Stephen Huyshe-Shires of promoting member group Sidmouth Concert Society explains how they reversed a decline in membership by investigating the cause and adjusting ticketing options to address the key problem.
Sidmouth Concert Society (SCS) is a Making Music member and a registered charity formed in 1972 under a local authority initiative to improve the cultural life of the town. SCS is a promoting society, booking professional artists for solo or chamber recital in a season of 6 concerts per year. The problem faced was of falling membership numbers and a decrease in predictable future income. Membership subscription was to a complete season of 6 concerts, gaining a 25% advantage over individual ticket price. Individual tickets were sold through established local outlets.
SCS, in booking professional artists 12 to 18 months ahead like other societies, is committing to expenditure well ahead of the concert date and the point of gaining the income to cover that expenditure. This has to be supported by simple but accurate budgetary planning which in turn is dependent on maintaining a committed membership to predict future income. A few years ago SCS had a stable membership of around 100 subscribers. That level of membership began to fall to around 60 with no indication of any potential recovery or even stabilization.
What we did
Through our normal process of welcome to concert attendees and feedback from members not renewing we realized that the issue might be older members being reticent about coming out to concerts on dark winter days. Whilst they might continue to attend concerts early and late in the season as ad hoc ticket buyers, maintaining a full subscription was becoming a commitment they were not deriving any benefit from. The problem was whether and then how to revise our membership structure to reverse the decline without losing even more income in the process.
The gamble taken by SCS was to change the nature of subscription to a flexible arrangement where membership could be for any two or more concerts out of the six rather than the all or nothing structure before. The new arrangement still carries a price advantage over ad hoc ticket prices with full subscription just as before and ’part’ subscriptions benefitting at a rate slightly less than that. This could have simply reduced income with no effect on numbers. In fact it stimulated a recovery of membership to at least the former level, not just in raw numbers but, measuring those ‘part’ subscriptions on a ‘whole time equivalent’ basis, also in income. Interestingly, in bringing ex-members back from buying tickets, ticket sales have also not deteriorated and remain quite buoyant.
What we learnt
The strategy has successfully restored membership levels to an equivalent of what it was before, and secured the level of committed income essential to budgetary forecasting. Whilst there was no guarantee to the success of the move, it showed that SCS had correctly interpreted the reason for the decline.
The ‘tip’ which should be drawn from this can only be to understand as well as possible the circumstances of the problem being faced. From this comes the confidence to at least rise to the challenge of taking action even if it still remains a risk.
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