A clear focus on business objectives and a strong partnership between staff and volunteers are the bedrock of an effective costume hire department at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Pam Burrow and Ludmilla Krzak are at the heart of the action

Problem: What to do with the costumes from nine productions a year at one of the country’s leading theatres? Solution: Generate income by hiring them to the general public. It’s a simple idea, which has been earning revenue for the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, for over 20 years through its costume hire department, run by a single paid manager and staffed by a dedicated volunteer team.

The theatre’s costumes, made professionally in-house, represent a huge investment of time, money and expertise which the theatre could ill-afford to jettison at the end of each run. Hiring costumes not only generates income but also means that clients have access to high-quality, unique items at reasonable prices. Many clients are theatre patrons, though some are not, and costume hire helps raise the profile of the theatre within the local community and beyond, increasing both ticket sales and custom for other theatre facilities. It is popular with schools and colleges, whose students are our potential future audience, whilst those on placement with us often progress into other areas of theatre work.

Predictably, theatres and drama groups form a large part of our clientele, but we are always seeking to widen our customer range and have built up a comprehensive database, used to target educational institutions in Greater Manchester, mailing them directly each September, and reminding them of our service at key periods when students will be doing practical drama exams. We study the programmes of amateur drama groups, contacting them in advance if we can supply costumes for future productions. Our city centre location means that we can also support costumed events at local museums, galleries, National Trust properties and civic or charitable functions, and we are constantly extending our list of corporate clients and private individuals who want to hire outfits for weddings, parties, re-enactments and photoshoots. The theatre’s new ‘wedding package’ offers clients not only a venue and catering but also the chance to hire outfits from our department.

Costume Hire’s success is partly attributable to our detailed business plan which has a single objective – to increase the department’s profitability. Unlike many business plans, this is reviewed and updated on a two-monthly basis, so we remain focused on our objective, adapting the plan in response to any new opportunity to publicise our facility and widen our client base, whether that be manning a stand at a costume and textiles fair, placing our leaflets at a fashion show or advertising outfits for Manchester’s Gay Pride Festival. We research how our clients found out about us, and use this information to target publicity materials in order to maximise their effectiveness. The department is featured in the theatre’s programmes, and we have our own section of the theatre website, the news element of which we update frequently in order to keep regular and potential clients up to date and inform them about new stock as it arrives. In addition to mail shots and emailing of clients, we also distribute publicity leaflets within the theatre and at events we attend, are represented on a number of free Internet advertising sites, and are currently looking to develop profiles on Facebook and Twitter. Much of our custom comes from word of mouth recommendation, so we place customer feedback comments on the website in order to reinforce our reputation and attract new clients. We receive many photographs of our costumes ‘in action’ and display these within the department in order to inspire clients and visitors alike.

Outstanding customer service is our aim, and in a department staffed largely by volunteers, this is achieved by thoughtful staff management, with everyone being encouraged to work to their strength and build upon their own expertise, leading to the creation of a strong team able to support and advise clients, who frequently comment on the high level of personal service they receive. Involvement in the planning and running of the department gives volunteers a sense of ownership, minimising staff change and enabling clients to relax in the safe hands of experienced and knowledgeable staff, further enhancing the department’s reputation.

Naturally, we face challenges, not least the fact that, although our stock contains over 5,000 items, many are in small sizes. This is remedied by making larger costumes within the department. Regular review of stock control has led to several new practices which have improved the running of the department. Maintenance of such a large number of items, some of which are frequently hired and therefore subject to more wear and tear, is an ongoing issue, and we are constantly cleaning, washing, repairing clothes and sanitising shoes in order to ensure that stock is attractive to clients. Our business hours have been extended to include alternate Saturdays in response to the needs of working clients, and at busy times of year (Christmas, Hallowe’en) we open for consecutive Saturdays to meet demand. And, yes, we do have clients who are difficult or demanding, but our staff are endlessly patient, and we rarely fail to send customers away with an outfit they are pleased with. We also have competitors, and we research what they offer in comparison to our own service, striving always to be the best within our field. If we cannot satisfy customers’ needs, then we direct them to those who can, so building up good relationships with similar businesses, who repay the favour. It’s a win-win situation, as they say.

Ludmilla Krzak is Manager of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s costume hire department. Pam Burrow works as a volunteer in the department.

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