What I learned about customer retention from a cruise line.

One of the greatest challenges of building an audience for Broadway shows is that our experience pretty much stays the same, so it’s hard to get people to come back time and time again.  We’re not a restaurant where you can try a different dish, or a vacation resort where every day is different.  Other than casting, most shows don’t want deviate too much from opening night.  (Books and movies have it even harder than we do, because those physically can’t change . . . however in both cases, if you buy them, you don’t have to buy them again, unlike a theater ticket)

But non-profit and regional theaters around the country and around the world are another story.  There’s a lot to be learned about customer retention, and not only getting them to come back, but getting them to come back more often.

Our annual Davenport Theatrical retreat was this past weekend, and this year the team and I took a weekend cruise to the Bahamas.  It was a lot of fun (if you’re an Artistic Director or the head of any business, I strongly suggest retreats like this for team building and to focus on the upcoming year, and for just plain fun).  So, in the middle of our meetings, the buffets, and yes, one solitary trust fall for the one employee who had never done one, I also picked up a few tips on how to keep your customers from sailing away.

The cruise industry spends a lot of their dollars on trying to get you to be a repeater.  Here are a few ways that they do it, that can be adapted to what we all do:

1.  The Power of the Photo

Before you even get on the boat, the ship’s photographer is taking your picture.  And the picture of every single guy & gal that walks up the gangplank.  When you eat dinner?  The photographer is there.  At the pool?  Guess who?  When you’re drunk and stumbling around the deck . . . flash!  Photos are priceless marketing tools, because they are a physical representation of a personal emotional experience.  You literally see yourself in the photo . . . which means it’s not a long leap to see yourself having that same experience again.

Encourage your patrons to have their photos taken and yes, even to take photos (at appropriate times), as much as possible.

2.  Future Cruise Consultant

This was one of my faves.  There are a couple of desks in the center of the ship that are staffed by two sweet salespeople.  Their job? To get you to buy your next cruise, while you’re still experiencing the one you’re on!  Why does this work?  The further you get away from an experience, the harder it is to remember how much fun it was.  If you’re having an awesome time, and someone promises you another one, and when you book now you can save $$$, guess what you’re more inclined to do?

Box offices should remain open as long as possible.  And if they can’t, drop someone in the lobby selling subscriptions or your next show.

3.  Survey Says?

I was reminded to fill out my end-of-cruise “satisfaction survey” at least ten times before I disembarked.  Feedback is almost as important as lifeboats to the cruise industry.  They are constantly updating and changing their systems and their amenities based on what their customers want.

Don’t let an audience member go out the door without asking them their opinion.  And be diligent in getting responses. It’s the audience member that doesn’t want to fill out the survey that is the one you really, really want.

4.  Purchasing made simple.

If you’ve been a cruise then you know you carry around one of these charge cards that everything goes on, from your shore excursions to your fruity-umbrella drinks to casino chips.  When buying stuff is simple, more people will do it.

What is your ticketing system like?  How quickly can you process an order?  How does your box office treat your patrons?  Painless purchasing is a must, especially for higher price items like theater tickets.

5.  They own an actual island.

I can’t imagine what the staff meeting was like 30 years ago when someone at Royal Carribean said, “I’m sick of port fees and other vendors on shore making money off us.  Why don’t we buy an island?”  I’d bet money that most of the people in the room thought guy or girl was bat-guano crazy.  This kind of big thinking created a whole new revenue stream for the cruise companies, and also keeps their customers inside their walls, giving them more marketing opportunities.

Whenever one of my staff members has a crazy idea, we preface it with . . . “I wanna buy an island!” . . . to remind us that the wackiest ideas may be the best.  Encourage your people to buy lots of islands.


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.