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Viewpoint: The future of theatre

Theatre is having to adapt and following the recent COVID-19 pandemic it has proven just how important it is for the theatre, performing and visual arts industry to pivot and adopt a new approach.

The Blackpool Grand Theatre has laid out its plans for the next five years, with a focus on the audience, the booking journey and further engagement from the audience.

In a publication entitled ‘Future of Theatre In A Digital World’, the famous theatre looks at a changing sector and outlines a plan that will include collaborations with companies such as Spektrix, Activity Stream, Audience Agency (Data and Digital), the Arts Council England Digital Culture Network and The Evergreen Agency.

The 1,100-capacity theatre has just completed a five-year project to align all of its programmes, utilising AI software to connect all systems from the moment the organisation puts something on social media through to the customer attending the theatre.

While the Grand – which first opened in 1894 – notes that ticketing is not going to change overnight, it believes the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on digital and the ‘what are the possibilities’ questions.

Many ticketing platforms are stepping up their game to incorporate technological developments. Processes that will change include purchase methods, with AI helping to book tickets through TVs, smart phones and watches.

Digital tickets are already here, but live tickets should be here very soon, according to the Grand, while automated seats, heat-mapping and iBeacons will probably be seen in the next five years. Theatres are already adopting cashless functionality, which Covid-19 again will make a sooner than predicted reality.

The rise of people adopting personal technology leads the way to what theatres can offer online through the likes of smart booking of theatre tickets on the go, through smart phones, watches and home speakers.

Customers receiving a new ‘live ticket’ which sits in the iPhone Wallet (Google Wallet) would allow theatres to update it at any time (with said permissions), which could include casting biographies or announcements, behind the scenes video and imagery, reviews, cast introductions, concession offers and vouchers all in one place attached to the ticket.

It would also allow customers to use electronically dispatched digital vouchers in the bars and concession areas, car parking passes, public transport tickets and pre-paid taxis as well as additional benefits for theatre members with regular offers.

Andrew Howard, Head of Marketing and Brand at Blackpool Grand, said: “The likes of live tickets, cashless venues and booking through your SMART device (TV, Phone, Watch) will be here within the near future, the capabilities are there, it’s more about integrating it with systems theatres already use – that’s the key.

“These changes are already happening, theatres like us and the Barbican are leading the way in AI and digital experiences, live broadcasting following the pandemic has boomed 100’s of millions of hours of viewing. Digital tickets are already here, but Live Tickets should be here very soon. Automated seats, heat-mapping and iBeacons will probably be seen in the next five years. Theatres are already adopting the cashless theatre. Again, the pandemic will make that a sooner than predicted reality.

“These advancements are really key to theatres’ understanding of what customers likes and dislikes are and tailoring the overall message to this.”

Automated check-in

The Grand Theatre notes that with the implementation of iBeacon, a system that allows customers to be registered as they arrive at the front door providing a welcome and relevant guidance like waiting times to entry, best bars to head for, where to go for personal or accessibility assistance, there will be less requirements for staff working in these areas.

Further sensors and software could help provide added service when it comes to gathering deeper insights on consumer behaviour and recommendations

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is growing at an incredible rate and is becoming part of the foundation of everyday things. Using AI can assist consumers by tailoring relevant advertisements or information, and can be tailored for a male or female, or any age demographic, and can even work with specific facial characteristics (facial recognition).

What customers receive or view from an email being sent, through to a website visit, social media posts or text updates can all be personally tailored as more and more information is gathered about a customer’s preferences.

As the Grand mentioned, experiences and value can be built and offered based on the information that can be gathered through various channels all brought into one channel.

So how could a theatre use AI technology responsibly?

The Grand discusses how interval notifications via iBeacon would offer incentives to experience special deals and promotions such as ‘book now – save while at this performance’ deals.

Merchandise points would also start to offer digital downloads or USBs ready to collect as people leave a live event so that they can revisit their evening time and time again.

The Grand also sees a future that could offer a performance being uploaded to a smart TV box at home ready to show friends and family.

Technology is in place in some arenas and stadiums to work with smart TV screens which advise customers where the quieter bars, confectionary and merchandise points are based on heat-mapping of till transactions, in turn benefiting customers with faster wait times.

Interval bars would also offer the options to purchase theatre tickets for future shows and events with your drinks and merchandise, as well as discounted post-show dinner vouchers and reservations at recommended restaurants.

How will theatre change digitally?

AI software like Activity Stream allows many avenues of data collection to be channeled together to help theatres learn.

Providing business and customer moments helps channel information from all customer touch points as well as pulling in national data on the theatre industry from the Audience Agency. This provides great oversight and understanding of our audience locally against regional and national comparisons.

The Activity Stream platform uses artificial intelligence to create actionable insights to provide decision support to an organisation. It improves marketing ROI by better segmentation and automated campaign tracking and can increase revenue from timely inventory management and AI-based ticket sales predictions.

Martin Gammeltoft, CBO of Activity Stream, said: “In marketing, I think the biggest benefit is relevance. By targeting better, the audience will experience that the communication is relevant, and will therefore start listening more to what you tell them. Better segmentation in email almost always results in higher opening rates, higher sales per email, and fewer unsubscribes. It’s an investment that has an enormous impact (and the right tools will help minimise the effort required).”

Read the full analysis from The Blackpool Grand Theatre here.

Images: Blackpool Grand Theatre