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The technology of reopening

Graphic showing socially distanced seating

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 our users 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 organizations, can do to help them prepare for reopening when the time comes. To help answer that question we asked some of our users to take part in a survey to tell us about their plans. While many of them expressed that a tool to create socially isolated seating options would be valuable, their comments showed a much more nuanced picture of 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 Center here

Normality: How we prioritize which features to develop

To make the most of our 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 is not possible to build everything at once, those decisions are usually based on a series of tests that ensure we’re investing our time and resources into the features that can bring maximum value to the organizations we work with.

Here’s what the key questions in that process typically look like:

  • 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 organizations. For example, we recently added new icons for seat lock updates. While we built this for the primary functions of displaying accessibility information and credit card benefits, we responded to user feedback by creating a wider range of icons. These can be adopted and defined by any organization to meet their audiences’ access, benefits or other needs. 
  • Next, is it a “nice to have” or will it make a real impact on organizations’ 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 prioritize the engineering work that's most important to you and your organizations.

When it comes to socially distanced seating, however, this approach meets some complications. Suddenly we’re talking about creating something that does not measure up to our key tests. Its utility ends when social distancing measures do; 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 organizations 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, especially if there’s something we might be able to do to support our users. So we have been researching current thinking around socially distanced seating, and in order to make this as comprehensive but efficient as possible we reached out to the organizations we work with. Last week’s survey invited our users to tell us what they were thinking, doing and hoping for once the time to consider reopening arrives. We’re grateful for the time they took to share their responses, which are helping us to build a detailed picture of current plans across the industry. 

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

“We have explored ways to seat in a socially distant manner should we choose to present any shows for which we feel this would be best practice. I was planning on just masking or killing the seats we would not allow customers to purchase, however, I would be interested in exploring a tool that could possibly improve the customer experience.” (Large nonprofit presenter)
“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)
“Based on our seating chart, we don't believe socially distanced performances are financially feasible at this time. Almost all live performances would require performers to break social distancing guidelines.” (Local nonprofit arts hub)

We’re also talking to our partners across the industry, and closely monitoring the latest developments worldwide, to assess the most likely routes toward reopening. We’re keeping watch on media coverage, which recently has included reports of major North American institutions weighing the financial challenges of socially distanced seating. 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 US venues are planning shorter running times without intermissions to avoid lines. Still, in China, after a brief reopening in late March, cinemas were promptly closed again and are yet to return.

What comes next

So, what conclusions have we reached, given the level of uncertainty across the world, let alone within the arts industry? Only that there are no clear answers yet. Given the dynamism and determination of the 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, opinions and support as it emerges across the sector. We 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 maximize 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 want to make sure any eventual solution balances your need to maximize revenue and run efficiently with the need to provide patrons with an easy online booking experience.

However, if government guidance or industry 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 guaranteed value. It’s possible that, if technology does prove to be part of the answer, the solution 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 organization has not yet completed the survey, please check your inboxes or contact our Support team for the link. 

If you completed the survey, but your plans have changed or firmed up since then, or if you're not a Spektrix user, we'd love to know what you're planning and why. Reach out to us at hello@spektrix.com to talk about any aspect of our response to Covid-19.