The wisdom of a theatre producer: Four ways to keep your audience at your venue

I’m interested in all kinds of marketing and promotional ideas that might be useful for museums, galleries and heritage sites. I recently came across this post from the Producer’s Perspective blog, written by Broadway producer Ken Davenport about drawing in and keeping visitors at theatres, and thought that these excellent ideas could be useful for all kinds of cultural and heritage venues. Thanks, Ken, for allowing me to reproduce it here!

A photo of a harpist in Victorian dress performing in a museum

A harpist performing in the Florence Nightingale Museum

If you run a theatre anywhere in the world, your goal should not only be to get your audience to your theatre, it should also be to keep your audience at your theatre.

The longer they hang around, the more they think of it as a place of respite and entertainment, and the many more tickets they will purchase.  Expand the brand and they will buy.

I call it “Mall theory”:  creating a destination where people want to hang out . . . and eventually they’ll spend money, because you’ll be able to reinforce your message more often, and educate your consumers on all that you have to offer. For you Sondheim lovers, I also call it, “Spreading pitch on the stairs,” so your audiences get stuck.  (Name the show!)

While a theatre or a theatre complex will never have the traffic of the Mall of America, there are a number of very small and inexpensive perks that a theater can provide to keep consumers coming back, and maybe, sticking around.  Here are Four Ways To Keep Your Audiences At Your Theatre.

1.  Free Wifi

With more and more devices that need Wifi (like the iPad) for their full functionality, a free Wifi spot is like an oasis in the desert.  I’ll plop myself for hours in a comfortable spot just to have that access, and I’m sure your audience will, too.  Add Free Wifi to all your common areas, and put signs for it everywhere.  You’ll have people stopping by sooner than you think (there’s no coincidence that Starbucks just traded out their pay Wifi service for free service for all).  Once your WiFi-ers are online, make them sign up for your mailing list in order to access the web.

2.  Live Music

People love live music and it doesn’t take much to get an up-and-coming singer/songwriter to play a few tunes in your lobby or wherever people may congregate.  Or better . . . use your theatre itself (which is probably dark during the day) for free lunchtime concerts for local artists.  I know a bunch of folks who’d do it for tips or for the credit (it’s the coffee house or subway tunnel approach).

3.  Food/Drinks

Speaking of coffee, do you offer free coffee at non-peak times?  I’m not saying you have to have the best Columbian beans brewing for every passerby, but some basic free coffee is an incredible pull.  There is a Cub Scout group on I-95 that uses this bait and catches a lot of fish.  They put a huge “STAY AWAKE!  FREE COFFEE AT NEXT REST STOP!” sign on the highway, and get thousands of people pulling over.  They do have free coffee . . . and a bunch of other bake sale items for sale.  I bought a rice krispie treat.  And I don’t even drink coffee.

Beyond coffee, strike a deal with a local deli or sandwich shop to get a few sandwiches on consignment.  How many times have you gone to the mall just for the food court, and ended up buying something while you’re there?  We need food and drink in order to survive.  Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for theatre.  So, put what we need in your place, and you’ll get more people coming by.

4.  Lectures

People love to learn.  This is especially true of theatre audiences (according to League statistics, 73% of the Broadway audience has college degrees, and 36% has graduate degrees).  So get some people to give free talks and lectures about a variety of subjects.  Have a Broadway producer come and chat about what it’s like to produce on Broadway (I’d do it).  Have a local painter come and talk about how she gets her inspiration for her paintings.  Or have an investment banker come and talk about how to navigate the choppy market (the subjects don’t have to be about the arts – they just have to be about the audience).  By providing these free mini continuing-ed courses, you’ll be giving something of great value to your audience, which should engender a reciprocal give-back to you, in the form of a ticket purchase or a donation.

Audiences are like children.  You want them playing in your own backyard so you can keep an eye on them, make sure they aren’t being influenced by others, and . . . tell them what to do.

How do you keep your audiences at your theatre?

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Lots of interesting thoughts there. You may not be a theatre, but does your venue have a lecture theatre or education space that isn’t always in use, where you might offer lunchtime concerts or showcase local experts talking in the evening?

If you have a cafe, do many people use it as a social meeting place, even if they’re not planning to visit the museum? Offering free wifi or coffee could make a difference. At Charleston, which I visited at the weekend (I have another marketing lesson to share from them later this week), we were invited to pay for our admission tickets by Gift Aid. This involved paying a few pence more, but entitled us to a free tea or coffee each in the cafe. Of course, when we went to the cafe, we ended up spending more on sandwiches and cake to accompany the free coffee, but still felt that we were getting value for money.

Has your venue tried any of these ideas? How did they work out?

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