Agenda item

The Old Town Hall - Service Update


M Rawdon introduced the item and handed over to S Railson and S Fairthorne to give the presentation.  Questions on the presentation were as follows.


Cllr Hollinghurst questioned how the contract bar worked, did people give a sum of money to you as a privilege of running it or do you have to pay them to take it on.  Also does it run at a loss or a profit for DBC.  S Railson replied that in the past we have had an external operator who paid a rental to the Council.  As we’ve been running it in-house for the past few years, since the last external operator walked away, we’ve found that because we set the prices for the product, we’ve been in a position to look at our outgoing spend is, staff and purchasing stock and then we’ve been able to look at our mark-up.  We’ve got to a position where it’s almost break even, that’s just running it ourselves but it does take a lot of time, so Stuart has to rota the bar staff, order the stock, so it’s one of those needs must at the moment.  When we went out this summer with a tender, it was similar to the tender put out in 2015, when we had one response to it, this summer we have had nil response.  Part of the reason is that it’s in the High Street but it’s not obvious, you have to come into the building, you have to go upstairs, you have to go through the doors, so it’s not directly obvious that there is a business there.  Also the Old Town is one of the busiest environments for pubs and cafés and restaurants.  Whilst we were disappointed that we didn’t get anyone to take it on, it actually has forced us into thinking about how we run it ourselves, what are the changes we can make to improve the service.  We would like to see a service that is being run throughout the day that then changes into an evening refreshments service for the shows after 6pm.  Again it’s staff heavy and will require the resource and management of it, were not caterers first, we are arts directors, marketing people and it’s not our natural roles, we’ve done okay and we will probably have to do okay for a little bit longer.


Cllr Hollinghurst asked about the boiler replacement and if the land at the back of the building, which is Council owned, could be used for ground source heat pump coils under the ground, completely unobtrusive and it would give you some background heating so that might be able to get away with a smaller boiler.  S Railson said that she hadn’t thought of that and it might be worth having a conversation with our colleagues in building services and facilities management to discuss the idea, it’s not my area of expertise, so conversations will be required with staff who are more experienced and skilled in that area.  Cllr Griffiths said that the land behind the Town Hall was owned by the Church, it’s their graveyard.  S Railson said it was, it belongs to the Diocese of St Albans, the land that’s under the arches is ours, but directly behind us is the churchyard.


Cllr Bassadone advised that about 20 years ago when she was Chairman of Housing, the Director and I often used to go and have lunch at the Old Town Hall, when there was a flourishing lunchtime club there so hopefully you can get something like that.  Cllr Bassadone queried 70% of your people come in via email and you do a follow up and requested if you do a follow up for the people who do not go in for email.  S Fairthorne confirmed our websales are at 70% and the remaining sales are split between people coming in directly to the box office or by calling on the phone, so those people who come in directly by the box office or the phone, there is a conversation had that asks them how they heard about the show and theatre and if they want to join our email or postal list.  We also provide feedback cards on all the tables in the gallery, so audiences when they come in can provide that feedback to us directly and we’ve also got feedback available on our website.


Cllr Bassadone said that a couple of years ago there were problems for disabled people using the cellar, has that now been resolved.  S Railson confirmed it had as part of the refurbishment was undertaken in 2012/13 we have had a disabled lift installed.  There’s been a change in the way you access the cellar, so you now come off street level into the cellar foyer and the passenger lift is there which will take you down into the cellar club.


Cllr Adeleke felt that part of the theatre is the refreshment part and you should look at a provider of a café and get it sorted out somehow.  Cllr Adeleke mentioned previously about encouraging staff and Members to visit and you have a captive audience, why can’t we look at giving a 5-10% discount to encourage us to attend.  Also did we know how many members of staff have visited the Old Town in the last six months – one year, some of the shows that he would like to attend and wouldn’t mind a discount. Cllr Adeleke also asked where the leaflets are displayed.  S Fairthorne confirmed that the leaflets are in stands throughout Watford, Hemel, St Albans, Aylesbury, Luton and Hitchen, very much anywhere you may go within a 20 to 30 mile radius, you will find these in stands with other theatres, so the likes of Aylesbury or the AGT for example.  We send out about 2,000 of these specifically for those stands and they go within four weeks.  They are going out although the majority of our customers are from the Dacorum area, we are noticing that there is a growth in the wider area and we hope that will continue because we have added extra areas that we send these to now. 


Cllr Adeleke asked if the leaflet is available online.  S Fairthorne confirmed that it’s available on our website.


