Creating our Be A Brick campaign.

At the beginning of February we launched a public fundraising campaign at Lincoln Drill Hall.  Consistent reductions to public funding for arts organisations that have affected venues and organisations across the country have also placed significant additional risk on our budgets and operation.

Our venue has been absorbing year on year reductions since 2013 and has reached a stage where the pressures on our fundraising activity to replace the gap in our income has become potentially unsustainable.  Along with my team we spent a long time putting the campaign together. Be A Brick we felt was a simple, memorable, hashtaggable campaign that could capture the imagination of our audiences and communities alike.  There were some really important factors though that we needed to consider to ensure the maximum impact from the campaign when launched.

Firstly, the tone of the campaign had to be positive, that the ask of our community was to support the ability for the organisation to thrive.  That positivity had to run throughout. We know that our principle public funders have been absorbing their own reductions and in the current economic climate their decision to continue funding at any level is welcomed. However, we needed to make clear to the public that the venue that Lincoln has loved over the years is at real risk.

Secondly, what were we asking people to give to. What would be lost if we weren’t there. There are the 300 plus performances that take place each year in the auditorium of course, but we are one of a number of venues in the city, so to one extent if we didn’t put those on, audiences could choose to go elsewhere.  But Lincoln Drill Hall has always been about so much more than just the performances.  As a professional community arts centre we have strong civic role to play in the life of the city, offering more than just shows so we chose to focus the campaign on all of the other activity we offer. Chances to take part, a safe space to enjoy yourself and make friends, outreach work we’re developing with partners in the city.  We believe that the city would start to lose its heartbeat without Lincoln Drill Hall.

Thirdly we needed to consider both the amount we were asking for and what people got for their money. We considered the socio-economic make up of Lincoln carefully and looked at the range of audiences we attract.  We felt that asking for a small amount annually would give us the best chance for a large number of people thinking it was affordable to them. £10 per year is still a big ask for some, but an amount that we felt the majority of people could respond to.  In terms of our current annual fundraising need it also sounds like a small sum when we’re looking to raise £130,000 every year, but when you consider that we sell around 50,000 tickets each year if 1 in 3 of our audience donated then we’d hit our target easily.

Lincoln Drill Hall was gifted to the city from the time of construction in 1890, so we decided to offer the chance for donors to sponsor a virtual brick, to feel a real ownership of their arts centre.  We did worry about some people turning up with hammer and chisel asking to take their brick away with them (and a couple of people have asked just that), but our ever growing virtual brick wall of donors is another testament to how we are perceived.

Finally, we need to anticipate some of the questions that people might ask when a campaign of this nature went public.  So we thought we’d create a simple film trying to make clear the realities of financing a small scale arts facility.  You can see the film and messages from a number of famous faces here.

To say we’re delighted with the initial response would be a huge understatement.  In the first two months we have raised over £15,000, well over 10% of the annual total.  We are planning a number of other activities across the year, from a fundraising variety night in the autumn, to a talent show in partnership with Lincoln’s Indian Society.  We’re also delighted that supporters of ours such as the amazing Jo Tolley are fundraising on our behalf, organising sponsored walks and charity balls.  Our wonderful technical team are planning to tackle the three peaks challenge in the summer.

And of course we continue to fundraise through other sources. We have a number of trust and foundations to whom we’ve applied for funding to help develop the sustainability of your arts centre the success of which will also help us towards our total.

We truly believe that for any city to truly thrive, the range of high class arts and culture available to residents and visitors alike is crucial and needs to be sustained, protected and given the conditions in which to thrive.  Cultural venues are a major part of that mechanism. Colleagues and supporters in other city venues are facing similar challenges that also need all of our attention to secure high class arts and entertainment.  We will continue to fight for that future. Thank you to all who’ve donated so far and to all those who will do in the future.


2019 – A Defining Year For Lincoln Drill Hall.

Just before Christmas CityX published a short blog I’d written looking at some of the highlights for Lincoln Arts Trust from 2018.  There were many, from hosting the only BBC Prom outside of London, an amazing production of Les Miserables in the summer, introducing a new Pay What You Decide programme that made all of our contemporary performance free up front with donations encouraged, to our most successful pantomime yet in Peter Pan.

However, now that the dust has settled on Christmas it’s time for our organisation to look ahead to 2019. Artistically it’s a really exciting year, mixing high quality big names such as Russell Watson, Jason Donovan, Fairport Convention, Rachel Parris, Ed Gamble and The Grimethorpe Colliery Band with exciting new theatre and performance from Vamos Theatre, Sonia Sabri, Lost In Translation Circus and Circus Xanti. Following last summer’s Les Miserables, we are looking forward to the same company, Jamie Marcus Productions, presenting CATS, once again with a cast comprising only young performers.  Our participatory work, giving people the chance to take part in the arts through youth theatres, workshops, dance classes both at Lincoln Drill Hall and other locations will continue to grow.  There’s lots to look forward to.

