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Immediate boarding: Lessons from the airline industry

As the live arts sector seeks to renew its ties with the audience, airlines have much to teach us about experiential engagement and customer loyalty.

Live arts have become masters of innovation on stage. By challenging movement, language, music, society, discipline, form, and content, today's artistic creations effectively question art, pushing its boundaries to step off the stage and into theaters, streets, and screens. Each performance becomes an opportunity for the audience to fully engage in an uplifting aesthetic or critical moment. However, these performances do not exist in a vacuum, appearing out of nowhere for the audience: to attend a show, one must purchase a ticket, arrive at the venue, wait for the performance to start, and then return home. In the post-pandemic world, where time, money, and attention are as precious as they are fragile, each of these pre-show steps becomes an opportunity to engage, enchant, or potentially lose the audience. Considering the fierce competition that live arts now face against other industries related to culture and entertainment, it may be interesting to see how we can learn from these competitors to revamp the practices surrounding the presentation of artistic works.

Let's dive into the airline sector, which, having emerged stronger from the health crisis, is now breaking sales records, even compared to 2019. Indeed, the industry benefits from the public's pent-up need for escape and captures a large portion of the "arts and entertainment" budget. Excelling in the art of creating an experience around their transportation service, airlines now compete in creativity to envelop their passengers in their brand image, transforming every transaction into a reward, every communication into a seduction tool, and every step into a pleasurable, even emotional, moment. Here, instead of starting from the most expensive option and deconstructing it to the most affordable (like VIP-priced tickets brought down to third balcony prices), the focus is on constructing the experience of one's choice: all customers receive the same service, but it can be enhanced according to one's desires and means. Following the example of several European theaters that have already integrated these ideas from the airline sector, we suggest here - under the metaphor of the passenger journey - parallels between this industry and the cultural sector to propose reflections aimed at improving the audience experience and, by extension, renewing loyalty strategies in our sector.

1) Booking

From the moment of ticket booking, the airline offers different solutions to enhance the upcoming passenger experience on one hand, and increase the amount invested at purchase on the other. Consider seats with more legroom or further from the bathrooms, in-flight comfort items like blankets or headphones, more elaborate meals, or seats in privileged sections. These enhancements are often available up until the last moment, as the passenger can decide just before boarding to enjoy a better seat, meal, or view.

In the arts sector, it would also be possible to offer options that - rather than only focused on the quality of the view - include other benefits that come with a corresponding cost. For example:

  • Offering seats with more legroom;

  • Paying for a drink or snack delivered upon arrival;

  • Distributing merchandise related to the show or programmer when a certain price is reached;

  • Accumulating points based on the number of options selected.

All these strategies further engage the viewer with the work even before they have arrived, while allowing the price paid to increase accordingly. Thus, the work remains accessible for every budget, but allows those who have more means to obtain an enhanced experience.

2) Boarding

Once customs are cleared, airlines deploy several strategies to take care of the passenger and immerse them in their commercial universe. From the VIP lounge to priority boarding to the music in the cabin upon entry and the increasingly original safety instruction video, the audience sees what they seek from an airline - comfort and prestige - constantly increased and validated.

In artistic dissemination, this way of wrapping the audience in the wonder that prepares them for the work they will see can be adapted as follows:

  • Create a VIP space (lounge or bar) where food and alcohol are served free or exclusively (depending on membership, allowing the public to bring a limited number of non-VIP companions);

  • Offer higher quality snacks or beverages to certain guests (and possibly to everyone to improve overall customer experience);

  • Allow certain individuals to enter the hall earlier to settle in (and attend the final stages of the artists' preparation if appropriate);

  • Play a specific playlist during the audience's entry to immerse them in the universe of the work (or offer exclusives, like Air France partnering with an artist to premiere an upcoming album during cabin entry);

  • Present a high-quality audio or video message that matches the image of the show or programmer to give pre- or post-show instructions (thank yous, turn off electronic devices, upcoming shows, how to exit, etc.);

    • Incidentally, have a reminder of the video or audio in the programmer's other communications (promotional videos, hold music, etc.).

