Tickets sell fast as Arts Festival finds builds its audience

By Violet Sun   

With the curtain ready to go up on its last performance, theatregoers are visiting the box office at Hong Kong City Hall in the hope of getting a last-minute ticket for the play The Amahs. They’re out of luck – the performance is sold out. And it’s a familiar story for the year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, which is about half-way through its month-long run.

The festival closed last week, with 95 per cent of tickets sold to 111,700 audiences in 137 performances. According to the festival’s marketing director, Katy Cheng, tickets have been selling fast since they went on sale online in October, with some 60 per cent sold before the festival began at the end of last month.

A number of shows were sold out almost as soon as they went on sale, such as Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden, Pink Martini, Pride and Prejudice, and the Bolshoi Ballet. And while many of the big hits were from overseas, local productions have also found an audience. For The Amahs, groups of people in their 80s and even their 90s came to see a story that closely reflected their own history. Fight Night, presented by Ontroerend Goed & The Border Project, reflects on politics and the relationship between the individual and society in a way relevant to what is happening in Hong Kong.

“The audience needs to be nurtured but also stimulated,” says Cheng, who has been involved in the marketing of the festival for more than two decades. A range of strategies are used to develop the audience. Each show has a low-price section with tickets at about HK$100, and students get half-price tickets. Yet bringing people into the theatres also brings challenges from those who don’t know the “theatre rules”. Complaints about mistimed applause or photography during shows may disturb theatre managers, but for Cheng they are a sign of promise.

“It’s a natural process to be patient in cultivating them, while targeting them into theatres at the same time.” She encourages everyone to bring their children, family, and friends to the festival to enjoy a real theatre experience. Cheng sees technology as key to bringing in a younger audience. Online bookings were launched in 1997 and more online technology is being harnessed alongside traditional marketing. She is looking into applying e-ticketing technology or selling tickets via Octopus card in chain stores, but a lack of government funding and venue limitations stand in the way.

“Encouraging a new audience go to theatres are just like tasting chocolate for kids. They will never imagine how delicious it is until they have  tried it”, Cheng says.

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