The halls are open again, the QR codes have been abolished, but where is the public?

A sold-out hall and a standing ovation at Parkstad Limburg Theaters in Heerlen.Picture Parkstad Limburg Theaters

A few weeks ago, a simple addition aroused festive expectations in Dutch theaters and concert halls. Liberation from the corona measures plus a culturally hungry audience means full house. Things went differently. Just before the abolition of QR codes and other corona measures on March 23, ticket sales did not want to pick up speed. Even now that social life is picking up speed, visitor numbers are painfully backward compared to 2019, the last ‘normal’ cultural year.

Cheering reviews, extra mention: it does not seem to help much. Musicians, dancers and actors accustomed to full halls regularly watch large open spaces in the rows of seats from the stage. This is less true for cabaret, pop music and top artists like the Concertgebouw Orchestra. But seen across the stage, the sounds of the hall occupation falling in the spectrum from ‘very moderate’ to ‘disaster’.

‘If you set ticket sales at 100 percent before the pandemic, it’s now 60 percent on average,’ says Siebe Weide of the Association of Theater and Concertgebouw Directors (VSCD). Bas Schoonderwoerd, who as director of Parkstad Limburg Theaters directs six theaters in Heerlen and Kerkrade, saw that tickets for the international dance festival Schrittmacher – which runs until the end of this week – had not yet been sold for half. Other years it was ‘rammed’, from day one.

Postcorona hall fear

So there does not appear to be any cultural overtaking so far. Does the Dutch public suffer from post-corona hall fear? It’s a combination of factors, says Schoonderwoerd. The crucial thing is that the PR machine could not be turned up until late. The so called customer journeythe process from briefing on a show to buying a ticket was lacking this season.

“Usually you start with your publicity months in advance, after a while such a performance will reach potential visitors,” says Schoonderwoerd. Now we did not know three weeks in advance how the coronary restrictions would go – if and how the performances would continue. In a normal year, 40 percent of tickets are sold at the start of the season. There were no sales stops this time, and we will not reach that either. ‘

Do not forget that even though the pandemic may have disappeared from the front pages, it is certainly not over, he says. “There is a fairly large group of vulnerable people who do not yet dare to sit in a full theater or concert hall, with a view to possible pollution.” At school performances, one hour is canceled regularly because a teacher or the whole class is in quarantine.

Semi-cast at home

Businesses are also affected by covid infections, says Siebe Weide. Suddenly, half of the performers are home, and the show has to be canceled. In return, there is catch-up performance. They were on the program before the final lockdown took effect. Now those performances suddenly have to be pushed into the ‘normal’ program, so that in a week there can suddenly be three concerts in the same hall instead of one. ‘We are in the start-up phase, a difficult time.’

Or would the public prioritize other activities – unlimited catering visits, friends, family? Marlies Oele from the Dutch Association for the Performing Arts (NAPK) cites a study recently conducted on behalf of the National Theater Fund. 1100 people were asked about their theater and concert visits. 65 percent seemed to regularly attend a performance at normal times. ‘Half of that group said they walked less frequently during this period.’

The reasons for this are different from age group. Young people aged 18 to 34 do not always find the education attractive. ‘It is, after all, the group that often books at the last minute. They now say they are definitely planning to go more often. That group also says that they have a greater need for togetherness’, says Marlies Oele. ‘We can respond to that, for example, with campaigns and activities as after-parties.’

Hard to plan

The middle group (35 to 55 years old) says it is more difficult to visit theaters and concerts to fit into the busy schedule. ‘It was long uncertain whether a performance or concert would take place,’ says Oele, ‘then it’s hard to plan.’ The oldest group mainly argues that there are still health risks associated with being all in one room.

Yet no one believes that the pandemic will make the hunger for culture disappear. Schoonderwoerd sees a catch-up movement emerge. ‘We sold 3,500 tickets in week 12 this year against 2,500 in the same period in 2019. These empty seats are primarily due to loss of pre-sale.’

‘This is temporary,’ declares Siebe Weide of VSCD. ‘It may take a while before the public is completely back. Other factors also play a role here, such as how inflation develops. People are sometimes more careful about their expenses. But in the long run, nothing serious seems to be happening. It’s still a bit of a quest for everyone.

And the museums?

Before the corona crisis, the 450 Dutch museums received 33 million visitors a year, of which 10 million were foreign tourists. The latter group has not yet returned, and many domestic audiences also stay home out of caution, according to the Museums Association. Museum Week runs until Sunday, a campaign from the museum industry to entice the public to visit the museum with special activities.

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