I’ll keep this one short and not that sweet folks.
I like free things as much as the next person. If someone’s giving something away for nothing and it’s something I actually want I’ll usually take it. Over the years I’ve done my best as an arts programmer to ensure we offer as many free events as possible. Times are particularly tight right now, but there will always -for a number of reasons- be people and families in Belfast who are making do on a low income budget. I believe everyone has a right to experience good art and to spend significant time in our cultural venues so I programme free events and I try to ensure they are widely advertised throughout the city and, for the most part, the people who attend seem to really enjoy these events and benefit from being present.
However, I think we need to take a very honest look at the whole area of free ticketing. It’s not a subject without its issues. I spent an afternoon a few weeks ago employing all my GCSE Maths knowledge to crunch a few statistics on ticketing community arts events. For priced tickets, (and I have to say we rarely run anything which costs more than £5 and most of our events are £3 and under), around 90-95% of people who’ve purchased tickets turn up for the events. With free tickets the actual footfall is approximately 55%. Just over half of the people who book free tickets in Belfast actually turn up for these events. I’m pretty shocked by this statistic but not that surprised.
If you’re one of the people booking tickets and not turning up please stop doing it. Every time we sell out a free ticketed event I have to turn away elderly people or small children in fancy dress or folks who’ve taken three buses to get to the event, awkward in the knowledge that half the people who’ve booked tickets aren’t going to turn up to claim them. For those of you who work in arts venues you’ll understand that it’s not as simple as handing out extra free tickets; box offices and online ticketing systems are complex beasts and once an event is sold out it’s almost impossible to re-issue more tickets. Neither is over allocation a simple solution to the problem as I currently distribute 565 free tickets to our tea dances and routinely have approximately 200 older people turn up, except last year on St Patricks when boredom and an unprecedented run of good weather saw 420 older people turn up, thereby instigating the great Ulster Hall tea famine of 2014. Over allocation is not an exact art when it comes to free ticketing and means most programmers carry their heart in their mouth for weeks before a big event, waiting to see if they’ll have too many punters, too few punters or just the right amount of punters in attendance.
Emergency situations occur, (children develop chicken pox, cars crash, couples split up and are no longer particularly inclined to spend an evening sat next to each other in a theatre or concert hall), occasionally everyone books a ticket they’re not going to use. However, there are some people who make a practice of grabbing free tickets as soon as they’re released with little or no thought for whether they’re free or interested in attending the event in question. Free tickets are not like free samples in Tescos. There are real implications for already stretched arts and cultural budgets every time someone doesn’t redeem a free ticket. It’s difficult enough to secure funding to subsidise free arts events right now and everyone who “wastes” a ticket by not showing up makes the situation a little harder and gives the naysayers more fodder for the argument that the arts is a negotiable issue.
Good people of Belfast please don’t stop applying for free tickets. It’s a privilege to have free access to the arts and we need to ensure this privilege is utilised to its full potential. However, for the sake of those poor arts programmers turning eager ticketless people away from their venues and having to explain to funders why only 4 people turned up for an event with 50 free places, please, please, please only book tickets you’re actually going to use.