Case Study: Long Wharf Theatre

Case Study: Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre: 80% increase in new subscriptions in one year

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The Situation:

In August 2015, Long Wharf Theatre (LWT) was worried about their subscriptions. Over the last four seasons, they’d seen a 23% decrease in subscription renewals and 8% decrease in new subscriptions. 

“Our subscriptions had been on a steady decline for several years. The loss of subscribers created a number of operational challenges for us, including having much smaller audiences for new or lesser known titles. For Long Wharf to better serve its mission, it was clear to us that we had to rebuild our audience base through subscription, instead of through single tickets, which are wildly unpredictable.”

-- Joshua Borenstein, Managing Director


“Over time, our subscription campaign had become a smaller and smaller effort. We did one brochure. We had one round of mailings. It was good from a cost-savings perspective, but it was not a comprehensive effort. Because of this, the number of subscribers had declined.”

-Steven Scarpa, Director of Marketing & Communications


Long Wharf engaged TRG that fall. TRG’s baseline assessment found:

  • Difficulty in hitting goals for both single tickets and subscription
  • Reliance on telemarketing for subscriptions, which came at a higher cost-of-sale
  • Prospecting for ticket buyers with trade lists and not as much with the internal database
  • Pricing did not always reward loyalty or convey the value of larger subscription packages 

“TRG met us where we were,” Steven said. “We weren’t starting completely from scratch on our marketing strategy, and so we were able to go further, perhaps, than we thought we were going to go.”


“Before, most new subscriptions were flex passes, which were associated with a high churn rate. This year, we were selling primarily fixed seats and bigger packages. It was a complete turnaround.

-Steven Scarpa

How they did it:

Subscriptions - In their own words

On subscription, we did more and were more aggressive. We needed that. You can’t save your way to subscription success. We spent a little more and we were more strategic about where we spent our budget. When we have a season as good as the 2016-17 season, we wanted to capitalize on it.

If you want people to show up you need to be talking to them early, regularly, and with compelling messages. Once we went through the first campaign planning sprint, we knew what we needed to do. We knew it would be a lot of work, but the reward was there. We wanted the quality of the marketing to match the quality of what’s on stage. TRG understood that early on and helped us get better at it.

Parts of the campaign are old-school. Danny Newman [author of Subscribe Now! (1977)] would recognize them because they are based on the timeless concept of loyalty. The audience has to trust that the work we do is worth their time and money.

The number one factor in our subscription success was re-activating lapsed subscribers. We went back to the people that loved us in the past. Then we made them the right offer at the right time. It was near the end of the 15-16 season and we were heading into a popular show, a musical called My Paris. It really drove the new subscribers.

-Steven Scarpa


How they did it:

Pricing - In their own words

TRG gave us a structure in which to explore how demand and pricing relate.

We are extremely mindful of inventory management now. Even on shows that don’t sell as well, the houses look good. It’s a better experience for the actors and a better experience for the audience members. As a result of the inventory management strategy, we started having a lot of success with demand-based (dynamic) pricing.

It’s not a data thing or a money thing. It’s about seeing the houses more populated. It’s about seeing the connection between audiences and actors—the energy from an audience to the stage and back again. That’s what’s most interesting. Money supports the art, but in the end, it’s the people. Seeing that audience grow means more people can be moved by the art we do.

-Steven Scarpa

There was a great deal of concern about what the patron reaction would be as well as how the staff could execute the changes. Together, we went step by step, including a complete communication plan for the patrons built on helping them understand the changes. The final result was happy patrons and reassured staff.

- Lory Bowman, Senior Consultant, TRG Arts

Heat Map

How the theatre typically filled in the 2014-15 
& 2015-16 seasons over 55 performances. 
How the theatre filled for a low-sold show in
2016-17 season over 8 performances.

How they did it:

Culture Shift - In their own words

Once we started doing it, we saw success. It’s given us a set of guiding principles—to reward early buying, write retail-style messaging, manage ticket inventory. We have a big common task that everyone understands.

When we exceeded our subscription revenue goal by August 31, we were just ecstatic. Normally, if we made goal, it was a long, drawn out process. Making goal early on felt like this decisive win. We were no longer worried about the financial underpinning of the organization. Then we were able to ask, “How many people can we get in to see the art we do?

- Steven Scarpa

It was clear that we needed to take a new approach – what we had been doing simply wasn’t working. We all agreed that we had to take a leap of faith and trust the TRG Arts process, understanding that we could always tweak later. For others who are starting their work with TRG, I would advise them in the same way. Trust the process, learn, and adapt.

- Joshua Borenstein, Managing Director

About Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre is a pioneer in the not-for-profit regional theatre movement, the originator of several prominent plays, and a venue where many internationally known actors have appeared. Founded in 1965, the theatre has received numerous awards over the years, including a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre and Pulitzer Prizes for several of its original plays. The theatre is committed to the creation of new works and the reexamination of classic plays.


Long Wharf Theatre is working with TRG Arts in a Best Practices ConsultingTRG’s deep-dive engagement for organizations who want to shift their marketing operations toward a patron-centered approach.

Interested in how to shift your organization's marketing operations toward a patron-centered approach?

To explore a consulting partnership for your organization, email .


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The Situation:
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Posted July 20, 2017

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