The financial imperative to sell tickets can lead to a ‘bums on seats’ mentality, but a different approach has helped Mac Belfast grow its schools audiences and enhance its reputation. Melissa McMinn describes two initiatives.

Woman and girl holding Passport to the MAC marketing materials

When the MAC Belfast opened in 2012, we were determined that we should be a place for everyone and accessible to the whole community. A vital part of that for us is about nurturing the next generation of artists and audiences.

As with many venues, one of the highlights is our Christmas show. For many children, it is their first experience of theatre so we didn’t want anything to stand in the way of them making that first visit.

For many schools, the free transport is the difference between them being able to attend or not

We talked to teachers about some of the challenges they face in bringing groups to the MAC. We observed how groups behave in the venue and asked them about their experiences.

A loyalty passport

One of the main things we heard from teachers was that they wanted to bring children but finances were an issue. The cost of transporting a group to the theatre was putting teachers off.

We already offered a 20% discount off tickets for schools but we wanted to do more to remove the financial pressure. We took the teachers’ feedback and used it to develop Passport to the MAC, a simple rewards scheme for primary schools. Schools are issued with an A6 passport containing three spots. Each time the school engages with us, they receive a stamp in their passport. Once they have collected three stamps, they are entitled to up to £350 towards transport to the MAC for the Christmas show.

The third stamp can buy tickets for the Christmas show so schools only have to engage in two other opportunities during the year to complete their passport. Some of those opportunities are free and some, such as taking part in the Masterpiece for the MAC art competition, don’t require groups to leave the classroom.

We book the transport to remove administrative and financial pressure from the schools and we meet the groups when they arrive at the venue to continue building those relationships.

Since its launch in June 2013, nearly 10,000 primary school children have benefited from free transport to the MAC. The number of primary schools attending the Christmas show has grown from nine in 2012 to 47 in 2016. So far, we already have 21 primary school bookings confirmed for this Christmas.

The scheme has attracted sponsors and funders and the feedback from schools and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. For many schools, the free transport is the difference between them being able to attend or not.

Familiarity tools

In October 2015, we added MACtile tours™ to our primary school offer. The tours are designed to help groups, particularly children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to see, touch and experience the venue prior to a visit.

The idea was sparked by an incident involving a child with ASD, who was visiting for the first time on a school trip. He became completely overwhelmed by the busy and unfamiliar space and never got beyond the foyer so never saw the show.

We want every child that visits to feel comfortable here so we knew we had to do something. Our learning and participation team responded by working with teachers to develop MACtile tours™. Trained members of staff go out to schools and community groups, equipped with tactile mood boards and a replica ‘Theatre in a Box’. They talk children through how they will arrive in the venue, who they will meet, what they might see and how they will access the theatre.

They play samples of music from the show and share photos of the production wherever possible. Sometimes they will show lighting gels and talk about how red might signify danger or blue might signal a cold atmosphere. Gradually, they bring the venue and show to life and invite children to touch the props and explore the replica model. The tours are designed to remove any fears associated with visiting an unfamiliar place so children can relax and enjoy their visit.

Since its launch, 1,030 children have participated and the child whose negative experience sparked the initiative has now enjoyed his first Christmas show. Due to its success, we’re also rolling out our ‘Gallery in a Box’ initiative to introduce young audiences to our gallery programme.

Learn from your audience

The conversations we’ve had with teachers have transformed the way we work with primary schools and made the MAC more accessible to everyone. By listening to their feedback and responding with positive initiatives, we’ve built strong relationships and goodwill.

Although aimed at primary schools, the two initiatives have had a much wider impact. People now see the MAC as an organisation that cares about accessibility and audiences. The word of mouth that these initiatives have generated is priceless.

Melissa McMinn is the Marketing and Media Executive at the MAC, Belfast.

This article is a summary of two case studies written by Melissa McMinn for CultureHive.

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Photo of Melissa McKinn