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DT:TV Case Studies

The New Wolsey Theatre Story (AmbITion case study 2009)

The New Wolsey Theatre Company is a relatively young company. It has only been in existence for 8 years but already the company have made a name for themselves with their diverse range of products, processes, approaches and audiences, based in their modern theatre in the centre of Ipswich, Suffolk.

New Wolsey Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre

Although guided by a can-do spirit the company has nothing like the resources of its London counterparts. Even so, with regards to technology they are always trying to push the boundaries in what they can do; just on a budget. The theatre is especially important because of its geographic surroundings – they have to serve a wide audience base from Ipswich itself and much further afield across rural Suffolk. The audiences in the area are also quite different from eachother and lead to a wide range of shows: comedy, drama, childrens’ shows; the whole gamut. Where possible they co-produce with other theatre companies, get quality productions in and help support people in the area who are just starting out. There is also a “Pulse” fringe festival for new and emerging talent and to help foster and nurture young arts companies who want to progress in the area.

The starting point

With regards to technology, the New Wolsey’s systems have grown as and when needed over the last 8 years. With the best will in the world this resulted in a fragmented internal IT infrastructure. Indeed the administration was run largely on paper, and the ticketing system is now a “legacy product”. David Leek, the Box Office Manager at New Wolsey, described the situation:

“What was bad was that although everybody had their own specific areas it was very rare that we would tie those up; so say the marketing department would produce some literature or information or a report, it wouldn’t necessarily be very well disseminated around the rest of the organisation. The company manager and the front of house team would individually produce show reports for the end of a show, duplicating information and that kind of thing. Whilst there was a lot of swapping going on there was never a central resource to provide all of those things that people needed to see”.

In short, there was duplication of effort, and information did not flow freely around the organisation. Equally, David was unhappy with the audience experience too. One of their main marketing outlets was a seasonal brochure – relatively expensive to print and mail – and there was a fairly non-visual website, and no video tools.

“We felt that our website, whilst it was great and functional and managed to serve the purpose we had originally set it up for over time, had lost some of its ‘wow’ factor. It had been restricted down to words and pictures which is what you can get from any piece of print, and we felt the web actually needs to be a bit more three dimensional, a bit deeper then that; it needed to have moving content, it needed to have audio content and whilst we were able to link to various bits and pieces we weren’t able to create it ourselves in any great fashion. It wasn’t something we could easily produce without a lot of time-consuming methods and we were reliant on third parties such as YouTube or Blogger to be able to use interactive tools rather then keeping people within our site – although some of those have now progressed further and you can embed them – but we wanted something that was a little bit more ours“.

One of the particularly exciting aspects of their new web project is the ability to harness data for and from the box office through the website. The organisation has put a lot of time, effort and expense in to linking up the originally seperate functions of CRM (Customer Relationship Management database), Box Office and website.

“With the new website, customers will be able to log in to their own accounts, change their details and choose what information they get from us through the website and by email. The hope is that people will opt to do that more than they opt to get letters through the post.

And that will mean that customers feel they’ve got more control over what we send them and that we will be able to manage better what we send to people. Also, because it links up with the Box Office system where we keep records of what productions people have been to, rather then sending people lots of information about different things all in a short space of time we should be able to manage that so they’re receiving, not necessarily more targeted, but maybe one email with three or four bits of information in it rather then four emails with one bit of information in it. Also, designing e-marketing will be easier, and it will look better.

“At the moment the way that we do our email marketing is a monthly news letter and ad hoc marketing emails. But they are very much on a basis of: ‘you subscribe to the e-list and you agree to receive emails from us’, so from the user’s point of view they don’t have very much control over what they receive at the moment and we can only use their past histories as an indicator as what they’d like to know. The way that we’re changing that is with the new website and the PatronBase Box Office integration, people will be able to select the type of information they will want to hear about, which makes it a lot easier to target people in that respect. We are hoping not to over load them; we are having to put some guidelines for ourselves as to how often we will be in contact with people by email because we don’t want them to be so used to New Wolsey email coming in that they don’t read it or ditch it or get fed up with us, so we’re trying to come up with some guidelines of a balance of what we think is acceptable and it’s also a whole different way of communicating. Although it is like a letter, the way you talk in an email should be very different to the way you speak in print. And the dynamics of an email being able to put visual content as in pictures or links to video there, brings a whole new dimension to what we can offer as well, so that’s what we are looking to do”.

