Minimize the “risk” factor—by crafting a consistently excellent audience experience.

Jennifer Sowinski Nemeth

Senior Consultant & Analyst

Jennifer enjoys working with arts and culture clients to help them increase revenue and grow audience through data-driven strategies including pricing studies, venue re-scaling, customer behavior analyses, and segmentation.
June 06, 2023

Since the pandemic, many performing arts organizations have found that familiar titles are selling quite well, while lesser-known and new titles are even more challenging to sell than they were before. Audiences are less willing to take risks on something they don’t know. At the same time, arts organizations need to continue to produce, present, and promote new and unknown work to promote their missions, support artists, and move their artforms forward. So, how can arts organizations minimize the financial risk and generate full houses for less familiar titles in a post-COVID world? It’s all about the audience experience.  

A potential ticket buyer needs to be confident that the experience will be better or more unique than other ways to spend their free time. It is therefore crucial for organizations to not only convince the ticket buyer that the performance is worth seeing, but that the experience around the performance will be welcoming, consistent, and easy. This is especially true when pitching unfamiliar titles—if the ticket buyer knows they’ll have a great time at your organization no matter what, they are more likely to be willing to take a risk on an unfamiliar title. 

Make the audience member feel welcome—even if visiting for the first time.  

JCA Arts Marketing’s recent research found that over half of theatre audiences each year are new to the organization. So how can you make every ticket buyer, especially those attending for the first time, feel welcome from the moment they step through your doors (or even before)? 

Most organizations already have a “plan your visit” page on the website, which probably has information about parking and transportation. But there’s so much more to visiting a theatre than simply getting there. Think about what it feels like to step into a new place for the first time when it seems like everyone around you already knows exactly what to do, where to go, and how to behave. If you feel like you don’t have the same information that everyone else does, it can be a jarring and uncomfortable experience.  

It starts before someone purchases a ticket, while they’re still considering the purchase. Consider including detailed visit information on performance pages, in emails, and even in advertisements. Helpful clues of what it’s like to visit your venue, including: 

  • Pictures of the main entrance so that when new ticket buyers arrive, they know they’re in the right spot. 
  • A map of the lobby, so new audience members know exactly where the box office is, where the bathrooms are, how to get to concessions, what’s available at concessions and where the entrance is from the lobby to the theater. 
  • A video filmed by a staff member or artist, detailing the experience of arriving, picking up a ticket, and then getting a drink at the bar and heading into the theater. 

Pictures and videos of everyday attendance may seem mundane to those of us who work in the industry, but they can help answer questions for our attendees that we may not even think to answer. For example, pictures of audience members in the lobby can give new attendees far more information about what people wear to the venue than a basic Q&A section can. Pictures and videos can also be extremely beneficial for calling out accessibility features and options. And of course, in many cases pictures and video can also double as social media content. 

Create a theatre campus where people want to be.

Some of the most memorable theatre-going experiences are because of the way a space makes you feel—the grandeur of the Kennedy Center, the coolness of Steppenwolf Theatre’s many bars, the atmosphere of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. If your theatre’s lobby and campus is a place people want to be—and not a place where they are rushed through or uneasy—people will feel more comfortable spending time there and more convinced that going to theatre is worth it, regardless of what’s on stage.  

Additionally, we’re seeing more and more that people value experiences where they can be social and have freedom of movement. Colleen Dilenschneider’s research shows that as of the end of 2022, visitation to concert halls and theatres was still significantly below attendance in 2019, whereas attendance at museums, zoos, and aquariums had surpassed 2019 attendance levels. We believe this is because theatre experiences require people to sit and be quiet rather than roam about and engage with their companionssomething that was difficult to do during the pandemic.  

However, we believe this barrier can be overcome if the experience around the performance itself is social, special, and memorable. If audiences simply enjoy spending time on your campus, you’ll have a better chance of engaging them long term. 

Great experiences lead to stickier audiences.

One of the most universal goals for marketers of the performing arts is to get first-time ticket buyers back a second time. We often do this with targeted messaging and promotions, but how much thought is going into the actual experience those ticket buyers are having during their visit? And, how can the experience be improved to convert more of those first-time buyers into repeat attendees? This doesn’t need to be a complicated or expensive surprise and delight program—those types of programs can be effective, but so can a few cheerful and well-placed ushers. How much more welcome would you feel walking into a new space, if there was someone just inside the door to greet you and point you in the right direction?   

Creating a comfortable, familiar, enjoyable, and consistent experience in the building is a critical building block to repeat attendance. You’ll always be more likely to attract more new buyers with a familiar title, but by building a consistently excellent experience, you’ll be more likely to bring new buyers back, and you’ll be one step closer to building up an audience base that is more likely to take a risk on your programming. 

The bottom line—do not despair. Instead, place care into the audience experience.

At the end of the day, it’s neither smart strategy nor interesting to audiences if we program well-known titles all the time. We need to invest in the riskier work. Crafting an audience experience that is not only welcoming, but also alluring, will engage audiences and get them excited about the art that you’re putting on stage—whether well-known or not.