Comp Tickets Are Not Cost Free Transaction

Last month Drew McManus had box office manager Tiffin Feltner make a guest post on his Adaptistration blog on the topic of comp tickets.   It has taken me about three weeks to stop grinding my teeth long enough to make a post of my own on the topic.  You will see a lot of posts about optimizing ticket prices based on various criteria and I think those assume people have a handle on their comp ticket policies. But let me tell you, in my experience there are a lot of people out there you think would know better who have absolutely bonkers approaches to comp ticketing.

Feltner notes that about 40% of comps go unused. I wondered if that is a nationwide statistic or just what they have observed in terms of the venues they serve. Reports I have pulled from my ticketing system often show much greater rates than that.

Organizations I have worked at have ticketed events for rentals of our own venue as well as served as a community ticketing hub providing service to other organizations at their venues. Many times they are not only comping tickets for individual events, but providing comp subscriptions which results in a large number of empty seats for the entire year.

There are so many issues that arise because of comp ticketing decisions. First, because organizations like to comp tickets and subscriptions to important guests, they place them in large, consecutive groups in the closest rows. Which means if people don’t use the comps, you can have a nearly sold out event where the first 10 rows are virtually empty and those in attendance are packed like sardines in the back of the venue.

Then there are other cases when the event is sold out in the ticketing system and the client can’t get a special last minute guest in because they distributed the house seats held back for this purpose days earlier. Then of course, when the show starts there are a bunch of empty seats because so much of the house had been comped.

We have run into situations where the client decides a ticket holder has forfeited their seat by not showing up five minutes before, without ever having communicated that policy. (Because it didn’t exist until just now.) Sometimes the ticket holder shows up to find their seat occupied, sometimes that bullet is dodged.

Then there have been times the client tells us they have confirmed a ticket holder is not attending, asked us to assign the ticket to someone else, and then put a sign on the seat reserving it for a third person.

Not only are poorly considered ticketing policies bad optics and create poor customer relations, most of the time the ticketing staff ends up as the target of blame for these bad decisions–often by the people responsible for making these bad decisions. This is what makes me grind my teeth because all these bad feelings and awkward situations could be avoided with a little forethought and policy discipline.

In their guest post, Feltner suggests using a card that can only be redeemed on the night of the show as a solution to the comp issue. That is similar to an approach my staff has used with clients where we suggest unassigned blocks of seats strategically placed in places with good sightlines. These blocks can be assigned as needed when it is known what VIPs will be attending. This allows for better placement and assignment of seats prior to an event date.

However, there needs to be strong comp policy guidelines in place so that there isn’t a gradual creep back to 1/3 of the seats being comped well in advance.  If your venue scans tickets, you are probably able to pull a no-show report broken down by ticket category that can provide insight into how many of the comps are being used which can inform tweaks to the ticketing policy.

While I am advocating for a robust comp ticket policy, this is not to say that you shouldn’t be offering comp tickets. There are a lot of reasons why free admission is a bad idea, but it can be useful to achieve targeted goals. As Feltner mentions, it is important to have some sort of tracking mechanism in place to evaluate whether you are achieving those goals.

One thing to consider if you are offering comp tickets as a sponsorship or donor benefit is to ask the recipient if they plan to use the tickets. In my experience, a fair number of people provide support because they believe in the organization’s work, but don’t necessarily intend to redeem the benefits that come with the support.

Not only does that allow those seats to be filled, but it also allows a greater portion of their donation to be credited as tax deductible because they are not receiving material benefit. However, this benefit needs to be refused immediately at the time of the donation. You can’t ask people in December after you have had 8 events occur and then retroactively provide credit for unattended shows. If they do decide to attend one event at a later time, you can always comp them in then and make an appropriate adjustment to their donation credit.

Try On Theatre, It May Fit Better Than You Think

American Theatre recently had a great piece about an interesting approach Princeton University is using as an alternative to auditions called “Try On Theatre Days.” They describe the program as “replacing high-intensity auditions with educational workshops as a means to cast performers and stagehands for the school’s seasonal productions.”

What I appreciate about this approach is the broad invitation to the campus community to come and check out the theatre program and experience mini-lessons in various functions. This is a departure from the practice at many non-conservatory theatre programs I have worked with and encountered where the invitation to the campus community starts and ends with the audition notice. The approach that Princeton is described as using seems to do a better job of giving people the confidence they have the ability to contribute to a production both by getting them to participate in various activities and raising awareness of roles beyond performing.

There is also a hope that the process will introduce greater diversity and reduce insular clique culture in the theatre program:

The first day of the three-day process is a community day, at which all Princeton students are invited to meet the theatre department and to experience introductory-level singing, dancing, and acting workshops…The next two days are designated for students to “try on” specific shows in the upcoming season, … not only in the acting sense but also, for example, stage management, in which prospective students get the opportunity to try calling cues. The purpose is to introduce and teach students to different facets of theatre rather than make judgments about what capabilities certain students walk in the door with, and in turn let students decide if theatre is something they want to pursue.

This new process aims to level the playing field for students who didn’t have traditional theatrical training prior to attending Princeton University. The goal is to transform the student theatre culture and attract a more diverse population, as well as to reduce the cliques and the student hierarchies that often result when theatre students consistently casting their friends in productions.

