Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why I Hate Comp Tickets

If there is one thing that can kill your earned revenue quicker than anything else, it is a misguided complimentary ticket policy. Someone asked me the other day why I hate comp tickets so much, so I decided to list my top reasons:

1. Comp tickets devalue what it is we do. For my entire career, I have watched artists struggle to make the argument that the arts mean business, and that an artistic career is just as viable an option as any other. However, these same artists then give away the fruits of their labor to anyone with the most feeble of reasons. In the past few days, a viral video entitled "Explaining the Arts Non-Profit," has been passed among my colleagues illustrating this point. It starts out with one bear saying how much he enjoys a choral group, and then asking for a comp ticket. The other bear responds by saying that putting on a concert is expensive, and would prefer it if the first bear would purchase a ticket. The first bear is befuddled by the response because he thinks the choral group is made up of volunteers who perform as a hobby. For many of us, the arts aren't a hobby--they are our livelihood, and we deserve to be compensated for work that enriches the lives of so many people.

2. People don't show because they aren't invested. Many organizations believe that they must give away comp tickets to "paper the house" in order to fill as many seats with butts when important people such as reviewers are in the audience. However, in many cases, it backfires on them. Those who receive comp tickets haven't paid anything for them, therefore they aren't invested and many don't bother to show up. An average no show rate for comp tickets is in the 30% range. Next time you are at an opening night performance, take a look at how many empty seats there are. I would bet dollars to donuts that those empty seats are a result of a faulty comp ticketing policy. Not only are organizations giving away free tickets, but they aren't even getting the results they want out of them.

3. Blood in the water. Nothing smells of desperation worse than massive public discounting and uncontrolled comp ticketing programs. You might as well put a sign on your theater that says "no need to buy because we can't give tickets away." Marketers are in the business of managing perception more than reality. Even with shows that are under performing, smart marketers have tools in their toolbox to create the perception of demand.

4. Comp tickets create box office nightmares. The old saying that "those who pay the least complain the most" definitely applies to recipients of comp tickets. Recipients of comp tickets, in my mind, are the most entitled and demanding group of patrons to serve. They demand the attention of box office and front of house staff, which in turn takes a significant portion of your limited resources away from your full paying audience.

That all being said, there are a few good reasons to use comp tickets in a controlled and well thought out strategy:

1. As benefits for full time employees and actors. In many organizations, comp tickets are an important part of the benefits offered to employees. Organizations want their employees to be proud of their work, and knowledgeable about what is on stage, so offering them complimentary tickets is well worth the loss in revenue.

2. For members of the press. Press members who have agreed to cover a particular performance should be offered a comp ticket. However, do not give out comp tickets to press who haven't agreed to coverage. If a press member wants to see a performance but isn't going to cover it or your organization, it is more than acceptable to ask them to purchase a ticket. Just because they are a member of your credential press corps doesn't automatically entitle them to a free ticket.

3. To cultivate potential investors and/or donors. Comp tickets can and should be used to host potential investors and/or donors as a means of cultivation. However, these tickets should be monitored and tracked. I have seen companies give away thousands of dollars worth of comp tickets to potential donors who were in the "cultivation" process for years without a single donation.

4. As a professional courtesy. Most organizations have a vested interest in other artists seeing their work. Agents, casting directors, affiliated artists, artistic directors, and producers comprise most of this group. In some cases, if a relationship is exceptionally important, offering comp tickets would be appropriate. In many cases however, a discount for industry professionals will work just fine.

In closing, here are a few quick thoughts on developing a comprehensive comp ticketing policy for your organization:

1. Create a budget for comp tickets. Used in much the same manner as an expense budget, this allows an organization to plan for a given number of comp tickets each year for various purposes. Make sure to get buy-in from all members of senior management as they will be responsible for managing the comp tickets for their departments.

2. Develop very clear instructions on how comp tickets are to be distributed. The key to a good comp ticket policy is clarity. Make sure your policies are easy to understand and simple to follow. For fairness, it is important that the same policy be in effect for your entire organization. Once a clear and concise policy is created, stick to it.

3. It's like a crack addiction--it will be tough to wean people off of them. If your organization has a serious comp ticket problem, you might need a couple of years to turn it around. Be will piss people off. But we are talking about the livelihood of the organization and its artists. Why would anyone want to buy a ticket if they know that your organization gives them away at the drop of a hat? It will be tough, but worth it. I promise.


P. Yonka said...

Wonderful post, Chad!

Unknown said...

Chad thanks for this article. As a theatre director/producer I could not agree more. For years I have been trying to promote such ideas not just within my company but also with my theatre colleagues. No other industry gives away product the way we do and it drives me wild that this comp policy madness lives on and on across the nation. We do ourselves a great disservice by not moving along in our thinking and practice with regards to comp procedures in our theatres.

Joel C Anatoli said...

hahahaha, agreed

Dave Charest said...

Wish I had something to add other than I love this.

Thanks Chad.

Unknown said...

