CASE STUDY 14th September 2022

Pay What You Want at Belfast Book Festival

The Belfast Book Festival (BBF) started in 2010 and has been a staple of the summertime arts programming of Belfast since. Like everywhere else, BBF had to shut its doors during 2020. In 2021, the festival was online-only and heavily reduced due to the pandemic. This year, they decided that the return of the in-person festival could signal something different. With refocused priorities post-restriction, The Crescent decided to trial a Pay What You Want (PWYW) scheme for the non-workshop events of the festival. What was offered was a sliding scale of £0, £2, £5, £7, £10, £15, and £25 tickets with the option of voluntary donation on top.


The Crescent is re-establishing itself after the arts have experienced collective turmoil over the past few years. They want to be place-driven, and base what they can on their mission and values. A locality which can hold all sorts of things. A hub. PWYW meant that there was the possibility of enticing new kinds of people to join the building and each other, and a chance for old friends to participate whether they’d had a change in financial circumstances or not. They wanted to get the identity of the building across - not just by saying that you’re welcome, but by putting in the work to establish it. BBF was the chosen part of The Crescent’s yearly programming to host this, as it isn’t their top revenue generator, and a festival has a limited run of days in which it operates. This meant PWYW didn’t bleed into other seasonal events, in case it didn’t have the results that The Crescent were hoping for.

The design of the scheme was to be as intuitive to The Crescent as possible. They decided that they wanted all events to be in-house this year, which helped them cut down on venue hire costs. This meant if audiences attended once, they knew where they were going again. This also made travel arrangements for artists much easier. They also wanted people to associate BBF with The Crescent more instinctively: when someone thinks of the Book Festival, they should think of The Crescent. PWYW was part of making The Crescent a more welcoming and understanding space overall.

The pandemic has been rearranging the arts landscape for years now. Now, we can see the cost-of-living crisis having a similar all-encompassing effect on the way we live. The overlap of these life-changing circumstances (and an acknowledgement that we will continue to see the development and impacts of these crises for years to come) meant that it was time to try something new. BBF didn’t want to try and replicate the last decade of their festivals as much as they could. Whilst this may have been a measure of success for some organisations, BBF wanted to take action that reflected the difference between the last decade and now, with an eye on how the arts can continue to respond to the circumstances of audiences in the future. This meant reading up, figuring out what would be directly impactful to people, and taking a deep breath as they implemented it.

PWYW is a gamble. A calculated risk. BBF decided their workshop events would still have an assigned value, since there were non-negotiable elements to these that couldn’t be worked around. This could include fees for facilitators, workshop materials, or running costs. However, talks, launches, group conversations, and performances, had a new potential about them. BBF wanted to use events with more flexible elements to experiment with something radical and accommodating.

How did it go?

By being a leading force of PWYW in Belfast - along with other organisations such as Outburst Queer Arts Festival – The Crescent generated talk and promotion for themselves without having to put this in place using their funding. With articles in BBC News Online, Belfast Telegraph, Belfast Live, and mentions in The Irish Times and on radio, BBF seemed to generate its own conversation simply based on its values. Recently, a colleague of mine was conducting interviews with organisations around NI who all signalled their interest in the scheme and how it had been carried out. They all knew about PWYW at the BBF.

Before we go into detail: these findings are based on quantitative data. This is deeply helpful, but does mean we’re missing out on anecdotal research provided by focus groups and audience conversations. Keep in mind that these results are specific to The Crescent may not be reflected in your organisation. Assessing if PWYW is right for you means you need to look at your unique programming and operations. Arranging time with potential audiences to assess whether this would be something that they are interested in may be a wise move for organisations considering PWYW.

So, what did we learn about the PWYW scheme at BBF?

Let’s begin with a question at the forefront of any organisation’s mind: how was the revenue?

To find out, we spent some time looking at The Crescent's Ticketsolve.

With BBF, there were three potential pricing options at play. It is worth saying that all predicted revenue from each pricing strategy was down from the last in-person festival. Let’s have a look at the strategies and what they mean:

  • The first was PWYW, as mentioned before.
  • The second was the typical pay-per-artist, where the cost of the ticket is dependent on the perceived value of the event by the venue.
  • The third pricing strategy was that of a flat rate for all events at a chosen price – The Crescent chose £7 as the standard ticket price, with some events priced at £0, and some ‘big’ events at higher prices, depending on their nature.