However, behind all that the reality of running a small charity reliant on public funding means that the financial challenges of keeping the organisation running in the way that our audiences and communities know and love is increasingly difficult.  2019 will be a crucial, future-defining year in our existence.

The Finances.

Next year we need to fundraise at least £130,000 to balance our books. If each one of the 45,000 people who come to see a show here added a donation of  just £3 to each ticket purchased, we’d smash the fundraising target for the year.

Let me explain.

We are a small venue with a capacity of 365 seats.  That means technically we have 133,225 available seats to sell if we opened every single day of the year with a performance. The average ticket price at Lincoln Drill Hall this year is £13.27.  And of that amount around 75% (quite rightly) goes to the artists and performers creating and presenting the work. We have a commitment to ensuring that across the board we offer the people of Lincoln affordable access to the arts.  The highest price we’ve sold a ticket at is £45 (Russell Watson), but we’ve had a number of free events and over 10,000 tickets each year are available for £12 or less.

So by doing a quick bits of mental arithmetic if we sold every seat, every night of the year at that average price we’d gross £1.76m from box office of which we retain around 25% or £441k. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a venue that sells out every single seat every night of the year. Last year it cost £800,000 to run our organisation, so even if we achieved total 100% sell out we’d still need to find an additional £359k to help us break even.  In reality though, with the size and types of shows we do and the fact that we do need to have some days off we actually have around 74,000 available seats this year. We’ll sell between 45 – 50,000 seats so we’ll retain around £149k from ticket sales.

The Public Funding.

Some of the gap has always been filled with public funding for which we are incredibly grateful. Arts Council England funds us through their National Portfolio. We receive around £49,000 per year to support our contemporary and risky performance programme and some of our participation work. Currently we also get an additional £8000 to deliver additional programmes of outreach work.

Our principal funder has always been the City of Lincoln Council – recognising that a thriving, varied arts and cultural offer is crucial to a modern developing city.  When I took up post in early 2013 the funding they gave was £277,000 per year with an expectation that this would rise at roughly 2% per year.  However, due to reductions in their own funding, instead it has reduced annually. Next year when we could have expected around £319,000 from them, we’ll receive £201,000,  a difference of £118,000.  Cumulatively by March 2021 (the last year of current reduction) in real terms we will have absorbed over £540,000 in funding cuts.  We’ll be looking to fill an annual gap of at least £140,000 every single year.  For a small charity that is simply not sustainable.

So what are we doing?

We’ve overhauled our ticketing and seating system to maximise the income we think is realistic from ticket sales. It’s not realistic to simply double or triple our ticket prices across the board, as audiences couldn’t afford it and we’d lose one of our charitable aims regarding affordability.  We do believe that we could add between £20-£30,000 each year.

We’re looking at new partnerships with organisations in the city that we can work with to open up new streams of revenue.

We’re fundraising. Philanthropy to arts causes, I was recently told, stands at about 1% of all charitable giving – and from that about 60% goes to 10 large organisations. So it is difficult, but my team and I are looking to constantly increase the fundraising that we do. However, even without the reductions to our public funding, we needed to fundraise at least £30,000 each year to break even.  As mentioned above, next year that figure is £130,000 minimum.

We’re ensuring that we’re valuable.  Follow this link to hear some stories about why people love Lincoln Drill Hall.

Providing opportunities for everyone to have a safe welcoming haven in which to enjoy engaging with the arts is key to our work.

Working out in the community will become more of a focus.  Already we’ve developed a relationship with the YMCA delivering youth theatre, Arts Award sessions and other opportunities for young people using their facilities in Lincoln to engage with the arts. Working with Lincoln’s Cultural and Arts Partnership we are looking for opportunities to bring new arts projects to communities across the city, including the continuation of the Arts Council Funded project, Mansions Of The Future.

We’re not sitting still, and haven’t been for the last 6 years as my team and I fight every day to preserve this amazing facility for Lincoln, but we need the support of the people of our city like never before.

What you can do?

There are loads of ways you can help. Buying more tickets (season tickets are available) and  encouraging friends and family to try us out. If you become  a friend or a member every pound you give helps us reach our target. If you introduce us to a friend or to your business you’re helping us to grow our family of supporters.

