How do theaters decide how to offer packages/subscriptions/memberships?
July 8, 2016 2:14 PM   Subscribe

How do theater companies (or other kinds of arts venues, like operas or symphonies or dance companies) decide whether to offer season ticket subscriptions, some kind of membership that offers benefits (other than free or discounted season tickets), or some combination of the two?

Theater companies seem to use some combination of two models to get people to sign up in advance to commit to supporting the theater each year. One model is to ask people to pay for a membership, which then gets them access to better seats or early purchase, sometimes discounts at the gift shop or special events. The other model is to offer a subscription, where before the season starts, you buy a package of tickets for some or all of the shows that season, often at a discount over the single ticket rate. I want to know, from a theater business perspective, how a theater decides which model to use or what the pros and cons are of one over the other.

From my perspective as a frequent theatergoer who is also not uber-rich, I will almost always buy season tickets to a theater near me that has a good set of shows, especially if they offer subscribers a discount. I have never bought a membership that doesn't include actual tickets to productions, because I've never felt that the benefits are worth it for me. I'm never going to buy enough gift shop stuff to make the discount worthwhile, and I really don't need to be first in line to buy tickets because there are almost always plenty (and sometimes the benefit ends up being useless; a lot of theaters that have the tour company of Hamilton coming aren't even giving their members ticket priority; you have to be a full-season subscriber to be guaranteed tickets). If I want to donate to the theater (and sometimes I do), I'll just do that. But I imagine there has to be some group of people who are unlike me, who would for some reason prefer to be a member over buying season tickets, and I'm curious about why. I'm also curious as to how a theater decides which of those groups to target with their offers, and why. Any insight would be much appreciated.
posted by decathecting to Media & Arts (5 answers total)
For our very small community theater, season subscriptions (you buy all tickets in advance for a discount) means that we get fewer dollars per show out of you, but we get that money up-front. This is incredibly helpful for house expenses and to budget out the rest of the year, because we have a cushion of cash to work with. We obviously don't want the majority of our tickets to be held by season subscribers, because that would reduce our revenue, so this is entirely about having liquidity at the beginning of each season (and customer loyalty...once you've bought tickets, you're probably going to come to the show).

We don't have memberships for audience members (we have membership, but that's to participate in the theater, which removes our liability for insurance purposes). Memberships, though, allow the same sort of liquidity without the expense of discounted tickets. Membership often offers non-monetary benefits, like being able to get backstage for shows, having the ear of the artistic director/board in terms of the way the theater will go in terms of content, and of course, gives you a bit of prestige. Memberships are usually for larger, for-profit theaters who have a richer clientele.
posted by xingcat at 2:40 PM on July 8, 2016

It is as xingcat said. I'll add that having a community of subscribers is very helpful from a fundraising perspective. There's a strong overlap between regular subscribers and and regular donors, and it helps to identify and be in regular contact with them.

Memberships can be about a couple different things depending on how you set them up and who you want them to appeal to. Going back to the fundraising thing, a lot of the time they seem to be a deal-sweetener for donors, and privileges will be thrown in as a kind of "thank you" gift for contributions of a certain size/regularity. In companies I've worked for (ballet and theatre) they usually include invitations to "meet the artists" type events, as well as discounts at affiliated organizations (wineries, restaurants, etc.) The idea is that our supporters should feel like patrons of the arts, rather than just people we hit up for money every couple of months.

Memberships focusing on ticketing perks are usually meant to appeal to a younger crowd, the idea being it's difficult to get young professionals to commit to shows more than a month or so in advance. If they're interested in coming regularly but aren't sure what they'll be able to attend, a membership type arrangement can make it easier/cheaper when they do decide. I should mention that my own company experimented with this several times and it hasn't met with much success.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 5:10 PM on July 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So it sounds like it's an age/wealth thing maybe? That the memberships are designed for older and more affluent people who are not price-sensitive, and are paying to feel like they're indulging in a luxury or like they are members of an artistic community? Is that right?
posted by decathecting at 6:53 PM on July 8, 2016

Of possible interest:
Mr. Newman, as everyone in the nonprofit arts world is aware, is responsible, virtually by himself, for the widespread use of subscription programs to build audiences for the performing arts.[NYT]
Lyric Opera of Chicago was one of the modern pioneers in this field — they have often sold most of their seats via subscriptions — though, as the article points out it’s really an old idea: Mozart ran subscription concerts. It’s worth noting that you can only sell subscriptions if you have a predictable season while a membership, which doesn’t give you the same advantage of ticket money up front, can be more flexible. Many organizations essentially have both: subscriptions and “friends of” membership organizations with other benefits.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:00 PM on July 8, 2016

I got a subscription for a local opera festival's season (all two productions!), with a slight discount over buying the same tickets without a subscription. The biggest benefit to me was that I could swap my tickets for different dates for free (and I took advantage of that, since I hadn't checked the bus schedule when I originally selected dates.)

They get more money earlier, and they've got more of a guaranteed audience for the lesser-known shows. Probably. Subscribers also get a discount on buying more tickets, which I imagine works really well to draw in more people by word of mouth. Though I don't think I know anyone who wants to go to the opera with me, so, uh, maybe not.
posted by asperity at 9:56 PM on July 8, 2016

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