Case study: In concert with the times

6 Jun 2005

The National Concert Hall on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin is arguably Ireland’s premier arts venue. It stages more than 400 concerts a year, attracting some 300,000 paying customers to see performances by major national and international musicians. It has a revenue of €4m annually and is profitable — a rarity for a publicly funded body.

Tickets for concerts are sold via a range of channels — telephone, post, box office and, increasingly, via the website. The rise of the internet as an important sales medium has happened only in the last two years. In May 2003, it still accounted for only 3pc of box-office sales. Today this percentage has grown to approximately 15pc.

Rosita Wolfe, marketing and public relations manager at the NCH, describes the shortcomings of the original website. “There was low awareness of the website. Its design was corporate led rather than sales led. It was hard to find out how to buy tickets online. There was also a booking charge for buying online but none when buying through the box office,” she recalls.

There were problems at the back-end too. There was no database management system for email and no system for automatically updating content.

In preparing to revamp its website, the NCH had a specific financial target in mind — to double online sales within 12 months — but it had other goals as well. These included creating a round-the-clock sales channel, reducing marketing costs and increasing the site’s accessibility to the visually impaired. As well as using the internet as a sales channel, it was also felt that email could be used more effectively. “We felt email was a great way of pushing spare capacity two to three weeks before an event. Also, if we were cancelling a concert at short notice, email would be good for this too,” notes Wolfe.

And all this was backed by a vision. “We wanted to be seen as leaders in the performing arts, not just in Ireland but internationally,” says Wolfe.

The next step was to put out to tender for a web design firm that would do the work. The company chosen would also provide a publishing engine that would queue new content for uploading onto the site, so keeping it fresh. The contract was awarded to Dublin-based e-business developer Media One.

The new-look website has been live for two years now. It is a radical departure from its predecessor. It is much easier to book a ticket online, for example, with just five clicks needed to go from the homepage to booking a ticket. Other new features include an online media centre for journalists, automatic content updates on the homepage, a virtual tour of the NCH and even online table reservation at the venue’s popular Terrace Cafe. A welcome omission from the site is a booking charge for online ticket sales.

During the course of the project some interesting findings came to light. It was hoped, for example, that NCH patrons would be willing to receive offers and information by text message to their mobiles. But in a survey of customers, a massive 98pc rejected the idea and said they would prefer email notification instead. The findings surprises Wolfe who feels they must be indicative of a deep personal attachment between users and their mobiles. Another interesting phenomenon has been the rise of the ‘silver surfer’. “The whole thing of older people not being used to the web has been blown out of the water. We found some events targeting older audiences received lots of online applications,” says Wolfe.

What has been most apparent to the project team is that turning a website into a sales channel doesn’t have to cost a lot. The total budget for the project was €20,000 with a further €500 quarterly maintenance fee paid to Media One. As Wolfe points out, a budget of €20,000 is modest considering that a one-off brochure mailing can cost at least as much.

What’s more, the investment has more than paid for itself. Online ticket sales have more than trebled in two years to €500k. And, with more tickets being sold online, the waiting time for those making telephone bookings has been cut and telesales personnel have more time to deal with individual callers, enhancing the customer experience further.

All in all, NCH customers have really taken to the flexibility and convenience of the internet, believes Wolfe. “As an out-of-hours sales channel, the internet is very important. Ringing the box office only to find it’s closed can be an extremely frustrating experience.”

By Brian Skelly