However, crucially and at its simplest, we’re asking our supporters to donate in addition to buying tickets.  One way of doing this is so simple and is to add a donation to your booking. As mentioned above, if each one of the 45,000 people who come to see a show here added just £3 to each ticket purchased, we’d smash the fundraising target for the year.  We’re also developing specific fundraising campaigns, following on from the Big Give Christmas Challenge, that gives us all the chance to ensure that this beautiful space remains an essential part of Lincoln’s future.

Work with us.

My trustees, staff and I will continue to fight for our organisation, to ensure that Lincoln Drill Hall thrives and really is Your Arts Centre in the city. Without this significant change though, Lincoln Arts Trust and therefore the Drill Hall in 2020 may be a very different organisation than the one we have now. I for one think that would be a real loss to our wonderful city.

Is Panto Our Most ‘Arts Council’ Show Of The Year?

A couple of weeks ago a post popped up on my Facebook page imploring artists and arts professionals not to turn their noses up at pantomime as for hundreds of thousands of kids it can be a magical experience that will make them theatre lovers for life.

It got me thinking about our own Christmas offer at Lincoln Drill Hall.  This year we’re presenting our 12th pantomime in association with  producer Jamie Marcus Productions and it’s Peter Pan.  Watching one of the early schools performances this week I was once again mesmerised by how our auditorium had been transformed  for the Christmas period as we welcome around 14000 people through the doors.  My technical team have not so much gone the extra mile as run several marathons to ensure that this year’s show continues to deliver amazing quality for the widest audience.

Panto cast 2

In fact, this then got me thinking about how pantomime sits within the overall programming of a venue such as ours. Our artistic offer is led by high quality popular culture. However we remain firmly committed to offering Lincoln audiences the widest breadth of arts and entertainment so we offer a smaller programme of contemporary performance that forms part of our agreement for funding with Arts Council England.

panto cast 3

And as I watched the show this week I began to think that there is a strong argument that our pantomime delivers more closely against Arts Council England goals than a lot of the work that we present each year that I’d say was directly funded by our grant.

For example, Goal 1 for ACE is that excellence in the arts is thriving and celebrated.  Panto does that. The production values and investment therein is huge. The effects, calibre of our cast, sets and technical elements are all of the very highest quality. Goal 2 is about reach, Great Art For Everyone. Well panto attracts by far the widest demographic of audience from across the city and beyond and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. We’ve welcomed school groups from rural villages and parts of our city that fall well within the highest areas of deprivation in the country and offered them an arts experience that will stay with them. As one parent mentioned to me the other day, ‘the kids were talking about the BSL interpretation all through the afternoon and the next day’.

Panto cast

And that leads on to the Creative Case for Diversity.  Panto affords us the opportunity to offer shows that we can’t regularly in other parts of the season with one off performances.  This year we have 3 signed performances, a relaxed and autism friendly performance and are in discussions about audio description for next year.  But more than that, this year we’ve cast a deaf actress in the role of Tinker Bell.  This isn’t a move to tick a box, but a well thought out piece of casting. Tinker Bell historically communicates only through the ringing of bells, so to add signing to that ‘silent’ part seems absolutely natural.  Phillipa Russell is amazing in the role. She signs her lines, Pan and other cast members sign back and the audience have opportunities to learn bits of sign language too.  To see 300 kids signing ‘I believe in Fairies’ is a really moving moment to witness.

Tink and Pan

Goal 5 for ACE is achieved as panto engages with more children and young people than anything else we present and it is also a key production in helping to deliver resilience as it contributes the single biggest amount of earned ticket income to our budget each year.

I quite often get asked about commercial work and quality work with a misguided assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. They’re absolutely not and I hope that Lincoln Drill Hall will always seek to present the widest range of work for the people of our city. And I’m not for a moment suggesting that Arts Council directly subsidises our panto. But for me, our annual Christmas extravaganza delivers really closely to all of the outcomes that Arts Council aims to achieve. So before anyone dismisses this oldest of art forms as outdated, cheap or an irrelevance, why not check where your nearest panto is and go and have a look. My instinct is you’ll actually have a pretty amazing time and certainly one you’ll remember.

Building our Audiences – Pay What You Decide

Here at Lincoln Drill Hall we’ve reached the end of our first Pay What You Decide season of work.  As the dust has settled and the 6 productions included have carried on their tours across the UK I’ve had a moment to sit and analyse the impact of our approach. Has it achieved what we hoped? Did we extend our audience reach? Is it a strategy worth persevering with?

