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Opinion: Platitudes don't pay the bills

21 Jul 2020

Written by Sharon Dawson - all views expressed are her own.

If you’re like me, your email inbox has looked a lot like this:

     March/April – “COVID-19 Update” (from someone you bought a vase from for your auntie’s birthday 5 years ago)

     May – “we’re all in this together” or “we can get through this”

     June/July – “Face masks in stock”

Now whilst I completely agree with the sentiment that we are all in this together – and the most used line in my conversations at the minute is ‘here to help’ – I know that isn’t enough on its own to actually get you through.

There’s a lot that we still can’t do and that may be having a massive impact on you and your organisation.

Take this type of post I saw on social media over the weekend:

Indoor venues are allowed to open to socially distanced audiences from 1st August. Let’s look at this in reality.

If we put on the cheapest type of performer – a single person – this will cost us £700.

We will need to clean the venue after the performance - £250

We will need front of house staff to manage the audience - £250

Total cost to open the venue for a night = £1,200

With social distancing measures in place, we can have a maximum audience of 30 people. 

We can charge £12 per ticket.

Maximum income for the night = £360

Total loss for the show = £840

How is this helping?

In reality, this venue has 3 options.

  1. They can re-open their doors and lose £840 per night (on top of the other bills they will continue to have to pay even if they are shut). Unless they’re sitting on a huge wad of cash, and their objective is to support the artists and create employment, then this probably isn’t a viable option.
  2. They can stay shut and only have the other bills to pay – this is what I think most venues would do
  3. They can turn the £840 loss into a profit

‘How can they do that with social distancing in place?’ you may ask.

Well, it requires the venue to think differently.

What is described above is how they operated in ‘normal’ times. I think we can agree that these aren’t normal times! So in abnormal times, you need to do some abnormal thinking!

In essence, there are 2 things they can do to make a profit – lower their costs, or increase their income (or both).

The biggest cost is the performer. How could they reduce this? Could they negotiate a reduced rate for the performance? Could they find a local performer who would command a much lower fee – or potentially do the show for free? Could they show a film or a recording of a previous performance that would be cheaper?

Let’s look at the Front of House costs – could you reduce the number of paid staff and draft in local volunteers to help steward the event?

Cleaning – again, could you find volunteers who would be willing to help? Could you shut off certain areas of the venue to reduce the amount of space that needs cleaning at the end of the night?

We may or may not be able to reduce the costs, so let’s look at income.

The simplest way to bring in more income is to put the price of the ticket up – would an audience be prepared to pay £15 per ticket, knowing that they would be helping out the theatre?

Or could you charge £20 per ticket, but included in the ticket price is a glass of wine and some bar snacks – so you receive an extra £8 per ticket but it only costs the venue £2.50 per ticket?

Can you sell more tickets? Can you team up with another venue to accommodate another audience in another location, and stream the performance to them? Have you got any outdoor space that will hold a second audience? Or can you move the whole thing outdoors to increase capacity?

There are no right or wrong answers here – you might have taken offence at some of these suggestions, and even if they were possible, there are factors to think about other than just cost. I completely get that, and I’m not suggesting that expecting performers to reduce their fees is the right thing to do.

But these are the conversations and this is the thinking that needs to be happening right now in a lot of venues. It’s time to look again at what you do and question everything. If you do this and you get right back to Option 2 – stay shut – then that’s fine. But don’t accept that as reality without properly thinking about it first.

The venues – and businesses – who are not going to become victims of this pandemic, are the ones who are prepared to think differently about everything (or the ones sat on a pile of cash, but there aren’t so many of those about!)

Yes, it’s rubbish.

Yes, the events industry has been disproportionately hit by this.

Yes, there is not a lot of public understanding of what the impact of this is on venues, event professionals, and the whole supply chain.

It’s ok to get angry because you’re passionate about this – but then turn that into positive forward motion. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do right now, your new mantra needs to be:

 ‘what can we do?’

There are lots of people who want to see you come through this and would love to help, if you just ask.

And maybe then we can all get through this, together.

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