The Met recently changed its rush ticket policy for the SECOND time this season. The important thing to remember is that there are still these FABULOUS day-of-the-performance tickets available for only $25. The change was to get rid of an online lottery for rush tickets. The lottery was introduced in September to replace a physical line that would form daily to get these tickets from the box office. The lottery, however, proved to be unpopular, and based on “audience feedback” the Met is now selling these seats online on a first come, first served basis. In addition, there are other “cheap” seats scattered around the Met – these include $25 orchestra standing room places, $25 “partial view” seats in the balcony and family circle, and $30-$50 (depending on the night and the show) “full view” seats in the family circle section.
That’s a lot of very reasonably priced opera tickets. So what am I complaining about?
Not complaining. Offering constructive criticism.
Here’s the deal. I believe the Met could do even better at making the opera more accessible to New Yorkers (and tourists) of modest means – and more popular. There’s another tweak they could make that would not cost them money, and could garner good press and good will.
Let’s call it the Opera Equity Program. Here’s how it would work:
Presently, there is a $2.50 “facility fee” added to every ticket except for the rush tickets. There is also a $7.50 “administrative charge” added to all tickets, again except rush and subscriptions. This means that if you buy a $17 family circle standing room ticket – standing in the very back of the highest level of the house, you will pay the same additional $10 as someone who purchased a $450 ticket in the front row center of the orchestra. You will be paying more than a 50% surcharge while the high end ticket holder will be paying slightly more than 2%.
That doesn’t seem fair. Here’s another example: If a couple of working stiffs buy two distant but full view seats in the front of family circle for $40, their bill will not be $80, but $100 with the fees. That’s more than 20% in fees. But if the same working stiffs decided to take a chance on rush tickets, they’d only pay $50 total for two orchestra seats, and save $50, making it completely worth it NOT to buy the family circle seats in advance but to take a chance on rush, and try again if they don’t get lucky. However, if you could somehow reduce the cost of those family circle tickets and bring them a little closer to the rush price, they might decide it was worth paying an extra $10-$15 a ticket.
So my suggestion is simple. First, combine the two fees for simplicity and transparency. Set the surcharge at no more than 10% of the ticket price. That 10% is just a suggestion, but I think a reasonable one. That means someone paying for a $25 seat would expect to pay $27.50 with the service charge. Would people buying $250 tickets pay $25? Not necessarily. I’m imagining a system where the fee gets capped at a certain point. If that point was at say $10 on all tickets costing up to $250, then most people would not see any change at all on their ticket price. For tickets over $250, the cap might be slightly higher. Let’s say $15. That would still mean that the total amount in fees would still be a very low percentage of those high-end ticket prices.
I would also advocate adding the fee to the rush tickets. That might not prove very popular as those seats just got raised from $20 to $25 on weeknights, but even at $27.50 they’d still be a bargain and they’d still be reasonable. Both rush tickets and standing room are available day of the performance with standing room on sale a couple of hours before rush. Why should someone buying a $25 standing room place pay more in fees than someone buying a $25 rush ticket for a seat in front of standing room?
Would the Met lose money?
Not if they tweaked it right. I can’t run the numbers because I don’t know the number of seats available at each price, and those number change with dynamic pricing. However, most seats are in the $100-$245 range and wouldn’t be affected by the service fee change. If you could balance out the high-end ticket holders paying a little more and the low end ticket-holders paying a little less, you could tweak it till the average fee was close to $10. The additional fees from the rush tickets, while not very significant, would help. Maybe the initial cap would need to be $11 rather than $10, or the higher-end fee would start at $225 rather than $250, but basically balancing it out would not be difficult, and the increase for high-enders would not be significant.
Would the Met gain money?
I believe the Met would gain money. I am extrapolating from my own behavior as a consumer, and further research – surveys, focus groups, etc might be required, but I don’t think I’m an outlier.
As a consumer, if I really don’t want to miss a particular opera, I may shell out for “good” tickets well in advance, but most of the time I wait till near the last minute. If my choice is to take a chance on $25 rush seats in the orchestra or two $45 family circle seats AND I know those family circle seats will actually cost $55 each with fees, then I’m probably going to go for rush, and if I can’t get the rush on the night I tried for, I’ll keep trying. Rush seats usually sell out because they are a bargain, because if it’s a popular opera they may well be among the best seats available at any price, and because a lot of people (including tourists) do make “last minute” plans. HOWEVER, if there were no difference in the cost of rush seats versus standing room, and I noticed a “first row” standing room seat on sale before the rush tickets were available, I might go for standing room instead, or if I noticed a good family circle seat still open, even if the price was a little more than for rush, I might go for that – but not if it would cost almost twice as much because of the fees. I think other people are like me in this. Therefore, I believe more people would buy low-end tickets both before the rush tickets went on sale AND after they sold out if they were closer in price to rush tickets and didn’t have significant added fees. If people got locked out of rush on a particular night, but there were decent seats available for only $10-$20 more, then they would be more likely to buy those tickets rather than risk getting locked out again. Even now with the fees, if the opera is popular, the family circle is often the first section to sell out, and rush seats tend to sell out even for less popular operas. Everyone loves a bargain. More people go to the opera more often when the prices are low.
This is great way to lower the price of the low end seats, without changing anything in the middle, and only very slightly raising the high end prices.
Making tickets more affordable for more people doesn’t dumb down opera. It doesn’t make it less culturally relevant. It simply allows more people access to culture. It broadens the audience, which the Met needs to do.
I am aware that even if the Met sold more tickets, ticket sales alone won’t close its deficits, but full houses and more of a sense of ownership by more people will bring in more donations, including more corporate sponsorships. If there is a perception that the Met is trying to make the opera more accessible to more people, it becomes easier to make a case for more government grants. Everybody loves a winner – especially funders.