I once sold 3,600 seats to The Phantom of the Opera in one phone call. We were about to release a new block of dates in San Francisco and the National Association of Realtors was planning their conference during the new dates, so I called their meeting planner and she bought two full houses. It was a good day.
I once sold a 2,700-seat performance of Disney’s The Lion King to the meeting planner for the National Urban League. This was a good day, too.
I once sold a 3,000-seat performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre to a healthcare executive I met at a trade show called the Black Business Expo, but the Music Center of Los Angeles wouldn’t move a donor event to accommodate the sale. This was not such a good day.
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You’ll notice that the customers in these examples were business people who were buying large quantities of tickets on behalf of others. They were just a few among a broad range of business professionals I’ve worked with over the years in hospitality, travel & tourism, real estate, human resources, education, meetings & events, destination management, restaurant ownership, nonprofit social services and other industries and professions. And the thing that tied them all together was that they bought tickets in bulk on behalf of other people – millions of dollars worth of tickets.
Broadway started doing business-to-business sales (B-to-B) about twenty-five years ago and sales is now an indispensable part of the industry. But the nonprofit arts continue to work on an exclusive business-to-consumer model (B-to-C) that imposes severe limitations on their ability to tap new sources of earned income.
If you’ve been hearing about successful outside sales initiatives at other arts organizations, and you think sales could be a good thing for you, you may want to take a closer look at your infrastructure to see if it’s capable of servicing the customers a new sales program would cultivate.
Here are a few questions to consider:
Can You Sell Through Third Parties?
Suppose your new outside sales executive comes to you with this scenario: “I’ve just spoken to the head concierge for Premier Properties, the city’s largest luxury apartment and office building owners. They offer concierge services to occupants in twelve buildings. If we can give them a net rate at 15% below face value and access to live seat inventory, they say they can move about $50,000 worth of tickets in the next twelve months – and it’s mostly last-minute sales to people we can’t reach, so its the right target for the most perishable inventory.”
Can your organization offer net rates that enable third parties to sell tickets at face value and keep a 15% cut for themselves? Can you give these concierges access to quality live inventory so they can sell to their constituents out of remote box office terminals? Can your box office manage this company’s account? Can they do it for multiple third-party resellers? Can you reconcile your box office on any given night if this account won’t be paid until the end of the month? Can you empower your sales executive to assemble a network of similar incentivized resellers like this who will sell your tickets for you to audiences you can’t always reach?
If your organization can’t do these things now, when will you be able to do them?
Can You Sell A Whole House?
Whole-house buyouts and large-block ticket sales are an incredibly efficient way to move inventory, not to mention pull in new audiences, but most nonprofits can’t handle them. Some of the roadblocks are structural (ticketing systems, subscribers, artists’ contracts, house seats, sponsor commitments, accounting, etc.) and some are cultural (“But, but, but, we’d have to ask the Blue Ribbon to move their gala!”). All of the roadblocks are surmountable, however, with the right planning and a willingness to open the doors to new markets.
Will your new sales executive be able to sell the whole house? Or most of it? Or maybe just the best 500 seats? If the answer is no, when will she be able to do so?
Can You Give Executive-Level Service to Executive-Level Buyers?
Suppose a Senior Vice President of Sales at a local tech firm has decided to treat his top producers to a premium night out including a fine show and dinner at the best restaurant in town. So he calls your organization to order a block of tickets.
Who is this SVP going to speak to?
If you’re like most arts organizations, he’s going to speak to one of your lowest-level employees who has no decision-making authority and who’s going to quote him peripheral seat locations that were carved out sixty years ago for discount-hungry little old ladies. Your “group sales” pigeonhole is the only point of contact your organization offers him.
Afterward he’ll call his ticket broker and say, “I’m putting together a top drawer night for my team. What can you get us? I thought we might do that Bernstein concert at Symphony Hall but those people don’t want my business.”
Can you accommodate this executive ticket buyer with products and services that fit his status? What if your new sales exec is out in the community meeting with others like him trying to get more of them to buy?
When will you be ready to cultivate executive-level buyers with the service they deserve?
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Hiring an outside sales professional to tap new business markets makes sense. In fact it may be the most important thing your organization can do right now to open new markets and bring in new audiences. But hiring an experienced sales person without preparing your organization to back her up will pretty much ensure failure.
You know your organization needs to change to stay viable. If your new sales exec is going to bring you lucrative opportunities that require new service infrastructures, this would be a good place to start making those changes.
NOTE: If your ticketing system can’t support these changes, they’re way behind the curve. It may be time to start looking for a more dynamic, sales-oriented system. Go check out your local theme parks and sports teams’ ticketing systems. They’ve been supporting B-to-B sales for decades.