Lessons From Both Sides of the Pond
A Conversation With Live Entertainment Specialists on the U.S. and U.K. Attractions Markets
Situation Group has offices in New York City and London as well as remote colleagues all over the globe — from South Carolina to South America. There are challenges in managing a global team, but the benefit of international expertise makes it all worthwhile. I recently sat down with two members of our team, Pippa who runs our U.K. Office and Matt who runs our U.S. Attractions vertical, to discuss how their work in New York City and London differs and where it converges. Pippa and Matt are true live entertainment marketing experts, with nearly 30 years of experience between the two of them. Our conversation about the industry, what we’ve been through in the past three years, where we’re headed, and how the two markets compare, left me smarter and more informed. I’m sure after hearing from them, you’ll feel the same way.
Damian Bazadona: In our recent event with our friends at Google about the state of the live events industry, we saw a slide showing several major music festivals in North America announcing an on-sale within a 24 hour window–representing literally millions of tickets going on-sale in the snap of a finger. Producers of live experiences were fairly bullish in 2022–what’s your feeling on where things are going in 2023?
Matt Parker: The demand for powerful, meaningful experiences will definitely continue in 2023. Consumers’ demand for quality will continue, and experiences will continue to rise to the challenge. Given the headlines related to those massive on-sales last year, ticket buyers definitely want an equally great experience buying tickets. So I predict fan feedback on the full experience all the way from ticket buying to the experience itself will play out in the success stories of 2023. Those who do it really well will be rewarded with great business, great sales, and great reviews from consumers. And because there are a lot of options for ticket buyers out there, brands will have to work even harder to build awareness and generate interest to drum up ticket sales. So producers with bigger brands, with bigger IPs, will need to advertise the proposition value of how their experience extends the IP authentically, and why it’s worth the consumers’ time and money. Producers with new or unique IPs will need to tell their story in a different way–they’ll have to advertise their whole experience, and make it very easy for consumers to see themselves there. Lastly, knowing what motivates those different audiences to buy tickets will be critical. It has always been critical, but it’s even more so in a very competitive marketplace.
Damian Bazadona: How about you Pippa, what are you seeing on the UK front?
Pippa Bexon: The U.K. market is so vibrant and diverse right now when it comes to non-traditional entertainment, festivals and attractions. We are still seeing a bottleneck from Covid, but also a dramatic shift in consumer behaviour and how people want to spend their time together. Attractions and immersive events really answer that need by providing shared experiences, more accessible price points, and structured fun that is not as formal as sitting in a theatre or cinema.
On the flip side, there is just so much product in the U.K.–it’s a really competitive landscape, and it’s overwhelming for the consumer. On my walk to work alone, there are multiple theatrical and immersive events, a live Monopoly experience, and VR studio competing alongside classics like the London open-top buses. So as someone who lives and works in London, and is a savvy, confident consumer, even for me that is overwhelming!
Damian Bazadona: Obviously the UK has been clobbered with inflation–how has that impacted the live event ecosystem? Attendance, pricing, content?
Pippa Bexon: Inflation is a conversation that comes up in meetings across all our different client verticals. The news, especially at the latter half of last year, was pretty bleak in the U.K. There was a lot of concern around the energy crisis, inflation, and mortgages, which made people far more conscientious about how they’re spending their money. But, on the other hand, if you walk around London, the bars and restaurants are absolutely jammed.
As a result consumers are being more selective, they’re more savvy around where they buy their ticket, and how much they’re willing to pay for it. They are also looking for the best of the best, and we’re seeing a lot more people choosing these types of events for special occasions. Holiday weeks are half term weeks here, and they have been record breaking. Overall, I think people are choosing to spend their money on important moments or something that is really meaningful to them.
Also, we’re seeing that the waiting for payday is real. In the U.K., employees tend to only get paid once a month. A lot of media buying patterns are shifting to do an extra burst of specially digital to capitalise on people getting that paycheck in their bank accounts. So for example, we’re working on a music festival right now, and we have early bird pricing. That was officially supposed to end on the Sunday before payday. We discussed the merits of extending that incentivised pricing with a “last chance to buy early bird ticket” message to capture people who may be in our email pool and are interested, but truly haven’t had the cash to pay for it until they receive their monthly paycheck. So I think that’s just one example of how all those other external kinds of economic factors are impacting how people are making choices about how to spend their money.
Damian Bazadona: Is it that people are spending more on fewer experiences? Or are people spending less and going to less experiences?
