Guest Blog Post: Smoking Apples on Tour Booking

When going to see shows, I’d often pick up flyers in the foyer with numerous tour dates on the back and I remember thinking “how is this done” “Where do you even start?”. Then I would just fold up the flyer, put it in my pocket and save the thought for another day. To be honest, I was just completely daunted by the whole process.

It wasn’t until we finished CELL that we had a conversation about taking the show on tour and I had to stare tour booking straight in the face for the first time. The word in itself is weird because tour booking literally means booking a tour but I was still thinking where do I actually start?! We were really lucky with our first tour of CELL as it was co-produced by house and they provided some much needed support and advice. We managed just 5 or 6 dates outside of them so I was able to dip my toe in the water without being fully submerged. However, we took the plunge with our second tour of CELL earlier on this year and our current tour of In Our Hands, which we’re in the midst of now, so here’s a little about our experience so far…

So, remember all of those flyers I’ve been collecting? These are actually a great place to start and I paid particular attention to any companies who were flying a flag for similar things to us. This can be anything from puppetry, to new work, to visual theatre. The venues that have programmed this work are likely to be interested in having a conversation with you about booking your show. For us, there’s no point in approaching an 800 seater venue that champion musical theatre because the likelihood is that we just won’t be a good fit for them (although CELL the musical is a tempting offer). We started to build a tour database of all the venues that might be interested, something that the whole team got involved in, making suggestions of suitable places to approach. Then the real fun part is tracking down the details of the programmers at these venues. Generally, the contact details are available on the venue websites but if not, give the venue a call and ask. It’s time consuming but that way you can be sure that your email will reach the right person. Some programmers I already know from networking events, some details have been passed on by other people and other places have ready made documents which are there to guide artists towards the best “Routes In” to being programmed. For example, Venues North, a collection of venues from the North of England, including The Lowry, Hull Truck and Northern Stage, have created a great document which helps artists in the programming process of these venues.

So, once your tour database is up and running, you just need to book a tour…easy peasy?! Hmmm, not quite, but trust me the hard work does and will pay off. Thinking about timescale is really important. Be clear about when you want to programme, which season it is and the number of weeks you are booking across. For us, touring can get expensive if we book sprawling dates because we try to share the costs of print, the van and the administration across the tour. Whilst keeping in mind your dates, also bear in mind that some venues will programme a year in advance, others only 3 months, so be prepared to play the long game. We designed an e-flyer and a tour pack and over one day emailed 200 odd venues, at least 30 of those emails will be wrong or the person will no longer work there so do follow those up. When I say 200 venues I don’t mean a blanket email, each programmer gets a personalised email that mentions their venue and the work they have or have had on there that is similar to ours, e.g. puppetry, physical theatre, new work, etc. At the end of the email say that you’ll be calling them the following week.

By the time you come back to it the following week, around 20-25% will have responded no in reply to the email. You may have some takers, at which point stick to the database like glue in order to keep up with everything. Strike the venues out who said no (not completely, as maybe this show wasn’t for them and next time they will say yes but strike them off this tour). Mark those who have expressed an interest and then pick up the phone. Calling the other 100 odd venues is long, however (and this is a tip I received from house’s Mark Makin), no matter if it’s the 1st or 52nd call you have made that day, SMILE before your dial! As cliche as that may sound, it helps keep you positive and lets the programmer know you’re a happy person. The 2nd piece of advice I was given and stick to, is when a programmer picks up, you say your name, where you’re from (as in company, not place of birth – it’s not Blind Date) and then ask “Is now a good time to talk about programming?” If they say yes, mention the email, strike up a conversation, ask them how the season is going etc. If they say no then mention the email and ask when is a good time to call back.

It’s a bit like when you were out shopping with your parents and saw your teacher from school, programmers = normal people. They do genuinely want to hear about new work and from new companies. Their job is to programme their venues and without people like us, producing work, they wouldn’t be able to do that.

If a programmer is not interested in your idea or show, don’t flog a dead horse. Move on but keep in touch with them. If they say yes, then you can move on to talking about a financial deals. Some venues will offer a fee or guarantee e.g. £850. Some may offer a small guarantee and a split e.g. £400 + 60% of box office. In today’s climate, a lot of theatres offer a fee vs a split. So for example, I will give you £400 vs 70% of box office takings. This puts the incentive on both the venue and the company selling the show which can work really well. As a base line you will make £400 but if you sell out 100 seats at £10 a ticket…BANG! You make £700. A straight box office split can also be on offer however be cautious of this and take into account the venue location and your budget. As part of a bigger tour where you may be applying for funding this could work but it can be risky. All tour financing comes with a certain degree of risk and we have received support from Arts Council England for all of our tours so far but it can be done without additional support, if you are realistic with your tour budgets.

Part of being realistic is knowing how much you are going to offer the show at and where your bargaining point is. If you’re on the phone, the last thing you want is for the programmer to say yes, we’re interested, how much is it? And then for you to not know your costs. Work this information out before you call programmers and where you could potentially lower that fee to, should you need to. We also use workshops and post-show discussions to increase the physical offer without compromising on fee. But again, be mindful that you are paying the venue in your time and if you have a long drive to your next location, staying late to do a post show Q&A will have a knock on effect.

Booking a tour is a huge amount of work but it does become like an addictive game (it is for me anyway). Once that first venue is pencilled in the diary, you catch the bug and one venue becomes three, three becomes five etc. Hold your nerve, have confidence that the show you are selling is brilliant and remember that programmers are people.

Happy Tour Booking!

Written by Matt Lloyd, Co-Artistic Director of Smoking Apples (and chief Tour Booker!)
Smoking Apples are touring their show In Our Hands across the UK this Autumn, for further information, dates and tickets, please visit smokingapplestheatre.com