Welcome to a major new 2021 theatregoing survey on how audiences will return to live entertainment post-pandemic, which measures encourage the broadest possible attendance and how producers, venues and ticket retailers can adapt their product to a changing demographic.
Out of adversity comes opportunityBenjamin Franklin
Responding to the needs of – and rebuilding – an audience
In 2021, From The Box Office, a major ticketing retailer with global distribution, undertook a survey with 4,410 respondents to better understand the needs, concerns and feelings of theatregoers as venues re-open post-pandemic. Even with vaccines and better treatments becoming available, understanding how audiences are responding now will provide vital information should another pandemic occur in the coming decades.
Images and videos already being shared widely on social media of audiences enthusiastically returning to West End shows. However, we should be mindful that for theatre to thrive, it will need to attract a diverse audience with differing levels of confidence. This includes those who may have been shielding and a significant number in older age groups who help sustain quieter midweek and matinee performances. This is particularly important for the West End, which will need to compensate for a depleted overseas market.
Communication is key. We will be judged, not just by those who are confident to return, but by those who are nervous. In conducting this research, we have aimed to create a tool which can be used across the whole of the theatre and live entertainment sectors. While we focus on the bottom line of tickets sales, our experience of 2021 has shown that live events rely on a complex ecosystem of creatives, producers, backstage, ticketing and front of house teams. In an age where social media is so powerful, every part of that ecosystem has a voice which speaks and is heard by the wider theatregoing community.
Policy makers in government need continuing reassurance that indoor entertainment is safe, so by listening to theatregoers concerns and meeting their needs with well thought through, informed responses, we also protect against further closures.
The visitor experience is just one part of the “theatre food chain”. As we will see in this report, many other business and sectors will be positively affected by theatres re-opening. That also includes less obvious beneficiaries such as physical and mental health services, which are positively impacted by live entertainment.
Covid-19 has brought unique challenges and often seismic changes to the entertainment industry. Yet alongside those challenges comes innovation. We have a unique opportunity to rebuild an industry better equipped to meet our customers’ needs, and to respond to the changing needs of future audiences. We hope that our findings will be useful.
Theatres generate an annual cost saving to the NHS of £102,234,585, by helping benefit the physical and mental health of those in their surrounding communities.UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), 20 May 2021
85% of respondents to this Theatregoing Survey 2021 feel confident to return to live theatre, with more than half preferring some form of social distancing to remain in place for now.
95% of respondents plan to return to live events in 2021, although a third say that they are likely to delay until the autumn at the earliest.
79% of respondents would be most likely to return with at least one form of safety measure in place (vaccine passport, covid testing or masks) whereas just 14% would prefer all rules to have been lifted.
Approximately the same proportion of respondents favoured mask-wearing as those against. However, only 5% indicated that compulsory mask wearing would stop them attending.
Just 27% of respondents to the Theatregoing Survey 2021 feel confident using public transport at present, although only 6% said it would stop them returning to performances completely.
34% feel quite anxious about sitting next to a stranger, with almost a third of that group also saying it would stop them returning altogether at the present time.
31%, are less likely to return immediately overs fears that performances will be cancelled. 42% of respondents would be happy for rescheduled tickets while 46% would request a refund.
When asked which performances respondents felt confident to attend post-pandemic, Amateur, Fringe and Regional theatre all saw an increase. West End theatre saw a fall of 4%.
Only 4% of respondents would pay a monthly subscription to watch streamed theatre, while 41% said that streaming was a bad idea and that theatre should be live. 43% would pay, but only per-show.
The proportion of respondents saying they would combine theatre with a visit to a restaurant, café, bar or museum/gallery fell by 6%, but most still plan to return to return to these activities post-pandemic.
Only 7% of respondents were in favour of scrapping intervals, with 61% in favour of keeping this long-standing feature of the performance. This is great news for theatres which rely on interval revenue.
63% of respondents now describe online discussion/word of mouth as the most important influences on what they see, with famous names in the cast the second biggest factor at 50%.
Theatregoing Survey 2021 Report links
- When will most people return to theatres?
- Are cancellation policies affecting how people book?
- How do theatregoers feel about masks and other safety measures?
- How is public transport affecting confidence?
- Which theatres benefit from changing habits and how can others adapt?
