Tour Reflections: Working with Venue Marketing Teams to Develop an Audience
So it’s been over six months since our mammoth UK-wide 47 venue tour of HOME ended, and over two months since we returned from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performing for the second year running at The Pleasance. We’re at a very exciting stage at the moment, having begun the rehearsal and development phase for our next show. The creative team spent two weeks at Ovalhouse and Stratford Circus Arts Centre in September working on exciting new concepts for the next production and will continue to develop the show with more rehearsals during November at The Garage, Norwich and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich – so watch this space!
Meanwhile, I (Administrator Zoë) have been reflecting on my role liaising with the marketing teams of each of the 47 venues during the HOME tour in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017, in order to sell the show to our audience with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). This was the first time I had been involved with a Frozen Light tour, and my first time working on audience development, this is what I learnt:
Keep in Close Contact
At first I was worried about phoning too often, leaving too many voicemails or emails, but I quite soon realised that being in close contact with the marketing team at each venue (or whichever team or individual had been tasked with our show) is absolutely imperative for a number of reasons. Because our audience of teenagers and adults with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties is such a specific and under-engaged group within the arts, we are passionate that they are the main priority for venues to target. Maintaining a good dialogue with venue staff around three months before we were due to visit a tour venue worked best in ensuring that the venue team were entirely clear on exactly who our audience with PMLD are, to make sure that they get priority. After all, it is entirely for them that we make the show. The other reason that close contact between us and the tour venues was incredibly important was due to the small capacity of our shows. Because our shows are designed for six people with PMLD and six carers, support staff or family members, we have to keep a close eye on who those tickets have gone to. For people with PMLD, a trip to one of our shows is very often the first time they have been to live theatre in their community, and guidance from Mencap states that a lot of the anxiety around this can be eased by having a very small number of audience members. Frozen Light do supply a training video and handouts to answer questions that may come up a lot when marketing and selling our shows, so as long as venues watch and read them and we maintain a clear conversation and help them with any questions they may have about how to market and sell our shows, we can make sure people with PMLD coming to our shows have a positive and meaningful experience.
Direct Target Marketing
We completely appreciate that especially if it is the first time we have toured to a specific venue, it can be difficult to know where to find our audience and how to reach them. I think that this speaks to a larger problem within our society about the lack of visibility in the community of people with PMLD, which is something that through our commitment to touring to mainstream arts venues we’re trying to change – but that’s a blog for another day! One of the earliest conversations I would have with venue teams would be about any existing relationships they may have with people with PMLD and their families or carers in their local community. Some venues had really strong links with local special schools, day centres or residential homes, either through us touring to that venue with a previous show or through other accessible work they have programmed in the past. If venues didn’t have these existing links, I would research nearby special schools, day centres, residential homes and other places where our target audience could be reached, and pass this information onto the venue for them to target. The main challenge in this area was talking through just how different the approach has to be when reaching our audience with PMLD versus reaching another audience group. A lot of the usual channels of finding audiences or publicising shows that marketing teams use don’t work for our shows, simply because our audience don’t ‘live’ on Facebook or Twitter, and because of the lack of events in the community that are accessible to people with PMLD, their family members and carers won’t often won’t pick up a theatre brochure and expect to find an accessible theatre show on offer. The best ways to connect with our audience is through a direct phone call to a school or centre, or the activities co-ordinator for a residential care group or parents forum. In the past some venue staff have even had face-to-face meetings with some schools, bringing along our Visual Stories and Pre-show Guides with them to help talk about the show. We offer to help with the direct contacting as much or as little as the venues need it. Establishing those personal relationships over the phone (or even in person) with potential audience bases can be incredibly useful to venues not just in order to sell tickets to our shows, but to help them maintain these audience links for future accessible shows that the venue may programme.
Establish a Plan
Working on the audience development for the HOME tour has taught me how important it is to know who your main contact at each venue is, and to establish a collaborative plan together. For the majority of venues, I had a main contact (usually a member of the marketing or creative learning team, depending on who was in charge of targeting audiences) that I would liaise with over potential audiences and sales figures. Looking back, when first speaking to my main contact, I would’ve established a much clearer plan with some venues in terms of who is going to be doing what, and our expectations of when we’d like the majority of tickets to be sold by. Selling our show can be a very different experience to selling any other show, due to specificity of our audience, and particularly if we haven’t toured to that venue before or if the staff we’ve previously worked with has changed, it can mean creating a lot of audience relationships from scratch.
For us, an ideal audience development liaison between us and a venue would be us sharing our knowledge with the venue of local audience bases, places we’ve had enquiries from or had audiences from before, talking through the capacity of our shows so it is clearly understood, and then the venue teams doing the direct contacting themselves. We are always happy to help as much or as little as venues need it, and if venues need a little more help from us in terms of the direct contacting, this works much better when we know in advance. When organised, collaborative plans are established specifically with our audience’s needs in mind, I’ve seen first-hand how huge the demand for tickets can be, and how in a matter of days our shows can go from half-full or less to sold out with a waiting list.
During the tour of HOME, we worked with over 20 venues we had never toured to before, and so many others we had been to in the past but toured to for more days than we had before. It was fantastic to see how enthusiastic so many of the venue staff were about our work, and how they really got behind what we do. We can’t wait to work with many of you again during the next tour, and together continue to reach local audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities.