What did we do?
After disappointing attendance numbers for the 2019 undercurrents festival, we made a number of changes to the festival’s model. The highest profile – and arguably most dramatic – of these changes was moving from a fixed-price ticket structure to a Pick-Your-Price structure, taking inspiration from Why Not Theatre and Ottawa’s Crush Improv.
Traditionally, undercurrents tickets were sold in three tiers: $20 General Admission; $15 “I Need a Discount”, a no-questions-asked lower price for those who needed it; and $25 “Arts Supporter”, a slightly higher price for those who could afford it. On top of those prices we had various promo codes, and students were pay-what-you-can at the door. In addition to single tickets the 2019 festival offered 6-show Festival Passes ($100), and 2-show Evening Passes ($32).
Our goal with the various prices was to make undercurrents as financially accessible as possible while also hitting our revenue targets. But when the dust settled on the 2019 festival the numbers weren’t pretty:
|Capacity||Paid Attendance||Comps||Total Attendance||Revenue||Capacity %|
When planning began for the 2020 edition of the festival, everything was “on the table.” That is to say, we looked at everything we were doing – programming, scheduling, marketing, pricing – and looked at it as though we were starting a festival from scratch: if undercurrents had never happened before this year, how would we design it?
So in addition to changing how we programmed, scheduled, and marketed the shows, we also decided to change the pricing structure, settling on a Pick-Your-Price (PYP) model with four tiers: $5, $20, $50, and $75. All prices were available for all performances to everyone, and seating at undercurrents is General Admission, so there was no material difference in experience between a $5 and $75 ticket.
We debated which price points to use, but started with a $5 ticket because we wanted a price which was as broadly accessible as possible; and since undercurrents tickets are usually $20, that was an easy call to make as well. Like Why Not, we chose $50 and $75 for our two higher tiers, assuming we wouldn’t sell many of those (our audience demographics skew younger with lower than average household incomes) but wanted to experiment with what people would be willing and able to pay.
Not included in the above numbers are online fees for tickets, which were $2/ticket regardless of which price point was purchased. The decision on whether or not to charge out the fees or eat them ourselves was more difficult than the decision to implement the PYP model (it felt strange adding a 40% surcharge to a $5 ticket…), but ultimately we needed the fees to offset box office costs, and if the additional $2 was a barrier patrons did have the option of purchasing tickets at the door with no additional fees.
People asked why we didn’t have more options (“why no $10 ticket?” was our most frequent question). The short answer is, we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. We anticipated that communicating the PYP structure could be challenging, so the fewer options the better.
How did we do?
Our revenue goal for the festival was $21,500. And admittedly, when ticket sales launched in December and the first dozen or so tickets were all sold for $5 I definitely thought “we’ve made a terrible mistake…”
We didn’t, of course, sell only $5 tickets, and by the time we closed on February 15 sales were about in line with what we expected:
|Ticket Price||Number sold||% of sales||Revenue||% of revenue|
The $5 tier made up 50% of all sales (57% if you take comps out), but represented only 23% of revenue; while the other three tiers + comps represented the 50% of sales (or 43% without comps) and 77% of revenue.
Looking at the 2019 and 2020 numbers side by side, the difference is startling:
|Year||Capacity||Paid Attendance||Comps||Total Attendance||Revenue||Capacity %|
Year over year we saw a 66% increase in attendance (which included selling almost 1000 more tickets), 32% increase in house capacity, and 29% increase in revenue. We had four shows sell out their entire run, with 12/24 performances selling out.
An unintended (but welcome) side effect of the pricing was that our comps dropped significantly, coming in at 12% of all tickets (with 95/255 comps used on opening night). Our previous best had been 17% comps in 2018, with comps hitting a high of 30% in 2019. Did the $5 price discourage people from asking for free tickets? We can’t know for sure but suspect this to be the case.
Finally, we were interested in our audience’s buying habits. Since we weren’t offering ticket packages as we had in past years, we encouraged audience members to pick which shows they wanted to see, decide how much they wanted to spend, and create their own package from there. You could see all nine shows for $45, buy two tickets for $25, buy one at $50 and the rest at $5, etc.
We dove into the data a bit, looking at each transaction to see what the buying habits were:
|Price||Online transactions||Also bought $5||Also bought $20||Also bought $50||Also bought $75||Only bought at one price|
So of the 518 sales that had a $5 ticket, 87 included a $20, 2 included a $50, 1 a $75, and 428 transactions were only $5 ticket(s).
From this we learned that we had 806 unique patrons buy advance tickets, of which 392 (49%) were first time undercurrents attendees – a huge win and some of whom will hopefully turn into repeat attendees in 2021.
Will we do it again?
Because we made so many changes to this festival format this year, it’s impossible to conclude how much this year’s box office success was due to pricing vs. programming vs. marketing vs. scheduling (or vs. weather, which was terrible in 2019 but uncharacteristically cooperative in 2020). However, it is undoubtedly true that the PYP model made the festival more accessible than previous editions, and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming in showing that the pricing allowed patrons to spend what they would normally spend at the festival, but see more shows.
While we may tweak the parameters of our PYP model (a $10 tier? a $100 ticket that comes with a tax receipt?) we are fully committed to moving forward with this pricing structure and would encourage others to consider it as well.