Physically distancing audiences involves much more than figuring out how to make sure there are enough empty seats between patrons.
It’s also about figuring out how much revenue, or how many people, you need to bring in to cover costs or turn a profit. It’s also about ensuring that you have a plan for getting everybody in and out of your facility, determining what services you can safely offer, what kind of staffing you need to make this all happen, and much more.
But don’t get overwhelmed! We have a chance to do what we do best — throw open the doors, invite everyone in, and let our creativity shine.
I encourage you to take the tools, concepts and ideas I’m about to discuss and experiment with a variety of combinations. Share your results and experiences with your peers – there’s no better resource! We’re all opening at different rates with different regulations. Those of us who start early can pass along invaluable knowledge to the venues that open up later. If we all share what worked well, what didn’t work so well, and the changes we want to make for next time, we can support each other through one of the most challenging times in our history.
We’re all looking for that elusive “right” answer that provides a clear path to success. But the answer is going to be different for us all.
Is this something we can manage or afford?
Start by doing some forecasting to help determine the feasibility of physically distanced seating in your venue. Leverage your technology to show you one or more outcomes for various scenarios. You’ll want to query past sales and maybe even set up some sample shows or seasons so you can forecast the effects of physically distanced seating on revenue. Make sure you’re up to date on your local government ordinances and regulations regarding safe distances, as this will affect your forecasting models.
In the Pop-Up Skill Builder we offered on this topic in June (login required to watch the recording), we walk you through how to approach this type of forecasting in Tessitura. The concepts are useful regardless of what system you are using.
Some key forecasting measures include:
- Historical frequency of group sizes: How many singles, pairs, triples, etc. have attended in the past?
- Typical physical capacity vs. modeled physical capacity: How much capacity might you lose with physically distanced seating?
- Typical vs. modeled gross potential revenue: How much revenue might you expect to bring in with physically distanced seating?
- Historical percentage lost to discounting: What kind of discounting programs have you used in the past?
- Modeled gross potential adjusted for historical discounting: How will you adjust your usual discounting programs to complement reduced capacity and current needs?
You can use that data in your forecasting models to help your team decide when and how to approach re-opening your venue. If your model meets or exceeds your goals, then you have a clear plan to follow. If your model falls short of goals, then adjust ticket prices or capacity and re-run your analysis.
Don’t forget that with physically distanced seating, those seats that used to be most desirable, may not be as desirable anymore. For example, those front row seats may seem risky because they are too close to the stage or because those patrons load into the venue first and therefore have to be in the theater the longest. Desirable seats may now be those that are closer to the back of the house because they load in last, on an upper level so there’s no one overhead, near an exit for a quick departure after the show, or on a side aisle that doesn’t get as much foot traffic.
Your traditional “hot seats” may not be so hot anymore.
Baker Richards recently published an article that explores a variety of methods and layouts for physically distanced seating. It’s a great resource that quickly and clearly shows how small changes in physical layouts can yield a big difference in potential capacity.
What approach should we take?
As you use your forecasting and data analysis to decide what approach to take, you’ll need to strike a balance between maximizing revenue and re-engaging audiences in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable. Most organizations are operating with reduced resources, tight budgets, and a lot of hope holding everything together. We all want to provide a quality physically distant outcome — but we may need to ensure that we can bring in a specific amount of revenue, or we may have to limit our efforts based on the staff we have available.
You’ll need to strike a balance between maximizing revenue and re-engaging audiences in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable.
Our Physically Distancing Seated Audiences webinar explored two extreme scenarios: maximizing revenue or providing maximum control to audience members to make them comfortable re-entering the venue. Realistically, the right answer for you likely lies somewhere between those two extremes.
Scenario I: Maximizing revenue
We defined “maximizing revenue” as both filling as many seats as possible, and getting as much money for each seat as possible. As I mentioned above, your traditional “hot seats” may not be so hot anymore. Folks may prefer to be closer to an exit or a wall, or may want to load into the venue as late as possible. Take all this into account and re-evaluate your dynamic pricing logic, if necessary. Consider implementing or increasing suggested and round-up donation amounts to increase revenue. You may also want to implement editable pricing or Pay-What-You-Can functionality, with a suggested minimum ticket price so folks who are able to pay more can, and folks who are feeling the pinch can still support your organization.