Procuring the new box office system

“The process of getting a new box office system has been quite an eye opener!” says David. “Basically there are a variety of systems out there for a venue of our size and there are also ones that are really only suitable for larger venues, but whose manufacturers still try to give their product to you anyway! And there are manufacturers who don’t respond appropriately, and knowing your requirements try to make their product fit where it really doesn’t. What we ended up doing was going with PatronBase, which had a massive potential as a product but didn’t actually suit our specific requirements at the time, yet they had the passion to make it so. I’m pleased to say it’s happened relatively quickly and bits that were essential for us appear to be there now”.

Indeed, the New Wolsey seem to have been lucky – compared to many experiences of manufacturers – that the PatronBase people were ready to not only enter a dialogue with the organisation but tailored the product to meet their needs. The functionality that was added was not just for the New Wolsey, of course. It is now available to all users.

As David says, “Everything that they do is available because of the support issue: they create just one product, they don’t do it for just one venue. The feedback that we’ve had is that what we’ve asked to be included in the product is functionality that had become requested by their existing clients anyway. They’ve really taken it on and found there’s been value in what we’ve wanted. Not just for us but to them as well. It was stuff that most other people hadn’t thought of but they found it would be really useful for them to have”.

David was intrigued by PatronBase’s organisational structure: “They’re a well distributed organisation, they’ve got offices and employees in Australia, Buenos Aries, UK, and they’ve all been working on our project. Its been quite interesting having chats with people early in the morning or late at night depending on which time zone you’re trying to work in.

But the information flow is good, we wouldn’t have been able to get to where we’ve got to at the moment without them understanding what our requirements are and go ahead and adapt their product and create new bits of their product for us”.

The decision for the theatre to use PatronBase was at the end of a quite lengthy process: “The first part was obviously coming up with the tender document, which would hold all of the information that we required of the system. There were some products when it came to the selection process that very much involved realism of what was out of our price range, and so we discounted the top priced products because even if we did want them, there was no way we could afford them, then we were left with the products that we could afford and we listed the functionality we wanted and matched up the supplier’s responses to our demands and basically did a scoring system to see who came out on top and then when we went back through it further we looked at the companies, looked at what we wanted out of the products and who wanted to work with us… This was important because it would be fine to get a supplier who came in and said, ‘here you go, see you later’. But we wanted more than that; we wanted a company who we could actually develop with, who had a real interest not just in the box office side, but the arts generally, and PatronBase came out as the company who had that because the system they use is for arts venues whereas some of the others had a wider scope than that. They came from a theatre background and had theatre knowledge, which kind of swung it for us, along with the fact they were incredibly willing to develop their system to make it work for us”.

Connecting up everyone’s stake

For David, it was important to get stakeholder’s support for the process, and their input in to the brief: “I asked heads of department who had specific requirements; for example I asked the head of marketing what he would require out of the system and also the finance deparment: at the end of the day it’s no good us being able to sell tickets if we can’t report those things financially properly and we can’t use the information we get in usefully in the marketing department. So it was finding out from the other people that would use the system as well as from my own knowledge of my own department to find out what goes on and what was required within the system. So it wasn’t just a case of ‘yeah we’ve got a new box office system. What do you mean you don’t know who’s attended?’

