photo by Tadson Bussey, used under a Creative Commons license

Full Disclosure: I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville for over 7 years. I am currently a board member with Le Petomane Theater Ensemble. Over the years I have held internships at Arena Stage, New World Theater, Trinity Repertory Company and Amherst College Theater & Dance Department. This article in no way officially represents any of those organizations, even though it is informed by my experiences with each. And I don’t claim to have the answers to these issues.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years surrounding the development and flurry of activity on local deal sites like Group On, Living Social and Try It Local (among others). This is not about those sites, at least not really.

I saw a link on Twitter about Cash Mobs (via @andmegansaid) – the name and then the content caught my attention and my brain would not stop. Especially since the moment I re-teweeted this link, three people I know immediately picked up on it (@GJMaupin, @michellej and @dloehr) And thought it was a phenomenal idea for Louisville. And one of them volunteered to coordinate.

Then I got a LinkedIn message about it from someone who was already on it in terms of organizing for Louisville and asked if I was interested in being involved.

Then I mentioned it to a friend at The Paper, and they were interested in hearing what happens, and I suggested they cover it when it does.

Then one of the tweeps (@dloehr) asked me to write something for #2amt, which was exactly where my once-a-theatre-marketer-always-a-theatre-marketer brain was going.

You see, there’s a lot of talk about why the arts can’t get audiences, can’t bring in younger audiences, deep discount too much, give away the farm with Group On offers, etc. And on the fundraising side, there’s similar discussion about how those things impact donations.

But there’s not much talk about the fact that we already know a certain segment of theatre audiences can probably afford to pay more than they are already paying. How do we know this?

I’m not going to say this is Intuitively Obvious to the Casual Observer (favorite logic term learned from high school math teach Coach Brian Spicer). However, having absorbed a ton of sales data, survey and research statistics on theatre attendance, audience development and ticket sales, I would posit the following commonly held observations culled from said years of data (and would point you towards Americans for the Arts, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, Theatre Communications Group and smart people like Devon V. Smith):

A) Top predictors of theatre attendance are education and income.

B) Actual average ticket prices paid (i.e. if you average total revenue over total paid tickets sold) hover very low compared to median face prices. In most cases this occurs even when you exclude standard discount face prices such as student matinee tickets.

C) Most theatres (but not all) charge less per ticket for season tickets than they do for single tickets. In some scenarios, that price may be even less than the actual average ticket price paid. (Remember, that price is often lower than median face price.) So the people we often cite as being more engaged (season ticket holders) are paying less per ticket. Not necessarily bad, just an observation.

D) Season ticket holders skew at least slightly higher on income and education than single ticket buyers.

If these well-educated, high-income attendees can pay more, why don’t they? As many others have written and complained about, we have conditioned audiences to expect discounts. As fewer people have written, in recent years with budget constraints and staffing cuts plaguing the industry, quality has had some roller coasters. Correlation? Not for me to say.

So, and?

When you not only buy a discounted ticket to the theatre, but you buy it through a site like GroupOn, you are double-dinging the organization. Part of the money you pay (for what is already a large discount off the face price) goes to that arts organization, and part goes to the deal site.

Yes, the organizations who participate in these local deal sites know what they are getting into, just as they know what they are doing when they offer $10 tickets at the end of a run that is not selling and seats sit empty.

But, wouldn’t it be great if those who CAN afford to pay more, do so? On a regular basis?

I’m not saying that theatres should raise their ticket prices, exclude lower-prices or stop all discounting. There is something to be said for the service theatres provide to the community, which CANNOT be said if tickets are exclusively available to those with a college education and the income that goes with it.

I think there is a family of four who will stop going to see that family friendly show every year if the bottom level price or kids discounts go away.

I think there are at-risk kids who would never have a chance to experience theatre if it weren’t for grant programs and comp tickets. I have personally heard stories of the positive impact that the act of going to see a play with an involved teacher and classmates can have on a kid who has very little to be cheerful about.

And a theatre would be shooting themselves in the foot regarding continual audience development if they made it less likely for parents and teachers to introduce children to the theatre (and bring them back for return trips).

I think most theatres undervalue current and prospective audience members who do not have an advanced degree and are not at the top of the income bracket. Theatre is not some lofty, intellectual realm to be preserved for the elite. Theatre is one of the oldest forms of mass entertainment and you don’t have to have a fancy piece of paper or a big bank account to enjoy it.

I think a college student or typical 20-something with a job not at the top of the pay scale is more likely to give your show a try as an entertainment option if they can also afford dinner or drinks on the same night. And maybe groceries that week, too. Make it easy for them to realize that there is value in what you do, and they will pay full-price one day.

And lest my friends in development skewer me over a marketing/fundraising divide bonfire, yes, I think you should still ask those who attend the theatre for donations to support your operating budget. I’ve always been a big cheerleader for educating laypeople that theatre costs more than what you and others pay for tickets.

And I think if you are not already doing so, you should happily accept even $5 donations from those who are either too young to be at their top earning potential, or not in the highest income bracket. Look what Obama did with $5 donors.

However, if a theatre – especially a non-profit theatre that makes up less than half its operating revenues through ticket sales – values tickets in the best seats at $50 each, I think there are people who can probably afford that who should pay full price, instead of paying less.

The whole idea behind Cash Mobs, is that you can show support for the local businesses you love, by paying what you think their product is worth – the full price the business is asking.

I’m excited to see what Cash Mobs can do to support local businesses in Louisville. We’re a very proud city, so I think it will be successful. I’m also interested to see what Cash Mobs could do for the arts, as a statement of support by those who can afford to pay full price.

Because when you are fortunate enough to be able to pay full-price for something and do so in the face of daily deal sites, pay what you can and day of discounts, what you are really saying is:

I think this is important.

I think this has value.

I think this is worth paying “full-price.”

  • March 28, 2012
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