Oddly Moving_He Aint Heavy01

Oddly Moving: He Ain’t Heavy

The initial answer is quite simply yes.  Comparing this season of 6 shows to a similar season of 6 earlier in the year has seen some real growth.  In the Spring/Summer season we sold 233 tickets in total with audience numbers ranging from 19 to 77.  We made £1580 in sales for those tickets.

In this season of Pay What You Decide we ‘sold’ 433 tickets to the work and took donations totalling over £1700.00 achieving both of my main aims for taking this approach – more people seeing the work and maintaining the same level of income from donations as we had through traditional ticket sales. This season the work took place in a range of spaces, from our main auditorium to the Room Upstairs and in our café.  We reached over 50% of capacity, a huge leap from previous numbers.

User Not Found Promo 3

Dante or Die: User Not Found. Image Justin Jones.

That is a huge boost for us, but there were other positives too.  The breadth of audiences increased, with more students from Lincoln College, The University of Lincoln Dance and Drama courses and local schools engaging with the work.  We know that there were a small number of people who booked for the entire season of work, and I know from talking with some of them that they would have maybe chosen only one or perhaps two shows to go to had traditional ticket pricing been in place, because 6 shows at £12-£14 each wouldn’t have been affordable.

Through the season we continued to strengthen our new partnership working with the YMCA at the Showroom.  One of the visiting companies undertook a Circus Workshop at their venue and the YMCA brought a group of young people to see a show exploring LGBT+ people navigating the asylum system. We also presented some of the work with Compassionate Lincoln, again making clear the remit that I feel the venue has to community engagement and development.

Maison Foo_Thing Mislaid

Maison Foo: A Thing Mislaid

For me Pay What You Decide is about bridging a gap.  By which I mean a gap in what is on offer to audiences in the city.  We are asking audiences to take big artistic leaps, to have faith and trust us when we place value in the contemporary performance we present here.  We are asking them not to stay at home in front of the telly, or go and see a West End Musical that will be comfortable and familiar.  We’re asking them to come on a journey to explore our society, politics, the world in which  we live.

So as a programmer I’m placing a value on the passion and resources the artists are putting into making that work, for instance ensuring that fees are paid to those artists.  There have been interesting conversations about whether by Paying What You Decide, audiences could be devaluing the work if they donate small amounts.  I don’t agree.  I think the art is devalued if the effort the artist has put into creating it, isn’t performed in front of more than 15-20 people.  The experience for the show, the performers and the audience is devalued. Audience are already making a value call on a show with a £14 ticket by choosing not to come at all.

White Slate Theatre_Re Production01

White Slate Theatre: Re:Production.

A bigger audience, donating at the end creates a better experience for all involved, thereby increasing the value of the art and the experience. Semantically you could call it different things; some use Pay What You Want – which I don’t think is really much different, or Pay What You Can Afford – which perhaps could be seen as stigmatising to those who perhaps can’t afford much.  The wording can be played about with.

The crunch is though, that around 200 more people have experienced this work than probably would have done if they’d had to pay up front.  That alone allows us to start building larger audiences for contemporary work, which in turn ensures that artists creating the work feel value.

And that’s why we’ll continue this strategy into Spring and Summer 2019.  Between February and June there’ll be a further 8 productions presented as Pay What You Decide.  Again there’s a real mix, from Mask Theatre to Indian Dance, from family circus to work exploring possible outcomes of a post Brexit world.  All the details are on our website and tickets are available now.

Bess the Commoner Queen03

Kev Fegan: Bess The Commoner Queen. March 2019.

Pay What You Decide – A Gamble or Good Sense?

This season at Lincoln Drill Hall we’ve launched our first formal season of Pay What You Decide shows.  6 productions in our autumn programme – all really high quality interesting contemporary performances – have tickets that up front are free.  We’re asking our audience to trust us, try one or more of these performances and only pay us what they think the show is worth once they’ve seen it.

It’s a model used by a number of arts centres already.  The Arc in Stockton though was the first to apply the strategy to whole season of work, with results that have seen audiences and revenues grow.

Local press in the city picked up on this initiative with verve and I found myself doing three different interviews with our local BBC station and an interview with the main commercial station in the city too.  One thing they all asked me was, Isn’t this a bit of a gamble?  What happens if no-one leaves any money?

The answer to this question is always the same.  Any time a venue like ours books a contemporary theatre show we are in effect taking a gamble.  We might know the work or the artist we’re booking, and we can ask audiences to trust us, but this contemporary work, often devised, often combining multiple art forms, with unfamiliar titles and with actors audiences haven’t immediately heard of is a risk and quite honestly, in Lincoln for many years has struggled to draw large audiences.

