Australia reopening for a second time: what this means for cultural organisations and their audiences.

Author: Steve Payne

In both New South Wales and Victoria, large scale cultural organisations will soon be reopening due to (yet another round of very long) lockdown orders. If you’d told me that we’d be emerging from another major lockdown this time 8 months ago, I’d probably never have believed you (but here we are).

The rest of the (locked down) world was watching as Australia re-opened in late 2020. For arts and cultural venues, this meant welcoming in-person audiences back to live performances and exhibitions. It saw all subscription-based organisations launching their subscription campaigns, and major venues promoting new large scale events for 2021.

This time last year, in my previous role at the Australian Ballet, I was deep into preparing my team for the launch of our major 2021 subscription campaign, which (like many) was a very successful and much needed boost for all subscription-based organisations within Australia. Most if not all of these campaigns exceeded revenue targets, with some even beating pre-pandemic numbers. There was a brilliant feeling of optimism.  So much so that shortly after joining Substrakt, I presented three different webinars to both European and North American cultural organisations about the lessons learned from Australia re-opening. 

So now, as the irony kicks in that we’re looking to the rest of the world for guidance and inspiration, I wanted to reflect on what opening up a second time around might look like for Australia’s cultural sector. More specifically, about what audiences will want, need and expect this time around. And what arts and cultural organisations might need to start or continue doing to respond to these needs.

This involves contemplating a broader question – are consumers and organisations alike changing the way they think and behave?

Here’s an overview of the things I’ll be considering, which all represent things that I think will become increasingly important over the coming weeks, months and years for our sector:

  1. Post-pandemic customer service expectations (price point and communications standards)
  2. The need for digital activity to remain a key strand of an organisation’s offer (accessibility, new audiences, new work)
  3. Preparing our staff and venues for re-opening in a new, post pandemic context (digital FOH communications, and staff & artist wellbeing)
  4. The use of pre pandemic data sets (importance of learning from the pandemic to differentiate between new and historic customers, and what this means for how you present your offer)

Customer expectations

Price point considerations 

As we move into this “new normal”, attractive and competitive pricing will inevitably become even more important for consumers. When combined with the fact that minimal to no international (and perhaps even interstate) tourism is expected for the foreseeable future, making productions financially attractive is going to be key to organisations having a successful run.

The lack of tourism will also only saturate the cultural market, with lots of choices on offer for customers to pick and choose from. A couple of ideas that have emerged in response to this expected trend:

  1. Flexible subscription pricing (which is usually reserved for organisations’ most valued customers) may be used more broadly across all tickets in order to fill theatres and make productions financially viable.
  2. Given organisations will be unable to perform at 100% capacity in the initial post lockdown phase, we may see dynamic or demand based pricing playing a bigger role than before. This would allow organisations to monopolise on last minute bookers to help achieve their financial targets by slowly increasing reserve pricing as demand gathers speed (only increasing this by $10-20 dollars will have a big impact). We’re currently seeing this play out in some of the big Westend and Broadway reopenings, with many last minute tickets being more expensive than before and out of the reach for many of the general public.
  3. I can also see gifting being another fruitful opportunity for cultural organisations (if adequate marketing budgets are allocated to the activity). With more ‘conventional gifts’ looking to be scarce this year due to supply and demand issues, people may be looking to change their buying habits in search of more unique, interesting and ‘out of the box’ options. So gifting could potentially become another major revenue stream for the sector. I’ve already read a number of articles suggesting that this emerging sales strand (and the associated profits) can be easily tapped into the wonder experience economy.

Interestingly (although unsurprisingly), during our first wave of re-opening we saw an increasing number of consumers waiting up to 30 days before the opening night of a performance to book their tickets. I wonder whether this will continue to be the norm as we re-open a second time around, or whether people will start reverting back to their previous buying behaviours and securing tickets earlier for the lowest possible price.

Only the next 6-12 months will be able to answer this for us here in Australia. But some very interesting insights are already emerging from Europe – one of our clients reported that the level of purchases on the launch day of a production was completely unprecedented, representing a +100% increase on the previous biggest ever on-sale (they even had customers queuing early around their venue in order to secure tickets).

Honest communications 

A major learning from the past 18 months is that customers will both need and expect honest and forthcoming communications from cultural organisations.