- How will the wider hospitality sector be affected?
- What currently influences which shows people are booking?
- Are intervals a thing of the past?
- What is the future for online theatre?
- Method and Demographics of survey.
- Key recommendations.
- Media Assets.
Most theatregoers plan to return to live events in 2021
West End theatres are taking a measured approach to re-opening. Several returning productions, including Six and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, are already back on Shaftesbury Avenue. Other shows are targeting summer and autumn returns. This has provided an opportunity for emerging artists, and shows which might normally struggle to find a West End theatre, to reach a wider audience. Small scale productions and stand-up comedy – shows with low start-up and running costs and therefore less reliant on capacity to breakeven— are enabling venues to open to socially distanced audiences.
There are sound business reasons for big budget shows to delay opening, for example Disney’s Frozen, which will open in late August following a £60m restoration of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Weekly running costs mean that these shows cannot break even, let alone recoup their investment, with social distancing still in place. Several performances are already sold out which is an encouraging sign. Our survey backs up this decision, with a third of all theatregoers (fig.1) indicating that are likely to delay returning to live shows until autumn 2021 or later.
Several theatres, including the National Theatre and Dominion, are choosing to extend social distancing voluntarily, past the government’s proposed date of 21 June 2021. This may feel counter-intuitive, however it may have a long-term benefit, encouraging the most cautious theatregoers to return sooner than they may otherwise do. This is particularly the case for those aged 55+, who made up 60% of respondents to the survey (fig.2).
In terms of an overall marketing strategy, a two tiered approach is required. Focusing on a younger market, who are generally more confident to return sooner, makes sense now. Last minute special offers, under 25 discounts, family tickets and summer promotions are likely to be most effective in the short term. The immediate need is to restore the habit of theatregoing, with the youngest most likely to lead the way.
Yet, to ignore those aged 55+ would be a serious mistake. Marketing to this group is all about restoring their confidence. Therefore, what is likely to be more important than discounting, is offering incentives such as a flexible exchange policy. Keep an eye also on industry-wide opportunities for positive messaging, such as SOLT’s #Backonstage advertising initiative and existing #Seeitsafely campaign.
1 in 10 theatregoers also cite budgetary considerations as a reason for not returning to the theatre immediately (fig.3), which may reflect uncertainty about jobs as furlough comes to an end. This is something which producers and agencies can address through dynamic pricing and flexible discounting. However, there is little to be achieved by re-pricing seats without communicating their availability. Therefore, consider improved messaging on websites, for example that tickets may be available at lower prices for mid-week performances. We often assume that people know this, when it’s not obvious at all. Asking friends or family to ‘secret shop’ your website can be a revelation.
One PR win is to consider offering NHS staff (there are 1.4 million in the UK) an NHS discount. Discounts are far easier to control than complementary tickets or seat-filling, which can become unwieldy to manage for box offices and generates zero revenue.
30% remain concerned that performances will be cancelled
Three in ten patrons remain concerned that future performances will be cancelled. This is problematic if it deters advance booking, although their concern is understandable, particularly after a series of lockdowns affected planned re-openings. This is likely to result in a higher proportion of last minute bookings, which will inevitably create some nervousness for producers and ticket agents.
However, we should note that there is a large degree of goodwill from customers, since over half would accept an exchange of date or a gift card to redeem against another show (fig.4). Audiences had previously become accustomed to no refund/no exchange policies. However, in light of the volume of exchanges since March 2020, an new approach, with improved flexibility, may be required. A more customer-friendly exchange policy would go a long way to rebuilding trust in the booking process.
Theatregoers are divided over masks, but most will wear one if required
Most theatregoers accept that some safety measures will remain in place for live performances, at least for the time being. However, the picture is less clear as to exactly which measures should remain longer term, particularly regarding the wearing of masks (fig.5). This may cause difficulties if Front of House teams who are expected to monitor mask-wearing as well as carrying out their normal duties.
With 38% of patrons still of the opinion that masks should be compulsory, it would be advantageous to offer an additional form of visual reassurance as audiences arrive. Temperature checks on entry would seem to be a possible solution, both in picking up possible cases of Covid-19 and offering peace of mind to those entering the theatre that others have also been checked. How practical this will be on capacity performances is as yet untested and there would need to a system in place for refunding tickets to any patron declined entry, which also requires consideration.
