Thursday, September 1, 2011

Teaching Patrons to Buy Late

Ken Davenport’s insightful August 30th post spotlights the reason why advance ticket buying seems like a thing of the past.  Too many presenters, producers and arts organizations are providing incentives to buy late in the sales cycle.

As readers of this blog know, our patron behavior studies challenge the accepted conventional wisdom in the field that patrons are buying later and later.  Conventional wisdom is no substitute for fact. In a study of late-buying trends of 1.5 million arts patrons in Los Angeles, we found that buying later it is not an inevitable fact of consumer behavior. We summarized these findings earlier in the year on this blog.

In our consulting practice we do see late-buying trends, but more often than not, we’ve found that late-buying is a direct result of late-selling—not making the offer to the market early enough.  This is typically a strategy based on the assumption that all patrons want to buy late. An empty house a week out then spurs a slew of panicked late-minute discounting, or worse yet: comping. When this happens often enough, as Ken Davenport also pointed out, patrons are trained to wait for this “management panic” fire sale. The bottom line is that giving up on advance ticketing only perpetuates the cycle of late buying—and leads to less per-ticket revenue (as well as total revenue!) on an ongoing basis.   

TRG client Arts Club Theatre Company (ACTC), like many, operated under the assumption that buyers were shifting later in the sales cycle.  The staff began to feel like they were dependent on good reviews or even good weather for improved sales results. Once they began accelerating their marketing and sales activities earlier, they became less dependent upon last-minute discounting or circumstances beyond their control. Selling early worked especially well for blockbusters. 

As seen in the above sales tracker chart from ACTC’s production of White Christmas, advance ticket sales and selling earlier resulted in a sell out by the first performance. The red line represents the previous pattern of selling late, where 25-40% of revenue was generated during the run. The blue line shows the pattern once ACTC started marketing early. This tactic, combined with other solutions like pricing changes, reducing comp tickets, and restructuring subscription options, led to ACTC increasing overall revenue by $3 million over two years. You can read more about their success story here or hear about it on our latest webinar here.

The data is unambiguous.  If the patron wants “it” badly enough, they will always buy well in advance of the performance date.  Just check out the available inventory of tickets for Wicked, The Lion King or The Book of Mormon. You’ll also find advance sales when the box office opens early for blockbuster programs staged by orchestras, opera and dance companies, and non-profit theatres, like ACTC.  Given a compelling reason to buy early, patrons will respond.

Which factors do you think affect patrons buying earlier or later? Leave a comment and let us know.


  1. While I agree in general with your conclusion, I think a lot depends on the market and the product. I would argue that "White Christmas" in Vancouver is going to have a wider appeal and generate more interest than "Don Giovanni" in Fort Worth, TX.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Of course the big, popular shows always sell faster. But that doesn’t mean they are the only ones you should put on sale in advance or early. The longer any show is on sale, the more time you have to sell it – and our data suggests, the more you will sell. You may not want to spend the same amount of money marketing it at the on-sale point, but the show should still be available. The earlier you put a show on sale, the earlier patrons can—and will—buy. Late-selling makes late-buying a self-fulfilling prophecy.