One Answer to “$5 or $75?”
Another case-study in Pay-What-You-Can-Afford ticket pricing
by AL Connors
Over the summer, the article “$5 or $75, That Is the Question” from intermissionmagazine.ca, made the rounds among my circle of theatre creators, GMs and producers. It’s a great piece for theatre nerds about accessible ticket pricing that certainly resonates with anyone who has ever had to balance the need for ticket revenue with the desire to get butts-in-seats.
In short, the article by Owais Lightwala from Why Not Theatre is about a specific “Pay-What-You-Can-Afford” pricing model for a production of Prince Hamlet at The Theatre Centre in Toronto. One of the remarkable things about the article is that Why Not Theatre shared their actual ticket revenues, showing in full transparency the results of this pricing experiment.
“In April 2017, we put on an adaptation of Hamlet at The Theatre Centre, Prince Hamlet, where we tried a new ticket pricing strategy that we called Pay What You Can Afford (PWYCA). Audiences had the choice of picking one of four options: $5, $25, $50, or $75. The seating was general admission no matter the price level, with no caps on the number of seats sold at each level. There were no other discounts for seniors, youth, and arts workers, and there were no promo codes. The audience could select the price they were able and willing to pay for exactly the same experience as everyone else.”
For sixteen years I worked for a Company of Fools, whose flagship Shakespeare-in-the-park touring production has a pay-what-you-will admission policy. The Fools have always used the “suggested donation” method, so I have seen almost two decades of data on the revenue this yields. I have seen how advertising a “suggested donation” amount can bring the average donation up, and how the bigger the crowd, the lower the average per-person donation. I was curious how a wide spread of pricing options ($5-$75) would affect total ticket revenue.
So, I tried it myself. I produced Crush Improv’s Tenth Anniversary Special at The Gladstone Theatre using the same pricing scheme as Prince Hamlet, and in the spirit of the original article I’d like to share the results.
Before we compare numbers, I need to address the big differences between Why Not Theatre’s case study and my own. Whereas Prince Hamlet was a full-length play that ran for 13 performances, Crush Improv’s Tenth Anniversary Special was a one-night-only improv comedy show. It is also important to note that improv shows are notoriously under-valued and therefore under-priced – to the point where even broke actors and comedians joke about improvisers being poor.
In my mind, what helped make the case for comparing these two examples is that this was no ordinary improv show, it was the tenth anniversary of the company. There were 3 performers flying in from the west coast along with some of our favourite guest talent from Toronto. There was five hours of content broken into 45-minute shows at 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11pm. One ticket granted admission to any or all shows, people could come and go, and we assumed that most would pick two hours to see. All of this added to the intrinsic value of the event.
Here is the specific language Crush used to explain our ticket pricing:
Crush is trying out pay-what-you-can-afford pricing. We believe the show(s) are of a high value, given performers are travelling across the country to be here. However we understand that many of our fans cannot afford high value pricing. So, it’s the honour system. Pick what what’s appropriate for you. All tickets are the same and grant access to all the shows. General admission seating is first come, first served.
Below are the actual ticket sales from Crush Improv’s Tenth Anniversary Special:
|Net||Number sold||% of Sales||Total Revenue||% of Revenue|
|total / avg.||$14.35||184||100%||$2,639.60||
The “Net” value represents the company’s take after box office fees.
Of particular interest is how, despite all the differences that exist between an improv comedy showcase and a more traditional play, the distribution of sales between ticket types published for Prince Hamlet, and Crush Improv are remarkably similar.
|Crush Improv||Prince Hamlet|
|Face Value||% of Sales||% of Sales|
I was quite surprised to see that the $5 sales represented a slightly lower percentage of overall attendance than Prince Hamlet’s. The only other small difference between the two sets of data is that, in comparison to Prince Hamlet, Crush sold more $25 tickets and less $50. However, even that difference seems less significant when looking at the distribution of revenues between the $5 option and everything else:
|Crush Improv||Prince Hamlet|
|Face Value||% of revenue||% of revenue|
|$25 / $50 / $75||89%||88%|
The $5 ticket holders made up about half the audience, while the other half represented nearly 90% of the earned revenue. For someone whose goal it was to remove ticket price as a barrier to admission, it was remarkable to see how those who were able to pay more essentially subsidized those who were not. Crush Improv has produced a monthly show for years at a $5 admission price and has always struggled to sell splashier, more expensive shows to that audience. So offering a $5 ticket option to a bigger show certainly felt good and less alienating to our audience base. It also felt good to know that we successfully communicated the value of this show, to the extent that patrons and supporters were willing to commit to a higher ticket price.
Obviously more study is needed to determine if this “Pay-What-You-Can-Afford” pricing structure consistently results in the same distribution of sales among patrons. If you haven’t yet read “$5 or $75, That Is the Question” from intermissionmagazine.ca, it will likely answer most of the questions popping up in your mind regarding all the variables involved in this experiment as well as why the pricing structure was set up in this particular way.
And, like Owais Lightwala at Why Not Theatre, I encourage more producers to try this model and report on the results. Keeping theatre accessible is important. Not only for those who cannot afford some of the more robust ticket prices out there, but also to remove some the perceived risk involved in attending theatre. Lower ticket prices help attract new patrons, and once patrons have experiences they value, there are potential benefits that go beyond just the bottom line.