We Make Cancellations Look Easy

It is fortunate that I am not often able to relate how I personally handled a crisis. However, we recently ran into a situation where we had a signed commitment for a show and the attraction backed out.

We were fortunate in that the event falls near the end of our season so we have plenty of time to communicate the change. In addition, we were able to replace it with another performance around the same date.

This sounds all very simple which is great for public relations because it appears that everything is being handled with grace and aplomb.

The reality is, you don’t realize the limitations of your ticketing software until you try to do a refund of one event on a subscription package. I am glad I had created a choose your own flex subscription package this year. Otherwise, our only option would have been to cancel all the seats for the subscriber and replace them with full price tickets–not something that maintains good relations with the audience.

Obviously, had it not existed already, we could have gone in an retroactively created a structure similar to what we had in place for the flex subscription.

The other issue is that now these people who got refunds are not recognized as subscribers by the ticketing system so their seats won’t automatically carry over to next season. We have had to keep track of those subscribers so that we can lock in their seats again next year.

I don’t list all this in order to vent my frustration at the ticketing system we use, but rather to illustrate some of the hurdles involved with problems like these. (I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties of trying to process cash refunds through a university system.)

The audience should never know about these problems. There was a moment where people in the box office were saying “Well, we will have to tell the subscribers that next year they will have to….” I emphasized the steps we would do instead so that the concept that asking for a refund might result in the loss of seats one held for 10 years was never introduced to the subscriber.

In order to inform our ticket buyers about the change, we sent out releases and went on the radio to make people aware of the substitution and ask them to watch their mail boxes for letters outlining their options. After the letters went out, we followed up a week later with an email mentioning the same options.

One positive element to this situation was that we could use the tickets we already issued for the replacement show. The ticket scanners will register them correctly. Since many people consult their tickets for the show dates, we included pre-printed stickers in the letters that could be placed over their tickets to remind them about the correct date.

Since most tickets to this event have been purchased by full season subscribers, we offered the option of either buying tickets to one of two non-season shows at a steep discount or receiving a refund.

Now my hope was that by putting the refund option last, we wouldn’t get a lot of people who wanted refunds. Out of the hundreds of tickets we have sold already, we have only had to refund around 10 which represents about 5-6 people, but that still is more than I would have liked personally.

My other goal in offering discount tickets was to generate good will and awareness. I figured there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy with the replacement show and wouldn’t want a refund. However, by apologizing for the inconvenience and offering a discount on other shows, we will hopefully rise in their estimation.

In addition, there have been some who were not aware that these shows weren’t part of their season subscription despite our efforts to differentiate them so the letter helped reinforce this.

We haven’t had too many people take advantage of the discounted tickets at this point. While I always want to be selling tickets, our immediate goal was to at least maintain goodwill.

One last thing we did was set a time limit on when you could request a refund or purchase discounted tickets. Since the show is more than 6 months away, we didn’t want to have a deluge of people calling for refunds a week before because they decided not to attend at the last minute. The date we set was 6 weeks after the letter was mailed out and I expect we will be flexible through a few weeks after.

Whether this stance ends up creating problems for us remains to be seen when the show arrives.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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