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The great pricing debate: what should you charge in a post-COVID-19 world?

Gateway ticket pricing the guest experience reopening after COVID

As attractions begin to plan for reopening, Gateway Ticketing Systems’ latest webinar tackles the topic of ticket pricing.

By Greg Banecker, Gateway Ticketing Systems

On 6 May 6, the eighth instalment of Gateway Ticketing Systems’ Webinar Wednesdays series took place. This addressed the polarising topic of ticket pricing upon reopening.

It featured insights from professionals working at attractions that are making pricing decisions right now, and from pricing consultants who have been surveying the market since closures began. Should attractions lower prices, since the total guest experience is lesser in the new normal? Or keep prices the same, since they were developed over years of optimization?

There’s an argument to be had for both scenarios. And the webinar explored both.

Guest feedback USA COVID-19 attractions ticket pricing reopening

Consumer sentiment regarding ticket pricing ahead of reopening

BVA BDRC issued a survey on three consecutive weeks tracking consumer sentiment on the impact of COVID-19. One area of focus was on feelings of financial security. From the week of 15 April to the week of 29 April, the percentage of respondents who felt they were minimally impacted financially by coronavirus grew by five percentage points.

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) in the UK published an Attractions Recovery Tracker. They asked guests their opinion on how much they would expect to pay for admission to an attraction compared to before the coronavirus outbreak.

ALVA feeback ticket pricing after COVID

85% of respondents expected to pay the same or more when attractions reopen. ALVA posited that there may be a spirit of altruism among your guests. They want to help you recover.

Stephen Davis is Vice President at management consulting firm Integrated Insight. He was a panellist on the webinar and took a lot of encouragement from the ALVA survey. He said:

“We do a lot of research on pricing. No matter what, there is always a segment that expects to pay less. So when I saw only 15% expecting to pay less, I actually was encouraged. When 85% are willing to pay the same or more, that’s very promising for the industry.”

Keeping general admission prices the same

Utah’s Hogle Zoo reopened on 2 May and sold a general admission ticket at the same price as it was before coronavirus closures. David Casey from the Zoo spoke on the webinar.  He explained that it’s taken the zoo years to get to their current price point and that instead of making a structural price reduction right now, they would rely on discounts or promotions if needed.

Ticket pricing strategy opinions after COVID

Additionally, while not all of the experiences or profits centres at the Zoo are open, they feel enough of their previous guest experience is accessible to justify charging the same price.

Ultimately, the team from Integrated Insight agrees with this strategy. Make sure you have an arsenal of prepared promotions before you open, but don’t come out with the firepower.

Lowering your general admission ticket pricing on reopening

Jarrid Vaughn from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden also took part in the discussion. The Zoo has not yet reopened and has not made any final pricing decisions. But Vaugh spoke about the discussions the zoo has had so far, in order to justify lowering costs for a general admission ticket.

Primarily, they wondered what guests will think if the general admission price stays the same, but the overall experience is less. For example, many, or all, of the indoor facilities could be closed. Additionally, the Zoo is well knowns for its pop-up animal encounters with the zookeepers. Those experiences could be very different on reopening.

generating demand before coronavirus

The Zoo is also weighing several other factors, the foremost being the local community. “The community has been so supportive with our emergency operating fund,” says Vaughn, “even though they are hurting.” A lower general admission price can almost be viewed as a ‘thank you’ for coming back, or for supporting the venue during COVID closures.

The Cincinnati Zoo has also been relatively successful with other revenue-generating ideas. For example, by selling masks through a partnership with one of their large vendors, by broadcasting ‘Facebook Home Safaris’ every day and asking for donations.

It even by offers ‘Cincinnati ZOOm Calls’ where an animal from the Zoo can join one of your virtual meetings for fifteen minutes.

If your venue has been successful in raising revenue while closed, it may help mitigate the costs of lowering the price of a general admission ticket upon reopening.

Consider dynamic pricing

Greg Loewen from Digonex was also a panellist as well. Digonex provides dynamic pricing services to the attractions space. For Loewen and Digonex, dynamic pricing “is not just about revenue, it’s also about driving consumer behaviour. Your pricing strategy can drive the guest purchase behaviour you want to see in a post-COVID world.”