General Manager Stephen Freeman with Box Office manager David Leek
General Manager Stephen Freeman on set at the New Wolsey with theatre Box Office manager David Leek

David is also seeking to add to PatronBase’s functionality by interfacing with other products: “We have also embarked on a product with ‘Purple 7’ called ‘VS Essentials’ as a marketing and analysis package. PatronBase reporting is still fairly basic and still reproduces just what you’ve inputted, whereas VS Essentials does some analysis which is vitally helpful. It helps us to analyse the booking patterns a lot more easily than we have been able to do in the past; with our old system we had oodles of data, and to report it we had to sit there drawing pretty graphs and tinkering around in the data finding correlations and patterns: that’s all kind of taken care of with VS Essentials quite easily. Purple 7 are a company who will do data analysis and database cleansing and will do all sorts of other pretty whizzy things that would take a human being quite a bit of time to do.

Interfacing rather than integrated

“We looked at integrating all the systems so for example we have also got Artifax Event and the plan was that you would plan your season on Artifax Event, that would then link through to your Box Office which would then link through to your website, so you get the information in once and you’ve got it distributed 3 ways. But what we found is that when going along the active integration route you were very much reliant on these three systems, and again with PatronBase and VS essentials if they were completely integrated you would find that you were reliant onPatron Base to provide all the reports, whereas we can actually get all these reports at the moment with DataBox as it’s also set up to extract the data. So what we opted to do is the more interfacing kind of option, which gives us more freedom and more options, so if in 2-3 years time we find something no longer suits our requirements and there’s a better product out there, we can slot that piece of technology out and pop another bit of technology in, but in a better way and not disrupting the other systems. Well that’s the plan anyway! Because they’re not interconnected so much, if one falls over they don’t all go to pot”.

The holy grail – one system to rule them all

For all organisations that rely on technical infrastrure, there is theoretically a holy grail of having one system that does everything. In the New Wolsey’s case, there was a “Rolls Royce” option like this – but its extravagant price ruled it out. Nevertheless, the theatre staff are not bitter: “When everything is modular, and things fit together and interface, that’s potentially better, because you’ve then got some redundancy there.

Interfacing is potentially better because it maintains redunancy, flexibility and also helps with cost because it maintain competitiveness between your suppliers; if there is one system that does it all, it will tend to be quite expensive and you become very much reliant on it or a slave to it. If you’ve got your separate systems, while collaboratively they might be quite costly, if you want to swap in and swap out various modules as it were, you’re only looking at relatively small amounts, at least smaller amounts then if you were changing all systems at once. So that was also another consideration in choosing the products and the way we put them together”.

The staff are happy now that the approach they’ve taken has actually given them more control. But they’re under no illusions that things could not be improved.

“We don’t expect at the end of all the installations to be able to say, ‘Excellent, that’s all happening the way we want it’. We’re still planning that we’re going to look at what we’ve got and continue its growth or its interfacing; we’ve still got things we want our box office system to do, but they’re not as urgent as some of the things we’ve already requested. And with our booking system for venues, Artifax Event, whilst we are still feeling our way through it, we’ve now got an internal user group of key users to help shape where we want that to go to; it’s only through using it that we find the strengths and limitations, so this user group meets up now and then to try and shape how we’re going to best use the system as we move along”.

Companies collaborating

New Wolsey seem to have been lucky with the degree of participation they have secured from and between companies: “All of the companies that we’ve dealt with when its come to doing the interfacing and integrating aspects have been great at working together. PatronBase and Tin Can who are doing the website have worked really well in swapping information about how each of the systems works, they’ve both been really open about how to access eachothers’ systems and do things like for instance make sure that we’ve only got one log in for each customer. Tin Can use Base Camp, which is an online noticeboard “wiki” used to keep everyone up to date with things, so we just put PatronBase as a user on there and gave them access to the project and they’ve been able to keep track that and we’ve been able to communicate that way. Obviously with the time lag between the UK and Australia it’s quite handy to have that kind of resource available, but we also found that Patron Base’s programmer and Tin Can’s programmer both live in Buenos Aries; that wasn’t part of our plan, but it just kind of happened that they were able to meet together and talk things out.

