Pop Up Box Office Are As Much About Listening As Selling

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com linking to an Arts Professional article all performing arts professionals should read.

Hull Truck Theatre in Hull, England started regular pop-up box office hours in local retail chain locations to help address barriers to participation people had.

(By the way, the barriers were exactly those identified in the US studies like Culture Track – “time, cost, lack of awareness of what’s on, childcare and a sense of it being ‘not for me’”)

Magda Moses, who is the Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre Company started out with a trial visit to one of the stores and had conversations about their past, present and future experiences with theatre, following the theme of an upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Members of our box office team then joined us, enabling customers to buy tickets from an ipad.

We now run these pop-up box office and community engagement sessions in four Heron Foods stores once a month, and having other staff in attendance has helped the project become more embedded across the theatre.

One of the things we’ve learnt is to visit on regular days and times so that we can promote our visits in advance and people expect us and get to know our staff.

Since some of the responses they have received have dealt with being intimidated by the theatre building, an opportunity to interact with box office staff provides a point of contact that likely would have never occurred had they not gone out in the community.

In addition to the oft mentioned concerns about how to dress and act at a performance, a number of people identified being concerned that the experience would not live up to the expense of tickets. When the theatre produced a show about local woman advocating for fishing industry reform in the 1960s, Hull Truck Theatre offered “pay what you can” tickets exclusively through pop up box offices at Heron Foods.

Moses writes, “…we received positive feedback that people were thrilled to be able to afford to see a play that was directly relevant to their community.”

It sounds like the feedback they got from these efforts might be better than any paper survey and they have gained some insight into their audience segments. Yes, it is probably more expensive and labor intensive than more conventional approaches, but I am sure there are some intangible benefits that can’t be easily quantified in an ROI analysis.

Every time we visit Heron Food stores we ask about what sorts of events they like to come to, which informs out future programming.

We’ve identified differences in audiences across the city. Shoppers on Orchard Park are likely to bring the whole family, so they want affordable shows that everyone will enjoy. Hessle Road shoppers are likely to be older and are interested in local history and Hull stories. This information helps us make sure our marketing is relevant to each area.

Our pop-up box office sessions are about much more than selling tickets. They’re also about building relationships, trust and familiarity in order to spark the idea that someone can go to the theatre.

The sessions are an important part of the Community Dialogues project and the theatre’s wider commitment to welcome new audiences. So once we get to know someone, we can direct them towards tours, coffee mornings, family events, access performances or workshops, depending on their interests.

Data Vs. Your Gut

When I was thinking about what to write today, I figured a good intersection between yesterday’s post about productive employees not necessarily being good manager material and Drew McManus’ recent post about the “Shit Arts Administrators Say” Twitter account is Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, “Three Phrases That Effective Leaders Do Not Say”

Written last summer, Dilenschneider’s primary goal is to advocate for a proper approach to using all the data arts leaders have available to them. She argues that it can often feel easier, and therefore preferable, to rely on gut instinct rather than think critically about what is best for the organization.

Dilenschneider goes to great effort to explain these ideas so visit her page rather than being satisfied with my synopsis.

That said, in brief, the three phrases and suggested alternatives are:

1) “That doesn’t apply to me”
Say instead: “Let’s uncover the extent to which this finding applies to our organization, and explore what can be learned from this information.”

2) “I agree/disagree with the data”
Say instead: “Given these findings, I think our biggest challenge is…

3) “We need more information before we can do anything (on this topic where we already have meaningful information)”
Say instead, “Let’s consider what needs to change and what items need to be tackled to make the most of this information.”

It is in connection with phrase 2, that she addresses the problem of insiders using their gut feelings by warning against things like weighing the opinion of one person (board chair/executive director) more heavily than the hundreds/thousand whose responses comprise the data. Likewise, she points out that not only aren’t industry insiders the target market for the services and products arts organizations provide, insiders tend to have all sorts of blind spots and skewed perspectives due to their position.

One thing she doesn’t mention here, though I am sure she would acknowledge, is that it takes work to understand and evaluate whether data is valid and relevant to you.   It is often also easier to utter these phrases than to invest the time to look at the methodology behind the data to determine whether the results are dependable.

For example, radio and television stations trying to sell you ad space will cite all sorts of numbers about how much exposure you will get. With a little thought, you will quickly come to realize you won’t be reaching anywhere near those numbers as a result of any number of factors.  Your experience as a consumer helps inform a healthy skepticism.

When faced with data for an area in which you have no frame of reference or expertise, it can definitely require some effort to understand and evaluate. It is much more expedient and comfortable to go with one’s gut.

Dilenschneider does say there are times in which these phrases are useful. Note that final caveat though:

  • For instance, it’s a good idea to say, “That doesn’t apply to me” after you’ve collected the data and understand the true extent to which it applies to your organization, and you’ve found that it doesn’t.
  • It’s okay to say, “I disagree with this data” to discount findings when it is data about you and only you.
  • And it’s wise to say, “We need more information before we can do anything,” when it’s a big or expensive change and the takeaway is unclear. In such a case, you should absolutely gather more information!

