by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal
One of the current issues in the entertainment industry is that people rarely buy tickets in advance. According to statistics from the League of American Theaters and Producers, only about one in three theatergoers is buying tickets more than four weeks in advance. This is even more of the case for dance audiences in the Philadelphia region. A study of over 5,000 orders placed on Dance Box Office in 2013 showed that 84% of purchases were made three days out from the performance date.
So why are people no longer buying in advance? Many in the broader industry cite 9/11 as being the turning point in purchasing habits as the public became afraid to make advanced plans. Other studies cite the economic down turn as creating a “last minute shopper” based on a limited amount of disposable income available after each paycheck. Then, there is always the new “retail discount mentality” – the longer you hold out, the better the deal you will get.
Or perhaps, the issue is simply that we are just busier than ever before. While the technological age was supposed to free up more time, it has in fact done just the opposite, keeping us constantly tethered to our workplace. With more technology, we as a society now spend more time nesting at home – watching TV, playing video games, and surfing on internet and a variety of social networks. Freeing up time and finding the motivation to go out for an evening has become more difficult and is more of an impulse than a plan.
Attending a performance also tends to be a shared experience, something we like to do in the accompaniment of another. In fact, 82% of all sales on Dance Box Office were for pairs of tickets versus single ticket purchases. This requires that the purchaser not only coordinate their own schedule but that of another.
The Philadelphia dance community has developed some unique issues with regards to advanced ticket purchases. Since the early days of the Philly Fringe, the trend for the majority of sales to be cash purchases at the door the day of the performance continues to be the norm. There are of course some exceptions as with larger dance companies or artists in high demand. This “cash acceptable mentality” carries with it the subtle implication that there will always be seats available because of a lack of high demand for dance productions. Price points only add to this conundrum, with the average cost for a dance ticket being $10-$15 dollars, making cash an easier sale than use of a credit card. Attendees, who pay discounted rates, see little value for online transactions where there may be service fees.
So why are advanced sales important? Lack of long term sales ultimately effects how shows are booked, marketed and priced. It changes the fundamental financing of a show or the ability to play to larger audiences. While many dance performances play to audiences under one hundred persons, any sizable venue requires some gauge of how a show is doing in the market place to avoid potential losses. This is especially true if a dance performance is running over several dates.
Advanced sales allows for the tracking of audience members and the development of mailing lists. With each credit card purchase online, a customers name, address, email and phone number may be compiled for future mailings and announcements. Such a mechanism does not exist when cash is paid at the door or at best it is voluntary.
Without advanced sales how can a venue or producer gauge the number of seats available? This may be especially problematic where the total number of seats may be limited. For several popular dance productions over the past year that emphasized cash at the door, I observed audiences either being packed in sitting on the floor, standing in the back or actually being turned away at the door. While having a full house is great for the artists, being turned away of having to stand for an hour or more simply generates ill will.
Even when performances are partially funded or in full by grants and donations, advanced ticket sales provide a cash flow to cover production expenses and allow for improved advertising and marketing efforts. With producers required to front many of the expenses in advance of a performance, having such a cash flow can prevent deficit spending or operating out of pocket. Overall it allows for the elevation of the production value of any performance.
Assuming a commitment by artists, producers and venues to use advanced sales as the primary means for filling seats, the issue remains on how to find new motivators to get audiences to commit in advance. One successful technique has been to offer a two tier pricing structure, where advanced sales are discounted and cash at the door is at a higher rate. Getting the bargain means booking in advance, operating very much as the airline industry does for its reservations.
Jump starting box office sales by offering discounts to various organizations or groups using a special discount code has also been effective. This goes beyond group sales by offering individuals, who may be members of local or national organizations, the ability to get special pricing provided purchases are made during a set period of time in advance of the show. “Limited Time Offers” have a proven track record in retail marketing as a means for driving consumer spending.
Other techniques have included reserving front rows for those who purchase in advance. While general admission may still be the norm, advanced purchasers are guaranteed the better seats. Offering other incentives such as free refreshments or a chance to meet the artists as part of the advanced sale package may also provide incentive.
To reverse the current downward trend for advanced purchases, the community as a whole needs to adopt this means of generating sales and then find interesting ways to motivate potential audiences to get beyond the “busies”.