Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Problems of Traditional Pricing and How Dynamic Pricing Can Increase Accessibility

Over the span of the last several months, there have been numerous emotional debates over pricing in the blogosphere, particularly among a small handful of very respected colleagues in the theater industry. I have remained, for the most part, on the sidelines as much as possible, because parts of the debate centered around practices that I have publicly endorsed at major conferences. As such, I didn't want to interfere in what was an open and honest dialog. However at this point, I feel the need to address some of the misinformation that has been posted on a few reputable blogs, and shed some light on what to me seems to be a misunderstanding of dynamic pricing by Isaac Butler (founder of Parabasis) and Adam Thurman (author of Mission Paradox).

Some things to think about:

1. Dynamic pricing in itself doesn't determine accessibility.

Dynamic pricing is simply a tool, or maybe it is better described as a philosophy. Like most things in life, the devil is in the details. How it is applied is much more important than the concept itself. Basic traditional pricing establishes a maximum price point usually determined by seating section and date of performance. Once tickets are placed on sale, they are usually released at the maximum price point. In contrast, with most applications of dynamic pricing, tickets are initially released at the minimum price point, and only increase to the maximum price point if demand warrants. This ensures that a certain amount of tickets are guaranteed to be sold at the minimum price point, whereas traditional pricing can allow an entire house to be sold at the maximum price point from the initial release date.

In addition, dynamic pricing doesn't dictate how an institution deals with allotments set aside for specific audience demographics. In the case of Arena Stage, we have six distinct savings programs that target specific audiences that are extremely important to us as an organization. Aside from the pricing of the general ticket allotment, most organizations that practice dynamic pricing protect ticket allotments for their savings programs, even for productions that are in very high demand.

From my vantage point, dynamic pricing is the Robin Hood approach to yield management. The very few people who wait until the last minute are charged the maximum price point to provide for those who are charged a much more accessible price by purchasing well in advance.

2. When debating pricing, the maximum price point is much less important than the average ticket price.

When determining how accessible major institutions are to the general public, it is much more important to examine an institution's average ticket price than to critique its maximum price point. To reach the maximum price point, at most institutions practicing dynamic pricing, demand has to be so high that 90% or more of available inventory is sold, meaning that only 10% of inventory is ever sold at the highest price. In looking at it from another perspective, 90% of all inventory is sold at some sort of discount. The only litmus test an institution has to determine how accessible they are to the general public is their average ticket price. To determine average ticket price, one needs to divide total ticket revenue (subscriptions + single tickets) by the total number of tickets sold. By looking at an average ticket price, one gets a complete analysis of all sales across the entire spectrum of their ticket allotments, including those sold through savings programs. The argument shouldn't be that non-profits shouldn't sell beyond a certain maximum ticket price. Instead, it should be that non-profits should maintain an accessible average ticket price. If you are focused on the maximum price point, you can't see the forest for the trees.

3. Dynamic pricing rewards behavior that is much more in line which subscription purchasing.

I have heard my colleagues bemoan the death of subscriptions for the past decade. I too am inclined to believe that generational differences in purchasing behavior will lead to the eventual demise of the subscription. However, traditional pricing practices have escalated the downturn of subscriptions.

In most institutions, subscribers are a group of patrons who purchase multiple productions and do so early in a show's purchasing cycle. For this, they are rewarded with a slight discount. The trouble with traditional pricing occurs when single tickets are placed on sale at the maximum price point directly out of the gate, only to be drastically discounted usually a week or two before the performance when management realizes there isn't the demand to warrant the initial price point. Subscribers then realize that in a significant percentage of cases, they can wait until the last minute to purchase, and will be rewarded with the same, if not better, discount than they would have received if they purchased months in advance. Pavlov proved that if you reward a certain behavior, it will increase. If you want to kill subscriptions, then continue with a pricing model that provides the best discount at the last possible minute.

Until someone much smarter than I figures out the solution to the subscription dilemma, I will always support a single ticket pricing model that encourages behavior more associated with subscription purchasing patterns. If an organization wants to increase its subscriber base, reward early purchasing decisions with the best possible prices, and make sure that those who purchase late, do so at the highest possible prices. I am convinced that this approach to pricing is why Arena Stage has significantly increased its subscriber base over the last three fiscal years in the midst of the global economic crisis.

Final Thought
When debating and analyzing pricing strategies for an organization, remember that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Get all the facts. Study sales patterns. Talk to stakeholders. Hold focus groups. Look at peer organizations. Do your due diligence, and be prudent. Before moving forward, make sure you have a complete understanding of the various options and how your decision will impact organizational values. Prior to implementing a dynamic pricing strategy at Arena Stage, we thoroughly studied the model for more than a year, and had very thoughtful discourse among staff, leadership and the board.