Pippa Bexon: I would say big picture, it’s more of a quality over quantity. People may be spending the same amount overall, but they’re being choosy about it. They’re really doubling down on those special moments and making an event out of it. On the other hand, there’s still a whole bracket of audiences and attendees who are really price focused, and they want their money to go as far as possible, and they’re setting a cap. For example some consumers may decide “I only want to spend £20 on this,” and when they see that £20 ticket they’re ready to purchase immediately. From my point of view, it’s the middle market that’s potentially falling out.
Damian Bazadona: Next question is for Matt. Overall tourism numbers are down in New York City, but spending is actually up overall in a range of experience categories. Less people spending more money. Are our clients seeing this in their venues? And if so, where are they seeing it? Mostly upgrading, merchandise?
Matt Parker: This is a great follow up question to what Pippa was saying. We’re absolutely seeing an increase in per caps in a few different ways.
First of all, the experience itself: If the core experience is quality enough, it can handle a higher ticket price. We’ve seen prices higher than they were in 2019, with fewer guests coming in. But the higher prices are sustainable because the quality of the experience and value to consumers is proportional. ATPs can rise to meet ticket buyers’ demand for great experiences.
Next, we’re seeing lots of innovation in timed ticketing. There’s been a huge uptick in timed ticketing since the pandemic. That’s leading to better experiences for the guests that are coming through, it’s good for operations, and it allows for variable pricing. So by having timed ticketing you can have expensive pricing in your high demand time period, and maybe offer some discounts or have a lower pricing off-peak. This allows for the overall higher ATP for the experiences that can sustain it.
Tourists who’ve invested their time and money to visit New York City are very selective about attractions and experiences. Once they’ve made that decision to purchase a ticket and the experience is great, they want to go all in. If the experience expectations have been met, they want to extend the experience. They want the special memory to last as long as possible. So that’s where you’ll see VIP upgrades, better photo ops or more photo ops, merchandise, food and beverage, whatever extends the memory of that experience.
There are of course consumers who are a bit more price conscious. Maybe they will spend more on merchandise, but they would want the get-in price to be more accessible. There’s opportunity across price points for upgrades and additional purchases–middle ranges, lower price ranges, upper price ranges. Consumers have shown a willingness to spend a little bit more to make the experience last longer, regardless of the price of entry.
Damian Bazadona: To build on that, if I’m bringing my kids to a children’s attraction, I’ve likey spent $50 on the ticket before I’ve even made it from my car into the venue. But in the parking lot on the way to the venue, if my kids see the light-up toy, I could be spending even more. It seems like there is room for innovation in commerce integration from ticket purchase all the way through to the end of the experience. How am I getting you to buy a drink before you even sit down? How am I getting you to buy merchandise before you’ve even entered the theater?
Matt Parker: The ticketing platform capability is a key key player in that. A really strong ticketing platform can do the upgrades when you buy your ticket. That convenience is very valuable to some people, whereas some people may not want to commit. For those folks, the goal is to get their foot in the door and then remove the friction. And for family shows, you have to just leverage the emotion. When I took my daughter to her first live show, it was game over once she saw the spinny wand. She lit up and my wallet lit up. I wouldn’t have necessarily done that in advance, I would’ve said “she has more than enough toys.” But on site, in the concourse, when she lit up — I wanted to make our experience last.
There’s also been innovations with ordering merch via apps from your seats, so event goers can avoid long lines in the concourse or lobby. Ultimately, shows will want to keep finding new ways to meet customers where they are. Some audiences would love to pre order merch or food and beverage. Some audiences will convert more onsite or in their seats.
Damian Bazadona: For our next question, we’re going back to Pippa. The City of London has changed with more people working remotely and more people gathering virtually. How has the changing media landscape changed in your clients budget?
Pippa Bexon: There is a much larger investment in digital, and we’ve changed how we advertise the message. We’re not just selling this specific event, we’re reminding people of that emotional reward, and why it is worth that extra journey and that extra planning. People’s general habits and geography have shifted with more remote working and time at home. A really interesting example of this is that Fridays used to always be the peak day at a higher price point, and now we’re seeing more sales heading into those Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays. Post-work mid-week there is more footfall, people are jam-packing their day because they’re already in the city and they want to be able to maximize their commute.
The U.K. market is obviously so much smaller than the U.S. so geographically, we’re casting a wider net. Whilst international travel for the U.K. is down, there is expectation that U.K. domestic travel will be up as people forgo an international trip. So we need to put our events at the center of those trip planning experiences.
We are also moving away from what I would call the “theatrical mindset” of how we approach selling tickets. We’re looking at a cost per acquisition model, which is a lot more relevant for these types of experiences, because they tend to be a limited number of inventory for a limited number of dates. So we have to focus on how we maximize the revenue, and how we keep those efficiencies down per acquisition. And again, this means we have to interrogate how we are storytelling and when we move from an awareness objective into conversion campaigns. This also prioritises the importance of first party data, so that we can hit the ground running, take those audience learnings, and apply them to the next experience or venue.
