- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

PORTLAND, MAINE — Just like airlines, many performing-arts venues are beginning to charge more for ticket holders to stretch out their legs.

The idea of charging a premium for desirable seats, as Northwest Airlines Inc. and U.S. Airways Inc. do for aisle and exit-row seats, is catching on with symphonies, ballets, operas and theater companies trying to get a greater bang for the buck from ticket sales.

Consumers lining up to buy tickets to shows and concerts may as well get used to it.

“Demand pricing” is taking hold, says Alice Kornhauser, marketing director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. “If people are willing to pay more for an aisle seat, then it’s pretty irresponsible from a business standpoint not to charge,” Miss Kornhauser says.

Pricing strategies are especially important this time of year: Holiday productions typically account for up to 50 percent of annual ticket sales for symphonies, ballets, operas and theater companies, says Joanne Steller of Target Resource Group.

Colorado-based TRG, which advises nonprofit arts organizations, is working with the Portland orchestra and about 50 other organizations using the principles of demand pricing.

The results can be dramatic.

The Boston Ballet, for example, saw a $160,000 increase in revenues for its “Nutcracker” last year, largely from demand-based price adjustments. In New York, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater used pricing adjustments that helped boost revenues by $1.9 million over the past two years, TRG says.

“It should not be a surprise that arts organizations use sound business principles to have a more substantial financial foundation,” Miss Steller notes. After all, other businesses, including airlines and hotels, have based their pricing on demand for years, she says.

Arts organizations, for their part, also have practiced some form of demand pricing, typically by charging more for the most popular performances.

Thus, certain performances may be discounted, while others are not. The obvious example is the matinee performance, which traditionally is discounted.

These days, the principles of demand pricing increasingly apply to rate structures for seating.

In the arts community, it’s known as “scaling the house.”

In New York, Jujamcyn Theaters, owner of five theaters on Broadway, began charging up to $25 per ticket for limited pairs of aisle seats over the summer. Jujamcyn could not be reached for comment.

In older, cramped theaters in particular, theatergoers may be willing to pay more for extra knee room or the ability to slip away without crawling over others.

In Portland, symphony officials studied seating charts at the 1,900-seat Merrill Auditorium. After analyzing historical buying patterns, the symphony this year began charging more for popular seats while keeping the same spread of prices from high to low, Miss Kornhauser says.

However, pricing is not always based on the best view of the stage.

For example, some concertgoers who sat far in the back, getting a value seat while enjoying the hall’s best acoustics, are paying more. Also, of course, some aisle seats command a premium price. Other aisle seats are priced the same as before.

In addition, symphony officials discovered that child-friendly matinees are the most popular - so the discounts don’t apply to those performances.

The pricing formula means someone paying $55 for an aisle seat may be seated next to someone who paid $40. Someone seated at the matinee performance may pay more than someone at the evening performance.

Yet there’s a method to the madness, says Miss Kornhauser, who came to Portland a few years ago from New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“Part of marketing is geeking out on numbers and percentages and things like that,” she says.

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