Adding A Throwaway Option Can Solidify Decisions

Many arts organizations are seeing a drop in ticket sales and subscriptions this year which got me to thinking about a TED talk Dan Ariely did about how unwanted options helped helped people make a decisions, in some case spending more than the cheapest option.  I had done a post about it some years ago and thought about how it might be applicable to subscriptions.

Offer people options that don’t have value to nudge them toward purchasing more a bigger subscription package than they might have. I don’t know that it would transform a lot of single ticket buyers into subscription buyers unless we are wrong about flexibility being more important than price. A mini-subscription that offered flexibility and appeared to be a great value might have some success in getting single ticket purchasers to commit.

I also wonder if offering non-premium options with your show helps make them look more attractive than your competitors’. Ariely talks about another experiment where they offered people the option of an all-inclusive trip to Rome or Paris. In this case it is really apples and oranges since the two cities are in different countries have have so many different attributes to value. Once they add the option of going to Rome but having to pay for coffee in the morning, suddenly people preferred [all-inclusive] Rome over Paris by a larger degree due to the lesser option being available.

It doesn’t seem logical to me to think that given the option between the symphony and a free cocktail at intermission and the opera and a free cocktail at intermission, that people would flock to the orchestra if a no cocktail option for the same price was offered. But as Ariely points, out the decision being made are not entirely rational.

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.

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.

Similarities, Yes, But Important Differences

” Older audiences will only be around so long. If you teach the rising generation that the theatrical experience is completely extraneous, that experience probably won’t be around for the next one.”

Sentiments like these have been expressed for some time in the performing arts world. In fact, it has been said so often it probably has risen to the level of cliche.

However, I pulled this quote from the end of a Washington Post opinion piece regarding movie theaters.   The columnist, Sonny Bunch, placed a lot of the blame on movie studios which were either streaming movies a short time after they were released in theaters or releasing the movies straight to streaming.

Judging from the comments on the piece, older audiences may not attending movies in theaters much longer either. There were complaints that movies aren’t being made for them any longer, rising concessions prices, people eating too loudly and the power recliners being uncomfortable.

While live performances share many of the same issues with movies theaters in terms of rising prices, uncomfortable seating, and being disturbed by others in the space, one advantage live experiences have is greater control of the content and nature of the experience.   There is a greater capacity to provide content that engages the community at a time, place and manner suited to the particular needs of that place.

Likewise, there is a greater ability to make a decision to provide better hospitality and experiences customized to the content of a performance, unconstrained by corporate policy.  Leaning into that in communications and social media to raise awareness and differentiate yourself rather than constantly promoting upcoming programming are among the best ways to leverage that advantage.