For example, you could drive increased attendance during a slow period to try to bring your venue to its new limited capacity. Or, you could encourage the pre-purchase of tickets online vs. showing up to the gate to buy that day. Many attractions will be moving to a capacity managed, time-ticketing model when they reopen.

strategies for admission costs after coronavirus

“If you’re already requiring your guests to pick a day and time to visit your attraction, then the concept of dynamic pricing – providing a unique price to that day, or a particular time of day – is only a half-step further,” says Loewen. This could help maximise revenue with limited attendance.

How do you make the ticket pricing decision ahead of reopening?

Also from Integrated Insight, the webinar featured Scott Sanders, Principal and President, as a panellist. Together, they outlined a three-step process for making your pricing decision:

  1. Understand Capacity and Align Demand
  2. Lead with the Consumer
  3. Price Holistically

foundation pricing principles

You need to understand what your capacity will be, and where the demand to fill that capacity will come from. Understand what geographic and demographic segments will come when you reopen

Also, there will likely be a high percentage of members/passholders returning. What pricing structure will these people support? If your demand exceeds your capacity, there is no reason to lower prices. If your demand does not exceed your capacity, there is an opportunity to get creative with your pricing and value proposition.

But you need to lead with the consumer. Ticket pricing is not just a binary decision to raise it or lower it. What are the primary motivations of your guests? Right now, families want to get out of the house. But they also want to make sure they feel safe.

Price may not be their number one, or even number five, motivating factor for visiting your venue. So it might be worth resisting the temptation to lower prices, particularly a structural lowering of the price that would be difficult to unwind in the future.

Finally, you need to price holistically, leveraging product stratification and appealing to different segments and their willingness to pay.

Pricing holistically

“Leverage all of your assets,” says Davis. “You have more than just the experience. There are value add components.”

Could you offer an early bird ticket to appeal to an audience that may be willing and able to visit your venue early on a weekday? Remember, all things considered, this is probably also perceived as the ‘least risky’ time to visit from a health and safety perspective, when you are the least crowded.

attractions admission after the pandemic

Since your restaurants and food service may be closed when you reopen, could you package a food option into the cost of a general admission ticket? Picnic at the zoo, for example. Come during lunch on a certain day, get a free boxed lunch. Lay a blanket down at least six feet from the next blanket, and enjoy your picnic.

What about capitalising on the altruistic sense of your guests right now? Come at a certain time, and you donate $5 to a COVID relief fund.

Don’t forget about your most loyal customers. Could you build an incremental membership/passholder discount that incentivises them to come during slow times to help reach capacity?

Customer loyalty

The Cincinnati Zoo offers exclusive early entry to all of its members as a standard perk. From the hours of 9 – 10 AM, the venue is all theirs. The demand to visit the Zoo sometimes exceeds the amount of parking they have, so it also ensures members get a parking spot.

During this hour, there are member-specific animal encounters. While this allows the Zoo to show their members some appreciation, it has benefits well beyond that. It helps control parking, for starters. And it also gets guests through the gate during a traditionally slow period. Can you start a program like this?

When you are ready to reopen, consider a soft launch just for members/passholders

When you are ready to reopen, consider a soft launch just for members/passholders. It will get them reacquainted with getting out of the house and visiting your attraction, and it takes some pressure off you. They will come.

Utah’s Hogle Zoo reopened on May 2, and they set aside a portion the daily amount of timed tickets for members. So far they’ve found that the membership tickets sell out far more frequently than the non-membership tickets.

A lot of Digonex’s clients are considering having member/passholder-only days. Again, it shows appreciation, and also offers a period where you can reliably expect to see feet pass through the gate.

Some other Webinar Wednesdays wonderings

  • In a world where other substitute leisure activities, like eating at a restaurant or attending a sporting event, may not be allowed, don’t underestimate the drive of people to just get out and do something. Your attractions could be that ‘something’.
  • If your attraction can hold 3000 people at once, target your promotions to try and get as close to capacity through the door fairly early in the day. Then work to feed your venue slowly as people start to exit.
  • While lower capacity may not be best for business, Utah’s Hogle Zoo is receiving very positive feedback from their guests about the new guest experience. What is one thing they really like? It’s not crowded!

The entire webinar and available here. The Webinar Wednesdays series is also continuing, with this week’s session looking at consumer opinions.

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