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In one of my past lives, I was a music theory and composition major. One of the experimental pieces we studied was a composition for prepared piano, in which the piano was prepared by having five gallons of kerosine poured into and lit. The tempo marking on the piece was, “as fast as you can before the piano burns down.” That has stayed with me, even as many more practical facts and ideas have slipped from my memory.

A couple years later, I worked in the restaurant business. In that business, most of your inventory (food and ingredients) become obsolete in about three days. So, if you don’t get really good at managing recipes, sales process, promotions, food vendors (especially meat and produce), and food stuffs, you will lose your shirt, no matter how good your food is or how chic your ambiance. So, we developed an intuitive relationship with the executive chef.

“Al, what are we selling tonight?”

“Fish tacos.”

“Gotcha.”

We became very good at selling today what would be worthless by tomorrow. We used daily specials. Chef’s specials. Price strategies. And most of all, suggestive selling. We had to sell the fish “as fast as we could, before the piano burned down.”

One of our early (and longest term) clients is a performing arts organization. They present something between 25-40 different shows each year, representing about 100 performances. Not quite the same as food, but similar in one important way: once the curtain rises, every empty seat becomes spoiled inventory.

We’re very interested in consumer behavior, and performing arts is a great laboratory for studying sales cycle with a finite end date. We have learned that there are various reasons people have for buying the arts. And they have various patterns of behavior in their buying processes. In general, they fall into a couple of camps:

Out-of-the-gate buyers. These are people who know what they want and who want the seats they want. They tend to buy as soon as a performance is announced. This guarantees that they will get the best seats, and they can get it out of the way and not have to worry about it. All shows have a certain number of these. Certain types of shows sell the majority of tickets to these folks (for a James Taylor or Robbin Williams, for example, if you don’t buy as soon as the show is announced, all the tickets will go to people who do. ALL the tickets). In general, this accounts for a blip at the beginning of a selling cycle for most shows.

Short-term planners. These are people who look down the road, maybe two to four weeks. They see what’s going on in town and what openings they have on their schedule. And they buy accordingly. Now it’s not really as simple as it sounds. The same person might be a out-of-the-gater for…say…Itzhak, and a short-term planner for Wynton.

Then there are spontaneous buyers. They might buy a couple days in advance or even day-of-show. They might even walk up and buy minutes before the show. In general, people who do this are folks who are looking for something to do that night. They take the risk that there will be no seats (and if there are not, they’ll do something else that night), or that their seats will not be ideal (since they don’t have a lot of emotional investment in the show).

From a marketing perspective, it is important to generate maximum sales among zealots in the out of the gate phase. A lot of the selling activity is done around this period. Traditionally, performing arts have been promoted in “seasons,” in part so that launch marketing efforts can be bundled for several products at once. In traditional sales terms, this is low hanging fruit.

As sales begin to rise a few weeks out, it can be a signal that short-termers are starting to purchase. It makes sometimes makes sense to pour some selling resources into spiking that movement (get more people to act faster in this behavior pattern).

Finally, it’s good to be in a position to have a “few tickets left” for the spontaneous folks. This enables you to give fringe consumers great experiences. Some box office activity is good in this situation. There is a lot of personal face time, which can be used to cross sell, up sell, or just promote the experience (excitement). Externally, the strategy at this point often becomes…

“Quick, before the piano burns down.”

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