government did eventually make the decision to close pubs and restaurants, they at least allowed that evening’s business to go ahead, allowing for a more orderly shutdown. By comparison, the immediate shutdown of theatres left many in limbo, not least the audiences, most of whom had already begun their journeys to theatres across the country. This is why scenario planning is so important.
Ticketing companies have borne the brunt of the fallout from the cancellations and have been inundated by customer requests for refunds. They have been hit particularly hard as they wait for theatres to refund money to them, with some theatres refunding ticket agents only after the performance was due to happen.
“It’s been an absolute shambles,” Francis Hellyer, co-founder of leading ticket agent London Theatre Direct, tells me. “The theatres have been far too slow in returning money to us and it has caused a lot of distress for theatregoers concerned about whether they will get a refund.”
‘It’s been an absolute shambles – the theatres have been far too slow in returning money to us’ – London Theatre Direct co-founder Francis Hellyer
I’m not privy to what preparations theatres may have made for coronavirus, but I do sympathise. Advance ticket receipts aren’t always banked in the most accessible places. In normal times, there is a well-established routine to release them as they mature, but any disruption to that routine takes time to work out with finance departments and banks.
But these are details that we shouldn’t expect ticket buyers to understand. The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, which recently put out an appeal for ticket buyers to be patient, is reporting that a number of members are concerned about an increase in customers instigating chargebacks.
Jonathan Brown, the organisation’s chief executive, explains: “When a customer instigates a chargeback, the venue or ticket agent has to pay a fee to the banks, regardless of whether that chargeback is successful. This is causing even further difficulty for ticket sellers, who are also having to pay credit-card commission on those refunds.”
STAR is in communications with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about this issue, as well as the requirement under the Consumer Rights Act to refund bookings within 14 days.
“These are unprecedented times for everyone, including producers, venues, ticket agents and customers,” says Brown. “The necessary processes and return of ticket advances mean it is incredibly difficult for this volume of ticket refunds to be made by venues and ticket agents in such a short window. We, and other entertainment industry organisations, are asking the government for a little bit of flexibility during this challenging period.”
These are indeed unprecedented times, but lessons to need to be learned and questions asked as to whether the theatre industry was as prepared as it could have been.
Early indications suggest those lessons haven’t been learned. The day after the government announced that social distancing measures may be in place for at least six months, one theatre sent an email to ticket agents announcing that “in line with the SOLT directive, performances from Monday April 27 to Saturday October 31 are no longer suspended and are now back on sale”.
With the rest of the live events industry cancelling shows until at least June, theatre still appears to have its head in the sand and is once again failing to prepare.
Richard Howle is the director of ticketing for the NEC Group, and runs its ticketing company, The Ticket Factory