Yay, yay, yippee! I agree entirely, right down to the part about being willing to piss people off for a while when you cut them off. I've been watching no-show rates on different categories of tickets for years now, and comps win hands-down every season. I have had an arts leader boiling with rage at seeing unoccupied seats and almost without exception the lion's share of no-shows are comps; many ones that he handed out himself. Organizations that can't or won't get control of comps will suffer. Thanks for shining a light, Chad!
Kara Larson

The Mayoress said...

God bless you Chad.

This is also true for all my clients that provide steep discounts - both shows and businesses.

Rachel Rossos Gallant said...

For #3 (weaning folks off of comp tickets), a good intermediary step is to create a deeply discounted ticket that serves the same function as the comp tickets used to - a $5, $8, or $10 ticket that is not available to the general public, but only available to those you would normally comp (such as friends of the performers).

At my previous orchestra, I instituted a discounted ticket like this and we referenced it as an artist ticket. They were less expensive than any other discounts we offered, including student discounts. I introduced them by offering them in lieu of complimentary tickets when we had a show that was close to selling out - this way the organization could celebrate the success of selling out and still enjoy the perk of bringing in a few friends/family for a deep discount.

With each season, we introduced additional limitations, such as a deadline for complimentary ticket requests. If the deadline was missed, they could still get artist tickets at the door with a password that changed for each program.

The strategy did not eliminate complimentary tickets completely (that was never the goal) but it did reduce the number of reserved tickets that went unused, with the added perk of a slight boost in revenue per program. That 30% no show on comps can be quite brutal!

Andy Perry, Louisville, KY said...

I purchase tickets to events for two reasons: I want to see the performance and I want to support the organization. It makes me angry when I donate money and purchase tickets and when I get to the event, I'm in the minority of audience members. Why am I never offered a comp ticket? As a teacher who is know in the community for my theatre program, why am I never asked if I would like comps for my students, students who would be there and would be a knowledgable audience? Instead I have to sit behind someone who doesn't know how to behave, is texting or talking. But if I choose to not donate, no one asks me why I stopped donating!! It's no wonder that our local orchestra, The Louisville Orchestra, is bankrupt.

Kim said...

Great post, Chad!

I am fortunate to work in the arts both in my 'day job' where I work for a conservatory theatre program and my 'night gig' as MD for a theatre company in Chicago. Both of these groups have fantastically different views in comp policy, and is invariably frustrating sometimes. Of course, for my company, I try to limit comps as much as possible - much to the chagrin of some - I am probably usually seen as overbearing or cheap. However, you definitely need a solid Comp Policy, and you must stick to it. No matter how beautiful the puppy dogs eyes look as people ask you for one more comp, "pretty, pretty please."

The day job, however, is about butts in seats. Though there are many thought out reasons for this mission, I find that it can sometimes cloud our judgment and reduce the value of our art. I also just get so used to my comp-stickler attitude in the evening, that in the daytime it sometimes continues to my other venue where we give away so many tickets.

In regards to pissing people off - in an effort last week to appease a woman who overpaid for parking (in a lot we do not own/manage), I offered her 4 free tickets ($32 value-remember, butts in seats) to our next show, in exchange for the $3 she overpaid. She was happy with that --- but then asked me for one more ticket. I said, "No." It felt odd, but ultimately, I felt it was a good decision. Because obliging that additional ticket (which is only $8, mind you), I saw as really taking advantage of a generous offering.

Anyway, thanks for the post and the reminder that we're not alone.

Unknown said...

You haven't given enough weight to the idea that some comps are specifically desired by the recipient, and won't have the same no-show rate. If they are handed out like popcorn by overworked and hasty managers, sure, the seats will be empty. I used comps to reward vital vendors who carried our sloooow-paid credit accounts. Since The Nutcracker is a "hot ticket", and I only gave them out a few weeks in advance, they were invariably used. And the recipients were grateful. How about the piano tuner who doesn't charge extra for waiting around until the first intermission, or the secretary at the union office?

Leonard Jacobs said...

I'm worried over your reductive comment on press comps. There are situations in which press may not be writing a review or feature or blog post on a specific event, but has demonstrated a commitment to a venue (or artist, or...) over the long-term, and whose knowledge of what the venue (or artist, or...) offers will be material -- indeed, essential -- to future coverage.

Smart PR folks know who's worth a comp and who isn't -- and it isn't about some hard-and-fast, fist-on-the-table, ink-on-demand dynamic. If a PR person doesn't know who the moochers are, get a better PR person.

I have no comment on the rest of the post, which seems quite fair to me. I just fear you're being so black and white that the grey has faded into nothing.

Respectfully, LJ

Rajesh Vinaykyaa said...

Comp tickets can be a good way of advertising & marketing from point of view of a marketing person but it is not good for an Artist to see empty seats.It can also be fruitful for mouth to mouth promotion.

Unknown said...

This is a great article. I cannot agree more. There has been so many occurrences where the smaller theater near me gives out tickets to promote interest in the arts. Unfortunately people take the tickets as free way to occupy their time. The recipients of the free tickets don't respect the art for what it is. I am trying to bring more art related content to Boston. I found a lovely website that offers great deals on theater tickets . I even love their name; The people involved in the shows deserve praise and rewards for their efforts to bring the arts back into the public eye. I hope your theaters do well.