“Red Hot” tickets on upcoming Saturday nights are going for $109; subscribers will have paid $45. (Subscriptions are up lately at Arena.)
Subscribing is “the best way to guarantee your seats,” said David Kitto, vice president for marketing and sales at the Kennedy Center, where subscriber numbers have grown over the past decade, from 11 percent to 16 percent of the audience across artistic disciplines (not including the Washington National Opera, which only recently came under KenCen auspices).
Subscriptions are on track to finish up this year, and Kitto said “Book of Mormon” — still a sellout on Broadway and commanding nearly $200 for premium tickets — “is clearly helping our cause.”
Established hits and marquee stars have always been the best medicine for sales, of course, and the “Avoid dynamic pricing — subscribe now!” link is becoming familiar across the country. But what about strategies for the rank and file?
One hot topic is the flex pass, a version of which has been adopted by Woolly and other organizations — few more aggressively than A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle with its ACTPass. For $25 a month, patrons can see all the theater they like in ACT’s four venues. The program began in 2009, and the company now has 1,400 ACTPass members, according to theater marketing and communications director Becky Lathrop. Customers get convenience and practically unlimited access, except when the smallest of ACT’s four venues (a 60-seater) has a hot show. Theaters get a reliable source of cash planning, thanks to those gym- or Netflix-like automatic payments.
That’s a tough plan to replicate, of course, unless you have shows on multiple stages each month. In Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet had the opposite problem: surplus seats in its near-5,000-seat auditorium. So in 2010, Executive Director Christopher Clinton Conway offered limited subscriptions through Groupon.
The Joffrey doubled its subscriber base and is selectively repeating the tactic. Conway said that 80 percent of the Groupon buyers actually came to all the shows they purchased and that almost 30 percent renewed — less than the typical 40 percent renewal rate for first-time subscribers but a good response from discount purchasers. Because of the theater’s size, “these are truly seats we never would have sold,” Conway said. “We were not cannibalizing our revenue.”
Conway, Lathrop and Fitterer pointed to several pronounced patterns among younger patrons. They like flexibility and spontaneity — being able to say, as Fitterer put it, “After dinner we could actually go see this dance performance.” They respond to add-ons — top-shelf liquor in a teeming, attractive lobby, Conway pointed to as a for-instance — and added social access.
This leads to a key change that Rosen sees — a new sensitivity to what audiences want, not just to what arts groups need. Newman, in “Subscribe Now!,” was “institution-centric,” Rosen said. Newman’s subscription model worked great for arts organizations, guaranteeing audiences and a nice slice of income. But Rosen said models now are being forced toward what’s more alluring for the new breed of consumers.