5 min read

Searching for a silver bullet: the technology of reopening

Drawing of theatre seats in blue, with one chair highlighted in white

Richard Bates, Director of Product at Spektrix, responds to our users’ feedback around socially distanced seating and reopening of venues.

As Director of Product at Spektrix, part of my role is to lead the decision making process on the features we build or improve within our system. In this context, our Product is our technology, the systems that you rely on every day to sell tickets, manage donors and communicate with audiences. 

In recent weeks a great deal of my focus has been on the question of socially distanced seating and what we, as technology partners to 450+ arts organisations, can do to help you prepare for reopening when the time comes. To help answer that question we asked you to take part in a survey to tell us about your plans and, whilst many of you felt a tool to create socially isolated auditoria would be valuable, your comments showed a much more nuanced and uncertain picture about the financial and practical feasibility of such an approach.

In this blog I explore these results in more detail, and explain what we’re currently doing at Spektrix in response to the latest conversations. We’ve also gathered together some guidance for managing socially distanced events using existing Spektrix features. If you’re an existing system user, you can read this article in the Support Centre here

Normality - how we prioritise which features to develop

To make the most of engineers’ time and expertise we have established a reliable process to decide which features to add to the system, which to improve, and which we won’t pursue immediately, Since it’s not possible to build everything at once, those decisions are usually based on a series of tests which ensure we’re investing our time and resources into the features which can bring maximum value to the organisations we work with.

  • First, where will the benefit be felt? We want to build features that have a wide and lasting range of use cases across different types of organisation. For example, we recently added new icons for seat lock updates - we responded to user feedback by creating a wider range of icons, which can be adopted and defined by any organisation to meet their audiences’ access or other needs.
  • Next, is it a ‘nice to have’ or will it make a real impact on organisations’ revenue or operations? In January, for example, we released Membership Upsell features to highlight the benefits of membership based on the contents of customers’ baskets - our research showed this would make a real difference to membership uptake and income.
  • Finally, can it be released to all users in a single version, with little to no additional resource from them? Sometimes a small amount of web development work is needed - but if that’s the case, wherever possible there needs to be an alternative approach for those who can’t invest that time or resource just yet.

For every decision, we begin by setting out the business problem we are trying to solve for our users, and then embark on extensive research - talking to you and your teams and trying out solutions in order to prioritise the engineering work that's most important to you and your organisations.

When it comes to socially distanced seating, however, this approach meets some complications. Suddenly we’re talking about creating something that doesn’t measure up to our key tests. It has no purpose once social distancing measures come to an end; it may not be used even then, given the serious uncertainty around the financial and operational feasibility of distancing within performance spaces; if it is to be created it needs to happen quickly, with only a short window for research; and resources are stretched across the sector, leaving little or no time or budget for organisations to embed it into their own systems.

Research - what we’ve learned about socially distanced seating

We’re not in the habit of rejecting a challenge, if there’s something we might be able to do to support our users. So we’ve been researching current thinking around socially distanced seating, and in order to make this as comprehensive but efficient as possible we reached out to every organisation we work with. Last week’s survey invited you to tell us what you were thinking, doing and hoping for, once the time to consider reopening arrives. We’re grateful for the time you took to share your responses, which are helping us to build a detailed picture of current plans across the sector. 

The majority of your responses said that you are considering socially distanced seating, but at this stage only a very small number of you are actively planning for it. Many of you also said it’s likely you would use a tool to ease this process if one were available. However, the final question invited free form comments, and here your insightful, creative and pragmatic thinking suggested that the solution was not so clear cut. Below are a selection of the responses we received, from organisations including theatres, music venues, production companies and visitor attractions, some publicly funded and others commercially run.

“We have a large and flexible auditorium we think we can make this work. Personally I want to avoid general admission, I really feel that bookers will want to know exactly where they are sitting and what and who is around them or they won’t come.” (Local authority arts hub)
“Although nothing is certain or decided it would be good to know the option is there, in case we need to resort to socially distancing customers in our venues if this continues into 2021.” (Commercial ticketing agent)
“We don't currently believe socially distanced theatre would be practical. Aside from the fact that actors cannot socially distance in dressing rooms, or on stage, the financial modelling to work at 50% capacity or less is very hard to make work.” (Non profit fringe venue)

We’re also talking to our partners across the sector, and closely monitoring the latest developments worldwide, to assess the most likely routes towards reopening. The UK media has recently begun sharing reports from major institutions and individuals such as the National Theatre and West End producer Sonia Friedman, demonstrating the financial impossibility of socially distanced seating for many organisations. In a webinar for the Ticketing Professionals Conference exploring the results of her audience attitude survey, After the Interval, Katy Raines of Indigo Ltd recommended unallocated seating with reduced capacity rather than distanced seating plans as a more flexible solution as exact guidelines on distancing change. In Italy and South Korea reopening is planned with capped capacity, temperature checks and distanced seating, and in parts of the USA venues are planning shorter running times without intervals to avoid queues; but in China, after a brief reopening in late March, cinemas were promptly closed again and are yet to return. 

In conclusion

So what conclusions have we reached, given the level of uncertainty across the world, let alone within the sector? Only that there are no clear answers yet. Given the dynamism and determination of the arts industry, those answers will no doubt emerge - but at this moment in time, the best plan of action for all of us, whether we're working on technological solutions or marketing strategies, is to get the foundations in place and to be ready for whichever route eventually proves to be the right one. With none of the usual certainties to rely on, that’s the approach we intend to take. We’ll continue to explore a range of technical solutions, as well as sharing guidance, opinion and support as it emerges across the sector; and we'd encourage you to do the same, by exploring a range of approaches to reopening until the best route forward becomes clear.

In our own research, this is what we've established so far. Like all ticketing platforms, Spektrix has been designed to support the opposite of social distancing - avoiding single seats being left behind, in order to maximise capacity within an auditorium. It might be possible to invert that technology to build protective ‘rings’ of seating around each group, avoiding any wasted seats where households could sit together, and we’re continuing to explore this and other possibilities. Wherever we end up, we’ll want to make sure any eventual solution balances your need to maximise revenue and run efficiently with the need to provide customers with an easy online booking experience.

However, if government guidance or sector consensus doesn’t end up with socially distanced events being part of the future, we don’t want to commit resources to a feature which may never be used at the expense of improvements with clear value. It’s possible that, if technology does prove to be part of the answer, what’s needed won't be socially distanced seats at all but some other tool to isolate staff or control admissions.

Let’s keep talking

If we’ve discovered anything concrete in our research so far, it’s that none of us are working in isolation; and that none of us has a silver bullet to conquer the challenges ahead. And so our next steps will be similar to yours. We’ll lay the groundwork, so we’re ready to act quickly when the direction is clearer. We’ll continue to share our ideas and intentions with you, and if you have something to add to the conversation, we’d very much like to hear it.

If you’re a Spektrix user and your organisation has not yet completed the survey, please check your inboxes or contact our Support team for the link. 


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Richard Bates is Director of Product at Spektrix

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