Psychology of Re-Opening linked to a Washington Post story about all the psychological considerations some movie theater operators are factoring into re-opening their spaces for screenings. To paraphrase one of those interviewed, there may be a whole series of conditions that have to be met to admit audiences, but you don’t want people to feel like they are undergoing an airport screening just to see a movie.

An owner of a movie chain in Omaha has decided to rely on a mix of subtle imagery and social proof:

One conclusion: Leaning in to safety messaging is a surefire way to turn off customers.

“If you’re leading off the pitch with ‘It’s so clean you’re not going to get sick’ then you’ve already lost the argument,” said Barstow, whose company is about to open a new Omaha location. Instead of talking about disinfectant and distancing, he says, he believes it more effective to roll out traditional marketing that slips in the requisite information — an image of a shiny lobby with an employee in the background who just happens to be wearing a mask, for instance.

“You let people know you’re taking care of them, but very subtly,” he said.

Barstow said he and his daughter, who runs the company’s marketing operation, have discovered that the best weapon for luring customers might be not what the theater is doing at all — it’s the sight of other customers.


“Seeing someone like a mom bring her three kids to a matinee is I think going to be the best tool to make people feel comfortable about coming themselves.” Of course, he acknowledges, such events need to happen organically, captured instead of contrived on social media.

At my venue, we had already been planning to start showing movies in late July before our governor added live performance venues alongside movie theaters as places that are allowed to hold events. One of the major points of concern for employees was whether customers would wear masks. We weren’t sure how forceful we could be, but the recent decision by the AMC movie theater chain to make masks mandatory gives us a little more support, regardless of how insistent we decide to be.

One interesting observation from the Washington Post article I hadn’t really considered was the importance of having mask wearing staff communicate reassurance with their eyes and posture since the rest of the face won’t be visible. In this, perhaps the performing arts have a competitive advantage.

“You have to train staff how to reassure customers with their eyes, because no one will be able to see their mouths,” said Barstow, who is mandating employees wear masks.

“Maybe,” he mused, “we should hire local drama students.”

Customer Desires: Always Complicated

The news JC Penney is closing a number of their stores and liquidating the inventory reminded me of a post I made eight years ago about the company’s efforts to deal more fairly with customers. Instead of having all sorts of sales and discounts that lead consumers to suspect something had been marked up last week in order to put it on sale this week, among other bits of trickery, JC Penny’s new CEO at the time pledged to offer completely transparent, low everyday pricing.

The move backfired on them leading a number of business reporters to observe that perhaps people liked to be cheated. That CEO was out, a new one was ushered in who restored the sales and coupons.

It was all a bit revelatory about consumer psychology and how you can’t always take what people say they want at face value.

As I pointed out in my post at the time, it also illustrates that money does not build relationships and loyalty.  I would suggest that most non-profit arts organizations are in the relationship building/facilitation business. If we weren’t, would people be donating the value of their tickets on cancelled events and increasing the amount they typically donate in a year? I say facilitation because participation in an activity with friends and family contributes to the development of relationships.

As much as your organization is struggling, those donations and other expressions of concern are what distinguish your identity and role in the community from larger corporations, even if you suspect you may be soon accompanying JC Penny on the road to dissolution. In that 2012 post, I also linked to a post I made about the expiration date of arts organizations. At the time I was speaking theoretically. Sorry to say it may be emerging into reality.

Back in 2012 when I first wrote my post, I quoted Collen Dilenschneider. She has since come out with much better research and advice for arts organizations use of discounts, but the basics still remain the same.

One thing of course, I need to point out is that price does not develop loyalty. You can not develop a relationship with your community if interactions with your organization are based on price. I stated that in the early days of this blog and as Dilenschneider notes this is true even in these days of social media:

“It is far better for your brand and bottom line to have 100 fans who share and interact with your content to create a meaningful relationship, than to have 1,000 fans who never share your message and liked you just for the discount.”