There are of course exceptions to this. The Damned United from Red Ladder Theatre for example sold 90% capacity earlier this year, drawing on a huge resurgence in football in the city over the last two years alongside our proximity to Nottingham meaning that there re a good number of Nottingham Forest fans for whom Brian Clough remains a hero.  But we continue to seek audiences for this work, supported in part by our NPO funding from Arts Council England.



But the gamble is in taking the work, not in encouraging larger audiences to attend by removing the financial barrier for them up front.  For me it’s about widening the audience base.  We have very little financial return on this work, so I’d rather look to have more people seeing the work and engaging with us as a venue,  than persevere with fixed ticket prices that possibly make up the minds of many potential audiences not to book.

And the work is great.  Three of the shows are coming on the back of strong runs at the Edinburgh Festival, garnering award nominations and a slew of 4 and 5 star reviews.  They cover a wide range of subject matter – from starting a family to seeking asylum to considering our on line identity.  They embrace new technologies – two are introducing new captioning technology within their work.

Early signs are good. When comparing these six shows to six in the first half of our season that between then sold 223 tickets with audiences for some around the 19 – 20 mark.  5 of the 6 shows this season are already above that, and the advance ‘sales’ for the opening performance taking place today (19 Sep) have reached 80.

Generally I believe that for most work price isn’t the major deciding factor in someone’s choice – especially when the production is familiar.  However, there is a growing base of evidence that by gaining the trust of your audience you’ll grow that audience and keep them coming back.

So yes, Pay What You Decide may be a gamble, but if it is, we’re saying to our audience, we’re taking that gamble so you don’t have to. We believe it’ll be worth it in the long run.

What Does Lincoln Drill Hall Really Mean?

I led a team meeting recently of senior staff from Lincoln Drill Hall where we started to put together ideas for an upcoming fundraising campaign.  As we discussed the elements that could go into this campaign it became increasingly clear that what we were discussing in essence was value.  What is it that we are offering to communities across the city, and more crucially, what is it that would be lost to Lincoln if we weren’t there to do it?

Sitting at the centre of the organisation is the performances programmed into our space,  currently around 300 a year.  We could look at the loss of this programme in one of two ways.  On the one hand people might think, ‘so what?’, there are plenty of other places to see performances in the city.  But look at it from another angle. Included in those performances are 4-5 weeks of youth theatre, with young people having the chance to perform on a professional stage every year.  There’s also our annual pantomime, playing to over 14,000 people annually including a large number of children experiencing live performance for the first time.

The programme is important and does have a positive impact on people, but for this fundraising campaign we believe that we need to articulate that we mean more than this.  We want to tell proper stories of where we’ve made a positive impact.

For people like Beryl, who used to come to dances in the 1940’s and now comes to see her granddaughter in youth theatre and can’t bear the thought that the memories she holds dear of her times with us will be lost to future generations.

Beryl Pickwell - Dancing

For people like Mick, a Tour Manager who worked here with Fairport Convention who researched family history and made a connection with a family member stationed in the county with the RAF during the war and whom he believes spent one of his last days on earth at a dance here at the Drill Hall.  A proper connection across generations.

We need to talk about the impact we made on Kieran, a young aspiring DJ struggling to find opportunities to pursue his dream, and for whom we provided the chance to do that.  He’s now the resident DJ at our regular Butterfly Club nights.

Changing Lives Panel_Kieran

We need to talk about the impact we have on hundreds of disabled adults and young people by providing a crucial social outlet for them to develop friendships and confidence through our Butterfly Club Nights and Dreamland Drama.


We need to tell the story of those who have had opportunities to work here and then gone on to achieve so much more. The intern who is now running a major county wide arts network, the project worker who recently worked on the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics are just two that spring to mind.

These are just some of the stories and we’re working hard to find more.  To capture and tell these stories.  Lincoln Drill Hall has been run as a registered charity now for eight years by Lincoln Arts Trust, proud custodians of these generations of wonderful memories created by our work.

Eighteen months ago we adopted the strap line Changing Lives, Changing Place, Changing Perceptions. We firmly believe that this is true. We do this on a daily basis.  As we develop this campaign in the coming weeks we’ll strive to tell the stories of our impact that prove that this is what we do.   We want to hear from people about your stories, how your venue has made a positive impact on your life.  You can contact us via our website or through our Social Media channels.

I believe that Lincoln Drill Hall really does mean something to people, a meaning that goes far beyond simply selling tickets for a show, but providing truly memorable experiences that can last a lifetime.   Here’s to building generations of new memories for the future. This is your Drill Hall. #YouKnowTheDrill

LDH_Highly Sprung_Fall Out_webPC14LDH_0051Not Until We Are Lost, Ockham's Razor, artsdepot, London, UK.

