A Good Problem To Have

The recent article by Dan Wakin in the 8/11/08 edition of the New York Times reporting on the problems encountered by Met subscribers attempting to exchange tickets presented a fascinating problem-solving scenario: how to anticipate and react to sudden increases in ticket sales. Wakin’s article did an excellent job at setting up the issue, establishing the level of patron displeasure, and presenting a comprehensive response from Met General Manager, Peter Gelb. Subsequently, from a behavioral change management perspective, I found some of Gelb’s statements intriguing…

The article
reported that one new policy particularly upset many subscribers: a
$5.00 fee per ticket exchange at the box office. The impetus of that
fee is a desire on part of the Met to move subscribers toward less
flexibility while simultaneously increasing perceived ticket value:

[Gelb] said he was trying to return to the days when
a subscription was a subscription, and subscribers took the good with
the bad, giving away the tickets they did not want or donating them
back to the box office. The $5 exchange fee is a signal of that, he

Herding patrons toward "mandatory contributions" or providing
hurdles to product access are among the sorts of policies that have led
to the overall shrinking of classical music audiences. Consequently, I
found Gelb’s position fascinating since it seems to move away from many
of the progressive management positions that have contributed to his
recent popularity.

It is certainly understandable that any performing arts
organization will want to minimize revenue losses due to an increase in
customer service demands but the Met’s decision to institute the $5.00
per ticket exchange fee doesn’t meet the criteria for successful
behavioral change management practices. Instead, it smacks of a very
static solution to a problem wrapped in dynamic variables (in this
case, human feelings).

The article goes on to report that Gelb fully acknowledged the
problems at hand and the need to enact corrective measures as soon as
possible (as would any good manager) but none of Gelb’s reported
answers acknowledged that the organization might want to rethink the
decision to institute behavioral change by means of negative
reinforcement. Instead, it might be in the Met’s immediate and
long-term interests to begin focusing some of that creative problem
solving they are known for toward this issue with the goal of finding
new solutions that institute the sort of behavioral change they desire
without sacrificing ticket-buyer flexibility.

In short, why not explore options that focus on positive reinforcement?

Postlude: Normally, I would call the Met’s PR office with
some of the above questions but my current work on the Area-51 project
prohibits that course of action. Nevertheless, I’m certain readers
would appreciate it if anyone from the Met would like to chime in on
any of the above material and they are certainly invited to do so.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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3 thoughts on “A Good Problem To Have”

  1. This is very disappointing. Gelb has been doing great work, but in this particular case I think he has it dead wrong.

    Progressing from the specific to the general, the first problem is the idea that charging a $5 exhange fee will increase perceived ticket value just seems backwards. It’s not going to feel to the patron like “I have to pay an extra $5 in order to get this thing I want, so it must be valuable”–it’s going to feel like “I have to pay $5 to get rid of this ticket that I don’t want, so if I’m willing to do it this ticket must really be worthless.”

    Next we have the backwards idea that it’s desirable to decrease consumer choice. If subscribers are considered the most valuable ticket holders (leaving donors out of it for a moment) then you have to treat them like you value them and not like people who are getting a bargain and should be willing to make sacrifices for it. But that’s what they’re doing–when Gelb says he preferred it when subscribers “took the good with the bad” he’s saying that subscribers are the dumping ground for bad product. Surely Gelb doesn’t believe that they have any bad product, but that’s what he said! Presumably he really means concerts that are not considered desirable to the regular subscriber crowd; but as the case of the marketing of Satyagraha shows, concerts that are unpopular with subscribers can sometimes be sold very effectively to other groups.

    It’s bad that they’re screwing up their subscription program, but it’s also troubling that they’re focusing on the subscription model so much to begin with. Subscriptions are back up at the Met not because people like having subscriptions for the sake of havnig subscriptions, but because overall demand for tickets is back up and subscribers get first crack at them. The old subscription model is fundamentally unsound and outdated–people are diversifying their entertainment options and fewer and fewer want to be locked into a long term commitment that pulls them away from other options. But they’re willing to do it if it gets them something else they want, such as first dibs on desirable shows. Making it harder for subscribers to do ticket exchanges will simply drive them out of the subscription program.

  2. Yikes. Glad to hear that Peter Gelb and the Met are saving opera for the rest of us. Still, while this article and the image do not really flatter the Met or Mr. Gelb, it does create a memorable impression that Met subscriptions (not just tickets) are an item people are literally lining up for. That’s good for business. If the goal was to get the message out that ‘Met subscriptions are valuable’ this article helps – a lot, I think. Perhaps Mr. Gelb made a calculated bet against his subscribers good feelings in order to make a statement about how the Met views itself? In any case, I don’t think you can really buy this type of press, with images no less. They made a decision to send a message that subscriptions were valuable and had the good fortune to have the New York Times carry that message far and wide. I’d call that a win – and stay open to doing away with this fee next year.

  3. There was a related problem this year with subscriptions to the Ring: the Met changed a long-standing policy of allowing past Ring subscribers first dibs at Ring tickets, and instead it’s regular subscribers with first dibs, if I’m recalling this correctly. I think this was a mistake on Gelb’s part, because, yeah, the Ring IS special, amounting to a four-opera subscription that people all over the world want to buy.

    Very interesting Lisa, I hope someone from the Met chimes in at some point here on that specific issue. I wholeheartedly agree that The Ring is very special for opera fans and taking something away form die-hard ticket buyers related to that shangri-la set is risky business. ~ Drew McManus

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