It really goes back to being nimble and responsive, because those kinds of volatility and the seasonality that impact sales seems to be more prevalent than it has ever been before.
Damian Bazadona: The next question is for Matt. You work across such a wide range of live event industries, sports, attractions, parks. What would you say is the most common concern among them all? And is there a path to a cure you can see on the horizon?
Matt Parker: Finding and planning for the new norm, post-pandemic. By that I mean discovering demand curves, planning for sales patterns, and matching resources with gross potential. Every quarter has looked different for the past 3 years. In Q1 last year, we were dealing with the height of Omicron. Now In Q1 of 2023, we’re pushing our marketing to find the ceiling of how many ticket sales we can sell in a usually quiet quarter. Regardless of the industry, the challenge is the same–trying to predict where business is trending. Everyone wants to align business expenses, operational costs, media spend, and advertising messaging against the different times of year.
In terms of solutions on the horizon, this quarter has proved our projections are getting closer to reality. We’ve seen some really strong ticket sales for many of our clients and the predictions for the next few quarters are falling in line with a proportion of last year. So we’re building confidence against our model for the year. As confidence builds, and sales patterns and ad spending against primary audiences better align, we’ll have more resources to focus on growing secondary and tertiary audiences. This year, we’re going to find that demand curve, maximize it, and increase our spending where it makes the most return.
Damian Bazadona: Pippa, how about you? Is that “common concern” familiar on your side of the pond?
Pippa Bexon: I would absolutely say that the unpredictability of the market has been a massive concern. I have tickets for 8 different events in the coming months — theatre, live music, attractions. Personally, as a consumer, I’m in a place of confidence, and am able to plan ahead in a way that I haven’t been for 2 years.
But the primary concern for the U.K. market is really how fractured our ticketing space is. In the U.K. we have a lot of primary ticketing partners, and whilst it provides a huge amount of opportunity to reach their data list and reach new audiences, it’s also a threat in many ways. We are really dependent on these third parties, which oftentimes need an incentive or a significant commission to sell our tickets, and we don’t get any of that first party data which we know is so integral to understanding who your audience is and what they need. My clients are similar to Matt’s, they are consistently producing and creating new events. After producing several experiences, we want to create a common audience pool that we can apply and learn from as they launch and put new product into market. When 40% of your tickets are being sold by a third party, you really lose a lot of visibility on who is actually walking through your doors.
In terms of the solution, we are seeing our clients make a bigger investment in long term CRM strategies, lead generation and repeat business to bring some of those sales back through the primary and through those owned platforms. We want to secure that first party data, so that our media is more efficient, so that we have a more authentic understanding of what our customers need, and we can improve the experience for them. We can use that data for whatever is being produced next and that’s really exciting to me.
Damian Bazadona: In closing, what is one thing you envy about each others’ clients?
Matt Parker: I’ve always been envious of multiple ticketing partners in the U.K. I always thought it would be valuable to have a retail store like experience of putting a product on the market–having choices and options for consumers. Competition always feels right and good to me as long as you’d have access to the data that you need.
Pippa Bexon: Multiple ticketing platforms are integral to reaching new audiences as well. But I personally am envious of Matt’s big budget investments in content. The U.K. market has recently been more volatile and there is a tendency to focus on short-term wins. I believe what is needed to move the market forward is to remind people of why they love entertainment and live experiences. We need to invest in content and storytelling that really sells that. I’m really looking forward to doing that longer term planning and bigger storytelling for our clients in 2023.
Pippa Bexon is the Executive Director of Client Services for Situation U.K. and has over 15 years of experience working across the live events advertising landscape in both New York and London. Pippa began her career at AKA, then Sony Music Entertainment, then joined the Situation team in NYC before returning to the UK in 2020 to head up Situation UK. In her 8 years at Situation her clients have included Wicked the Musical, Disney, Cirque Du Soleil, Mean Girls the Musical, Warner Bros Theatricals, NBCUniversal, and HBO. Pippa is a graduate of Durham University and can be found on LinkedIn here.
Matt Parker is the Account Group Director of Situation’s Attractions, Sports & Live Events vertical. Matt has over 17 years of experience working in the live entertainment marketing industry. Matt started his career at Littlejohn Coliseum before working at Feld Entertainment for 12 years, where he rose the ranks to become Senior Director of Event Marketing and Sales, working with Situation as a client. In Matt’s year and a half at Situation he has worked with clients ranging from the Empire State Building, Little Island, Harry Potter The Exhibition and a world renowned sports and entertainment organization. Matt is a graduate of Clemson University and can be found on Linked in here.