The “Try On Theatre Days” grew out of an initiative where the university administration paid students to conduct teach-ins about the challenges, biases, and other discouraging factors they faced when trying to participate in productions and classes. Students interviewed by American Theatre said the result has been an increased degree of authenticity in productions, a shift in power dynamics, a rethinking of the casting process, and an improved sense capacity to participate in the creative process.

You’re Not Meant To Eat Everything On The Menu

Many of you may have seen the news about the accusations of “wokeness” being leveled at the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel for adding plant based breakfast sausage to the menu. To be clear, they aren’t replacing the existing meat based sausage option, just adding the plant-based option.

Upon reading this, I immediately thought of a talk Nina Simon did at the Minnesota History conference discussing her book, The Art of Relevance. Specifically, I was reminded of her statement that not everything an arts organization does is for the insiders. She mentions this idea in other talks that she did, but this was my first introduction to the concept so I remembered it clearly and thought the Cracker Barrel story was a good opportunity to revisit it.

While I remembered this talk so clearly I was able to find my post on her talk immediately, I had not recalled just how appropriate it was.

Right there in the second paragraph I wrote,

“She uses the metaphor about going to a restaurant and how you don’t suddenly decide to boycott the restaurant if they start adding vegetarian and heart healthy options to their regular menu.”

Sorry Nina, it looks like you were wrong.
There are a lot of lessons and things to consider in the Cracker Barrel example. There are a number of other restaurants and chains that started offering faux meat like the Impossible Burger without this sort of reaction. Dunkin Donuts in particular offered the breakfast veggie-sausage patty on their menu. So why the negative reaction to Cracker Barrel’s decision? My theory is that people have made the restaurant chain part of their identity and adding a non-meat option threatens that identity in some way.

I think in a lot of ways arts organizations might view their core supporters reacting in a similar manner and be reluctant to effect change. Honestly, I don’t know that Cracker Barrel offers a cautionary tale to most arts organizations. I do think that there will be a lot of people in a community who very closely identify with and organization and are invested in its well-being, to the point they will mention a show they just attended a few months ago. The fact the show was two years ago just illustrates they feel like they have close ties.

On the whole, I think it will be like most restaurants adding heart healthy and vegetarian options — people’s eyes will pass over those listings looking for what they like. New opportunities to open doors to new audiences isn’t going to bother long term supporters overall, especially if promoted well while maintaining a perception that long term supporters aren’t losing anything by it. It think it is easy to overestimate the push back. I have seen a whole season of classical music concerts fill the house despite the inclusion of some contemporary, non-canonical pieces. The traditional audiences seemed happy to see younger audiences filling in the seats beside them.

Certainly, context matters and the emergence from Covid restrictions provides license to try new approaches. Arts and cultural organizations would be wise take advantage of this opportunity.

This is not to say that there aren’t organizations with which supporters have made their association an integral part of their identity. Supporters for whom any change feels like a personal threat. A situation like this bears very, very serious examination. Not only is it an impediment to inviting new people in to renew the vitality of the organization, but it may clash with the organization’s self-perception of who they are for. Most Cracker Barrel locations are near interstate highways so the addition of the vegetable based faux meat is meant to signal that travelers with different dietary preferences are welcome. But the response of a lot of customers is, no they are not.

You Now Have Permission To Have An Authentic Response

Last month the San Francisco Chronicle ran an opinion piece by Nataki Garrett, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, titled Theater can help drive economic recovery in S.F. and elsewhere. But not if it stays so white

She talks about how there are a lot of barriers to participation in theatre for new audiences like ticketing pricing, lack of representation on stage and in leadership, accessibility, etc., but focuses most of the piece on the formal attendance etiquette. She notes that in addition to “how to behave” sections on organization websites, Business Insider had published a similar guide as Broadway prepared to open post-Covid.

Even as the opportunity to re-write the narrative about who was was welcome presented itself as Covid restrictions loosened, traditional gatekeeping practices re-asserted themselves. She cites the example of the Tina Turner musical which encouraged audience response by design:

The musical takes audiences through the life of legendary rock ‘n’ roll icon Tina Turner, using her own popular songs to tell her story. It’s a theatrical performance that compels the audience to physically react, something Hall encourages in her audiences. Yet, when attending a preview performance in 2020, I watched white audience members scold other audience goers for their audible reactions to the electrifying performance. Their message was clear: Adhere to our rules or you’re not welcome.

In terms of alternative messaging to use in order to welcome audiences, Garrett gives the example of the playwrights notes for the Broadway show, “Skeleton Crew:”

Inserted in every “Playbill” was a note from the playwright on “Permissions for Engagements.” It reads in part: “Consider this an invitation to be yourselves in this audience. You are allowed to laugh audibly. You are allowed to have audible moments of reaction and response. This can be a church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”

This isn’t a boilerplate text for widespread use. Every organization and show has a different context requiring a differently worded invitation.

A storytelling group in my community does a pretty good job of this prior to every session they have when they layout a framework of behavior. The rules are mostly about eliminating crosstalk at the tables while people were telling stories. People are encouraged to snap, stomp and yell things like “You know that’s right!”

I think this works out well for them because there is really only one thing they ask you not to do and then invite you to feel free to have a spontaneous response. By providing examples of what form that response might take, they manage to generally keep things from getting too disruptive for both the audience and storytellers unaccustomed to public speaking.