This said, these phrases are all too often uttered defensively. If these words are about to escape your lips, think twice.

Star Employees Don’t Automatically Become Star Managers

Last month in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote about how the most productive employees don’t make the best managers.

Of the seven qualities they had listed in a previous article as being important for a top producer, only one, collaboration, overlapped with the qualities found in good managers.  They note that most of the seven qualities of a top producer are focused on individual effectiveness whereas a manager needs to be outwardly focused.

The top qualities they list for good managers (the article expounds on each in more detail) are,

  • Being open to feedback and personal change. ..
  • Supporting others’ development. ..
  • Being open to innovation. …
  • Communicating well. …
  • Having good interpersonal skills…
  • Supporting organizational changes…

When we further analyzed our data, we found that many of the most productive individuals were significantly less effective on these skills. Let’s be clear, these were not negatively correlated with productivity; they just didn’t go hand in hand with being highly productive. Some highly productive individuals possessed these traits and behaviors, and having these traits didn’t diminish their productivity.

But this helps explain why some highly productive people go on to be very successful managers and why others don’t. While the best leaders are highly productive people, the most highly productive people don’t always gravitate toward leading others.

All this is important to know because often people who are most productive are promoted to managerial positions on the belief the person can bring out the same productivity in others. But they don’t always do well in that role because it requires a different skillset to achieve success.

Instead of promoting an effective producer and hoping they will learn managerial skills, Zenger and Folkman suggest cultivating those skills while people are still an individual contributor. They say like anything, developing good managerial qualities takes time and businesses often expect good results pretty quickly after a promotion. They note that organizations which are good at identifying and promoting successful managers have often been providing training and opportunities over time.

New managers tend to be overwhelmed with their new responsibilities and often rely on the skills that made them successful individual contributors, rather than the skills needed to manage others. The time to help high-potential individuals develop these skills is before you promote them, not after.

All of this is obviously good advice for non-profit arts organizations. Except that it can be easy to fall into thinking that with so much turnover due to low wages and long working hours, the work you do developing an employee’s skills is just going to benefit another business.

While this may be true in the short term, I submit it is worth considering that the lack of internal training and cultivation may be partially contributing to the perceived dearth of quality candidates to succeed executive leadership. If employees don’t feel there the organization is interested in them assuming a greater role, that is one more incentive to leave.

It may be the result of the small sample size available to me or a trending bias of boards of directors doing the hiring, but over the last few years it has seemed that executive positions of many arts non-profits are being assumed by people with backgrounds in health care or corporate world. This seems to especially be the case with arts organizations of significance like arts councils in mid to large cities or serving well-populated regions.

It has left me wondering if this is the result of a lack of qualified candidates from arts disciplines, or as I suggest, a bias of those doing the hiring.

Cultural Revival Starts At Home

I just rediscovered a CityLab story I bookmarked last September discussing how a woman’s effort to revitalize culture and creativity in York, PA started in her apartment.

Bored with the city’s limited cultural offerings, Dwyer and her roommates decided to create their own homegrown events—a series of monthly arts shows in her living room…

The shows were modest affairs. “We would put art on the walls, move the furniture out of our living room. We made sure everyone’s bedroom was clean,” she says. “It was like a meltdown every month preparing for it.”

Soon, the shows started to draw hundreds of people through an evening. That attracted the attention of Dwyer’s landlord, Josh Hankey.

While some landlords might see large impromptu gatherings as something to stop, Hankey saw a business opportunity. “I knew that art could create an attraction,” he says. “I knew it could change the perception of a neighborhood, and I was going to help them whatever way I could.”

This was somewhat timely for me. I had attended a session hosted by my buddies, the Creative Cult where they asked everyone to write down what assets they might bring to revitalizing the creative environment in town. I wrote “my front lawn.”

I was partially inspired by the PorchRockr festival and Porchfests going on around the country. In many places people host music concerts on their front porches and attendees wander through the neighborhood taking it all in.

I am not sure my neighborhood is the best for a concert series, but I was intrigued by the idea of hosting a conversation or speakers series in the shade of my lawn.

The directors of my local art museum are already doing something along these lines. They live in a building across the street from the museum and invite everyone who attends an opening at the museum to walk across the street for an “after party.” This usually happens around 3 pm on a weekend so it is pretty accessible to all. Between passing through their studio spaces on the first floor and the ever growing and changing collection of art in the living space on the second floor, there is a lot for people to see and talk about.

Over the last few years that I have attended the “after party” events, the demographics of those at the party have really diversified in terms of an increase in first-timers and those who wouldn’t be considered museum insiders.

If you are finding people balk when you throw open the doors to your organization and invite them in, maybe the answer can be found in throwing open the doors to your home.

Politicians know the power of retail politics where they meet people one on one at small gatherings. Living room meetings are the hallmark of politicking in New Hampshire.

A similar approach may be useful to breaking down barriers for some people in a community.

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