Cllr England mentioned that he had been looking at the numbers, there is a gap of about £340k and asked if that was a consistent amount of subsidy that’s needed or is that shrinking.  L Roberts said that it was roughly the same and it had been the same for the last few years, it’s around £300k.  Also what’s taken into account is the capital work that needs to be done, like boilers etc can become more expensive, it is an investment but it is one of the main ways in which we deliver arts and theatre through Dacorum to our residents.


Cllr England asked if looking to the future is it the intention as we stand to stick with the Old Town Hall as the primary venue or do we think that as a growing town we want to try and be a bit more ambitious for the town.  Cllr Banks advised that the Old Town Hall is staying as the main venue and she has no doubt that we would welcome any external interest that would come along.  She added that she was not aware of any plans.


Cllr England queried about the different types of usage for the Old Town Hall, different types of performance, which of those is growing, is the mix changing or is it all growing at the same rate.  S Railson said that children’s work and comedy has always been the high achievers in the programme Theatre, which is actually indicative across the country, is lessening in attendance, so actually I’m quite pleased with the attendance we are getting, one the things that didn’t go up there is, we are attracting about 52% attendance on a theatre performance, which is above the national average, so we are holding our own in the theatre.  A lot of it is that people have different needs and wants from what they go to see at the theatre a lot of it is personal relevance, a lot of it is about whether it’s value for money, is it on a day that you’re free, so there are a lot of things that kind of part of that mix, but theatre is holding its own, children and comedy will always be the over achievers.  I’d like to see a growth in music, one of the things we don’t have that other districts have is a vibrant local music scene and the Old Town Hall could be that venue, but we do need to look at the mix of the product and what we can actually offer to make it a sustainable experience.  That’s an area of growth that is being looked at especially in this year of culture 2020.


Cllr Arslan asked if we used the large screen TV in the Town Centre for advertisement.  S Fairthorne confirmed that it was used currently, it’s managed by the Comms team and we provide them with regular update slides that go onto the screen.


Cllr Durrant enquired if you have a comedian that wants to perform at the Old Town Hall how do you negotiate payment, is it a fixed payment or is it based on ticket sales.  S Railson said that most comedy is on a box office split and she will negotiate with the promoter whether that is a 70/30 box office split or 75/25 or in some cases if she really wants the act because what they are going to do and we have people talking about wanting a ticket, then she might go to a 80/20 split, because we will have a full house, that’s 120 people, they are all going to buy at least one probably two drinks at the bar, if there’s an interval that’s three or four drinks, so actually that’s how we are recouping some of the costs.  S Fairthorne added that the capital we gain on a big name is huge.


Cllr Mahmood asked how you establish what the most popular shows are.  S Railson confirmed that she has been around quite a while and has a network of promoters and agents and contacts, she gets to see work, say at the Edinburgh Festival, which she attended this year, London, Bedford and Milton Keynes and it’s about making sure that I’m aware of what’s out there and around and then making a decision, talking with colleagues about whether that’s going to work as part of the Old Town Hall programme, thinking about the audiences that we’re looking to attract and also how it’s adding to our reputation and to our profile.  In terms of comedy and children’s theatre, there’s a lot of really good work that’s out there.  You have to be a bit more careful with some of the theatre because some people taking a chance if they don’t like it, it might mean they never come back.  A lot of it is because I’ve been around so long, it’s not something that is conscious, its something that I feel for the venue.  The Chairman mentioned that she understands what S Railson said as she works in the arts, that gut feeling does have a professional value, it’s not somebody deciding on a whim, there is a science behind that.


Cllr England wanted to offer some suggestions. Youth Connections Herts could be contacted, they might be good to get them involved in workshops or simply just for awareness and also when reading the Gazette, there are often about five great things going on and none of them are local, so please can you take every opportunity to get.  S Fairthorne confirmed that there is a huge article in the Gazette this week and it’s been in there quite a few weeks but it is hidden behind the adverts and we have seen that it’s had a really good response.