These enhancements, offered for free or available at purchase, can also extend to cultural mediation activities which - to truly fulfill their objective of bridging art and the public - must avoid announcing their didactic nature, often off-putting. By presenting these forays into the artist's universe as an experiential added value that matches the public's consumption habits, they will more easily achieve their goal of accessibility and audience retention: like a cockpit visit can be paid for, or an informational video about the airline can be played before an on-demand movie. Thus, these mediation activities could take the form of:

  • VIP meet-and-greets offered as a paid option;

  • Access to the artist's inspirations (playlist of songs listened to during creation, suggestions for reading, films, series, etc.);

  • Dynamic trailer of the documentary aired with or after the show;

  • Free or paid access to a virtual platform enhancing the experience with photos, videos, and texts;

  • Offering a short complementary experience in the hall of the theater (VR short film on an issue raised by the upcoming work, complementary exhibition, etc.).

Always with the dual idea of humanizing relationships with the public and professionalizing moments of engagement with them, these strategies predispose everyone to receive the work they have come to see - either by removing distractions or by maximizing comfort or immersion.

3) Landing

Always keen to improve their customer experience, airlines redouble efforts to obtain their passengers' impressions in order to adjust their offer. Post-purchase or post-trip surveys sent repeatedly to customers maximize the chances of receiving relevant feedback from a large number of travelers. And when the survey comes with points, discounts, or contests, participation is often stronger. For the most part, live arts programmers already practice this consultation with incentives. But their importance can never be overstated: knowing your customers and their desires is the best way to communicate with your audience and offer them works tailored to their interests. While they are not guarantees of absolute truth, data are solid foundations for artistic, marketing, and administrative decision-making: it is best to seek them as soon as possible.

4) Loyalty

When you buy an airline ticket, the privileges associated with it are available according to the amount paid, but also according to the passenger's loyalty. Thus, if a customer consistently flies with Air France, they can accumulate points that give them access to automatic upgrades, privileged hotels or transport, exclusive meals and beverages, etc. Experts in personalization, airlines then make it their duty to add to their flight attendants' tasks to greet the loyal traveler by their first name, ask how their previous trip with the company went (naming the place and date of that trip), bring them their favorite amenities without having to ask, and more. Thanks to data collected over transactions, companies can thus make the journey increasingly personal and comfortable for the client, but also rely on this closeness to ensure that they will constantly return to them for their air transport needs.

In the cultural milieu, subscriptions have long had a similar function by offering advantageous rates to attend shows for a season. However, this strategy - still effective among older audiences - is limited to the current year, and a subscriber's favorite seat may be lost if they skip a renewal. By transforming subscriptions into points accumulated for each transaction (show, merchandise) purchased from a programmer (or a group of programmers or even an entire reservation system), benefits can accumulate according to a spectator's loyalty, allowing them to enjoy advantages according to their attendance at a given venue or set of venues. Notably, this could include:

  • Titles (Bronze Spectator, Gold, Platinum, Rising Star, International Star, etc.) marking levels of loyalty;

  • Exclusives or exclusive presales;

  • Free drinks or snacks;

  • VIP activities (meeting with the artists of a show, signing session, etc.);

  • Verbal and written communications that include personalization elements other than the simple name (birthday discount or freebie, show proposals based on previous purchases, welcoming spectators to the theater with a surprise or handpicked anecdote, etc.).

On the other hand, the programmer can require the spectator to provide certain data or meet certain requirements to advance their privileges. Thus, they can ask:

  • To submit their personal data;

  • To fill out mandatory occasional surveys to maintain their privileges (presented as exclusive surveys for privileged members to influence programming);

  • From a certain grade, to attend a certain number of shows or pay a certain annual amount to maintain their privileges..

This will allow them to better know their clientele and continuously offer programming more adapted to both the artistic vision and the real portrait of the audience they welcome.

Returning from a trip a little more oneself

Increasingly scattered audiences require us to reinvent the way we package art to match current practices. Although the budget will never be the same in art as in aviation, the will and innovation will always be more on our side. We should also never disguise the artistic dissemination sector to hide it in the shadow of another sector far from its realities. But programmers have the power to invest in this inherently mercantile part of their profession to take advantage of it while preserving the unique mindset that makes the world of the arts human, welcoming, unique, and subversive.


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