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Why it’s time for the rural touring sector to take a bow

Alexander McLauchlan

This week the first ever awards to celebrate the rural touring sector in the UK will take place in Nottingham.
Why it’s time for the rural touring sector to take a bow
Circo Rum Ba Ba perform at the National Rural Touring Forum Conference 2015, hosted by Creative Arts East. Photo by Trish Thompson / Creative Arts East via www.artscouncil.org.uk
 
The TicketSource Rural Touring Awards are focused on some of the key components for rural touring success: the most welcoming village halls and community venues, the best pro moters, the most supportive touring schemes, the best new individuals and companies in the sector and the most innovative and inspirational shows.
 
Some 35 years after Hampshire County Council established the first rural touring programme, this thriving niche of the arts community is finally being given the recognition it deserves.
 
National research shows that rural touring reaches many people who do not otherwise see the arts, that it makes a valuable contribution to community life, and that it provides new work and creative development for artists. The UK’s approach, with the independent arts sector, public authorities and communities working together, is considered a model of good practice and value for money, and moreover, the sector is growing every year.
 
The most recent figures from the National Rural Touring Forum showed that in 2015/16 the rural touring network supported 1,659 rural communities across England, Wales and Scotland to promote over 2,856 professional live arts performances for a combined audience of 155,161.
 
Audience numbers attending shows in rural venues, such as village halls and outdoor events, have increased 26 per cent since 2006/7, when the NRTF first began polling members to offer a snapshot of the sector.
The total number of people to see a show on the rural touring circuit in 2015/16 was 332,140, a 7.5 per cent increase on the previous survey covering 2012/13.
 
Perhaps the best indication of the health of the sector though, is how often people in rural areas engage with the arts or attend arts events compared with the national average.  Data on the subject makes interesting and somewhat counterintuitive reading.
 
A 2015 report by the Arts Council England said that people living in rural areas have higher rates of regular arts engagement (three or more times in the previous year) than people living in urban areas.
 
It confirmed that this trend is evident in each region of England and across a range of socio-demographic groups living in all types of rural areas, compared to the same groups based in urban areas.
 
It also said people living in rural areas are more likely than people living in urban areas to attend live dance events, live music performances, theatre, craft exhibitions and visual arts exhibitions.
 
In the same year the Audience Agency, an organisation dedicated to giving people better access to culture, carried out some research into the differences in performing arts audiences in rural and urban areas.
 
What it found was that arts attenders living in rural areas are slightly more likely to attend six events or more (12.3 per cent) than urban dwelling attenders, but that they are more likely to be loyal to just one venue, with 61 per cent of all attenders in rural areas having booked for more than one event at a single venue.
 
While the researchers noted this might be due partially to factors such as provision and opportunity, they also said rural bookers are less likely to be risk-takers than their urban counterparts and are therefore likely to have more “classical and traditional preferences” reflecting their loyalty.
 
The same rapid growth of small-scale rural touring theatre companies and venues that prompted the formation of the NRTF in 1997 and its subsequent success have also contributed to the growth of scaleable, self-service, event technology companies like ours over the last decade.
 
Launched in 2004 TicketSource is a free online ticketing and box office management system that was initially set up specifically to bring online booking to smaller venues.
 
Many NRTF members who are touring production producers use services like ours to offer their geographically dispersed audiences the convenience of booking online through their own website and Facebook page.  
 
In addition, we now find that it is the free to use, booking fee funded systems like ours that are most widely used in the UK’s smaller theatre venues in preference to the larger and better known subscription-based systems, as they offer a more cost-effective box office management solution. This is increasingly important as venue budgets come under ever more pressure.
 
Rural touring programmes and venues are thriving largely due to strong community support.  One of the major advantages for companies using digital ticketing systems like ours is the ease with which they can integrate their ticket sales process into their digital and social media marketing, eliminating the gap between social media engagement and opportunity to book tickets.
 
We are proud that our services have helped support the growth of a valuable sector that brings reward to so many people.
It’s only right that the sector itself is now rewarded, which is why we are honoured to be working with the NRTF in sponsoring the first ever TicketSource Rural Touring Awards.

About the author

Alexander McLauchlan is marketing director at TicketSource. He started his career as a performer in regional theatre, interspersed with a range of backstage jobs in the West End and on Broadway. He subsequently developed a taste for business, joining London advertising agencies DMB&B and  later McCann Erickson, before ultimately completing his MBA at Cardiff University and co-founding www.ticketsource.co.uk in 2004.

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