Our report found the most support for the introduction of a vaccine passport (fig.6). Caution should be applied as this survey is indicative of the opinion of theatregoers and may not reflect the opinions of the wider public. Nonetheless, this does indicate that masks could potentially be phased out if a vaccine passport were to be introduced by the UK government.
Only 27% ‘feel fine’ about using public transport
Theatres and the creative arts will play a huge role in London’s recovery along with the new ‘Let’s Do London’ campaign and, with near-normal levels of service on the public transport network and quieter journeys after 6pm, it’s a great time for people to go to the theatre and experience London’s fantastic shows againVernon Everitt, Managing Director, Customers, Communication and Technology – TFL
Even though many are ready to return to theatres, a significant proportion of theatregoers still report concerns about their journey to and from venues. This particularly applies in the case of those relying on public transport (fig.7). Again, concerns are more pronounced for older patrons. In fact, over 7% of those aged 55+ said that fears around public transport would stop them attending shows completely.
To address these concerns, we may wish to offer improved information about discounted parking schemes. A bigger conversation may be needed on whether show start times should be adjusted to allow patrons to travel at different times of day.
Convention dictates that shows begin at 7.30pm or later, but if we moved start times on certain days to an earlier time of 6.30pm, this could have a number of benefits, encouraging patrons to arrive pre rush-hour and to travel home earlier. Dining out post-theatre would be far easier than now. This might also lessen the problems FOH teams have policing pre-show drinking, as well as enabling theatres to extend intervals by a few minutes to ease pressure on rest facilities and increase bar revenue during intermission.
A counter-argument to this might be a negative impact on those working or studying outside cities, who need longer to travel in to the city centre, but there is certainly a debate to be had.
Regional, Fringe and Amateur Theatre may benefit from changing patterns of attendance
While West End theatres face the combined challenges of public transport, reduced international tourism and more home working, other venues may stand to benefit from changing patterns of theatregoing (fig.8). Suburban and regional theatres, where parking is generally easier, may see patrons more confident to return. As an appetite for local theatre increases, 2021 may see further benefits for regional venues as UK residents staycation and seek additional recreational experiences closer to home.
Respondents to our survey suggest a small but significant shift away from West End theatre in favour of regional, fringe and amateur venues. While this may be encouraging for UK theatregoing generally, it is problematic for receiving houses which rely heavily upon national tours of popular musicals. These will take many months to re-rehearse and resume. Those responsible for programming venues will need to react swiftly to capitalise on the public’s increased appetite for local theatre.
The wider hospitality and leisure ecosystem
From small independent cafés and bars to art galleries and national museums, many businesses prosper by West End, regional and local theatre audiences combining their visits with other leisure pursuits (fig.9). While these businesses may see a slight dip in revenues from pre-pandemic levels when theatres reopen, our survey nonetheless indicates that most people still intend to combine theatre with other social activities.
These figures illustrate the importance of live theatre to the wider business community and the value for money, both culturally and financially, of government support for theatres during the pandemic.
Further studies would need to be undertaken to assess the impact upon the hotel industry of theatres reopening, as this is difficult to assess while international travel is still restricted. However, if we extrapolate indicators from restaurants, bars and galleries, we might also expect to see a benefit for the accommodation sector. With this in mind, now is a great time to strike new deals between shows and hotels, particularly as this may encourage more visits from the patrons in the home nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Theatregoers increasingly rely on social media when choosing what to book
A high advertising spend is not the fix-all solution to theatre marketing it may once have been. Engagement with online communities and social networks has become a widely used tool for savvy marketeers. The term ‘influencer’ is often used at a macro level to describe Instagram and YouTubers, but we can also harness the power of ‘word of mouth’ through online communities such as facebook’s MTASSIANS (Musical Theatre Appreciation Society with 58.3k members), and even smaller groups such as US-based Broadway Babylon (10.8k members).
Interacting with social groups can be time consuming, but it shouldn’t be overlooked – as evidenced in the responses from Theatregoing Survey 2021 (fig.10). However, it is also worth noting the high proportion of respondents who still consider famous names in the cast to be a significant influence on their decision to see a show – some things don’t change!
