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Radical Pricing: A New Take on Ticket Pricing for the Performing Arts

Jamie Alexander

Director, JCA Arts Marketing

Jamie helps cultural organizations understand the behaviors of their audiences and create data-driven strategies to continually engage them.
July 14, 2021

“Don’t waste a good crisis” is a catch-phrase we’ve heard time and time again from arts organizations during the pandemic. The fear that we will emerge from this crisis unchangedafter all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the industry’s “pivot” is real. To have that much collective pain without positive change would be heartbreaking.

New health standards, expanded audience access through digital programs, an enhanced focus on antiracism and addressing inequities in our industry—all of these are positive changes to come from the pandemic. From these changes emerges another, on a subject near and dear to our hearts at JCA Arts Marketing—a change in our approach to pricing.

We are therefore pleased to introduce the concept of Radical Pricing.

Radical Pricing draws on the principles of Radical Hospitality by creating an approach to pricing that puts extraordinary emphasis on making people feel welcome. It uses pricing not only as a revenue management tool, but also as a form of access for audiences of all backgrounds. It recognizes the importance of value-based pricing principles and brings them to another level by giving patrons new control over how they want to reconcile the value they place on art with the dollars they pay for it.

In this article, we introduce new ideas for pricing that fall under the Radical Pricing concept. In the months and years to come, we intend to explore these ideas with each of you.

Radical Pricing for Single Tickets

Your first instinct might be to think—isn’t the most radical pricing just “free”? That might be true—to an extent—as free might provide the greatest level of access to the largest audience. This is what Mixed Blood Theatre Company practices, a company that is steadfastly dedicated to the concept of Radical Hospitality.

The caveat of free is three-fold: 1) Most of your audience wants to support you, and purchasing a ticket is a powerful way to demonstrate support; 2) Attaching monetary value to something does enhance our perception of its value; and 3) Removing income from ticket sales places more burden on fundraising, which can place power and influence in the hands of a few (find interesting discussions on power in fundraising here).

Let’s focus on that first point that most, if not all, of your audience wants to support you. People want to give for what they get. And the easiest access point for that is a ticket price. So how can we make ticket prices indicate inclusivity and hospitality?

The first is through differentiated pricing, which is a concept we’ve long preached. It’s the practice of offering multiple ticket prices so that cheaper tickets provide an accessible price point for the more price sensitive and more expensive tickets capitalize on dollars with which the less price sensitive are willing to part.

The idea for change in differentiated pricing, that falls under our radical pricing concept, is the idea of removing value fences. Value fences are the reason why you pay more or less for a ticket, and there’s an inherent lack of hospitality even in the name. Value fences explain why the best seats are more expensive, why tickets are cheaper if you buy early, why preview performances are discounted, etc.

What if you removed the value fences and allow people to pick the price they feel is fair to pay, based on their own circumstances and perceptions of value?

But what if you removed value fences and allow people to pick the price they feel is fair to pay based on their own perceptions of value and circumstances? During the pandemic, we encouraged our clients to offer “select your price” pricing for digital performances and found this practice not only resulted in revenue benefits, but also provided an abundance of access. Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony gained $20,000 in revenue relative to what they would have made had they charged one price.

This same “select your price” concept could be applied to every seat in a theatre. Imagine if you were in an online purchase path and you hovered over a seat and were able to pick what price you want to pay for that seat. The organization could still have a level of revenue management control, through recommending prices, or sharing what most people pay for that seat (these are called “nudges”), but ultimately it’s up to the individual to value the seat.

Imagine what effect this could have on accessibility. Not only would you have the opportunity to bring in more audience, but you could also see greater diversity amongst audiences in the front and center seats which, quite frankly, have mostly been dominated by a single demographic. And on the flip side, you’d also be allowing the more wealthy to pay as much as they thought was fair, which would lead to more revenue.

