How market research rescued Bard on the Beach

Bard on the Beach | BCBusiness

Vancouver’s venerable Shakespeare festival overcame its Achilles heel (and surprise, it isn’t parking)

The Issue For a quarter-century now, the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival has been regarded as one of the premier destinations for the Lower Mainland’s theatre-loving residents. In 2012, the firm I worked for was contacted to conduct a research study for the festival, in order to look at issues such as familiarity, satisfaction and presence. It was important for the festival to figure out who its audience was, how it could be increased and what was making Vancouverites develop an emotional connection with the brand.

The Approach

A carefully crafted research program sought to garner feedback from three very different groups. First, the people who are very close to Bard and engage directly with the festival on a regular basis, from long-standing ticket holders to volunteers. Second, people who are legitimately interested in the arts, and may now prefer to spend their entertainment budget on other activities away from the tents. And finally, the general population of the Lower Mainland, including people who may have visited the festival in the past but decided not to come back.

The Findings

The survey results provided Bard with many enlightening tidbits, particularly on the features that made the festival attractive to those Vancouverites who keep coming back year after year. There was also an opportunity to look into how the public would react to certain programming changes. However, it was the sample of “previous visitors” that provided valuable information into a harsh reality. Some theatregoers reported having problems hearing the actors and fully following the plays, particularly if they attended a play at the venue during a rainy afternoon. While Bard staff expected parking to be the main qualm from those who had decided to stay away, the notion of people not coming back due to sound issues was alarming—especially given the popularity of the festival with those residents 55 years and older.

The Outcomes

A more precise definition of their core audience allowed Bard to make more informed decisions on sponsors and partners. It did not make sense to cultivate or maintain relationships that were not attractive or appealing to many of their regular visitors. The results also encouraged a re-evaluation of the sound requirements in the theatre tents, which ultimately led to the installation of an audio system that enabled actors to use headset microphones so that patrons could hear every word, regardless of the weather. The introduction of this new technology could have been seen as a dangerous precedent among Shakespeare purists, but the reviews from patrons have been overwhelmingly positive. 

Mario Canseco is vice-president, public affairs, at Insights West, a Western Canadian market research and polling company.