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Thinking Outside the Box Seats

Would incentive plans inspire ticket sales?

by Holly Mulcahy
April 6, 2009

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Thinking Outside the Box Seats

It was probably a combination of buying the Girl Scout cookies last week, buying dividend stocks this week, and wondering if there were going to be comp tickets for my performance next week that triggered a revelation this afternoon during my rehearsal.

Wondering about comp tickets made me think about one of my former orchestra's policies of NO COMPS!  
"We, the XYZ Symphony feel that we are losing too much revenue by offering comp tickets, and will therefore no longer be offering them. You, as a XYZ Symphony musician, are encouraged to share to your family and friends news of our upcoming concerts…blah, blah, blah."
Personally, even though I knew better, I viewed the comp tickets as part of my benefits as an orchestra member. I never used any of the other benefits my former orchestra offered such as health insurance and instrument insurance so giving comp tickets to friends, family members, and students was something I sincerely cherished.
But maybe the management was on to something. By perpetuating the habit of the freebies were we denying people the understanding that we are professionals and the cost of any given production shouldn't be taken lightly? By offering too many comps it seems as though orchestras are turning into the type of failed music dealer who can't convince others to actually purchase a single ticket much less season tickets, ultimately leading to our own demise.
What do Girl Scout cookies and stock purchases have to do with "to comp or not to comp?" To a certain degree, organizational success is based around self interest and the symphony business model could benefit from following a few ideas used by publically traded companies and the Girl Scouts.
Back when I was a girl scout, we had the annual cookie drive and in my troop which was always successful at raising lots of money. It wasn't like the girls really understood the greater good behind how the cookie money was going to help the troop and therefore work even harder pedaling the cookies for the cause. Instead, we were offered incentives to sell the cookies.
For example, if you sold over 500 boxes you would get a bike. I never met that goal but I really wanted that bike and I that motivated me to work really hard. In the end, I ended up selling 300 boxes and received a smaller prize. It was a great plan that helped keep the Scouts financially solvent and, eventually, it made us girls understand that we were contributing to our troop and the scouts in general. But there probably wouldn't have been as much drive without the influence of self interest and the Girl Scouts obviously knew this and played to it. At the time, it worked beautifully; our individual self interests raised enough money to benefit the collective and in addition to individual rewards, our troop went on a fancy camping trip.
Now that I have grown up, my idea of appropriate incentive has changed a bit. My contemporary version of the Girl Scout cookie incentive is purchasing stocks. I look for strong companies that pay dividends and are strong enough to eventually produce a good profit when I decide to sell. My buying strategy is motivated by pure self interest and of course, companies know this which is why they use incentives like a high dividend yield or even discount on company products to lure new share buyers. Lately, I noticed one company that promised to send stock buyers a crock pot if they purchased a minimum number of shares along with a "great quarterly dividend!" to boot.

So how does all of this relate to comp tickets? Consider this:
1.       Orchestras are having trouble selling seats.
2.       Giving comps further perpetuates the financial problem.
3.       Not giving comps makes the hall look empty.
4.       An empty hall makes the orchestra look like it's going out of business.          
You can likely imagine where this cycle ends and here was my observation:
If there are limited or no comps allowed and the orchestra is having trouble selling seats, why not offer incentive packages to musicians stakeholders interested in bringing friends to concerts? I know what you are thinking, "If the orchestra really meant something to them, stakeholders should be willing to push tickets without bribes! Shame on you!"
But really, the world has never been that altruistic and if it were, concert halls wouldn't be as empty as they are. Sure, there is and should be a sincere interest in bringing the masses into the hall to hear a fantastic symphony; I'm constantly trying to persuade students to come to my concerts.
But here is where well established business practices could prove to be a fine model for an orchestra world that typically sees itself above this sort of thing. Why not have a special discount code just for friends, family, students, neighbors, people met on a hiking trail etc. The people would feel special for getting an offer of discount and the stakeholder (musician/staffer/volunteer) would actually see tangible results from their efforts.

