Free events – a good idea or just bad for business?

Our historic theatres are often the showplaces of our community.  They act as a link to a past that valued craftsmanship, décor and a bygone era of style and sophistication. And as such, we often fall prey to the notion that we need to show them off as often as possible, many times as part of a free event.

The great film tycoon Marcus Loew once was quoted as saying, “We don’t sell tickets to movies, we sell tickets to movie theatres.” How true those words, especially in the era of the movie palace (1928-1935) when many Americans just wanted to escape for a few hours in the entertainment palaces of the European expat movie moguls like Fox, Loew and the Warner Brothers. Often we hear that the movie theatre became the church of the common man at the height of period with their regular patrons, schedules and passionate followers. The challenge many of us faced was to get that audience back, while competing with a much larger cast of distractions today.

All too often we are all approached to host “free” events, by community groups, theatre board members or even a theatre staff person. What is the real cost of this event? The response is often that the positive PR, number of new visitors, sponsorship or concession income will outweigh the cost we normally collect from renters or ticket sales. In fact, the greater damage to the institution of your theatre is the real cost.

There is a term in the live performance industry called “papering the house” which refers to giving away unsold tickets in order to have a full house. This is something all venues need to avoid the reputation of doing. In essence this is what too many “free” shows is doing to your building. If the perception exists that you can always wait for a free event at theatre “X”, there is little motivation for the public to pay for a ticket. If there are too many free events at your theatre, the “special-ness” of your venue begins to fade. Of course the occasional free event (1-2 times a year) is a good practice, especially if you have something new to show off, or a special occasion (theatre’s milestone birthday), but the value of a free event to the public is nil. Try giving away “free” tickets to an event and see what percentage of no-shows you have – it will be lower with a ticket fee as there is a perceived “value” to the ticket that a free event lacks. A better tact would be to offer admission with a donation to the local food bank, or during the holidays a toy for a local “Toys for Tots” program.

We’ve all worked so hard to restore our buildings, build an audience and create/foster quality programs – don’t give it away!

Posted on: December 10, 2010