Dana A.

Director of Marketing & Communications, Tessitura Network

Your customers are not strangers


6 min

No cultural institution wants to cancel events or performances.

But the spread of COVID-19 has temporarily closed the doors of countless museums, theaters, and other arts and cultural organizations. “Everything is at the mercy of the virus,” says Michael Barker, Managing Director of Westport Country Playhouse, a regional theater in Connecticut.

And what comes after the doors close and staff begin to work from home? How do you return the tickets you’ve already sold? How do you maintain good relationships with disappointed visitors and audience members? And how can you find ways to keep much-needed revenue throughout this process?

Remember: people have bought tickets because they care about your organization. They value the experiences you have to offer. They crave the excitement of a live performance, of seeing brushstrokes up close, of coming face-to-face with a penguin, or suddenly understanding a scientific principle through a hands-on exhibit.

Many of these are not first-time visitors to your venue. They may be donors, members, subscribers, or even your board members. And they care about your long-term success.

People have bought tickets because they value the experiences you have to offer.

Those feelings are the key to your next steps. Remember them when you draft your communications plan.

Yes, it’s vital to retain revenue in the face of cancellations. In order to accomplish that, you need solid planning, seamless communication, and the right tools. Tessitura includes everything you need to identify affected patrons, capture customer preferences, process returns, and report on your data.

1. Identify Affected Customers

The first step is knowing who holds tickets to events that have been affected. In Tessitura, use List Manager or Tessitura Ticket Reporting to identify the affected ticket holders. Those lists can be used with any email provider, including our integrated email partners Prospect2 and Wordfly.

2. Offer Choices

Many people’s first instinct is that they need to return tickets and process refunds for all affected customers. But people who care about your organization will also want to help ensure that they can have that valued experience in the future. Give them options!

This is perfect type of donation to ask for: it’s money they’ve already spent, and it helps support the organization they value. If they’re not inclined to donate right now, perhaps they’re willing to convert the value of their ticket to a credit or gift certificate to spend at a later date.

A refund should be the very last choice they’re offered.

If you have good customer data, your people are not strangers. “These are people that care about us, and we care about them,” says Michael. Reach out with the choices that you want to offer your customers, and remind them of the value of what you offer.

“These are people that care about us, and we care about them.”

For example, Westport Country Playhouse wrote to their ticket holders:

If you have tickets for Antigone or Blues for an Alabama Sky, we ask that you consider donating the value of these tickets to support the Playhouse during these uncertain times, or consider taking a credit for future ticket purchases. Or you can apply the value of your ticket to another performance in the season. We’d hate to miss you.

3. Record your customers’ preferences

In Tessitura, you can use Customer Service Items (CSIs) to record customer choices for their cancelled events. Our Best Practice Recommendations (login required) can help guide your communication planning. In addition, the new Return Request feature in TN Express Web lets patrons select their choices online. You can configure which options they see (donate the funds, hold on account, receive a refund, or something else). Each customer response is recorded in a CSI, which you can then use in conjunction with the Event Cancellation Utility (more on that below).

When the Playhouse sent out their survey, they planned a workflow to maximize the opportunity to retain revenue. Customers who requested a refund would get a call from the box office, allowing staff to explain how a donation or credit — even a partial one — could greatly benefit the Playhouse. By making sure that a refund request would result in a one-to-one interaction, they reinforced people's personal connection with the 90-year-old theater.

The results so far have been highly encouraging. Over 46% of respondents to date have chosen to donate the value of their tickets, and nearly 30% have opted to receive a credit or gift certificate rather than a refund. “Seventy-five percent of our subscribers thus far have not requested a refund,” Michael says. That means that the Playhouse is able to retain revenue from that 75% of customers so far, with less than 25% requesting refunds.

Michael also noted: “The people requesting refunds have actually been apologetic about it, that they just simply can’t, in this uncertain time, forgo any money that they might be able to put back in their checking account.”

“Seventy-five percent of our subscribers thus far have not requested a refund... The people requesting refunds have actually been apologetic.” 

As you go through this process, don’t resent the refund requests. These customers may work in an industry that’s also deeply affected by the crisis. Your compassion will make an impression, helping to leave the door open for these customers to come back.

4. Process the cancellations.

You’ve collected your feedback and know what kind of transactions you need to make. In Tessitura, use the Event Cancellation Utility to return and release tickets en masse. The utility will automatically transfer the funds to the designated purpose: a contribution, on-account credit, gift certificate, or credit card refund. Plus, this utility can close all the CSIs that recorded your customer choices.

5. Send receipts

Your customers need to receive a confirmation of the transaction. In Tessitura, a new utility makes it easier than ever to send bulk emails notifying customers of refunds, with the detail they need about where those funds have been applied. If they’ve made a donation, don’t forget to thank them.

Screenshot of a tweet from @heathwilder reply to @tessnetwork, reading: 'I just did 287 gift certs in one click. And then sent them all receipts. Thank you for saving me a week of drudgery.

6. Report and analyze

Tessitura has a full suite of reports and analytical tools. In Tessitura Analytics, the Finance Cube is the best place to analyze the effect of performance cancellations. You can compare your budgeted revenue to returned revenue, and look at payment methods to help break down where the money went. Plus, widgets and dashboards can be filtered by transaction date and performance details.

And remember those lists you created in Step 1? You can use those in your reporting and analysis: Tessitura Analytics dashboards and widgets can be filtered by lists, so that you can look at the data specifically for this group of customers. In addition, a new Cancellation Impact Dashboard makes it even easier to understand your data from this time period and make informed decisions as the cultural sector moves forward.

You can do this.

Retaining revenue can go hand in hand with providing good customer service. Throughout this process, be sure to remain close to your foundation of seamless communication, solid planning, and the right tools: in other words, the people, process, and platform that you need to accomplish your immediate goals. Remind people of the unique experiences that your organization has to offer, and stay true to your institutional voice. And if you need help accomplishing any of these, please reach out — our team is here to help.


Top photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels


Post updated April 9, 2020


Arts & Culture


Business Strategy



Dana A.

Dana Astmann

Director of Marketing & Communications
Tessitura Network

Dana Astmann joined the Tessitura staff in 2016 and in 2021 took on her current role leading the marketing team.

In her previous position as Manager of Communications at the Yale School of Music, she served as the lead content strategist for YSM's Webby-nominated website and the editor of the alumni magazine. Earlier jobs include box office and development positions at the Norfolk (Connecticut) Chamber Music Festival and Long Wharf Theatre, respectively. Dana holds a B.A. in music from Vassar College and an M.A. in musicology from the University of Toronto. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Dana is a board member of Congregation Mishkan Israel and plays accordion with the klezmer ensemble Nu Haven Kapelye.
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