You have to go a long long way to find a better ticketing system

It would seem bizarre that the theatre are using both a web developer and a separate ticketing supplier that both reside in the southern hemisphere. Did they really have to go that far to find what they wanted…?

“It’s amazing that – yes!!! When we did our tender process and looked at the ticketing systems, what we found was that a lot of the ticketing systems that are actually in the UK are actually developed outside the UK anyway. Even with our current supplier, the main thrust of their development is from America. Whichever system we went for, although they all had some sort of UK base, a lot of the programming was done outside of the country, so for us to get companies to work together it would have been a lot more difficult, whereas John actually came over, I’d like to say specifically to see us, but he spends half his time in the UK and half of it in New Zealand, and he was here and he demonstrated first the demo over the web of the product and then he came and talked to us about the product in person, and whilst it does seem bizarre that we should choose companies that have such a spread I suppose that’s the way technology is; it allows companies to have people all over the world and still talk to each other and communicate with each other and work with each other and other people, without having to actually be in the same room or the same building, because technology has been able to bring those people together anyway.

Ethernet extension

A very practical side of New Wolsey’s technological development was to create a data connection from their studio building with the main building. Unfortunately, they are either side of a main road: “Basically our studio is over 200m away from the main building and in order for the two building to communicate we have put in an ethernet extension, which is basically a really long Cat 5 cable from the back of our servers in the main house to the back of the server in the studio. It’s a bit more complicated in that it goes through fibre optics into the local telecommunications exchange, but it is literally just like plugging in a cable to your computer to the network, just over a really long distance.

“The main thing is that it’s made our connection faster, which means we are no longer reliant on posting files on a separate server, which we’d done previously, and it means we can now have a central resource. It means that running Artifax Event is possible, because the slower connection speed made it a long process, but over the faster connection that has sped up and also at the same time as we were going about the AmbITion project we were having a new telephone system put in, and since we’ve had the upgrade on this Ethernet connection we’ve been able to put IP [Internet Protocol – like Skype] phones into the studio so we can extend our telephone system up there, rather then have 2 separate telephone systems which were more costly, with line rentals, maintenance, the whole lot, and now it’s just like calling the office next door.

And the extension, the IP phone, the calls between us are all free; it’s down the new connection, although its not true IP like Skype… because we’re not on the internet, but it’s the link between the telephone exchange that we’ve got here and between the phones at the studio”.

Indeed, although it does go partly through the local telephone network, their connection is faster than the internet: it sends the files straight across the road rather than via a server in Bristol or California, as the internet would. At one point the theatre considered paying to have the street dug up and their own cable laid, but they decided to give the job in its entirity to BT because it was “a lot less hassle then arranging everything ourselves”.

Consultant was key

The staff at New Wolsey benefitted from their consultant from the Arts Council’s AmbITIon project, in scoping out their needs and in choosing where to look for solutions: “Having Roger Tomlinson as our consultant was actually key, for his knowledge of suppliers of ticketing systems. Obviously he’s involved in lots of ticketing-based consultancy work so we asked him which organisations he knew of that would have our ball park requirements from the systems that he’d seen. It was his recommendation that we see PatronBase but also his recommendation that we see all of the other suppliers, so we weren’t pushed down any one route at all. He came back and said to us ‘This is a list of the suppliers out there. Who do you want the tender to go to?’ and we picked our choices and he sent them out on our behalf. It was really helpful having Roger as a resource especially when it came to doing the ticketing service, because that is the area that he knows, but he also been helpful in other areas with web companies. We used exactly the same process: we scoured websites for ones we liked and we looked at which companies had provided them. We asked internally which companies people knew, if anyone had any preference as to the companies we should use, and we asked Roger if he knew of any. And we did exactly the same process, we picked the ones and sent out the tender documents and came back, but it has been really helpful having someone who knows a lot more then we do about what is out there. I think that ideally we would want to do as much of it as we could ourselves, but having external knowledge, having somebody who specialises outside of our scope would be crucial. I think we would still go with someone in that sort of consultancy role in the future. How heavily we would become involved with them I don’t know at this time, it would all depend on the situation at that time I reckon. But definitely having a consultant on board is very important.