Going into the three strategies and their revenue, let’s first discuss the caveats of this data:

  • The first is that we can only show the predicted pricing based on the numbers of audiences who made up the BBF this year, since audiences now operate differently from pre-pandemic times. So, the predicted revenue is based on the audience of PWYW.
  • There could be a high chance that there would be a change in the attendance numbers if the pricing option was changed.
  • It also must be said, since we did not have a percentage of concession tickets this year, that all of these assumed tickets were calculated at full price rather than concession price, which would drive revenue down.

The pricing strategy findings were as follows:

Out of the three strategies, pay-per-artist would have the highest estimated revenue. The flat rate model was only marginally more profitable than PWYW, by an amount which essentially comparable to PWYW. It is also worth mentioning that PWYW allowed some of the events priced at £0 by the flat rate model to garner more revenue than they otherwise would have – hundreds of pounds in some cases. Even for the highest revenue-generating event for BBF, a talk by Scottish crime author Ian Rankin, made more money in the PWYW model than through the predicted flat rate. These are not insignificant findings. Allowing your audiences the freedom to pay brings good results.

So, what kind of tickets did people buy?

24% of tickets booked at BBF this year were free tickets. That means the vast majority of people chose to pay for tickets. 34% of people booked tickets at the ‘standard’ price of £7 – this generated nearly half the revenue of BBF. With percentages of total audience on the left axis, and ticket pricing on the bottom axis, we can see how the audience of the BBF chose to book their tickets here:

Belfast Book Festival tickets vs revenue

Aside from ticketing, what other results did we find?

Well, geographical reach, visiting count, and donations all increased. Customers for the book festival came from all over Belfast, and travelled from other places in NI, the Republic, the UK, and as far thrown as the US and Canada. The rate of no-shows was about the same as usual pricing schemes, around 10%. A higher percentage of customers visited more than one event (28%), comparatively to past festivals, as seen below:

Belfast Book Festival Visiting Count

The revenue from donations was much higher – up 53% from 2019 – and customers were much more likely to donate with their orders.

Belfast Book Festival Donations

While audience numbers overall were down, BBF matched the same percentage of new audiences that they had in 2019 - 51%. Whilst an improvement on numbers is always a hope in trials, with the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis changing so many peoples’ lives and attendance habits, this is still an impressive number. Crucially, new audiences participated in PWYW and may associate that with BBF.

PWYW allowed BBF to see what their audiences valued and were willing to pay more for. It created a way to see average yields of ticket prices via genres and events, so that they can see what is more and less popular. This may help them restructure their ticketing and pricing for next time.

There were a few hiccups and learnings, as there was with anything. A few people were confused by the nature of PWYW and thought they could show up to events without booking. A few others just wanted to be told what to pay. Clear communications in physical and digital promotion materials for trials like this are essential.

How do we measure success?

Does revenue determine success? When we are having to refocus our aims to accommodate a cost-of-living crisis, audiences out of the habit of visiting, and arts spaces are trying to get people through the door, it may be time to change your outlook on what success looks like.

If The Crescent wanted to act as more of a hub, where people don’t feel they need to pay to participate, they were successful.

If The Crescent wanted to open up the arts to further audiences and reach new places, they were successful.

If The Crescent wanted to try something experimental post-Covid restrictions, they were successful.

If they wanted to generate talk, they were successful.

A story that returned to us time and time again from a few staff members who had worked the festival was that of a homeless man who was able to return to what he called his ‘old’ way of living. He attended events, participated in talks, and felt welcomed by staff. He explicitly stated that without PWYW, he would never have had the opportunity to attend the Book Festival. These realities affirm the importance of venues being willing to try something new. People need you, and they need places to go. Profit does not need to be your driver. As Sheelagh, the customer services manager at The Crescent says: “We’re not here to make a fortune. We’re here to make a difference”.

One thing that came up often when talking about the BBF with staff who worked it was that the atmosphere was different. It was loose, neighbourly, open. People weren’t concerned about what the person sitting next to them had paid, just that they could be there.

How have others done it?