The Chairman asked how many people are aware that the Old Town Hall exists, because she loves theatre and she goes to London, she went to the Old Town a couple of years ago, and thought for that price we’ll go next month as well, but I was surprised that I’d lived her for so long and hadn’t searched it out.  The Chairman also wanted to know if it’s treated as a heritage asset and with that in mind are there funds that we could attract to maybe refurbish say the function room and would that make an impact on the hiring, she did look at hiring it a couple of years ago, but it didn’t quite catch up to other venues that were say in a five mile radius.  S Railson advised that it is Grade II 160 year old building and is a heritage asset for the Borough and Town, but it isn’t something we’ve considered.  We’ve had a visit from English Heritage before and they love the front façade of the building, they are not that impressed with the rest of it, so it would be interesting to follow that and see if there was any traction or mileage in making a bid for some of the maintenance work.  In terms of brand awareness S Railson confirmed that she had the same frustrations, she has worked there a long time and seems as if, it’s not about getting the message through, it’s about getting it to stick and having it be someones first choice.  There is a lot of competition, Stuart in his first year has made, some very significant changes in the way we are branding ourselves and the way we are trying to get our message out there.  It is a constant process to be able to do that, there are people that do know we are there, they just don’t like what we offer and there are people that love what we offer, it’s just sometimes it might be on for one night and they can’t make it.  There’s a combination of things, if you get into a cab at the station and ask for the Old Town Hall and they say where’s that, it’s a constant process of trying to be on the leading edge of new marketing initiatives, new ways of communicating with our customers, whether it’s by print, website or snapchat or whatever medium, to make people aware of our work and the fact that we exist.


The Chairman enquired if the Old Town Hall still did the courses, we discovered it because a friend of mine did a really good writing course there a couple of years ago and didn’t know if it was the job centre or somebody who referred her and then she looked at the brochure and said there’s some really good shows on here.  The Chairman also queried in regards to the café if the College run any catering courses, but they might be a good one to team up with, because they will need students that the live experience and if the appetite isn’t there from commercial businesses you might find it’s there from the College, obviously there’s food safety etc but I’ll leave that one with you as just an idea that may or may not be viable.  M Rawdon advised we have thought of and we are looking at it.  S Fairthorne highlighted that we are in regular contact with the College in terms of marketing and talking with their students to find ways in which we can collaborate, they get experience, we get some really good young version of marketing that hopefully will breath that younger demographic that we’re currently searching for and also it helps us with brand awareness.  We are looking at teaming up with certain people to get that logo out there a bit more.


Cllr Griffiths mentioned that some of us were in the Old Town Hall with the Mayor when we had the flypast and it made me think at the time, that there’s quite often major events going on in town, thinking of Halloween event and street light turn on, if there’s some way you could really publicise the Old Town Hall while it’s there almost having an event in there, because quite often that is absolutely heaving.  S Railson advised that we had been involved for Halloween event for quite a number of years, we’ve done ghost walks round the Old Town Hall, we’ve had performances, we’ve transformed the internal building, we’ve had spooky wood, we’ve had a museum, we’ve had a haunted house and we’ve had ghost stories.  This year is the only year that we’re not actually open and doing an event and part of that is we’re thinking about our commitment to 2020 next year and the type of events we want to run for that, this is actually the first year in about 8 or 9 that we haven’t been open for that kind of business.  You are absolutely right, there is huge amount of potential on the street that night to drive people in and we have had shows which have been sold out.  We try to tie up as much as we can when it’s something that is not just good for but also good for that environment and the Old Town to drive the footfall into the Old Town.  S Fairthorne added that we are also in contact with Marlowes Centre as they are looking for more ways of doing community engagement and they have offered us an opportunity to use one of the stands that you see as you walk through the centre and we are looking at taking up that offer very shortly.


Cllr Adeleke wanted to know what the open space is under the arches.  S Railson mentioned it is currently being utilised on the first Sunday of every month for a market that’s put together by traders in the High Street and it has historically been used for that purpose in the past, so it’s getting a little bit of usage.  S Fairthorne added that film companies also use it.  Cllr Adeleke said that a couple of years ago when we looked to revamp the Old Town, there was some suggestion of works to do to that space, the Chair of Housing then put together a compendium of suggestions.  S Railson said that one of the suggestions was to glaze in the space to make it either an artist studio or a café offer, which would have that shop front on the High Street.  There have been some suggestions in the past but it comes down to cost and some additional investment.


Cllr Hollinghurst suggested that we could exploit that it is a prominent piece of the towns heritage and people are often very happy to be associated with something like that and to pay for some kind of membership of friends of the Old Town Hall.  There would be a concession to make it worthwhile, for example something off the price of a ticket.  A lot of people are very enthusiastic about this sort of thing and get a warm feeling with supporting it with a sum of money by way of an annual membership but may not actually use it all that much, so it completely additional to the ticket sales.  S Fairthorne advised we have started to look at this but it is very preliminary and we would like to create a tiered membership system, I think there’s some talks that need to happen with regards to taking that money in and what we offer in return but it has been shown certainly in large theatres across the nation that having patrons in that manner are much more engaged with the programme and want to help.


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