The Top 4 Challenges Facing Arts and Cultural Organizations

Guest post by Jonathon Leeke, Product Manager at Blackbaud.


As a software product manager, the best part of my job is meeting with customers to understand how they manage their nonprofit, which helps inform our direction for new development.  Through that process I’ve seen how some of the best organizations in the business run their operations, interact with their patrons, and create rich programming and exhibits that keep them coming back.  I’ve also heard some interesting challenges along the way, so here are a few things to consider as you form your programming and ticketing strategies for 2014.

Note: I use the term “patron” and “visitor” interchangeably in this post.

The top 4 challenges in modern era guest services

1. Pulling your patrons up the technology curve

One challenge I hear frequently is how to keep up with technology trends without leaving less-savvy demographics behind.  How do you make your website easy to navigate?  Can everyone handle printing eTickets?  Can you make a move to email-only communications?  And here’s another twist – what about those volunteers who aren’t quite sure how to operate the new POS screen?  Sure, you get it, but maybe you’re just above average!?

The solution is one that challenges software developers as well.  Our answer?  The path from start to finish has to meet the most basic of users, but advanced options have to be nearby and easily discoverable.  Then we monitor and measure how successful users are with completing the task.  For you, this could mean segmenting your communication methods, keeping traditional print options for registration or membership signup in-tact.  Keep pushing the envelope on mobile and social, but don’t forget about granny!

2. Simplicity versus security

Even if you have a system that lets members login to get discounts or view special information, it can be a barrier that some patrons are not willing to go through.  When selling tickets, many organizations still offer prices for members and non-members where patrons can self-select.  This poses a risk for having to either monitor purchases to verify their status or potentially losing out on additional revenue.  The alternative of forcing a login means some members will be frustrated at not getting their discount and ultimately may be dissatisfied with their experience.  Preregistering patrons as users and sending them a login can be helpful, but creating a seamless online member experience is the holy grail.

3. The front desk data collection conundrum

You really need zip codes to apply for that grant, but you realize this is an inconvenience for both ticket sellers and patrons.  Guest books are hit or miss.  You’d love to have more email addresses for your appeal but that “declined to respond” button is so easy to click!

Many organizations have realized that online sales can offset this problem.  Patrons expect they’ll need to enter much of this information to complete a sale and you’ve freed up one more person from standing in line.  So, do whatever you can to push more sales to this channel.  To supplement, create opportunities in your space for patrons to tell you more about themselves with things like interactive exhibits.  My kids love to print helmet stickers at the local fire museum and I’m inclined to add my email address to get it sent to my inbox for a record of our visit.  Be creative, and visitors will appreciate they were able to arrive without answering awkward questions at the front desk.

4. The capacity problem

If you’re fortunate enough to have a strong visitor base or be in a tourist location with heavy traffic, you’ve no doubt struggled with how to avoid turning away new guests or making sure members can get in without waiting.  I’ve seen a number of strategies, from using systems with block holds for members to holding wrist bands for unsold tickets that determine how many kids to let in.  Should you cap online sales to make sure walk-up patrons can get in?  What’s the right limit to set?

The most important tool in your belt here is data.  Analyze the seasonality, day of the week, growth rates, and patron segments to understand how many visitors you expect.  Then determine what your risk tolerance is on overbooking (airlines have this nailed) and who you’d be most okay with disappointing.  Would you rather a regular attendee buying online to be forced to pick a later time or force a visitor to grab breakfast before they can get in?  Get informed first, then put yourself in a patron’s shoes and think about your priorities.

You’ll have many other challenges on your list, but this is a good start to get you thinking about how to improve the experience for your patrons and grow your organization.

Have you encountered and of these problems? I’d love to hear in the comments below.