This happens at internet based companies all the time. Amazon.com have made it a cornerstone of their business plan and dedicate considerable resources to make it as easy and effective as possible for people to participate in their referral programs. When applied to orchestras, assigning stakeholders special discount codes provides audience members with special rates and the musician, staffer, or volunteer would receive a small percentage of that sale or even a non monetary incentive for their efforts. This way, butts are in the seats, there is less blame on the marketing department for not "doing their jobs" and comps are converted into discounted tickets.
Recently, I was interested in finding out what my musician colleagues thought of my idea so during a break between rehearsals, I laid it all out for a trio of fellow musicians.
"I would want to take my cut and give it right back to the orchestra," remarked one colleague. "They are really hurting."
"Well, I don't invite friends for the money," said another colleague. "But I would feel weird about taking a cut."
"I rather like it, I feel bad giving the same couple comp tickets week after week, knowing they never buy tickets on their own or donate a dime to the orchestra," said the final colleague. "It's not like a free concert will get people hooked the same way drug dealers give free hits to get their buyers addicted. Comp tickets are kind of a smoke screen to our success. Each time I look into the audience, I'm know about half the seats filled are the freebies and then I think 'Why is it that marketing is always asking us for help selling tickets? It's their job; my job is to play on stage.' So yes, if I am going to be inclined to help sell tickets, I definitely would want something!"
Since they are so close and passionate about music, musicians (sometimes) have great marketing ideas. But when they present these ideas to their respective over worked and under staffed marketing department, they are greeted by deaf ears so it's no wonder they get frustrated and succumb to apathy.
Not long ago, one of my friends was expressing that there should be a Friday night "Date Night Concert Event." She explained how she's seen similar ideas work at other organizations and how date night concerts would work at her orchestra and seemed really passionate about its success. So what is stopping this musician from doing this very thing right now? Probably the knowledge that her idea will be passed on, and if the organization actually follows through on it, she wouldn't receive a bit of acknowledgement.

But I wonder, what would happen if the sincerely good ideas proposed by passionate, responsible, and charismatic, stakeholders could be encouraged with some sort of incentive program? Could grassroots effort like these make a difference? If the rest of the business world is any indication, the answer is "You bet!"

Comments (4)

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Laura from Chicago writes:
April 6, 2009
Interesting article, Holly. I've given away many comps, and some have turned into season ticket holders, and many have gone on to purchase single tickets for other performances. I do it willingly, and for the benefit of the organization as a whole and would feel strange if there was an incentive involved. There is enough motivation for money in this world as it is, and I don't want to contribute to that mentality. I chuckled when I read the part about the orchestra colleague who was passionate about her idea, because I've suggested my own "great ideas" to the marketing department and have been met with the blank stare and smile from the overworked staff person. I'll be interested to see what others have to say. Thanks for writing about this.

Peter from Texas writes:
April 6, 2009
I can see things from Laura's point of view but also Holly's. I used to work at an organization that presented 5-6 concerts a year and each one was regularly sold out. In those instances, comp tickets were as good as gold and using them to attract new ticket buyers was like shooting fish in a barrel.

The other reality is the group I currently work for only manages to sell about 70% of our hall on average. In those cases, the argument of comps devaluing the concert aptly applies. I wish we would implement some sort of associates referral program like Amazon.com, I think it would do us a great deal of good.

So I would say that the impact of comp tickets depends entirely on how well a group's sales are and how often they perform.


Shoshana Fanizza from Boulder, CO writes:
April 9, 2009
As a past Marketing and PR Director of a philharmonic orchestra, I certainly know the woes of filling the seats. Since then, I have switched gears to dedicate myself to teaching a different method of filling the sits and that is using audience development instead of or in conjunction with marketing. It's about building relationships instead of mass advertising.

I have used this idea while I was still at the Phil asking the board, staff and musicians to offer a special coded discount to come to the show. The concert I went all out with this audience development program was the concert I finally sold out the 2,052 seat auditorium and the revenues were triple what they were on average.

I am now an audience development consultant. The most recent undertaking for me was working for the Helander Dance Theater. We opted to do very minimal marketing due to budget concerns (placed only two ads) and instead devoted more time to public relations and audience development. We created an audience development plan with several audience relations programs. The numbers in the end proved how effective audience development is. The direct invitations that came from the staff, board and dancers actually worked better in comparison to the marketing's mass advertising. Also, the more directly the person was asked (personally as opposed to second degree through HR/Marketing Directors I knew at a business), the more tickets sold. We ended up increasing ticket counts from last year by 48% and increased ticket revenues by 45%.

Audience development works and there needs to be a shift from marketing (massive, non-personal) to the many audience relations programs that could be implemented (the more creative, personal invitational approach). So far audience development has shown me increases of 30-50% per event. Can you tell I highly recommend it?

Shoshana Fanizza
Audience Development Specialists

David Adair from Owen Sound ON Canada writes:
April 24, 2009
As the Business Manager of a regional community orchestra I am always looking for new ways to engage and build our audiance. Comps are one way and I really like the idea of special codes for BOGO deals. We will be trying that next season. This season we gave a special offer to our subscribers and musicians to bring a friend to our January concert. We had over 20 tickets sold this way. With a subsription base of 400 I think that was a good return for our first time.
We have also stated to directly engage our community. At our last concert we had our local Tai Chi club perform at intermision. For our last concert and our final concert of the year is on International Astronomy Day (We are performing 'The Planets") and have the Astronomy Society set up to do viewings.

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