99 Economic Concerns, But Admission Price Ain’t One

In a recent post Colleen Dilenschneider reported that recent research reflects the title of this post.  While inflation is a big concern for people right now, ticket/admission pricing does not seem to be a barrier to participating in a cultural experience.

However, the cost of everything else surrounding that experience is a concern – food, gas, parking, babysitting, gift shop purchases.

While those may impede the decision to attend, Dilenschneider says the research shows that often people are opting to downgrade on these ancillary aspects in order to still have the central experience.

This research suggests that people expect to spend less overall in support of their cultural experiences. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are abandoning or deferring cultural experiences; instead, they are contemplating economic tradeoffs to align their actual spending to expectations. Think carpooling instead of driving separately. Parking in the garage instead of using the valet. Eating at a fast casual restaurant instead of the Michelin-starred culinary temple.

Dilenschneider cautions arts and cultural organizations against discounting admission as a way to entice purchases because most of the concerns people have are far outside the scope of the organization’s control and are multiple time as concerning as admission prices.  Among those with a high propensity to attend, factors like inflation, the general economy, and financial markets were much greater concerns with much more weight than admission cost.

Taking $3 off your admission prices won’t offset an airplane fare costing $400 more than it did last year. Nor will it reduce the amount of fuel required to visit or improve the ROI for someone’s 401k. More to the point, there is scant evidence that a significant number of high-propensity visitors are even asking organizations to lower their admission costs.

[…]

Tampering with your ticket prices in reaction to broad economic perceptions risks doing more harm than good. While admission pricing may be one of the few cost-related factors within our control, the research indicates that it is not a notable barrier for those with interest in attending.

Instead, the solutions are strategic: Keep engaging digitally to motivate attendance. Underscore your credibility with fantastic content. Continue to strive to be relevant. Keep being your inspiring, amazing institutional self, such that the quality of your experience cannot be ignored.

Consent Agenda Probably Most Useful Than Ever Before

In an ArtsHacker article I wrote back in 2015, I had advocated for the use of consent agendas as a way to quickly dispose of routine matters at board meetings and leave time for discussion of substantive issues.  Now that we are in a place where at least some members may be attending virtually, it is probably even more important to conduct business in a manner that incentivizes people to maintain full focus on the business at hand.

Some of the links in my original ArtsHacker post are no longer valid, but a quick web search will help you find a number of resources that address how to use a consent agenda such as the Council for Non-Profits.

Basically what happens is that the organizational staff prepares materials which it sends out in advance of the board meeting. Those materials are placed into a consent agenda which is approved as a whole at the start of a board meeting. The Council for Non-Profits lists the following as things which might be placed in such an agenda.

• Approval of board and committee minutes
• Correspondence requiring no action
• Committee and staff reports
• Updates or background reports provided for informational purposes only
• Appointments requiring board confirmation
• Approval of contracts that fall within the organization’s policy guidelines
• Final approval of proposals that have been thoroughly discussed previously, where the board is comfortable with the implications
• Confirmation of pro forma items or actions that need no discussion but are required by the bylaws
• Dates of future meetings

Best practice is that any questions board members have should be asked prior to the meeting so that they can be researched and addressed in advance. When the meeting starts, the chair asks if there are any parts that the board feels need to be removed from the agenda. If there are, those items are removed and then the meeting moves forward to approve the remaining items. The removed items are then addressed later in the meeting.

So if a board member has major corrections to the minutes or questions about something in the financials, they should make a request to have those things removed from the consent agenda. Once the agenda is approved, there is no backtracking to engage the board in discussion about those items such as whether the organization should be entering into a contract that was included in the consent agenda.

In my 2015 post, I linked to an article in which the author recounts his experience attending a meeting which used a consent agenda if you want a sense of what this looks like in practice.

The idea is that the first 5-10 minutes of a meeting are spent addressing the consent agenda and then the remaining time is used to address policy, governance, strategy, etc. It is much more time consuming to go around the room calling on each committee head only to have them report “no report,” or “we met last Tuesday and will have a report next meeting,” than to have that summarized on a sheet of paper you received 10 days before the meeting.

When the nominating committee is ready to propose new members or the governance committee has bylaw revisions to discuss, those topics should be addressed in the main of the meeting rather than listed in a consent agenda. The process isn’t meant to reduce transparency though it can be misused in that manner.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to successful use of this agenda is getting everyone to turn into their information far enough out that it can be assembled for review and then getting all the board members to read the materials in advance so that very little gets pulled out of the consent agenda.

It sounds like a lot of work, but avoiding the committee roll call with a 1-2 sentence report out and quickly getting to substantive discussion is worth the effort and keeps people engaged. While I have never been successful in getting any board I have been involved with, either as organizational staff or a member, to adopt a consent agenda, the times I have gotten “best meeting in a long time” compliments has been when we have been able to get past the reporting quickly and discuss past successes/impacts, exciting initiatives and involve the board in decision making that moved toward real progress.

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.