On Weather and Sell Outs

The Beast From The East has really made itself known over the last week across the country.  Here in Lincolnshire the full force, good and bad, has been felt by commuters, residents and schoolchildren alike.  The emergency services, helped by numerous citizens have done unbelievable amounts of work to keep the county moving as best as possible.

In our own small way Lincoln Drill Hall has been hit by the effects of the snow and ice.  At the time of writing we’ve had to cancel two planned theatre performances and also all planned activity over the weekend, keeping the venue closed for much of that time. Luckily most of the work can be re-scheduled for future dates.


I spoke with BBC Lincolnshire yesterday regarding the rescheduling of The Damned United, a brilliant piece of touring theatre from Red Ladder that was supposed to appear yesterday. Due to the weather, we’ve moved the event to April 10th. Melvyn Prior, the presenter hit the nail on the head when he talked about technology playing its part in helping us continue providing a service.

Our Box Office Manager was unable to get in to the office yesterday, but thanks to our fantastic box office system she was able to work from home, move all of our customers tickets to the new date and contact all of them to either offer refunds or to honour tickets for the new date.  And all from the comfort of a living room table.

LDH_The Damned United02a

We never take the cancellation or postponement of a show lightly, but have to take into consideration the safety of staff, artists and audience alike.  In the case of The Damned United, we felt more of the audience will get to see it on a new date rather than (excuse the pun) ploughing on through last night.

There were a few of my staff team, hardy souls who did make it into the venue yesterday.  The weather coincided with a big event going on sale.  We’ve been lucky enough to secure two performances from Kevin Bridges as part of the warm up for his next tour.  Warm up shows are always fascinating, the bigger name comics liking to perform in smaller venues to hone their material.  They provide a chance for venues such as the Drill Hall to host acts that we normally wouldn’t get as they’d be playing much larger spaces.

Kevin Bridges.jpg

Attendant with this though is the fact that tickets for this type of show are much more in demand.  They were due to go on sale in person and on the telephone at 10am yesterday with on line sales from midday.  The weather meant that we again had to alter our plans, encouraging people not to come out in person, but to book on line which we’d brought forward to 10am in line with phone bookings.  My skeleton staff performed brilliantly answering as many calls as they could and both these shows sold out in around 45 minutes thanks to an uninterrupted online service.  Again, technology played its part in keeping bookings moving.

And a note on sell outs.  We know that there will always be those who are disappointed that they can’t get tickets for shows such as this.  But I believe Lincoln needs more events to sell out quickly.  We need to try and instigate a shift in the booking habits of our audiences, having more shows where that ticket is so hot that you simply must have it as soon as it goes on sale.  Demand in this way is better for venues across the city rather than lots of events that plod along, with audiences knowing that it doesn’t really matter if they book in advance as there’ll be tickets on the night.  The vibrant cultural scene in the city that has grown over the last 10 to 15 years will only be helped with artists and performers knowing that performing in Lincoln is a safe bet for a sell-out show.  These events are good for audiences, good for artists, good for the growing number of venues in Lincoln and as a result, brilliant for the city.





Keeping The Joy Alive

At the beginning of January we received a fantastic letter at Lincoln Drill Hall from an audience member that contained a donation of £500.00. The donor was a Grandmother who’d been to see her daughter perform in a youth theatre production.  Before that night her previous visit to the venue had been in the post-war 1940’s when she and her friends used to come to the venue for dances, attended by RAF personnel both from here and abroad.  She told us that the Drill Hall was where she’d met her husband of 69 years. It was a very moving letter.  And why after all that time did she feel moved to donate such an amazing amount of money?  Because, as she put it…

I should hate to see that the Drill Hall had been shut down as I hope that people will continue to enjoy the venue as I did as a Teenager.  I still keep the memories close to my heart and I want to give this donation to keep the joy of the Drill Hall alive.’

Lincolnc1905sLincoln Drill Hall exterior

That pretty much sums up the purpose of our job here.  We are custodians of this venue, striving to ensure its future for the people of Lincoln. The team has delivered an incredible service in the five years I’ve been with the organisation.

We’re doing this in times of continuing uncertainty, so a year ago I convened a planning day for my senior staff and trustees.  The purpose of the day was to start to examine top to bottom what Lincoln Drill Hall offers to our community and to see where we could grow our organisation.

