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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Ticketsolve

Adopting a creative approach to tackle opening in a Covid-safe environment could give venues the edge and help them come out the other side. David Dunstan shares some successful strategies.

Mother and daughter looking at a window display at Hertford Theatre

© Hertford Theatre

As theatres and venues in England begin to open their doors to the public for the first time since lockdown, new challenges are presenting themselves. While reopening is daunting and requires time, patience and a budget, implementing a ‘small-steps’ strategy driven by hard data can support your team with some of the toughest decisions. 

Start slowly

In July, Hertford Theatre opened their doors for the first time almost four months after they had closed to the public. While exploring the ‘new normal’ for the arts, they quickly identified socially distanced cinema as an avenue of programming which would form an important part of their reopening strategy. 

Opening under the new restrictions is entirely new ground, so making sure the venue is safe has meant that their team has to get to grips with new procedures, rebuilding audience confidence and bringing some of those normal moments back to the wider community of Hertford. Emma Parlow, Marketing Manager of Hertford Theatre, advises: “Don’t be afraid to start off on a smaller scale. Do it well, and once you and your team are confident, the time will be right to start to grow your offering.” The team at Hertford are now looking at expanding their offering by programming more matinees and evening performances at the theatre.

Villa Gaiety on the Isle of Man has taken a similarly staggered approach, reopening one step at a time. The gardens of Villa Gaiety were the first to open to the public in June, just in time to celebrate their 120th birthday. Theatre tours and childrens’ activities followed, and then performances. Since 15th June the theatre has not had to implement social distancing procedures for audiences, but their team and their visitors both needed that step-by-step approach to be confident that it was both a safe and enjoyable experience to be back on site. 

Flagship venue, The Marketplace Theatre & Arts Centre of Armagh has started their step-by-step approach to reopening by focussing on exhibitions and workshops before growing their programme of performances this autumn. As they welcome their audiences, they share their new approach to reopening with audiences with a short video.

Use feedback

In a time where tensions are running high and teams are feeling under pressure to reopen quickly and make decisions fast, it's important not to lose track of what it is about your organisation that makes it a meaningful experience for audiences. After one successful visit to your organisation, you want to entice audiences to come back again and again – and to tell their friends. How to achieve this can be made easier by looking at your data. 

With no past experience to draw upon, one of the first most important steps for Villa Gaiety was gathering information from audience members in May. An online survey gave their team a clear insight into areas they needed to focus on and which mattered the most for their visitors. 

Reopening hasn’t been easy for Hertford Theatre either. It’s involved weeks of preparing operationally, working in team bubbles, and building new skill sets. It hasn’t always ‘looked’ successful, with some shows not selling out fully at a new reduced capacity. But their team hasn't lost sight of what’s important and during these challenging times has used data to give them the answers they need. 

After each booking and after every performance they send each customer an automated pre-event alert and a post-event email. The first of these is to familiarise audiences with the new procedures, and the second to gather feedback on how they found the experience of returning to Hertford. On average, 10 to 15 customers offer feedback after each film, which has provided Hertford with a valuable feedback loop. By implementing automation, the team at Hertford can easily maintain and manage correspondence between the theatre and customers to increase the qualitative data gathered. 

By allowing themselves the room to grow their offering, Hertford Theatre has been able to act quickly and make smart decisions based on the direct feedback from their audience members and their team alike. 

One of the hardest areas to address is seating plans and seating allocations, ensuring that, although operating at a reduced capacity, your allocations will support your organisation financially as much as possible. The Hertford Theatre team created optimum seating plans based on evidence from past sales data, and the plans will change as the team gathers more and more data from socially distanced booking patterns.  

Feeling comfortable and confident

Volunteers front of house are often vital to the welcome given to audience members at a performance, and Hertford gathered information about how volunteers were feeling about returning to the venue. At the beginning, 50% of volunteers said they would not be comfortable returning. But after implementing additional safety precautions and creating a supportive Volunteer Handbook, the team have seen the experiences and concerns of volunteers change. Now they’re back on site, socially distancing with audiences at Hertford. 

As you start to take the next steps towards full reopening your confidence will naturally grow. And that will be the time when you’re ready to get more creative with the ‘new normal’ for audience members, relying on your data to try out new and different approaches as you continue in your quest to tempt them back – not just once, but time and again.  

David Dunstan is Head of Support at Ticketsolve 

This article, sponsored and contributed by Ticketsolve, is part of a series looking at the power of box office data to inform strategic decision making.

Ticketsolve has drawn together a series of resources for the sector in its Arts Recovery Toolkit.

Resources include:

  • Advocacy Toolkit 
  • Reopening Safely Through Clear Communications 
  • Risk Assessment Template 
  • Returning to Volunteering 
  • Podcast: the Arts and Everything in Between 
  • Audience Engagement: No Longer Just a Buzzword 
  • The Role of The Box Office is Evolving 
  • Reopening Safely - masks required 
  • Reopening Safely - masks recommended
Link to Author(s): 
David Dunstan