Free Night Of Theatre Update

Since posting some thoughts about the 2008 Free Night of Theatre  on October 16, I have received some valuable responses. Thank you all for writing in.

Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, which oversees Free Night in this part of the country, got back to me at the end of last week with direct feedback to points I raised in my blog post as well as a report containing some interesting information about this year’s event. Thank you, Brad. Here are some of Brad’s thoughts in response to issues I raised in my blog post:

Chloe: I’m puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn’t seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

Brad: Even the very first year, here in the Bay Area, Free Night was more than one night. While the idea of one night where theatres everywhere threw their doors open for free was wonderfully catchy, in reality schedules didn’t sync up. Some shows were still in rehearsal, others were closing, for others it was opening night, and so not appropriate for Free Night. We wanted to accommodate as many shows as we could, so in that first year, we expanded the dates to include a good month of performance options. This was advantageous to theatre-goers as well, since not every person is going to be available on any given night. Starting that first year, and continuing on, we have had theatres offer tickets on more than one night. This upped the total number of tickets available for us to give away, and made it less risky for the theatre companies to give away sizeable numbers of tickets (ACT holds the record of 800+ tickets given away – that was to three different shows over a number of nights – including two mainstage productions and one at Zeum). In the past two years, we have actively encouraged companies to consider multiple evenings for the free tickets, for the good reasons I mentioned a moment ago.

Chloe: While the generosity is admirable, I’m wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There’s little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free.

Brad: Yes, which is why October 16 does not appear on any of our marketing material here in the Bay Area. In other cities (like New York), October 16 was used a focal point, or launch day, with performances beginning on that evening and proceeding over a few weeks. So, in NYC, and other regions, October 16 did have real significance.

Chloe: From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they’re able to say, “well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I’ll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre.”

Brad: Any interesting point. One innovation we tried this year (and that was utilized in Chicago as well) was rolling release dates for new tickets (ours we offered every Wednesday in October, excluding the final Wednesday). We did find that tickets were not snatched up with the same frenzy as before. So people, knowing more tickets would be released the following week, were doing some online shopping. We are hoping this means there will be more real interest in the shows selected, and that will cut down on no-show rates (no-show rates for smaller, less-known companies and shows could be a problem. With well-known companies and shows far less so).

Chloe: And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It’s not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

Brad: Theatres in the Bay Area have been extraordinarily enthusiastic about this program, year after year, because they understand it to be (for them) a very cost-effective way of attracting first-time patrons to their theatres. How much do companies spend on advertising? And what is the ROI? Here is a program that has proven to work in bringing in brand-new people to theatres – the most difficult to reach of audience members. Theatres in the Bay Area participate in the campaign at an exceptional rate. Of the 600+ theatres participating nationally this year, over 100 are from this region (out of 120 cities nationwide). Of the campaign’s total ticket count of 55,000, over 7,000 are from our theatres. Our theatres participate to such a degree because they believe in the effectiveness of the campaign.
National numbers from TCG:
–32 Managing Partners
–Over 120 cities participating in 27 states
–656 theatres presenting over 1,700 performances
–Approx. 56,000+ tickets are now being offered.

Chloe: I’m also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year.

Brad: Shugoll Associates, (a Maryland-based market research company) has measured the success of Free Night since its inception. To quote researcher Marc Shugoll, “I have never seen a more effective audience development initiative.” The skinny is: Free Night audiences are remarkably diverse. They do not look like the stereotypical theatre-goer (that is, middle-age to older, white, and affluent). They are younger, they are ethnically diverse, and they come from a broad range of income brackets. They look not all that different from the Bay Area itself. And they come back as paying customers. Within six-nine months of Free Night, half of the Free Night folks attend another performance, and pay. They go to the theatre more often than before, and they attribute their uptick in interest to Free Night.
2007 Statistics:
–398 participating theatre companies presented more than 600 performances offering more than 30,000 tickets.
–According to the online survey of 2007 Free Night patrons required when they made their ticket reservation, the program continues to attract a significant number of people who fall into non-traditional theatre participant categories, including infrequent theatre attendees, young people, less educated, non-white and those with lower household incomes.
–Specifically, 77% attended a theatre they had never been to before, 42% are under age 35, 26% have less than a college degree, 27% are non-white, and 33% have combined household incomes under $50,000.

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