The predominant method of pricing to attract young audiences involves the last minute discounting of available inventory, usually resulting in what is commonly referred to as a "student rush." At Arena Stage, we had a similar system called our "30 and Under Program," which allowed patrons 30 years old and younger to access $15 tickets beginning at 10:00am on Monday for that week's performances. The $15 ticket price represented a 75% off discount from our typical average ticket price, so these tickets were in high demand. With such a popular program, you might be asking why are we trying to fix something that is "working" by launching a "Pay Your Age" program specifically designed to replace the previously popular "30 and Under" program?
Well, if you dig a little deeper, you'd find that it wasn't working because...
We were losing them at 31. Imagine if you had spent ten years paying $15 for a good seat to the theater, and on the day you turned 31, you received a birthday card saying "congratulations, in order to attend your favorite theater from now on, you must now pay 75% more than you have been." As an organization, in some cases, we had spent more than a decade teaching young adults that a ticket to the theater was only worth $15, when in fact we should have been reminding them that they were receiving a $60 ticket on a substantial discount because we recognized they were in school or were just starting their careers. The jump from $15 to $60 overnight was just too steep, and after paying such a substantial discount for so long, the value proposition was completely distorted.
We were encouraging late buying behavior. I have been to countless conferences where experts have blamed decreases in subscriber bases on younger patrons who are not willing to commit in advance. Well why should they? For years, we have been giving them great seats at the best prices at the absolute last minute. If you eventually would like younger patrons to become subscribers, you must develop pricing systems which encourage earlier buying behaviors. They need to be taught early on that in order to get the best deal on the best seats, they need to commit early. I always found it funny that the same theaters that forced younger patrons to purchase via last minute rush systems where the ones that complained they couldn't attract younger subscribers to offset the attrition of their older subscriber base.
We could not fulfill demand. In many ways, our inaugural season at the Mead Center for American Theater has been a banner year for Arena Stage. Performances sold out weeks and months in advance, and when that happened, requests for access to any held inventory and house seats for sold out performances flooded into our Artistic Director's office. By requiring 30 and under patrons to wait until Monday to purchase tickets for that week's performances, we found that in many cases, we had very limited, if any, inventory available for such an important program. That being said, I know how hard it is to tell a major donor or VIP that we can't sell them a seat because the seat in question was being held for our 30 and Under Program. Imagine--"I'm sorry Mr. Ambassador, the performance you would like to attend has been sold out for weeks, except for the tickets we have held for the 30 and Under Program. You aren't by any chance under 30 are you?"
So we developed a new system called "Pay Your Age (PYA)." The premise: for our patrons who are 30 years old and younger, they can purchase PYA tickets starting two months in advance of the first public performance by calling the box office and simply paying their age for their ticket. Tickets will be held at will call for pickup, and box office associates will verify age upon check-in. We have guaranteed that 3% of the inventory for each performance will be held specifically for this program. In the case of our upcoming summer revival of Oklahoma!, this means that on Monday, May 9, 1,800 PYA tickets will go on sale in a first come, first served format.
I anticipate that demand for these tickets will be very high, and they will sell out quickly. This in turn will underscore the importance of buying in advance if a 30 and under patron wants to get the available discount. Wait too long, and we'll be sold out. In addition, by paying just $1 more per ticket per year, we hope to gradually adjust each patron year by year, so that when the time comes, there isn't tremendous sticker shock.