“Select your price” is a bold idea, and might not be right for every organization or performance, but it might be worth a shot. And it’s just one idea for a pricing model that falls under the concept of Radical Pricing. What other Radical Pricing ideas do you have to welcome all patrons?

NOTE: We do have an instance where we believe free is important—and that’s for people of indigenous nations, especially those whose ancestral land your venue occupies. In agreement with We See You White American Theatre, we believe providing free tickets to this group is fair and honorable.

Radical Pricing for Subscriptions and Memberships

Perhaps more nuanced and complicated is how to create loyalty programs that are inclusive rather than exclusive. The traditional subscription model is a great business model for many organizations—it brings in money before the start of the season, provides a safety net for risk taking, and fosters a loyal audience.

As we all know, subscriptions have been on the decline across many organizations for the past two decades. While the “problem” of the subscription decline has been discussed ad-nauseam in the industry, we haven’t recognized the inherent problem with subscriptions themselves: the lack of access they provide.

To subscribe, you need to have a lifestyle that allows you to plan 18 months in advance, pay a large sum of money up front, and (in most cases) have friends/family with whom you can attend performances. Subscribers also usually take the best seats, so what’s left for those who don’t have that kind of lifestyle is often less desirable.

Subscriptions are often promoted as “becoming part of the family” or “part of the community” or getting “access to artists” and other sorts of perks relate to access. But what message does that send to people who aren’t able to subscribe? Are they not part of your community?

What’s more problematic is that, because of the barriers to subscription, subscribers often represent a single demographic within your community. When single ticket buyers, who are usually more diverse, then trickle in around subscriptions there is often a feeling of being on the outside, sidelined, or not welcome.

The accessibility issues related to subscription needs to be taken serious and addressed thoughtfully, relative to your mission.

To clarify, we aren’t saying that organizations should do away with subscriptions. Every organization is unique and some benefit greatly from subscriptions. But we are saying that the accessibility issues related to subscription need to be taken seriously and addressed thoughtfully, relative to your mission.

When it comes to loyalty programs, now, as we emerge from the pandemic, is an ideal time for organizations to think outside the box. How can their subscription programs can become more accessible, while also serving both their mission and their audiences? For example, the same “select your price” model we discussed for single tickets could be applied to subscriptions. Subscription discounts that are currently reserved for certain ages or demographics could be opened up to anyone who needs them. Or, the subscription model could be turned on its head entirely and replaced with a new model, as Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is doing in 2021-22.

In a fantastic example of Radical Pricing, Woolly Mammoth is replacing their traditional subscription model in 2021-22 with the Golden Ticket, which provides a Ticket holder full access to every production for the entire season. They can even attend a show multiple times, if they’d like. Dates and seats are not assigned up front, which provides more equitable access to the best seats for all audience members. In addition, the Golden Ticket is available at two different prices—a full price and an accessible price—with buyers given the option to choose the price that works for them. There is no difference in the access or benefits of the Golden Ticket purchased at either price. This new approach to subscriptions is still being tested, but it’s an exciting and applause-worthy innovation in loyalty programs as we look toward an unpredictable season and beyond.

Approaching a New Normal

As we invent what the new normal looks like at performing art companies, let’s be deliberate about our choices and the messages they convey in all areas of our businesses. This time of change is an incredible opportunity to evolve as an industry and become more inclusive, accessible, and hospitable to all members of our communities. We hope that the idea of Radical Pricing sparks further thought about creating greater access and hospitality at your organization through ticketing, and that you use this as a jumping off point for even more inclusive and more radical change.

Are you interested in trying any of these radical pricing concepts? Do you have ideas of your own Radical Pricing that you may test out soon? We’d love to work with you to analyze results of the efforts. In fact, we’re looking for an organization to do a pilot project with on this concept. Please reach out to us if you are interested in using our complimentary support for your Radical Pricing test.

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Read our follow up article Ask Me Anything: What are examples of Radical Pricing? where we discuss ideas with professionals from a variety of arts organizations and give examples of tactics to implement Radical Pricing ideas.

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