Transparency and no nonsense messaging will be key to maintaining the required level of trust and commitment between organisations and their audiences, during what is looking to be a difficult year ahead for our sector. So providing honest communications at key moments will help to make sure that consumers feel respected and valued by our organisations.

It’s also important to remember that a significant number of audience members will be feeling nervous and anxious about returning to physical venues following the health crisis of the past 18 months. And while they’re desperate to come back, they’ll need reassurance about safety measures and a clear cut understanding of how the audience experience will work on the day.

The role of digital content

Digital activity can make content more accessible

A common theme throughout all of various global lockdowns has been the incredible rise of new digital experiences. This is something that came quicker than expected due to the need for organisations to continue reaching their audiences and maintaining a sustainable level of revenue in lieu of any in-person events.

We all knew digital was heading in this direction, but the pandemic really expedited the need for online cultural experiences, as opposed to them just being another strand of activity sitting within a 5 year strategic business plan (often as a “nice to have”).

One of the many benefits of having such a range of digital content available has been its ability transcend some huge barriers to access:

  • Geography:
    • Time zones – people can view content from anywhere in the world (which has been especially important for us here in Australia in terms of reaching European and North American audiences).
    • Proximity to venue – having this online content available has enabled isolated rural communities to engage with the wonderful work our cultural organisations produce, without needing to travel great distances at a great expense (or just not be able to go).
  • Physical disability – this has been a benefit felt by every organisation globally. Digital content has made cultural experiences available to  people who are unable to attend a conventional venue for a large variety of reasons.
  • Socio-economic disparity – due to the prices of many theatre tickets (particularly within the ‘high arts’) those in less affluent communities are unlikely to be able to afford the in-person experience, so paid-for digital experiences have made these experiences more accessible.

We must also remember that it’s not just for these reasons that audiences don’t (or won’t) attend a performance / event (whether in-person or online). It will also be as a result of the content, themes, and the style of the genre. It’s a ‘want and need’ market, so it will be important for organisations to make sure that the content is as engaging and interesting as possible.

Helping organisations to continue engaging with their newly cultivated audiences is a really important part of our plans moving forward, and here at Substrakt we’re continuing to work with some of our clients across Europe and North America to implement [showcase], our paywalled video content platform, to strengthen and enhance their digital offerings. Most recently we worked with the team at MCC Theater to enable the online delivery of their annual FreshPlay festival (which is usually held in-person). For us, what this ultimately requires from the organisations we work with is to consider digital activity as an important and necessary part of their programming.

New work 

As the sector continues on this exciting digital journey, it’s important for us to consider the new ways  we can be embracing the potential of online experiences (and everything a ‘digital offer’ might include). This involves thinking beyond the ‘norm’ of just ‘plug and play’ activity, and looking for ‘out of the box’, digital-first opportunities.

Over the past year we’ve seen galleries and museums really take this to the next level, delivering interactive exhibitions for global audiences to experience. Two wonderful examples (in my view) of forward thinking digital activity are the unsettled exhibition from the Australian Museum here in Sydney, and the Sydney Opera House’s dedicated Stream  service.

Preparing our staff and venues

Fast uninterrupted Digital FOH Communication 

The re-opening of major cultural venues from a Front of House (FOH) perspective is inevitably going to come with its own set of challenges. So making sure that all staff are properly equipped with the right information, processes and tools is going to be really important.

After the first major lockdown in Australia, many cultural organisations had to adopt (and learn how to facilitate) digital ticketing. While some venues were already using this technology and therefore ready to go, there were a number of organisations who weren’t. This caused major confusion (and subsequently customer complaints) during both the ticket buying process and at the venues themselves.

When purchasing tickets, people were no longer offered the choice to print hard tickets (either as Box Office collects or mailed). And at venue entrances on the day, consumers were often unsure as to how their PDF tickets worked, and were also required to check-in on their mobile devices in adherence to COVID guidelines, causing bottlenecks at venue entrances and putting an added layer of pressure on FOH staff.

This is something we can expect to see again during the first few months of re-opening, with staff needing to manage check in’s, scan e-tickets, and check for proof of double vaccination (for now, anyway). These all create added points of friction during the FOH experience, so it’s going to be important for organisations and audiences to stay mindful of this as our staff and venues start to welcome people back again. The value of maintaining a culture of care, patience and remembering our shared experience is something that I hope won’t be underestimated.

