On the eve of West End theatres closing their doors for the third time this year, we look at how Nimax Theatres pivoted to reopen and raise the curtain following its first shutdown due to COVID-19.

When the UK and much of Europe went into lockdown in March, the West End, like most other sectors, events and businesses, was forced to shutter for more than six months before reopening with socially distanced audiences was allowed.

Speaking at TheTicketingBusiness Forum 2020, Laurence Miller, commercial director at Nimax Theatre, said the company, which owns and operates the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess Theatres, first looked to change its objectives for programming, to focus on stand up comedy, small musicals, entertainment and concerts. Watch the full session below:

He said in a session alongside the firm’s head of ticketing, Nicholas Robinson, that they geared their content around working in a socially distanced environment.

At the time of lockdown in March, Nimax had several productions running, including Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo, The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace, among others. However, Miller explains that to put on shows with high-production costs, such as these, to a socially distanced audience would not be financially feasible.

After refunding or rolling over the millions of pounds worth of tickets, which around 75 per cent of customers retained, Nimax began to focus on ways in which it could reopen by working out new models to operate the building.

“We knew that we had one metre social distancing with mitigation, such as wearing masks,” Miller explained. “So we remeasured our theatres and looked at the distances between seats. From there we relayed out the stalls and certain rows were removed.

“In addition, we worked with our ticketing partner Nliven and TixTrack to find a way we could sell our tickets on the left-to-right social distancing basis. They built us an algorithm, which allowed us to sell in reaction to the customer demand to maximise our load within the theatres working with the social distancing rules.”

The box office algorithm was programmed to leave gaps between each customer bubble, while contactless ticketing, staggered arrival times and track and trace questionnaires were introduced.

Customers were asked to check-in online 48 hours before the performance, which will involve completing a health questionnaire on behalf of their party to assist with track and trace. Once completed, the company would deliver the tickets to their mobile or smart device for contact-free entry to the theatre.

Miller explained that the pandemic forced the firm to rebuild all of its ticketing systems with Nliven and TixTrack and noted that the move has also changed that process of how they communicate with the customer.

“We proved during those weeks before the second lockdown that we were able to make the West End reopen in this world. The customer felt safe, secure and we were following all of the rules that had been set to us by the government and authorities.

“Then when we had the heartbreak in November when Boris Johnson said we are going into another lockdown and theatres were shut again until December 3. We have moved into that phase again and over the first weekend I shunted 23 productions and moved them to completely new dates.

“Customers are desperate to come back. The sales that we’ve seen since we launched our socially distanced programme shows that customers are desperate to come to the theatre. They want escape, they want entertainment, they want laughter, they want joy, they want the feeling of a communal experience of people sitting in a room, laughing together, singing together, being entertained together.

“We’re sitting here with our six buildings, with shows ready to go as soon as the government allows us to open the doors.”

Unfortunately, since speaking at the Forum on November 17, the UK government has announced that London will move into tier three from tomorrow (Wednesday), affecting the return of socially distanced fans at events.

Nimax Theatres is amongst those affected and will be suspending all performances from tomorrow until January 8. It states on its website that its ticketing team will be in touch about bookings during the affected period.

It adds: “Please bear with us during these very busy times and continue to support us by staying with us and exchanging your tickets for a future performance.”

Save the date: TheTicketingBusiness Forum 2021 takes place between 21-23 June, 2021…

Image: Tony Hisgett / CC BY 2.0 / Edited for size