Incredible foot soldiers armed with iPod Nanos

The New Wolsey also had a budget of 25,000 pounds for video capture and video mixing equipment. “We bought 3 Sony HDV cameras (the Sony Z1), 3 tripods, 2 of which are pretty heavy duty, and one is a light weight one so we can easily carry it about with us. We have gone for pretty good mic specs, and a boom arm so we can get some good sound off whatever we are recording. We’ve got 2 Macs, one running Creative Suite 4 to do all the graphics that we want to drop into all the editing that we have got, and Final Cut Studio Pro which includes a DVD maker as well as the sound and video editors. We’ve also got a pretty good field recorder for audio, just for simple audio recordings, which we’ll be able to do our audio pod-castings on. Finally we’ve bought some iPod Nanos for being able to take out our stuff on the roads that we can show to people. We’ve got a contingent of what we call foot soldiers who go out and flyer the streets and we felt we wanted to give them an extra dimension, so rather then just giving people pieces of paper we thought they could actually demonstrate what it was that they were talking about. So if we had video footage or audio footage they could play it to people whilst they were out and about”.

David Leek with a Sony Z1 camera, using Final Cut Pro to edit the footage
David Leek with a Sony Z1 camera, using Final Cut Pro to edit the footage

Again, in order to make the right purchasing decisions, the theatre employed a consultant, with a view to a future digital marketing strategy: “We employed a consultant to help advise us on the equipment we were going to get and what we were going to do. We went with Matt Spencer who has worked on countless digital projects for arts organisations, mainly theatre companies and worked with people that we’ve worked with. So he has worked with Hoi Polloi, and Gekko and Analogue who have done visual arts performance pieces. And he came in and helped to set us up and train us on the systems and since then we’ve tried to get out and record as much of what we do as possible. We’ve been to Youth Theatre evening rehearsal times, we’ve been to our own production rehearsals. And we went to our launch event and were involved in the light switch on at Christmas!

And as we recorded the events there we didn’t just do, ‘here’s the cast, we’ll switch on the lights’: we went around town and went around all the shops and the shop staff and everything else, they were really good with us and we just recorded those antics. We’ve edited them, as time has permitted, ready to publish onto our new site”.

Video editing is a time-intesive process however, especially for non-professionals. It has taken its toll. “That’s been the hardest thing; the aim was that once we’d got the processes in place, of all of our admin side of things, the Artifax, the Box Office, and the website, we should end up with more time to do the shooting and editing down, but at the moment we are still in the processes of implementing those processes and those programmes so the time factor has been very much against us. We’ve pushed ourselves to go and get those items recorded. But when it comes to taking the raw footage and producing something out of it, that in a way is the more time consuming side of things that along with everything else to do with the project we haven’t actually been able to pin down properly; we’ve been doing it ad hoc so its been getting done in very few and far between times.

“We feel obliged to do it from our own perspective because we’ve created this space on the web for it and we’ve got obviously the finance in as well,and we know we have to produce it in order to keep the website fresh, in order to keep or knowledge skills fresh, we’ve go to do it and become creative, and obviously the more we do it the more we’re going to understand it. But it is a case of getting that time to do it. But it’s great fun when we manage to do it and it’s a whole new side to what we’ve been doing since we haven’t really done any proper video content before. It’s just great to get in and work on the creative side”.

David Leek’s advice to other arts organisations in the New Wolsey’s position is simple: “one of the key things when starting out is to find out where you are at. Definitely find out what it is that you provide, find out what it is that you want to provide, make sure that people within the organisation know that and know what’s going on because it will affect everybody in the organisation, and just make sure that people have an input to what they do and be very clear about where you want to get to and take as much advice as you can get from people who have been there or done it or know something because someone else always knows something that you’ve not thought of. And that will go for within the organisation as well as getting advice from outside, as we’ve done so successfully”.