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.

More Europe Performing Arts Orgs During Covid

Last week German arts administrator Rainer Glaap made a Facebook post linking to the first ever study of theatres across the European Union (EU).  Additionally, some of the survey participants were non-EU members of the Creative Europe program.  Readers may recall I had made a number of posts looking at how various governments across Europe were providing financial support to artists during the height of the Covid pandemic.  So I was interested in seeing what this report had to say.

One of the biggest difficulties faced in putting the study together was all the differences that exist between European countries in terms of number of theatre, definitions of performing arts activities, funding policies, training practices, etc. There were numerous times the report noted the difficulty in making and apples to apples comparison.

However, there were a number of interesting things I pulled from the report. For instance, apparently France and Germany are the primary models for presenting/touring versus producing.

The so-called ‘French oriented system’ is based on productions, touring and selling plays to other venues making international co-production easier to fit in a programme. In a ‘German oriented system’ whereby theatres operate as production houses with in-house established ensembles, international co-production is less natural since the programme is set for the season.

Since the degree to which European governments subsidize the arts is a frequent topic of conversation in the U.S., having a EU-wide report on this number is obviously of some interest (recall this is an average from 39 participating countries):

“ticket sales in public funded theatres usually amounts to about 25% of the theatre budget. Commercially-oriented private theatres and independent companies however rely mostly on revenues generated from the box office and other commercial activities. Among the surveyed private theatre venues and companies, revenue from sales (tickets, admissions) constituted around 40% of their budgets before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

During Covid, many of the measures taken in European countries were similar to those in the U.S. Many shifted to streamed live or archived performances, with results ranging from innovative to downright disappointing. Others found ways to perform in outdoor or non-traditional spaces. Companies in a number of countries started working with hospitals, retirement homes, schools and universities to offer performances. Some organizations experimented with the drive-in theatre experience where people remained in their cars. There was an account of a festival in France which replaced the cancelled Avignon Festival which provided press exposure to smaller arts organizations which normally wouldn’t get it and apparently enabled the organizer, Theatre 14 to reach audiences not used to attending theatre. I am not sure how it was organized to encourage that. I assumed it might be outdoors in public spaces, but it appears the performances were held in physical performance spaces.

There were examples of efforts to provide better support for artists, both in terms of government policy:

Good practices are emerging, such as negotiating a minimum wage for artistic work in the theatre, also for people working on other terms than an employment contract e.g. in Austria or Finland. In some countries, such as Poland, new legal acts and wide-ranging regulations are created to support this professional group. In Belgium, the situation of artists resulting from the pandemic pushed the creation of a new type of ‘fair trade’ contract, in order to improve the contractual relations between artists and cultural operators. As a result of such a contract, a play can either be postponed or cancelled, but in the latter case part of the fees must be paid to the artists.

[…]

….The project was funded via the European Commission’s DG Employment and Social Affairs budget line for Information and Training Measures for Workers’ Organisations. It helped the unions to train and put in place a strategy in relation to organising, with a focus on freelance, self-employed and otherwise atypical workers in the Media Arts and Entertainment sectors.”83

As well as acts of solidarity:

Nau Ivanow, a cultural residence space in Spain that has a venue, decided that all income from ticket sales during the COVID-19 pandemic will be given to the performing companies and artists.
Also, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic they decided to offer their two rehearsal spaces for free for the interested artists/companies.

[..]

Some of the [Romanian] public cultural institutions (National Dance Centre, National Heritage Institute, Clujean Cultural Centre, National Museum Complex ASTRA Sibiu, Studio M Theatre in Sfantu Gheorghe) announced that they did not attend this funding session in order to show their solidarity with the independent cultural operators, whose resources have been drastically diminished, and who were less eligible for support than state funded institutions.

The report also made some recommendations for the future which I will probably cover in my post tomorrow.

Strong Opposition To Warehousing Charitable Funding In DAFs

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how donor advised funds (DAF) had surpassed charities like the United Way as recipients of charitable giving.  I noted this is a problem because unlike foundations and other grant making institutions, DAFs have no obligation to disburse the funds they hold. The donors get the tax benefit, but the funds are not being employed for a charitable purpose.

The good folks at the Non-Profit Law blog recently shared a link to a June 2022 Ipsos poll showing public sentiment is against such arrangements. Not only do they feel DAFs should be required to distribute the funds they hold, they feel foundations should be required to distribute twice the amount they are currently.

  • With more than $1.2 trillion in charitable contributions currently sitting on the sidelines, 69 percent of adults surveyed support a 10 percent payout requirement for foundations (up from the current 5 percent) and for DAFs (which currently have no payout requirement), even if this reduces the amount of money in foundations and DAFs in the future.
  • 73 percent support requiring DAFs to make grants within 2 to 5 years of receiving donations.

The biggest impediment to generating general will toward making these changes is lack of knowledge about the situation. Of those surveyed, only 17% were aware that the tax code is structured to allow tax exemptions for charitable giving while allowing so little to be distributed to non-profit entities. Once people become aware of this information, there is bi-partisan support to make changes that will see non-profits receive a greater amount of funds sooner.

Specifically, respondents across the political spectrum expressed a strong discomfort with taxpayer subsidies allowing donors to set up perpetual foundations, with conservatives objecting to such subsidies even more strongly than liberals. What is more, both liberals (74 percent) and conservatives (70 percent) favor increasing foundation and DAF payouts to 10 percent, even if it would reduce foundation assets in the future.

Arts Orgs Are Shifting Approach Post-Pandemic, Will Grantmakers?

A link to a video presentation about a study the Michigan Arts and Culture Council commissioned of SMU DataArts popped up in my feed last week. I am not sure what inspired me to listen all the way through because I am glad I did. There were some small unexpected revelations that popped up.

For instance, right around the 30 min mark director of SMU DataArts Zannie Voss discusses how Michigan arts organizations have a higher median working capital than the national median, however the average working capital was quite a bit lower than the national average. (Reminder of median vs average) But both the median and average were close together which Voss says is unusual. After some investigation she found this was due to Michigan arts organizations having smaller budgets than the national average.

This carried over to organizations who primarily served BIPOC communities versus those who did not primarily serve BIPOC communities. Overall BIPOC serving groups in MI had the same liquidity as non-BIPOC serving groups in MI, whereas nationally BIPOC serving groups are more liquid than non-BIPOC groups.  This is due to the fact that in MI the budget size of both groups are closer to each other than their peers nationally.  Generally smaller organizations tend to be more liquid than larger ones.

Voss delves more deeply into this factor by noting that smaller BIPOC serving organizations especially tend not to grow large because there is a lot of unrecognized sweat equity being invested by people. This is one of those “you have to have money to make money” situations. If an organization can’t show a cash expense because so many people donate their effort, they don’t meet foundation/donor funding thresholds to receive more money.

She the moves into recommendations for funders as organizations try to recover from Covid restrictions. The first one is to “support grantee defined strategies for recovery and adaptation” and to “place bigger bets on BIPOC serving organizations who have been disproportionately by the pandemic and racial injustice” on the scope of decades rather than a couple years.  Another is to provide capacity building by supporting salaries and benefits for staffing and other operational expenses.

Specifically she encourages funders to focus on capacity building over organizational growth.  Instead of pushing organizations to add programs, granters should encourage organizations to set down deeper roots to ensure stability.

Likewise she advocates for the exploration of different business models, multi-year grant commitments and encouraging arts organizations to build cash reserves.

None of these suggestions are particularly new, but the pandemic reignited the discussion of many of the issues and created a context for implementing policy changes going forward.