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Are We Getting Customer Experience in the Arts All Wrong?

Image credit. The arts should mean a first class experience for audience members. Are we getting it all wrong?

This is a guest blog post from James Baggaley, a Spektrix alumnus.

I learned last week that the San Francisco Symphony has started staging performances in a Vegas-style nightclub, in order to attract a younger crowd. This got me thinking about the extent to which we embrace innovation (or fail to) when it comes to the arts-going experience.

It’s always refreshing to see new takes on audience engagement, but could we be doing more to re-think the customer experience for the 21st century? It’s all too easy to fall into a trap of cyclical thinking. We focus on the next season launch, or the next big production, rather than taking the opportunity to step back and reconsider whether some of the things we take for granted about experiencing the arts could be updated.

I'm sure everyone has their own wish list – parts of the customer experience that could be re-thought across the arts sector. Here are a few of mine.

Ticket exchanges

How often do you buy tickets and see the warning 'no refunds or exchanges'? For customers, this is a big red warning light either before or just after they’ve hit the ‘confirm’ button. Providing full refunds for theatre tickets is impractical for many organisations, who can’t guarantee that they’ll re-sell the tickets, but preventing ticket exchanges within the same show run or season may be counter productive. For smaller organisations, removing the ban on ticket exchanges may encourage customers to take a chance and book their tickets earlier in advance. And for larger, more commercial organisations, ticket exchanges could help to stem the tide of secondary ticket sales. Read more in this great blog post by Joanne Bernstein, who makes the point that the ability to exchange tickets doesn’t have to be free, but of course could be a great benefit to offer your most loyal customers. It could even be reflected in ticket pricing, with customers asked to pay a little more for a fully flexible ticket versus one that it is fixed.

Using phones in the theatre

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely on the conservative side of this issue. When I go to the theatre, the last things I want to see or hear are other people’s phones. But there has to be a balance between respecting the right of other audience members to watch the show without being disrupted, and an all-out ban on the use of electronic devices within a country mile of the auditorium. Can we have a sensible approach to phone usage in theatres and arts venues that reflects the fact that the performing arts should be collaborative and community-oriented? Can we agree that people talking, tweeting and – yes – sharing the art is a good thing? Why can’t we work through the issues and allow the audience to take photos in the theatre or concert hall before the show starts, and during the curtain call? Rather than being told sternly on entering a theatre that phones need to be "all the way off", perhaps we can simply be reminded that courtesy and consideration is the name of the game when everyone has turned up to watch a show.

Customer interactions

On the subject of stern interventions, I think we underestimate the impact that friendly, approachable, professional front of house staff can have on the arts-going experience. Too many theatres (particularly on Broadway, I hate to say) have gotten into the habit of herding their audiences into the theatre, around the theatre and out of the theatre which removes a lot of the shine that comes with theatre-going, particularly for the large majority of people for whom attending a Broadway show is a rare treat. Our ushers are the front line in setting up a fantastic customer experience, and they should be trained, developed and supported in ways that reflect this.

Theatres as sacred spaces

We can often be very focused on the primacy of place of the auditorium in theatre buildings. They are places to which access is strictly controlled, where sometimes you can’t take in food or drink, and where you stand in line to enter. In the worst cases, you can’t even access bar and cafe areas until the theatre itself is open, and then you can’t take your drink or food into the theatre with you (all hail the rise of the ‘sippy cup’ in New York theatres, more should follow suit). Arts venues should be community spaces, with areas for people to congregate and discuss. It was great to read about the organisations who are revitalising their front of house areas in The Stage recently, to the benefit of their customers’ experience when they visit their venues.

Season timelines

A lot of effort goes into planning, curating and announcing seasons in the arts. This can be an important part of the theatre-going experience for loyal patrons who avidly follow the work of particular companies, artists or venues. But what about customers who engage with you half-way through your season? What’s your route to customer loyalty and repeat bookings with those people? It’s important to think about your communication approach, packages and offers that customers can take advantage of at any point in the year.

Marketing as a numbers game

We’ve fallen into the trap of playing the numbers game when it comes to email and direct mail – assuming that the more communication we send out, the better. Our most successful arts organisations are successful because they are great at curating art, providing experiences that their audiences want. But not every work of art is for everyone. As arts marketers, we need to be more confident at curating our communications too, in order to ensure that we’re providing the best advice to potential customers. The customer experience starts well before a customer sets foot in your venue, and even before they buy their ticket, so we need to make sure we’re not damaging the experience from day one.

A first class experience

For loyal patrons, the experience of attending the arts is not very different from that of first time attendees. In this, I wonder if we can learn something from the airline industry and think about the kind of perks that loyal audience members would want to make up part of their experience. Not necessarily discounted tickets or pre-sale access to popular events, but how about invitation-only lounges, or priority seating, or concierge front of house staff who can take interval drinks orders before the show?

Too much of the customer experience in the arts feels like it was settled decades ago, and doesn’t reflect modern culture or expectations, so why are we still clinging on to it?