Perhaps it is the old venue manager in me, but I don’t like performances with houses smaller than 60% and I don’t like complimentary tickets (comps).  So I am concerned at the huge numbers of tickets the arts and entertainment industry appears to give away as a matter of routine.  And I don’t think that is the answer to smaller audiences.  The practice of “papering houses” seems endemic and I remain convinced that it is not a good thing, and potentially dangerous.  Why give away for nothing the very thing that represents most people’s perception of your value – the ticket price?

a million give-aways per annum

The good people at UK Theatre keep their members up to date with their great tracking study of attendances, and I find it intriguing that recently UK Theatre members have been breaking cumulative records for attendances and income – already 7.7 million attendances and £174 million ticket income for the year to date, and a running average capacity of over 60%.  But despite this, depressingly, the running average for weekly capacity recently has been below 60% and the number of complimentary tickets is averaging over 20,000 per week.  Now I know we are a friendly bunch in the theatre in the UK but we haven’t got that many friends we are willing to give guest tickets to.   Last year UK Theatre members collectively averaged over 22,000 comps per week. Multiply that by 50 weeks and that’s over a million give-aways per annum.

it is not worth nothing, you are giving away at current average ticket yields £25 per ticket

When we are issuing genuine guest tickets, I have always argued that the full face value of the ticket should be printed on it – it is not worth nothing, you are giving away at current average ticket yields £25 per ticket.  When I worked at the RSC in Stratford I liked the fact that all departments had a budget to “buy” their guest tickets from the Box Office so we thought carefully about “guest tickets” even for press, and we could legitimately claim that we were playing at something like 95% of paid capacity!

plainly “papering” continues at high volumes

But we now have online schemes for complimentary tickets and plainly “papering” continues at high volumes – irritating as a paying attender to hear the people sitting next to you discussing how they came by their “free” tickets.  I still think the challenge is marketing and selling the tickets (and I accept we sometimes aren’t as successful as shows deserve) and we have to stop giving so many away that we devalue what is most valuable to us.

Roger Tomlinson

19 May 2016