In its 20th anniversary year, Bard on the Beach was doing better than ever. More than 95% of seats were filled and the organization, originally an experiment funded by a Canada Council Explorations grant, was providing Vancouver with high-quality, affordable Shakespeare. With that success, Bard on the Beach decided to expand, opening a new theatre and increasing its seating capacity by 33%. Unfortunately, after a few years, seating capacity and operating expenses had both grown but ticket revenue had not met targets, and Bard was experiencing an operating deficit. That’s when they decided to rethink their approach to patron operations.
Empowering the Box Office
With a mandate to grow its audience, Bard recognized the need to rethink the role of the box office within the organization. At the time, the team’s responsibilities were building the season, selling tickets, and customer service. It was viewed as operational work and therefore reported to the operations department.
The team faced a challenge: sell more tickets. They realized that they would sink or swim based on how well they understood and served their patrons. They needed to build a practice of Customer Relationship Management (CRM). It seemed natural that the team focused on selling tickets should also be charged with CRM: building meaningful patron relationships, collecting and distributing clean data, and driving retention.
To achieve this vision, Bard’s box office team began reporting to the marketing department. It might seem like a subtle shift, but being accountable to the team responsible for earned income was a major change. Brent Cowan, Bard’s Box Office Manager, explains: “I used to focus mostly on staff supervision and logistics in the box office. Now our focus is much more proactive. We are seen as a source of critical information about the patron relationship, rather than just being there to process orders.”
Powered in part by their move to Spektrix, which made collecting and distributing data easier, Bard could shift from using data to make decisions a few times a season to adjusting plans in weekly sales pacing meetings. Ultimately, this helped Brent and the entire Box Office and Marketing team to better understand and serve Bard’s audience.
Improving the Online Customer Experience
With a new organizational structure, the combined marketing and box office team set out to use data to drive revenue growth and plan marketing spend more strategically. To start, they needed to make sure their new team had time for strategic work. To take some pressure off the box office, it was crucial that their online booking path be as seamless and customer friendly as possible. Using Spektrix’s API, Bard created search tools to enable patrons to find the right performance for them whether it be a preview, family night, or special event. In 2017, Bard sold 53% of their tickets online, which accounted for 63% of their overall ticket revenue. Ultimately, this allowed their sales team to spend more time analyzing trends in their data and less time on the phone, without diminishing the customer experience.
Building Loyalty with Flexibility
With more time on their hands from the increased online sales efficiency, the Bard team could focus on building patron loyalty. To do this, they introduced flex packages, which could be purchased online and redeemed by phone or at the box office for any show in the season. Along with 2, 4, and 8 ticket packages, Bard recently began focusing more heavily on selling full season packages consisting of one ticket voucher for each play in the season. After just a few years, Flex and Season Packs now make up over 9% of ticket sales.
While these packages make up a small, if growing, percent of revenue, they are valuable for several reasons. First, they enable Bard to generate cash flow outside the festival run. Second, they make marketing more efficient by ensuring that a certain percentage of the annual goal is met before costlier single ticket marketing begins. Finally, they provide an additional channel for building customer loyalty and identifying patrons who could become donors down the road.
As the trend continues, Bard will not only increase earned income, that income will be more predictable, enabling more effective budget planning and greater ability to take artistic risks.
Building a culture of flexibility
With a more empowered box office, a better view of patron relationships, and new loyalty programs in place, Bard has been able to increase the Mainstage Theatre ’s percent of capacity sold to over 80%, effectively growing its core audience by over 12%. Perhaps more importantly, they are better positioned than ever to respond to trends both from data internally and from changing consumer preferences. As Heather Kennedy, Bard’s Director of Marketing put it, “We’re learning more and more from past patron behaviors and sales data, and consistently applying that knowledge to decisions about future strategies and tactics. Our entire team feels more empowered and effective, and our results prove the point.” As competition for arts and culture patrons’ dollars becomes ever fiercer, this flexibility will be critical to Bard as it continues to advance its mission.