The main reason for doing this was the knowledge of financial challenges that lie ahead.  Despite huge cuts to their budgets from Central Government, the City of Lincoln Council had in late 2016 signalled their continued commitment to invest in Lincoln having a professional arts centre that served communities across the city.

However, their commitment couldn’t continue at the same level as previously promised.  To give an idea, when the charity was originally formed the City Council had indicated that in 2017-18 we would receive c£306k in funding.  The reality is that we received £231k. We also know that over the next three years that figure will drop considerably again. By 2021 we will receive around £185k per year, an overall reduction of nearly 50% or £140,000.00.

Our planning day looked at how we could resiliently and sustainably replace that significant annual gap.

One year on and we’ve put some real building blocks in place. We’ve completely overhauled our ticketing and seating systems, ensuring that for every event we are making the most out of every ticket sale. Audiences are now offered a wider range of ticket prices for most events depending upon where they want to sit. We are encouraging customers to book earlier to get the best seats at the best prices. We will continue our commitment to encouraging a wide breadth of audience so there are always at least 1500 seats each season priced at £12 or less. There will be seats available for many returning artists this year at cheaper rates than before.

We are seeing our earned income starting to rise. But let me give you an example of earned income for us. We have 365 seats in the venue.  Except on rare occasions the very top ticket price we charge for anything is £30.  So if we sell out an event at that price the event will bring in £11,000.00 Happy days.

Well sort of. Once you break that down and take the artist share off, as well as VAT our actual income from that event drops considerably. On average we retain between 20-25% of each ticket sold.  The majority quite rightly goes to the artist. We’d retain a net amount of around £2,000 for that event.  Still a great win, but when set against the need to raise an additional £140,000 a year suddenly, for ticketing to fill that gap alone we’re asking the people of our city and surrounding areas to sell out at least 70 shows of this type each year on top of what we already programme.

We know that earned income is one piece of the puzzle to sustaining our venue, but it can’t be the only one.  We’re having conversations with organisations in the city to widen the range of people we work with and who invest in us and our work.  We’re using a small uplift in funding from Arts Council to deliver more work out in communities, introducing our venue to more people who perhaps currently don’t think we’re ‘for them.’  We are re-framing our programming, creating space to present more entertainment, work that will resonate with our audiences and encourage them to come out more, but with the support of Arts Council England ensuring that we continue to present a breadth of work, take artistic risks and support emerging artists.  We are incredibly thankful for their continued investment.

And we continue our fundraising efforts, encouraging deeper support from people who love us, those who ‘Know The Drill’.  New memberships schemes are on offer, chances to give something back to the venue and be a deeper part of our story. Specific fundraising campaigns have been developed such as our successful Big Give Christmas Challenge which recently raised £7,500 towards our participation work with children and young people.

The Big Give Christmas Challenge provided a real springboard for the whole staff team at the venue to get behind a fundraising campaign. It created a renewed sense of purpose for all of us that we’ll build on.  We are fighting to ensure that Lincoln has the arts and entertainment centre it deserves and would love to talk to anyone inspired to help us make it happen.


The Changing Face of Box Office

Back in 1994 I graduated from University and started a career that has so far spanned 23 years in the theatre and arts sector (albeit with a brief hiatus into the world of Right to Buy housing support).

My first jobs were in sales. I spent a year as part of the large ticket sales team at Ticketmaster, working out of their base overlooking Leicester Square, followed by just over two years in the Box Office at the Prince Of Wales Theatre situated on Coventry Street right between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

As we have been planning our transformation strategies over the last six months at Lincoln Drill Hall I’ve been thinking about how the role of a Box Office Assistant has changed in the intervening years.

Back in the mid-nineties my job was a pretty passive and reactive one.  We would open the shutters at the Prince of Wales at 10am and sit there waiting for customers to either telephone or walk through the doors to buy tickets for the show.  My colleagues and I would hum along to whichever show soundtrack was playing in the foyer – during my two years at the Wales this meant Copacabana, The Hits of Elvis Presley and later Smokey Joe’s Cafe – whilst waiting for the next customer to walk through the door. As we approached showtime we’d hand out pre-booked tickets, deal with customers on the door, but the most difficult part of the job was usually dealing with the rare customer who’d booked for the wrong show, or demanded money back as Darren Day wasn’t appearing that night and ‘that’s the only reason we’ve come.’

There was never any cold calling, we didn’t have to cross sell for other shows, we didn’t have to proactively push sales for the shows in the venue at all. I think the most proactive we were during my time there was the day when someone rang the box office to say they’d planted a suspect package in the auditorium. On informing the police they suggested that it was a hoax as there hadn’t been a coded message, but that if we were worried we could always go and just have a quick check.  Which we did, spending half an hour walking up and down the rows of seats and as predicted, finding nothing.