Theatregoers want to keep intervals
Recently, a debate have been raging around removing the tradition interval/intermission from theatre productions. This stemmed from a desire to minimise contact between audience members inside the theatre. This would have financial implications for theatres, who generate much of their revenue from bar sales and merchandise. It would also have creative implications for shows such as Wicked, where Act One concludes with one of Musical Theatre’s great showstoppers. Of the respondents to our survey, almost two thirds thought they should stay, with only 8% think they should be scrapped (fig.11).
This will come as good news to theatre owners, whose bottom lines would be adversely affected by lost revenue from interval drinks, ice creams, programme sales etc. as well as those for whom 2.5 hours is just too long to sit still without a break.
Pay-per-view may be the future online, but most still want the live experience
In the early stages of the pandemic, viewing shows online was warmly embraced by a theatre community missing their fix of live theatre. Streaming subscription services such as digitaltheatre.com, NTathome.com BroadwayHD.com all saw exponential audience growth. Since then, enthusiasm has waned and now, only 4% of respondents to the Theatregoing Survey 2021 say they would pay a monthly subscription to watch theatre online (fig.12).
More positively, 41% said they would still pay to watch streamed theatre on a per-show basis, although it should be noted that with subscription services charging in the region of £10 per month, this would provide very limited income for theatres.
While this may be a blow to future plans for generating revenue through streaming theatre, it nonetheless underlines the huge value theatregoers place on experiencing theatre ‘in the room where it happens’ and offers optimism for a return to live events.
Method and demographics of Theatregoing Survey 2021
The Theatregoing Survey 2021 was publicly available at www.fromtheboxoffice.com and 4,410 respondents completed the survey between 28 April 2021 and 18 May 2021.
94% of respondents attend the theatre at least once per year, with 28% attending at least once per month. Figures include responses from overseas respondents although this proportion is likely to be lower than an average theatre audience, many of whom were not permitted to travel to the UK at the time of the study.
Full data from this survey (excluding personally identifiable information) is available, including a range of downloadable images at the end of this document under “Assets”. Demographic splits are included below for editors’ reference.
Key recommendations from Theatregoing Survey 2021
Our survey of 4,410 respondents is largely indicative of the opinions of regular theatregoers, and was conducted with 51% of respondents having already received 2 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 87% of respondents reporting having received at least one dose. The following recommendations come against this landscape:
- Provide customers with information about any parking discount schemes. In the short-term we should acknowledge that more people feel safer driving to venues.
- Emphasise that customer safety is being taken seriously, including at the ticket buying stage. Give clear, simple messaging and offer reassurance.
- Support Front of House teams, who may need extra resources to manage additional customer needs while customer confidence is restored.
- Whatever safety measures venues implement, ensure these are communicated clearly and effectively to both patrons and staff.
- Review refund/exchange policies. These need to be clear and reasonable, remembering that most customers been understanding in the past year and may now expect more flexibility. Focus on long-term customer satisfaction.
- Consider a review of performance start times.
- Participate in digital forums to detect trends and see what theatregoers are discussing. Consider bespoke discount codes for social groups.
- Ask friends/family to ‘Secret Shop’ your own websites/venues. It is easy to miss obvious solutions to everyday issues our customers may face but which often go unreported. It’s better that this is done by someone from outside the organisation.
- Invest in customer service. Often this is seen as an area to cut costs. However, maintaining excellent customer service teams is a solid investment, and keeps management roles free to deal with operational duties.
A full version of raw data (with Personally Identifiable Information redacted) from the Theatregoing Survey 2021 can be downloaded from the link below, along with .jpg image versions of all charts and graphs. A downloadable pdf of all information from the Theatregoing Survey 2021 is also available.
All writers and publishers have our permission to use these assets. Please reference this page when doing so.
From The Box Office
From The Box Office is a proud member of S.T.A.R., the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers. We connect directly to a number of West End, off-West End and Regional Theatres, providing a seamless, safe, and secure sales channel for a wide range of live events, including theatre, attractions, exhibitions and more.
About the author
Niall Palmer headed the TKTS brand for the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), twice winning the Society Of Box Office Managers (SOBOM) Award for Outstanding Customer Service with his team. He has extensive Box Office experience in the West End at a senior level, and was a Front of House manager for HQ Theatres.