Lessons learned from Australia reopening

Author: Kathryn Mason

In a roundtable we recently hosted with our Substrakt clients, Steve Payne, our new Head of Sector Engagement for Australasia, spoke with Emily about some of the lessons he’s learned as Australia’s arts and cultural venues have started re-opening their doors for in-person events.

With Australia being six to eight months ahead of the UK and North America in terms of re-opening, it was really interesting to hear about some of the themes and changes that Steve has noticed and experienced in his role at the Australian Ballet.

While of course there are still many unknowns as we transition back to “normality”, it was interesting to see what parallels could be drawn between Australia’s re-opening experience and what is soon to come for Europe and North America, as audiences are welcomed back into arts and cultural venues.

Taking the call from his home office in Sydney, Steve also raised the question of the role digital will play as folks start rushing back to enjoy in-person live performances.

Above all, we left with a great sense of hope for the future of live performance in Europe and North America, with Steve telling us about a recent opening night at the Ballet, “we had 2100 people at the Sydney Opera House, the steps were packed, the opera bar was full, it was normal. People were in their frocks, their finery, no masks, it was incredible”.

Steve and Emily discussed eight key themes, which Steve has kindly put into writing below.

Travel restrictions:

Travel restrictions into and around Australia have had a huge effect on the re-opening of the sector. With no international companies/artists being allowed to enter Australia freely (without having to self-fund a 2-week hotel quarantine), the sector has had to look inwards for talent and content.

However, this has also allowed Australian companies to have the lion share of the market, without having to compete with touring companies from overseas.

And in the same vein, the lack of international tourism has meant that most companies have had to look at the domestic and local markets to try and fill their houses. This has been a big task for many companies, particularly the larger performing arts companies that do rely on international customers.

Variation between major cities: A noticeable difference between Melbourne and Sydney markets

Promisingly, most organisations are reporting that both subscription and single ticket sales are far exceeding pre-lockdown sales.

However, there has been a significant difference in consumer habits between our two major cities, largely due to the fact that the easing of restrictions has varied greatly between the two.

While Sydney is now (I dare to say) “back to normal”, Melbourne has been hit harder with a longer and more restrictive lockdown, which has been reflected in the sales for both cities.

Sydney has returned to what we would consider a normal subscription year, and the first two live productions have over exceeded in revenue and audience numbers. Melbourne is only now really starting to make comparable sales which is promising, although it’s definitely taken longer.

Snap lockdowns:

Managing snap lockdowns has now become part and parcel of our daily lives. Unfortunately, Melbourne had a snap lockdown just before the Australian Ballet’s grand welcome back to stage production. This had a fairly detrimental impact on sales, resulting in the introduction of a blanket $50 ticket offer for all seats across all performances (which you can imagine hit the bottom line hard).

Snap lockdowns are definitely having an effect on consumer confidence and sales campaigns, with most sales and Marketing teams having to work to numerous budgets that try and cover different contingency options. This involves having varied spend options and being ready to quickly implement disaster recovery when required. In a nutshell, our jobs as Sales and Marketing professionals have become doubly or triply as hard!

Policy and process changes:

Following an era of such uncertainty, consumer behaviours and expectations have understandably changed. This has resulted in major changes to ticketing processes and policies, where organisations have needed to adapt to a far more flexible structure. Gone are the days of no refunds, no exchanges. Organisations have needed to introduce more flexible policies that make customers feel more comfortable to book tickets. At the Australian Ballet we have had to introduce a “ballet promise” scheme which essentially guarantees that we will look after customers and their money, whatever happens.

Revenue projections:

As a result of such significantly different consumer spending habits, it has now become a lot harder to project sales revenue for the remainder of 2021 and beyond, especially when it comes to single ticket purchasers.

Whereas before the pandemic we were seeing sales massively rise in the last 30 days before opening night, we are now seeing a significant increase in last-minute bookers. People are literally waiting for the day of or the day before to purchase tickets.

As mentioned above, we have had to implement multiple budgets based on various scenarios. From normal years / small lockdowns to utter disaster and everything being shut down again. This has made setting realistic targets for this year and 2022 budgeting near impossible. Many organisations have therefore taken the option of running three or four budgets for their future yearly projections.

Audience loyalty:

I’m delighted to say that there has been a really strong response from loyalist audiences this season, during most organisations’ subscription campaigns. You could almost say that we’ve seen an extraordinary response to what has been an extraordinary year.

Many customers have chosen to donate their ticket value back to the organisation, creating hundreds of new donors into prospecting pools. So organisations are now looking at how to harness this commitment and generosity to keep our loyal audiences engaged in the long-term future.


Most organisations in Australia and New Zealand embraced digital delivery during the lockdowns, and will be looking to keep these offerings running into the future. The Australian ballet has committed to launch a new digital subscription either this year or next.

However, it would be wrong for me to say that the prioritisation of our digital offering has remained the same since reopening. The return of live performances has certainly changed our approach to digital, with most of the team shifting their focus back to our live/mainstage productions.

In the longer-term it will be interesting to see how organisations start to balance their digital versus in-person offerings, beyond the initial phase of returning to live performances.

The future:

I feel that we all need to take the time to think beyond our financial recovery during this period and look at setting ourselves up for the future.

What we are seeing here in Australia is a strong sign of a great audience recovery. There has been so much more social interaction with productions than pre-covid, which has provided us with so many new opportunities to engage with audiences around the world.

As a good friend said to me recently “People are putting on their frock and getting out, and they want to share it with the world.” This has totally reminded me of why we do what we do, and it is so invigorating to see audiences back enjoying live culture.


About Steve

Having held senior positions in the cultural sector since 2003, Steve has worked with organisations in both Australia and the UK, including Sydney Opera House, Opera Australia and London’s National Portrait Gallery. 

Steve is currently based in Sydney and recently joined Substrakt following 4 years at the Australian Ballet, where he worked as Head of Customer Experience & Ticketing. He also acts as the Australasia representative on the Tessitura Member Advisory Committee.


If you have any questions or would like to speak with Steve in more detail around any of the above, please do just get in touch: team@substrakt.co.uk