The Playgoer: "Price Sensitive"

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Monday, October 09, 2006

"Price Sensitive"

Just catching up with an interesting Times piece earlier this week, surveying all the strategies theatre, opera, and dance institutions alike are experimenting with this season to lure young audiences by (imagine!) lowering ticket prices, or at least offering very targeted discounts.

Now I know I've expressed skepticism before about cheaper tickets being the cure-all. There are bigger questions: value over price; where have all the rich kids gone; and, how do you sustain an audience over time, not just one "free-for-all" performance.

Still, ticket price is certainly at least part of the problem, and it is instructive to watch how these institutions are wrestling with it. (It's also interesting to see who's wrestling and who isn't.)
Take the Met:

Last week, the opera house announced that it would sell 200 seats for every weeknight performance for just $20 each. Tickets for these seats, which would normally sell for $100, go on sale two hours before curtain time. On Tuesday, the day of the announcement, 160 tickets were sold in 20 minutes. The remaining 40 were sold out by 7:10 p.m.
Note that this discount, as are most of the others mentioned in the article, is not age specific. But they're banking on younger audiences being the ones to take the most advantage of it.
Next door at Lincoln Center, the New York City Opera is in its second season of “Opera-for-All,” selling every seat in the house for $25 on eight evenings over the course of the season. Then there is City Center, where the third season of the Fall for Dance festival, with all tickets priced at $10, concluded Sunday. And the Off Broadway Signature Theater Company, which specializes in American playwrights, is selling every seat at $15 during the eight-week scheduled run of each show through the spring.

The Signature’s $15 tickets — which normally go for $55 — sold out within the first 48 hours for August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” which begins on Nov. 7. City Center’s six-day dance festival sold out in three days last year, so the program was extended to 10 days this year; more than half of the 2006 festival’s 27,530 tickets sold in a single day.

“We were all amazed that out of the woodwork these people came roaring up,” said Norman Peck, the president of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, one of the festival’s sponsors, “and they’re just the kind of people you want to get.”

In the first year of City Opera’s Opera-for-All — which includes introductory videos before the performance — 71 percent of the audience had never been to City Opera before, and the two performances sold out. Of those who attended, 11 percent came back to the series this year, Mr. Kellogg said, a significant return, given that direct mail efforts typically average 0.1 percent to 3 percent response.
So perhaps the bet is paying off. Personally, I suspect that "web outreach" efforts of these companies will even better target younger audiences:
This season, City Opera obtained e-mail addresses and other contact information from everyone who bought a $25 ticket; 90 percent had never been in the data base before, something that Mr. Kellogg called “one of the most encouraging and astounding statistics I’ve seen at City Opera in a long, long time.”
Then there's the role of funders. The Signature program has shown the way, I think, for a new kind of arts philanthropy. Not paying for a nicer lobby, but actually subsidizing tickets. The Met and the City Center dance festival are thinking along similar lines.
At City Center, the supporters of Fall for Dance included Time Warner and Altria Group, as well as the Sharp Foundation. Together the three contributed about $500,000 to the festival. In the case of the Met, the opera house is even making money on the tickets. That’s because one board member, Agnes Varis, along with her husband, Karl Leichtman, bought the $2 million worth of orchestra seats included in the program. Then the opera house resells 200 of them at $20 each two hours before curtain time as long that many unsold seats remains. Most of these seats are in the rear and side of the orchestra, but some are as close as four rows from the stage.
Mr. Gelb said he thought it was appropriate to charge for the seats, rather than give them away “to get new audience members into the habit of paying for the tickets.”
Note, though, that this is still a risk--and even possibly at least a temporary loss--for the companies.
At City Opera, Opera-for-All is more of a sacrifice for the company, since the program is not completely subsidized. Even though the special performances sell out at $25 a ticket, the revenue falls short of what the company would bring in on a regular night, even at 70 percent capacity, Mr. Kellogg said. The program costs $594,000 and City Opera expects to lose $300,000 on it this year.

“Whether this is going to convert into a long term major gain in audience — I don’t think anybody knows that yet,” Mr. Kellogg said. “But clearly it would be a wonderful thing and every company ought to try to do this, to get these tickets underwritten so you can continue to bring people in who are price sensitive. Then that’s the future.”
So there's definitely a wait-and-see attitude. Which means, if you like this idea and want to encourage more institutions to do the same...then buy some of these tickets!

Conspicuously missing, for instance, from all these Lincoln Center institutions is...wait for it...Lincoln Center Theatre! Yes, they have a student discount program, but it's an awkward and limited registration procedure, and I'm now too old for it anyway. I hope they're learning from their neighbors here. Unless, of course, they're just fine with the business they're doing from the old and wealthy.

Such adventurous audience outreach experimentation is not going to be fully supported, though, in board rooms.
Some sponsors worry that the discounted seats won’t actually attract new audiences, but that instead, tickets will be snatched up by people who would otherwise have paid full price. As a result, cultural institutions take a great interest in who is buying the seats. “We want this work to be viewed and seen by people who don’t always have the opportunity to go to theater,” said James Houghton, artistic director at the Signature.

And, so far, that seems to be the case. City Center’s surveys showed that 30 percent of those who attended the first two years of Fall for Dance were under 30; that 30 percent had never been to City Center before; and that 20 percent had either never been to a dance performance or had rarely attended one.

It was important that there be a way to track who was coming, said Lisa Quiroz, the senior vice president for corporate responsibility at Time Warner, which helped underwrite the Signature’s ticket program as well as Fall for Dance. “It was a test.” Arlene Shuler, the president and chief executive of City Center, said she was thrilled to learn that among the survey respondents was a young man who said he saw an ad for the festival on the subway and figured it would be a cheap date.
Yup. "Cheap date" would be a nice start to the rejuvination of theatre in NYC. Provided, of course, he's banking on challenging, original material to help him score.

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