Fast forward to today and the role has changed.  Our Box Office team need to be real sales people.  The Drill Hall has around 300 shows a year that we’re looking to sell tickets for.  There is real pressure on the organisation to dramatically increase our earned programme income so our sales staff has responsibility to cross sell across a range of events, encourage customers to book for that one other show they perhaps didn’t know they wanted a ticket for, to demonstrate passion and knowledge on a wide range of performances.

And it doesn’t end there.  Ticket sales are only part of the answer.  As a registered charity part of our commitment is to offer affordability for as wide a range of people as possible.  Fundraising plays an integral part in allowing us to do that.  So our Box Office team also needs to be skilled to solicit donations on top of ticket bookings, to encourage customers to become a Friend or member of the Drill Hall to go that extra mile and support us philanthropically as well as through purchases.  It’s a particular skill and not something that was part of my work all those years ago. We’ve also got a small but perfectly formed range of merchandise available and linked to our productions.  Another element for our team to consider during any transaction.

In any venue across the land the Box Office staff are often the first person a customer sees.  They are the frontline.  That role has changed immensely since I started out. Multiple skills in sales, diplomacy and communication are needed alongside a passion for the venue and what we’re trying to achieve. I salute all of those people up and down the land who undertake the role and especially my own team at the Drill Hall.  It’s no easy task, but it’s vital to our sustainability.

As a New Season Looms…

Perhaps the most anticipated moments in the cycle of an arts venue occur at the point when a new season is announced.  For us at Lincoln Drill Hall that has become a more fluid proposition in recent years.

As we continue to widen the range of arts and entertainment that we offer, we find ourselves dealing with more and more promoters wanting ever varying dates for their work, artist or company to go on sale.  So is there any true date for us to announce when a season is available?

Our full autumn season, covering events from September to Christmas went on sale to Friends of Lincoln Drill Hall two weeks ago on the 3 July.  It went on public sale on the 10 July and this on sale was backed up by our season listings brochure arriving at the beginning of this week.  In reality though, events in this season have been going on sale throughout the year.

Jack and The Beanstalk, our stunning 10th anniversary pantomime has been on sale since Beauty and The Beast graced our stage at the end of 2016. We have Russell Watson performing with us in September. The deal to bring him to Lincoln was struck in May and an immediate on sale requested.  Unsurprisingly the concert sold out in just a couple of days, so for those who’ve waited for the brochure to drop through their letterbox – they’ve missed out.

A strong programme of comedy through the autumn, featuring Phill Jupitus, Andy Parsons, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Thomas, Jason Byrne and Tom Stade has been selling well for weeks now.  The same is true of much of our music programme, Red Hot Chilli Pipers and Lady Sings The Blues have been selling since the spring.

There is a range of work though, that didn’t go on sale though until the official season launch date, including amazing theatre like Sherlock Holmes and the Crimson Cobbles or hilarious (and much recommended) new musical theatre How To Win Against History, but it’s no longer possible in a modern and fast moving arts environment to save everything for one huge launch.

It also doesn’t help us to maximise audiences for that extensive range of work as we diversify how we market the programme and encourage new and existing audiences to buy their tickets.

For instance, one factor to consider in this is how we communicate with people about what we do.  Those who receive our monthly email newsletter were found out about Russell Watson first and encouraged to sign up to our Friends membership scheme, giving them priority booking for their valued support.  The comedy programme mentioned above was offered first to those customers who have regularly attended our other comedy – a reward if you will for supporting that art form with us, rather than simply turning out for the biggest names.

Becoming more involved with our online and website communications is naturally becoming a bigger part of our strategy and more regularly the way that we can dynamically communicate about new work on offer.  For example, an event in the spring that had been in our brochure for months, but hadn’t sold many tickets suddenly saw sales jump by around 180 tickets after a simple on line communication via our Facebook page.

As we move forward there’ll be more strategy in this area. Building the incentives for customers to visit more often, to join us as members and friends will become an integral part of our sales and marketing strategies. The earlier you book for events the better the ticket price you could secure.  There’ll still be print and brochures as we know that audiences still like this communication, but it is static and needs to work for long periods so there’ll be changes coming in how that looks and how often we produce printed materials.

Our audiences and artists are central to our existence, and putting in place plans to ensure we serve both to the best of our ability will be coming into action over the coming months.  It’s a fast-moving process, that will change our entire approach to the work we programme.  Sign up to our newsletter, or become a Member. Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram. Join us on this exciting journey.  It should be an amazing ride.