BLOG 11th April 2024

It's on the House: Free events and Complimentary Tickets in NI Arts and Culture

How many of the tickets for arts and culture events in Northern Ireland are free? Figures from our Foundations Report have offered some fascinating insights. 12% of events from our 25 participating organisations from March 2022 to March 2023 had no charge for entry.

During this time, a massive 126,281 complimentary tickets were distributed, representing 8% of the total number of tickets sold in Northern Ireland. This is a conservative estimate – some organisations probably give complimentary access on a more casual basis - but the number is still shockingly high. 10% of all tickets in Belfast during this period were complimentary.

The overall average ticket yield in NI sits at £14 - but when we exclude the aforementioned free events, it increases to £15. If we also exclude complimentary tickets, it jumps to £17. The difference is even starker in Belfast, where it jumps from £19, to £21 (excluding free events), to £24 (when excluding both free events and complimentary tickets). Plus, considering the number we have for complimentary tickets is likely lower than the actual figure, the true impact of complimentary tickets on NI ticket yields is probably even more drastic. Our reporting features data from just 25 NI organisations – data from other arts and culture organisations in NI could make those jumps in ticket yield even more significant.

So, what is it that prompts organisations to host free events and give away free tickets? Are there benefits to be gained from giving away your hard - and often expensive - work for free?

There’s revenue up for grabs from ancillary spending of course – a guest might not have spent anything on their ticket, but still might buy food or drinks in the venue. We know from our IMPACT survey findings that 84% of audiences spend additional money on food or drinks when engaging in arts of culture, and 60% of that cohort spent that money in the venue. Giving out complimentary tickets to influential people like critics or journalists can help with the prestige of your event and hosting competitions for free tickets is a fantastic way to generate more online buzz in the leadup to your event. There’s also the atmosphere of it all – having a packed-out room creates an undeniable buzz among the audience, and having free tickets available means fewer people are kept from attending by the cost of a ticket. But can these instances account for more than 120k complimentary tickets in NI last year alone?

Access is a key motivation for organisations who choose to hold their event free of charge. In theory, making your event free removes a financial barrier, making it easier for anyone who wants to attend to be there. If everyone interested in attending can get there for free, there’s no reason for them not to turn up, right? Not necessarily. Our CEO Fiona has already written about whether free = accessible when it comes to tickets. Plus, there are many other barriers (financial and otherwise) besides ticket costs that might deter people, especially families, from attending. You can read more about this in Sarah McAvera’s guest blog on free events and families. The bottom line when it comes to free events? It’s not as straightforward as ‘make it free and they will come.’

Our Foundations data indicates Northern Ireland falls into line with this trend – paid performances hit an average capacity of 63%, with free performances coming in 10% lower. This difference is most pronounced when we look at festivals, where free events hit an average of 49% capacity, versus paid-events' average capacity of 68% - a whopping 19% difference. If cost is the main barrier, shouldn’t free festival events be even busier than their pay-in counterparts?

No-show rates for free events can shoot as high as 50%, while rates at paid events can be as low as 10% according to Eventbrite. A lot of research attributes the higher attendance rates of paid events to their perceived value to ticket-buyers. According to Eventbrite, when you charge even a small fee for an event, customers perceive added value, and are more likely to turn up. ‘This higher perceived value (how much money they think an event is worth) means they are more likely they are to show up. In fact, studies have shown that even charging $0.99 for premium experience can increase the perceived value of your free tickets.’ In essence, if tickets for an event are free, ticketholders are less likely to show up on the day, even if they’ve registered to attend.

In a sector hit hard by mounting financial pressure, can we afford to take this hit to our income? How does your organisation line up with the NI average when it comes to free events and complimentary tickets? What are your reasons for offering them? Let us know and help us build our picture of ticketing in Northern Ireland.

Eve Murtagh

Sector Programme Coordinator

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