Dilenschneider also points to some data that there are diminishing returns from social media discounts. This may illustrate be where arts organizations and retailers differ. Retailers can offer myriad discounts annually and not suffer, but arts and cultural organizations offer a product valued entirely differently from that of retailers

Putting Some O’ That Theory Into Practice

I arrived in my office last Friday to find a heck of a lot more emails in my Inbox than I am used to. It turned out the evening before the governor had announced a change of guidelines that would allow performing arts organizations to open after July 1 and people immediately started scrambling trying to ascertain what it all meant.  Ultimately, nothing the new order contained deviated from our expectations by much at all in terms of how it would impact seating capacity or operational practices. We were on a Zoom call with the county attorney today and he had nothing surprising to say in his reading of the order, but it was good to have our understanding confirmed.

Like me, you may have heard that Texas’ governor had issued guidance on performing arts centers last week.  However, I was surprised to learn that Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL was having concerts last week. I hadn’t heard that things had opened that far in any other state.

The performances in Clearwater were in their lobby in a cabaret type setting  with attendance capped at 80 people. It looks like the three shows on June 11 sold out quickly and the added shows on June 14,  19 & 25 sold out as well. I was wondering if there are any readers in Florida who may have attended who could talk about the show and what their experience was. I see from an article on the show there were some screening procedures and people were seated at a social distance.

Fans were offered face masks at the gate, temperature-checked upon entry, and delivered drinks and snacks by servers in gloves and black masks. They sat in groups of four or fewer, and for the most part, only got up to hit the head.

The venue is also communicating their safety policies in the events scheduled this month which include the following.

– Venue staff will be wearing face masks; we encourage patrons to do the same. Face masks are available at the door upon request.
– Hand sanitizer stations are readily available. If you are in need of an attendant with cleaning supplies, please ask the wait staff.
– Table selection is on a first-come/first-served basis. We ask that you not change tables once you are seated.
– We encourage remaining at your table during the show. If you wish to stand, you will be asked to move behind the seated area and maintain social distancing.
– All food and beverage service will be table-side. There will be no walk-up service available.
– If you suspect you are ill or reside with someone who is ill with flu-like symptoms, we ask you to exchange for a future show.
– While we are committed to providing a clean and safe environment, it is impossible to eliminate all health risk in any location so please use discretion.

This seems a good example upon which to base your own venue communications as you start to open so that you don’t have to invent it all from scratch.

Many Stages Of Covid Coping

I don’t know about everyone else, but not having a slate of performances on my schedule has kept me just as occupied as actually having events. While I am definitely grateful to still have a job, albeit warily eyeing its status, I have never not had enough to keep me occupied on an Monday-Friday, 8 am-5 pm+ basis.

It almost seems like we are going through the many stages of coronavirus coping analogous to the stages of grief. I am not sure how many stages we will go through for coronavirus, but this how I have partitioned my experience thus far:

First came the frenetic activity of crisis management, review of force majeure clauses, cancellations, communications and processing of refunds.

Then came the scrutinizing of governor’s orders and generation of seat maps, processes and shopping lists of sanitizing product in order to comply with what we anticipate the rules will be once we are permitted to re-open, whenever that may be.

Now things seem to be in the phase when organizations facing the prospect of cancelling their signature events try to formulate alternative plans. Their primary intent is to have something in place so that when they say they are cancelling their big event, they can simultaneously announce what smaller endeavors they will engaged in instead. The underlying goal being to create a situation where they retain relevance in the minds of community members in the absence of their big event.

I stayed late at work today to participate in my third Zoom meeting of the day to brainstorm contingency plans with a community organization. When I asked one of my staff if she would be on the meeting, she said she couldn’t because she was participating in the same conversation with another organization.

At the same time, it surprises me that some organizations are adamantly sticking to their traditional practices and ticketing policies–or at the very least, are doing a poor job communicating with their audiences. This week we had a spate of angry phone calls mistaking us for an organization in another part of the country that has a similar name. My guess is either something happened recently or some information was released that made 3-4 people so angry they didn’t realize the phone number they googled was at a place 800 miles away.

Though my understanding is that some ticketing services’ policies have exacerbated the refunding process so the blame may not lay entirely with venues.

In any case, I think it is clear to most everyone that you can’t take it for granted that you will retain the goodwill and reputation you may have built up. Those with poor reputations may find that a shift in personal priorities means there is no longer a begrudging tolerance of poor practices accorded them due to their stature and influence.



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