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A couple of weeks ago I organised a reunion for Theatre Royal Drury Lane Box Office staff who had worked together in the mid-to-late ‘80s. We had all moved on from the heady days of 42nd Street (London Premiere, 1984) and Miss Saigon (World Premiere, 1989) and one of our number was now a leading light of the West End Theatre scene, but within minutes of arrival EVERYONE was recalling price breaks, section by section and booking period to booking period from almost four decades previous. There should be a posh Latin name for the virus that takes over the lives of so many of us who come on contact with box office and ticketing (‘Tessera Morbus’?) but whatever it’s called, there is no known cure.

Back in the 1980s, Drury Lane, the oldest theatre in continuous use in the world, had boasted two box offices, one either side of the foyer, although the much smaller ‘Arthur Collins’ box office had been seldom used. Last week, when one of the team kindly showed me around the newly-refurbished building, I was taken over to the tiny kiosk where Front of House staff now assist with box office enquiries during the Incoming.

No problem. Five hundred yards away, the Gillian Lynne Theatre, formerly known as the New London Theatre, the ‘newest’ of the West End’s theatres (opened October 1974) had less than two box offices. In fact, when it was built it had less than one. A big fat zero. Legend has it that it was on a tour of the futuristic concrete and glass greenhouse that Sir Bernard Delfont, the driving force behind the project, had asked to see the box office. “You never said anything about building a box office,” the architect reportedly retorted, and so to this day anyone wishing to buy tickets at the Gillian Lynne/New London (Cats World Premiere, 1981) is directed to a portacabin plonked in the middle of the foyer. A second space was found around the corner of the ground floor, and much later, with the success of Cats, this ‘back box office’ was extended by recycling my ushers’ urinals. Not so much ‘rags to riches’ as ‘litter to glitter.’

Back then it was hard to imagine that anyone could build a theatre but forget the box office.

But when, decades later, the multi-award-winning director of a West End Classic took to the stage to thank everyone for their contribution to the show’s record-breaking run, we listened for what seemed like decades as he enumerated the many casts, creatives, crew, chaperones, Front of House staff, bar-staff, etc. etc. whose tireless hard work had made the show a multi-award-winning hit, until one tiny ticket agent called out from the Stalls with “What about the Box Office???”

“Oh yes,” he stammered sheepishly, “And the box office!”

Before Drury Lane’s latest refurbishment, there used to be a major dent in the main box office wall where one particular box office manager used to frequently kick at the plaster in frustration while, above the counter, he was all smiles and professionalism. This reaction was most often triggered by a member of the theatre-going public deciding to ignore the veteran box office manager’s sage advice and ask about alternative seats to the ones they had been offered. Inevitably this would trigger the magic words, “I know my theatre,” enunciated with a lofty raising of the head that would have put David Garrick to shame. Then they bought the tickets.

My question, then as now, is how many others really know their venue? How many of us price seats on the basis of recent history, rather than the geography as it applies to the new production? Who may, for example, ignore the fact that the majority of the Upper Circle seats will offer a better view than mid-to-rear Stalls or mid-to-rear Dress, simply because, well, it’s higher up, isn’t it? And so mark the Upper seats down. Which makes them harder to sell. Because humans, alone of all the ‘great’ apes, have this unfortunate bias that makes them believe that a higher price must signify a better banana …or seat.

Another unfortunate human bias; we tend to believe what we see on a screen. The machine cannot lie, can it? When that young Drury Lane box office clerk went off to tour the world’s best-selling musical round Northern Europe, I advised him to count the seats before going on sale. “But this is an arena tour, Mister Thomas” he protested. “The smallest venue has twenty thousand seats, the largest has forty thousand!” “How do you know?” I replied, if you haven’t counted them?”

A third bias, and one we are nearly all guilty of, is that unshakeable belief that if there are wide open spaces surrounding us when we’re sitting in a venue, the show must be rubbish.

And it falls to the box office, even in the depths of May, during a recession, and a European war, and after a pandemic, to make that House ‘feel’ full to the audience …and cast. Oh, and the prospective purchasers who can now peer through the web to see how well a performance is booking. Or not.

Once upon a time these quieter periods in the West End would result in my phone ringing. Not every week, but every week or two. “The show has a couple of ‘soft’ (= uninhabited) ‘weeks’ (=months) ahead. Any ideas what we can do to fill it up?” (=save it from extinction).

“Chocolate biscuits.”

“Great! An on-pack offer. No, we tried that with pumpkins for Halloween. The office is full of the bloody things. Rosie’s still looking for her desk.”

“It has to be milk chocolate. Not plain. Take them round between shows. Make a pot of tea...”

“Brilliant! Focus Groups. Sample key segments during the Outgoing and ask them what they loved about the show?”

“No. Ask your box office. Not me. Not a handful of audience members. Ask the people who spend eight-to-ten hours a day, five-or-six days a week, interacting with those audience members. Month after month. Year after year. Seeing what works. And what doesn’t. And when. Who ‘dynamically’ price according to how they ‘read’ the person in front of them, based on years, or decades, of reading similar prospects, and who give you, as the marketer, producer/investor, or venue owner, that most precious gift of all… the gift of a sound night’s sleep, secure in the knowledge that your box office won’t let a single customer walk away from the counter with one pound in their pocket more than human skill and wit can squeeze out of them. And still make them feel privileged to be making the purchase.”

And who, I might have added, will still be talking about your show’s ticket prices and promotions, what worked and what didn’t, some four or five decades into the future.

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