After working with hundreds of performing arts organizations across the country, we are continually surprised by a strange—yet consistent—contradiction among them. While publicly claiming that art is important because it educates, heals, and uplifts communities, many organizations behave as if they genuinely dislike the people coming through their doors.
We all like to complain about the idiosyncrasies of our audience, that pesky patron who just won’t go away, or the difficult subscriber. At best we are annoyed, but at worst we give into an impulse that matches their perceived demeanor and we shut down any sort of genuine conversation.
This is a problem.
The arts cannot survive if, overall, we expect patrons to love the work we do, advocate on our behalf, and donate significant amounts of money while one-on-one we second guess their motives, assume inanity, and do the least amount possible to help them.
Your performances begin the moment a patron hears about your show—far before the lights ever go down. Everything an organization does, and every interaction a patron has with it, is actually a part of the art itself. The two are not distinct. Therefore, a somewhat painful truth emerges …
What you have on your stage may matter less than a patron’s overall experience.
Not every performance or production is going to be a hit. Nevertheless, people who have felt welcomed, appreciated, and understood will feel much more loyal to your organization—despite their opinions on the art they experienced.
Here’s an example: The Johnsons are going to attend a performance at Ballet Antarctica, while the Smiths decide they want to see something at North Pole Rep.
The Johnsons go to Ballet Antarctica’s website, but they cannot find a seat map. They end up calling the box office instead, and the rep they reach becomes annoyed when having to answer what, to her, seem like basic questions. On the night of the performance there is a penguin march and the Johnsons get stuck in traffic. They arrive 5 minutes after the performance has started and the house manger curtly informs them they’ll need to wait 20 minutes for the late seating break and walks away. The Johnsons haven’t even seen a performance and they’ve already decided they don’t want to come back.
On the other hemisphere, the Smiths decide to give North Pole Rep a try. Their website made it simple to purchase tickets and compare prices/seating. They received an email notification thanking them for their purchase, warning about blizzard conditions and providing suggestions for what to do in the area before the show. When they arrived at will call, a friendly rep thanked them for their first visit and offered them a coupon for a frozen drink at the bar. Afterwards they both agreed the show wasn’t really their taste, but they’d had a nice night together. The next day they receive a thank you email from the Rep, a brief survey, and a reminder of an upcoming show about a family of polar bears later on in the season. They fill out the survey and talk about giving the other show a try.
These examples, while silly, highlight the multiple touches an organization has with a patron. If the sum of those are negative, that person already has a bias against you. Ensuring these interactions and experiences are positive become critical to the retention of customers and the growth of your organization.
We’re doing a great job at speaking about the needs of audiences as a whole, at least artistically, but we have to start thinking of ourselves as not only cultural but service-centric organizations as well …
Disdain for one audience member poisons the perception of the rest.
Each patron is different with varying needs, questions, and expectations. But the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with ticketing/front of house. It’s in the decisions made at all levels about things such as how deep in the website people need to search for accessible programs, the “insider” language used in production blurbs, multiple follow-up communications regarding donating and subscribing, etc. Every word and image a person interacts with informs their experience. That experience needs to be carefully crafted to affirm your commitment to making their time with your organization worthwhile.