Taking an agile approach during Covid-19 #ADA

Taking an agile approach during Covid-19 #ADA


Rebecca Howarth, Sales and Marketing Manager, Darlington Hippodrome takes an agile approach as part of her Fellowship at the Audience Diversity Academy.

When I applied for the Audience Diversity Academy, it was February 2020, and Coronavirus was still something that was happening somewhere else.

Five weeks later, when I found out I’d been accepted, I was working from home, and opened the email sitting at my dining room table, 10 days into the first UK lockdown. I had been due to start in May, but this was postponed, and by the end of September, when the ADA welcomed its first digital cohort, the UK had emerged from lockdown into a new normal which continues to throw up many challenges for our sector.  

While Darlington Hippodrome is a theatre, we also have a café bar – the Hippo Lounge - and gallery spaces, and we offer classes in dance and drama. Restrictions were lifted at different times for different areas of the business: first for the Hippo Lounge, then for classes and courses, with both being permitted to operate with social distancing measures in place. Live performance was, and remains, more difficult, but while we couldn’t present shows indoors without social distancing, as a management team we knew it was vital that we re-opened our doors as soon as we could. 

Planning for a Covid-secure reopening

We chose 7 September, in line with the start of the new academic year. Planning for a COVID-secure reopening took priority, followed by an enhanced programme of activities, with the emphasis on what we were able to do, rather than what we weren’t. With respect to marketing, however, there was a lot to think about, not least in terms of commissioning a suite of materials such as floor stickers and signage that would delineate social distancing and one-way systems, guiding people safely around the building without shouting at them that they were doing something wrong. 

During lockdown, at the height of summer, we’d sent out a vintage-style postcard declaring ‘Wish You Were Here’, and I decided to use this design as the basis for the signageadding bunting and ticker tape and amending the text. I also made sure to choose positive wording, such as ‘Thank you for keeping your distance’ as opposed to ‘Keep your distance!’.  

Embracing an agile approach

The main challenge is, and remains, the promotion of the activity programme. Did we need to produce a printed brochure? Could we afford to do so? Could we display this in racks or was this a thing of the pre-COVID past? If we did produce a brochure, would new restrictions and cancelled activities mean that it was out-of-date before it even landed on doormats?

Remaining agile helps with customer confidence: if we can wait longer before announcing plans, we are less likely to have to alter them. Digital marketing helps with this and print marketing (with lead-in times of up a month for design, print and delivery of our brochure) hinders.  But if we rely solely on digital marketing, we risk excluding a core segment of our audience, which is detrimental to our sales and, more crucially, to our engagement. Particularly in a time when older people, who might live alone, may feel lonely and isolated. Many have been cut off from the world during lockdown unable to take part in the endless Zoom calls that became a central feature of the lives of many of us, both for work and for pleasure. 

Certainly, when at first we held back from displaying print within the venue, sales figures remained low for our cinema programme, and across the two months we were open before the second lockdown begun on 5 November (we’d promoted and started selling for November too, so it still informs our experience even though the programme ended up being postponed or moved online) we saw a direct and positive correlation between sales figures and brochure drop dates. Indeed, a significant challenge has been to turn around monthly brochures quickly enough – while the programme remains agile and reactive – that they land in time for events at the start of each month to gain traction in terms of sales. 

Resist making assumptions

We should, however, resist the temptation to make assumptions about our audiences: their preferences in relation to their age or other characteristics. In the lead-up the re-opening, surveys and statistics had confidently told us that the older demographic would be the least likely to return to the theatre any time soon.

Taking this into account, perhaps it was a bold move for us to schedule a brand-new dance class for age 65+ as our very first post-closure activity, a class that took place for the first time at 10am on the day we re-opened. It paid off. Participants couldn’t wait to get out of their houses, get onto the stage, and get moving. The first class was heavily sold, and the next week was sold out. We’ve since added a second weekly class to meet the high demand – although sadly this has been curtailed by the current second lockdown. Nevertheless, there’s something to learn from this – that statistics and data don’t tell you as much as audiences do when they’re right there in front of you   

Head and shoulders Rebecca Howarth

Rebecca Howarth , Sales and Marketing Manager, Darlington Hippodrome 

Rebecca started her career as an usher at various Edinburgh venues while studying for her degree. Stepping into marketing upon graduation, her years working front of house continue to provide vital insight into different audiences. Having worked as part of the marketing team in English and Scottish venues, Rebecca now heads up the team at Darlington Hippodrome, where she saw her first performances as a child, and is keen to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to come to the theatre and feel at home. 

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Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2021