If you play with your seat maps, it won’t take you long to see what Baker Richards pointed out in their article — that seating groups by hand gives you the highest attendance per performances. In our webinar, we suggest a couple different options: selling events unseated, or selling into wait-list or general admission (GA) sections. With both options, plan for staff to seat orders 24-48 hours prior to the performance, using holds to maintain safe distances between groups. Once everyone is seated, tickets can be sent out electronically to minimize contact and lines at the venue.
Seating groups by hand gives you the highest attendance per performances.
If hand-seating an entire house seems daunting, remember that by the time you kill all the seats needed to maintain safe distances, you’re really only looking at 30–50% of your usual capacity. For those of you who still hand-seat opening nights, you know that this is maybe a morning’s work for one or two staff members. This approach also has the added benefit of letting you priority-seat board members, major donors, VIPs, folks with accessibility needs, and so on.
Scenario II: Re-engaging your audience
Now, we all know how much customers love to choose their own seats, so if you don’t want to go the unseated route, you can use the data collected on historical frequency of group sizes to preemptively block or hold seats on your map. Leaving blocks of tickets available in pairs, trios, quads, etc. means folks can still choose where to sit in the venue while easily seeing the space between them and any other attendees.
If you decide to stick with select-your-own-seat functionality, make sure to read that Baker Richards article on Distanced Seating. They do a fantastic job of showing how small changes in map layouts can make big differences in available capacity.
Section of a seat map showing physically distanced blocks of seats
What else can we try?
In addition to seating layout changes, consider making some other changes to seat maps and tickets to manage expectations about how crowds will flow throughout your facility once they arrive. For example, if you’re planning to load the house in waves, you can add entry times, or the amount of time prior to curtain that folks will be seated, to the section names. If you’re able, designate specific entry and exit doors and configure your access control to support door-specific scanning.
Online purchase path showing entry times for each section
E-ticket showing entry time and door assignment
What did we learn, and what should we do differently next time?
After your performance, gather as much data as you can to help determine your level of success and identify what worked well, or not so well. Send out customer surveys and find out how your audiences felt about being back in your venue. Did they feel comfortable with their seats? How did they feel about measures taken in the facility? Were there processes that felt risky or overly cumbersome?
Re-run your data analysis and forecasting measures to see how things went. For example:
- Seat capacity: Did you sell all the seats you wanted/needed? If not, and you let customers choose their own seats, consider hand seating a show, or take another look at your seat map configuration.
- Gross potential: Did you meet your revenue goal? If not, was too much revenue lost to discounting? Do you need to adjust your seat prices or re-evaluate your dynamic pricing strategy?
- Sales by channel: Did you see any change in sales trends by channel? Were there fewer sales over the web? Was that because you turned off Select-Your-Own-Seat? Did phone sales go up because patrons wanted reassurance about safe distances or procedures at the venue? If so, what more information can you put online?
- Survey results: How did your patrons feel about their experience? What worked well? What didn’t work so well? Did they get enough information before they arrived about what to expect? What other suggestions or feedback did they have to offer?
Tessitura Analytics dashboard for forecasting
Detail of the above Tessitura Analytics dashboard for forecasting
Use that data to adjust how you tackle the next performance, and the one after that, and the one after that. Don’t be afraid to make changes — the “right” solution for you and your organization will likely include an ever-changing combination of the ideas highlighted above, as well as feedback and advice shared from your peers.
We may only have a ghostlight on our stages today, but we have the heart, the drive, and the smarts to restore our stages to their full glory. The performing arts will persevere, and we will emerge stronger and brighter than ever.
And if you need help accomplishing any of these, please reach out — our team is here to help.
Top photo by Debby Ledet from Unsplash