Art By Numbers: has the bell finally tolled for theatre subscriptions?

Probably not, but better data is essential for keeping up with customer needs says Michael Nabarro.

Are theatre subscriptions dying out? It’s a question being asked by theatre professionals across the USA. Subscriptions are a huge source of financial support there, providing invaluable upfront revenue as well as nurturing relationships with loyal customers. However, their popularity and sustainability are now in question.

The subscription model allows theatre customers to buy a regular pass to a season of shows or concerts, going as far as picking the same seat for each performance. They are frequently used outside of big cities where choice is more limited and local customers know they will want to see all the performances that year. They often renew automatically on an annual basis, meaning customers can hold subscriptions for many years at a time.

While it looks like a safe proposition, US theatre professionals are debating whether the idea of a ‘season ticket for the arts’ is outdated. Many theatres report that subscription revenues are in decline. However, the apparent drop in numbers is arguably offset by the fact that these customers tend to be very highly engaged.

I spoke with Keri Mesropov, VP of client services at US arts consultancy firm TRG Arts, and asked her what’s actually happening.

She believes that some theatres are unwittingly pushing subscribers out of their subscription programmes because they can’t resource them properly. Subscriptions are about relationships and relationships require time and attention. Without investment, attention, consistency and simplicity of choice, many potential subscription customers are being lost.

‘Organisations that recognise the value of subscribers and the meaning of subscriptions to the overall sustainability of their organisation are seeing growth,’ she said. ‘Subscriptions are the arts version of the loyalty programme, and as such they are still irreplaceable.’

Embrace flexibility, better data, and better systems

Every theatre handles subscriptions in a different way. Some opt to do everything online through their box office system, while others manage their subscriber relationships directly with their customers in person or over the phone. The key is to be as flexible as possible in terms of configuration. Subscription models have to be customised and designed to fit each theatre audience and the organisation’s individual needs.

While individual contact with customers makes it more personal and direct, and can create longer-term relationships, for some organisations it’s too much of a strain on resources. In fact, many theatres could make things easier for themselves, and improve the experience for subscribers, by encouraging self-service.

In 2016 it should be as easy for customers to buy a subscription online as it is to buy a single ticket. Modern theatregoers are modern consumers, and perhaps more reluctant than they were in the past to lock in their theatre schedules months in advance. That means understanding current booking patterns and customer behaviour is essential to subscription programme design.

You may well need to adapt your offer to include, for instance, multi-buys, where customers can select the middle ground between single tickets and the full commitment of an annual subscription. Encouraging multi-buys by cross-selling throughout the purchase path is an excellent way to maximise the value of individual transactions. This can be done in an uncluttered way, much like an online grocer such as Ocado does when you do your weekly shop.

Despite the variety of ways organisations use subscriptions, the goal is always the same: to create great offers and user-friendly processes that drive loyalty. We are seeing some innovative systems already, with theatres using multi-buy features to implement more flexible subscriptions, offering different seats for each show in a season, or even securing a seat for a yet-to-be-announced season. These are all interesting and suggest the subscription model hasn’t yet seen the twilight.

Balancing innovation with usability is essential for theatres that are committed to the subscription model and want to see it work in the future.

Michael Nabarro is Co-Founder and CEO of Spektrix