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STAR meeting: UK theatre’s ticketing ‘Corona-coaster’

UK theatres have faced a full calendar year without raising the curtain, with the sector’s ticketing companies and box offices becoming experts in rescheduling shows and refunding guests.

The ups and downs of the past year have left many in the industry wary of getting too excited about the government’s Roadmap to Recovery, which could see all restrictions lifted in England by June 21. If all goes to plan!

As tickets begin to go back on sale for pilot events, The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) hosted a virtual panel discussion focusing on theatre; looking back at the year’s greatest challenges, as well as what has been possible to achieve throughout a devastating year.

Pauline Fallowell, head of sales and audience insight at Bridge Theatre London and a member of the STAR Council, hosted the event and engaged the three panellists in a variety of topics, including their hopes and concerns about reopening in 2021.

Let’s meet the panellists from three different areas of theatre ticketing and find out more about what they have experienced over the course of the years-long theatre shutdown.

Chris McGuigan

Group director of marketing and sales at HQ Theatres

HQ Theatres operates 12 venues, including the Orchard Theatre in Dartford and Lyceum Theatre in Crewe.

McGuigan described the past year as an “exhausting and, at times, exhilarating ‘Corona-coaster’,” referring to the peaks and troughs of an uncertain year amid COVID-19’s ever-changing landscape.

He explained that having to reinvent the wheel so frequently without any sort of solid timeframe in place has been “enormously frustrating.”

However, he said HQ Theatres was quick to realise in March 2020 that it was going to be in this shutdown for the long haul. It allowed the team to take actions quickly and build out a small ticketing team to deal with refunds and rescheduling events, which has continued to develop over the past year.

As a firm that is reliant on third party producers, it was faced with a huge challenge when dealing with the fallout of the 3,500 different events being cancelled and more than half a million customers missing out. All this after furloughing staff in local box offices!

The experience, despite its hardships, has left McGuigan in awe of his co-workers. He said: “A major positive aspect to come out of all this was to see the resilience of the organisation and of the people within this industry.

“I pay total tribute to the people on the frontlines reinventing the way we do things. I really learned the importance of having positive people around you.”

Looking ahead, McGuigan welcomed having a set date in place to allow HQ Theatres and its third-party producers to concentrate on remobilising and restarting.

The firm will implement a venue-by-venue reopening plan with a sustainable programming diary needed before being able to announce a date.

The company has already begun to plan its marketing strategy for its reopening, with audience comfort at the heart of it all.

“Booking confidence is absolutely key in all our messaging,” McGuigan said. “This relates to refunds, as well as safety messages and assuring fans that measures are in place to keep them safe. We’re also playing with messaging that relates to ‘being together again’ as theatre is a unique opportunity to bring people together after so long apart.”

Rebecca Molloy

Box office manager at Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world.

Molloy explained to STAR members how tough it was to suddenly close the doors back in March.

“Lockdown happened on press night for a show that we were really proud of,” Molloy said. “It involved a lot of local people and local actors, and the closure created a lot of heartbreak and grief to deal with.”

Shortly after that fateful night, the theatre released its archive of filmed performances for free and began asking for donations. Later down the line, Bristol Old Vic’s small team – made smaller through redundancies — began looking at how it could adapt to monetise its digital content.

As a publicly funded institution, Molloy explained that the impact on its business was not as devastating as it was for those who rely more heavily on ticket sales.

The Bristol Old Vic’s first move in relation to ticketing was to call every audience member to request they donate their tickets or place the value as credit on their accounts. “There was an outpouring of support and people were generally very patient with us,” Molloy said.

Later down the line, the theatre engaged Spektrix’s Ticket Converter Tool to streamline the process.

Molloy said the last year created an opportunity for the organisation to really think about what they wanted to achieve, adding that it is a “natural time to reflect when things are changing a lot.”

Just before Christmas, Bristol moved down a tier and was able to put on a festive show for two weeks before moving back to stricter lockdown rules. Molloy said: “It was very emotional most nights when we were able to open.”

The Bristol Old Vic plans to continue with digital and explore a hybrid theatre model with people in person complemented by live streaming, with the first trial of this to take place in May if all goes ahead as planned.

Marc Peachey

Senior director of partnerships at TodayTix Group

TodayTix Group is a ticketing platform that works with thousands of venues in North America, the UK and Australia.

Just as lockdown hit, TodayTix announced the acquisition of rival firm Encore to establish TodayTix Group (TTG) as a global ticketing platform in London and New York.

“It was an odd time as we had just begun working alongside each other and began to figure out how we were going to present our business to the industry… and then the COVID-19 hit,” Peachey explained.

Dealing with thousands of refunds and a customer service influx, TTG’s virtual queues ran into the thousands at vital times. Peachey said they tried to make information readily available, which helped to alleviate some of the pressure.

“The silver lining is that the pandemic has given us time to bring these two companies together,” he said. “It’s actually hard to conceive now how we would have factored the transition in a period of business-as-usual in terms of sales.”

The UK government’s roadmap has “rejuvenated” TTG, but Peachey said he remains “apprehensive” after running several socially distanced campaigns throughout the year that amounted to nothing because of widespread cancellations following government restrictions.

He noted that after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement in February this year, TTG saw demand increase immediately. “People have started buying and so we feel more confident about marketing and promoting our shows.”

Despite there being a much lower demand for tickets than before, the proposed reopening dates have “given us the renewed momentum and purpose that the industry needs,” Peachey said.

The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) is the representative body for the UK ticketing industry, promoting consumer confidence and excellent service through a strict Code of Practice. STAR also works to help resolve disputes between its members and ticket buyers and is approved by Government under the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015.

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