Every place is unique, and faces its own set of challenges. Pay What You Want is just one pricing scheme which allows venues to engage their audiences in this way. Let’s look at a few examples of how different arts institutions have fared:

  • Scottish Queer International Film Festival. SQUIFF introduced a sliding scale to their festival for customers to choose pricing based on their circumstances. The sliding scale was accompanied by examples of the kinds of circumstances that may lead you to buy a particular ticket price. Their main goal with this was accessibility. Returning audience engagement rose significantly, and audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive overall. Here is an case study of the scheme, and here is their sliding scale.
  • ARC. The ARC arts centre in Stockton, England, introduced a six-month scheme of PWYW and it was so successful they ran it again. Their audience numbers rose by 58%, with 15% of their customers attending the theatre for the first time. Here is a BBC article going over it, as well as other PWYW schemes.
  • Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Outburst began MORE IF/LESS IF as a way to ‘pay it forward’ to those who were unable to purchase tickets at full price. This involves a set price for a ticket, allowing people who can to pay more so that a ticket can go to someone else. They have a cap on ‘less if’ tickets at 10% so that box office targets can still be met, but the 10% is flexible. You can read about how it went here. Namely, it opened doors for new segments of audiences, changed the tone of the festival for the better, and deepened pre-existing relationships.
  • Slung Low Theatre Company. Slung Low have been running a Pay What You Decide scheme for over two years. This allows audiences to pay for events upon exit, deciding its value or what they can pay for it after they’ve seen it. Their average donation per performance is £7.50. They also extend their policy to the hiring of their equipment. You can read about the ethos of Slung Low on their website.
  • Edinburgh Book Festival. This year, the Edinburgh Book Festival have been running a hybrid scheme of PWYW for livestream events, and a set price for in-person events. They hoped to open up access to those who cannot attend in person for whatever reason. Information is still coming out about this, but it points to an arts world in which PWYW schemes are more commonplace.

How do you do it?

  • Firstly, ARC have a helpful toolkit (this link also has two further articles on the subject) as an explainer for different kinds of ‘Pay What You’ schemes – have a look and see which might be most appealing to you.
  • The main concern that organisations may have in terms of the material benefits of PWYW is cost. We are having to pay more than ever in recent memory for running costs, so how does potential lost revenue fit into this? PWYW can work as a hybrid scheme with other programming and events. If there are fixed costs for operations, you can offer a sliding scale of your own choosing.
  • Decide what your goals are as an organisation. PWYW allows you to communicate generosity and flexibility to your audience at a time when people may be struggling. See if this is a way you can offer people more and entice them to visit.
  • You can offer tickets at different pricing and communicate how that pricing relates to the venue. There are examples of organisations who place their pricing next to explanations of what that means to help visitors understand running costs. This could be something such as a £10 ticket on offer with a note saying what £10 pays for in your operational costs: petrol for equipment transport, or part of an hourly wage. Accidental Theatre have a membership page where they highlight what the cost of each membership goes toward.
  • Remind people to donate. Recently, I was visiting Portico in Portaferry where they had a sign at the door explaining their £40,000 yearly running costs and how donations help towards that. Transparency with your audience, so that they understand the time, effort, and expense of cultural centres, can help people visualise what they may be able to pay for in a donation.
  • Make sure your comms plan is robust, clear, non-judgemental, and friendly. Outburst, mentioned above, have a hashtag and phrase ‘MORE IF/LESS IF’ for people to look up and find out about for themselves, rather than a generic PWYW phrase. This means if people are curious, they can look up information themselves and book with confidence. It also means that those who are perhaps shy or prone to embarrassment don’t need to make themselves uncomfortable in-person if they’re not quite in-the-know about PWYW.
  • Make sure your box-office staff are understanding and filled-in. A clear phrase to recall to those who may be curious about the pricing – as well as having a ‘mean’ price to default to if the visitor doesn’t want to have to think about pricing – can be helpful for those who need more explanation. Be patient and listen.
  • Host chats with audiences, returning and potential, to see if they would be interested in a scheme like this and why. Knowing your audience more fully is always going to help you take risks.

There is no magic to repair what the arts sector is experiencing. Pay What You Want may not be able to grasp the problem at the root, but it does allow you to expand and experiment in a way that reaches out to your potential audiences and help them continue to build their relationship with the arts.

If you're thinking of creating your own Pay What You Want scheme and you'd like to chat it through, email Sarah to book one of our audience appointments.

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