This is something we’re really conscious of at Substrakt, and so we’ve been working with lots of our clients to find ways we can improve their front of house experiences. This has included things such as implementing apple wallet and google pass technology to store mobile tickets, annual passes and subscriptions (which is going to be a “must have” for our sector moving forward). We also recently created a  timed-entry ticketing functionality for the Science Museum to help manage capacity limits, by simplifying the way last minute bookers and walk-in attendees could purchase tickets. This is a simple change to the booking process that can make a huge difference for both consumers and FOH staff, and it’s something we anticipate an increasing number of organisations asking for.

Looking after our staff and artists’ wellbeing 

We must also continue to remember the ongoing impact of the pandemic (and reopening) on our artist and administrative staffs’ wellbeing and mental health. From so many of the conversations I’ve been having of late, I’m almost certain that everything we’ve learned from early 2021 will be taken into consideration as we move to reopen once again, and that staff will be properly equipped with everything they need in order to deal with most scenarios. There are some great organisations that I feel are leading the way in this space at the moment, including Melbourne Recital Centre who has been closing operations each week between 9am-midday for wellness Wednesdays,  and Arts Centre Melbourne who are running another fantastic initiative, The Arts Wellbeing collective.

The use of pre-pandemic data sets

Taking learnings from the pandemic to engage all of your audiences

Speaking as a major data geek, the post pandemic era is going to provide an incredibly exciting set of new data and customer insights following a wave of such unprecedented (and unforeseen) consumer behaviour.

But it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our past data sets and customer demographics. Maintaining a solid understanding of these will be crucial for historic reporting, market comparisons and capitalising on the opportunities posed by this latest shift in audience behaviours, with the additional demographics now (hopefully) being considered within the normal subsets.

Indeed, for many organisations there will still be a large cohort of non-digital customers who have little to no access to the likes of Facebook or Instagram (where lots of digital content is housed). Organisations will need to pay particular attention to this audience group during the transition to hybrid programming, by sending strong, clear written and verbal messaging and/or alerts. To make sure this happens, traditional marketing strategies and the availability of contact centres will need to be maintained and still considered a sizable revenue stream for the foreseeable future.

As our organisations plan their upcoming seasons, it’s going to be interesting to see how different productions / tours perform compared to the pre-pandemic era. Overlaying historic sales trends and data with real-time live results will provide our marketing teams with meaningful and insightful ways with which to better target both old and emerging audiences, without just stabbing in the dark.

Making sure that our clients are using all of their data as effectively and meaningfully as possible (in the short, medium and long term) is a really important part of our ongoing relationships work. It’s also something we realise is becoming crucially important for every organisation in the sector, so if you’d like to have a chat about where we might be able to help in this area just drop us an email.

Closing thoughts

Let’s revisit the question I posed at the beginning of this piece – are consumers and organisations alike changing the way they think and behave? The short answer is yes. And for the different reasons I’ve discussed above, I hope there are some useful, interesting and practical things for you to take away when considering how we can make the most of these changes as a sector.

How we can build upon all of the great digital work that’s been done so far. How we can continue meeting the needs and expectations of both old and new audiences. How we can maintain a culture of care within our sector while everyone adapts to the transition. And above all, how we can work together to give ourselves the best chance of reopening for good.

It’s important to recognise that all of this comes at a time of renewed optimism here in Australia following the success  of #VaxTheNation – a campaign driven by the cultural sector to get our total number of double vaccinated people up to 70 – 80%, at which point venues will be able to welcome double vaccinated audiences back.

Over the past few weeks it’s been wonderful to see organisations launching their 2022 seasons and highlighting their upcoming “in person” events. There are far too many excellent examples for me to single any out, but I am feeling more confident than ever that we are now turning a corner. Before we know it we’ll be sat (or stood) at an event that will remind us never to take what we had for granted again!

 

If you’d like to discuss anything that I’ve touched on in this article then please do just get in touch: steve.payne@substrakt.com – I’d be more than happy to have a chat (I could talk about all things CRM, data insights, digital marketing and sales for days!)

And if you’d like any further information about Substrakt, our consultancy work, [showcase], or any of our other digital products, then please do reach out: team@substrakt.co.uk