Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
For businesses across the board, this past year has been undeniably difficult: According to the IMF, the global economy contracted by 3.5 percent during 2020. This economic shock has been even more pronounced in hospitality- and entertainment-based companies like my own, where social distancing and frequent quarantines all but paralyzed expectations of resuming “business as usual.”
Looking toward our governments for stability can be even less heartening — frequent waffling, mixed messages and botched reopenings have given theatergoers and venue owners whiplash with what to expect. In particular, Great Britain’s Covid-19 response has been patchy at best. Heading up London Theatre Direct, a company built upon selling tickets to live performances, I felt like our country’s leaders were almost actively trying to sabotage best efforts in reviving the entertainment industry. I’m being facetious, but you get the picture.
Our timeline has been disorienting. There have been multiple reopening plans canceled or announced with one or two days’ notice. Theaters have reopened and been shut back down repeatedly since March 2020. Even the promised “Freedom Day” in the U.K., July 19, 2021, was marred by the impracticality of the NHS pinging system, which devastated audiences and cast/crew alike.
Selling tickets under these circumstances — where a new surge or change in the winds of fortune could level an entire run — felt all but unmanageable. Instead of waiting with bated breath for “business as usual” to resume, we came to accept it was up to us to work within the new reality in which we’d found ourselves.
We took to the challenge, amping up our online engagement during lockdowns, using this as an opportunity to improve our services, work on infrastructure and implement new technologies that would allow us to support and facilitate live theater in this uncertain time. We implemented modern payment methods, integrated e-wallet passes and mobile-friendly PDF tickets, and simplified our system for refunds and exchanges.
We also improved our seat selection algorithms and booking engine to support advanced scenarios on seating plans, which were configurable per event, allowing customers to pick seats in predefined blocks or “social bubbles.” We’ve also implemented a number of tools for faster customer notification, including sending SMS via Twilio, and information about shifting performance dates and refunds, offering exchange to vouchers, as well as pre-show information sent in advance email.
Our adjustments have paid off, vibrating throughout the industry we seek to support. In the past six months, we’ve had nearly 120,000 new bookings and have added approximately 200 partners in the last year and a half, with a strong focus on supporting and strengthening ties with partners with increased domestic audience reach and fast turnaround markets.
As terrifying as facing the vacuum of Covid-19 has been, it also offered an exhilarating opportunity for me to return to my roots as an innovator. The spirit of innovation and a willingness to embrace what’s next are crucial in weathering any disruption.
Sometimes, when a cliff appears, a leap of faith is the only move available. It’s up to us business leaders and entrepreneurs in entertainment to take on a leadership role in innovating more sustainable ways to handle live events. Sadly, it’s becoming clear that the pandemic isn’t going to magically disappear. But this doesn’t mean that we stop living. It means we start figuring out effective ways of operating in our strange new world.
Weathering the pandemic taught me two broader lessons: First, we need to plan for the contingency of weathering the crisis (i.e., no events, no ticketing, no income) and then look at the nature of the crisis itself. To cope with the former, we should turn to tech (e.g., reviewing processes and automating actions where possible) to reduce the workload. Additionally, we should prepare for a future that’s more hands-free, taking into consideration elements necessitated due to Covid-19 like touch-free technology.
The primary takeaway for any business is this: Take a breath, and accept the position you’re in. Don’t panic, but review the processes you’ve previously established and think about everything you’ve always wanted to change but never had the time. Lean into the chaos. When all of society is disrupted, there is no option to rest on your laurels; you need to innovate and adjust or you will perish. Instead of wringing our hands at our misfortunes, we need to see these challenges as an opportunity for growth.
As a born and bred innovator, I’m thrilled by the possibilities I see in difficult circumstances. They create discomfort while necessitating adaptation and creativity. Without difficulty, there’s no incentive to change or grow. We should always be eager to delve into the next big thing, even if other leaders only change when they are forced to.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has made innovators of us all. I, for one, am excited to explore all the new opportunities and creative adaptations that are blossoming in the post-pandemic space. Instead of mourning the loss of “business as usual,” let’s look toward a bright, new future that will grow from the ashes of the past.