A ticket to a big show, a blockbuster exhibition or a summer arts festival makes a great last-minute Christmas present.
But the current wave of Covid – driven by the Omicron variant – isn’t going anywhere, and the cancellations are already beginning.
The popular Sydney production of Come From Away, playing at the Capitol Theatre, was forced to cancel four performances this week, after a company member was identified as Covid-positive. And Jimmy Barnes, the Hoodoo Gurus and Faith No More shows are among the at least 300 live events scheduled over the Christmas period which have been cancelled or postponed.
Shows on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway are already putting up the shutters. Buying a ticket in coming weeks could be a roll of the dice.
On the upside, Australian producers and promoters have made significant changes to their box office policies since 2020 and continue to tweak their ticketing exchange and refund models.
Whatever happens, it’s unlikely you will be left with a useless piece of paper promising a good night out that never happened.
Always read the fine print
Before making any ticket purchase, make sure to read the fine print. The really fine print.
What happens, for example, if the production you’ve bought tickets for suddenly cancels one or more shows?
What happens if the person you’ve bought the tickets for can’t attend on the night because they’re in isolation?
What if the entire city has been plunged into a circuit-breaker lockdown?
Australia’s ticketing code of practice has been developed over the years by Live Performance Australia. Just about every theatre company, music festival, concert presenter and gig promoter follows its guidelines.
For the most part, when you purchase a ticket, the presenter or venue had the upper hand. They have the right, for example, to change or reschedule dates, substitute artists and vary the advertised programs.
So if you buy a ticket for a friend and they don’t fancy going out that night, or have gone right off the artist for some reason, you are not entitled to a refund. If they are unwell, however – and you may be asked to prove it with a medical certificate or text from a state health authority – there are other options. Covid has forced a loosening of hard-and-fast rules.
“If a ticketholder is unable to attend the event because they are unwell or other personal circumstance, they are not entitled to an automatic refund under Australian consumer law,” explains Evelyn Richardson, chief executive of Live Performance Australia. “However, event organisers always have discretion to provide a refund or other remedy, if they wish, even though there may not be a legal requirement to do so.”
Different rules for every event
Companies and venues across the country are reacting to the pandemic in different ways – which becomes apparent when you dive into their individual terms and conditions of sale.
“There isn’t an across-the-board party line anymore,” says Lisa Campbell, chair of the programming committee of Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co.
“A small company like ours can usually work on a case-by-case basis. If someone calls us we can work out what their situation is and if can we refund – for example, if they were coming up from Melbourne, but now can’t cross the border.”
According to the Live Performance Australia, any entitlement to a refund, exchange or other remedy depends on the ticket terms and conditions at time of purchase.
“But we do expect our member organisations to treat ticketholders fairly if shows are forced to cancel or are postponed due to government mandates,” Richardson says.
From Bangarra to Belvoir to MTC
For example, if a ticket holder is unable to attend due to Covid-related illness or isolation, Sydney’s Belvoir will try to move them into an alternative performance. If that’s not possible, the ticket purchaser is credited the cost of the ticket towards another show in the season.
Subject to availability, Bangarra Dance Theatre (whose new production Wudjang: Not the Past premieres in the upcoming Sydney festival, before heading to Hobart and South Australia) will exchange tickets for those experiencing illness or isolation. They also waive exchange fees and, if an exchange is not possible, the ticket can be converted into a gift voucher valid for three years.
The Sydney Opera House will also exchange tickets for a future production, though it must be one by the same presenter. A ticket that can’t be used can also be converted to a gift voucher valid for three years.
Opera Australia offers exchanges and gift vouchers if a ticket cannot be used. Refunds are at the company’s “absolute discretion”.
If a Melbourne Theatre Company ticket can’t be used, it can be turned into a credit for future MTC productions, gift vouchers, subscriptions or MTC Digital Theatre video passes. Refunds, if granted, can take up to six weeks to process.
Sydney Theatre Company now offers free ticket exchanges up to two hours before performances and asks ticketholders to contact box office staff to discuss exchange, transfer or refund options.
“We want people to have confidence and are currently offering patrons free exchange of tickets up to two hours prior to performances,” an STC spokesperson says. “All reasonable return requests will be considered.”
Box office flexibility can cut both ways, Lisa Campbell says. “The relationships between theatres and audiences are changing. People really understanding how hard it is to put on a show, so when we have to cancel, or someone can’t come, they basically donate their tickets. It’s been amazing.
“We want to reward the patrons for coming back to the theatres. We recognise it’s a tentative time and that we are all in this together.”
The summer festivals
Things get a little trickier when it comes to arts festivals. Seasons are generally shorter (unless the show is being co-presented by a local company), and it may be hard for those experiencing lengthy isolation or illness symptoms to rebook into the same show.
A spokesperson for Sydney festival, which opens on 6 January, says the festival will consider and process refunds if ticket holders are feeling unwell or have Covid-like symptoms; if they have been told to isolate; and if they are unable to attend the festival due to border restrictions. Requests for refund can be submitted as late as four hours before the show.
The 2022 Perth festival opens on 11 February, a week after Western Australia opens its border to the rest of the country. At time of writing, it is sticking closely to the LPA guidelines. Even if you are isolating or test positive, its website says, “We are not required to provide a refund or exchange of tickets, vouchers or gift certificates.”
Tasmania’s Mona Foma arts festival (Launceston, 21-23 January; Hobart, 28-30 January) will refund up to 24 hours before an event (with a medical certificate).
“It is a fragile time for events,” says Mona Foma artistic director, Brian Ritchie. “We encourage our performers to take artistic risks. As presenters on the other hand, we strive to minimise risks to the audience by creating a safe environment, comfortable capacities and smooth operation.”
Adelaide festival, which opens in March, is freeing up its box office policies to buoy consumer confidence.
“We get it,” says Rachel Healy, the festival’s co-artistic director. “We’ve been programming in a pandemic and we understand the challenges for audiences and artists better than anybody. A night at the festival should be a source of hope and optimism and not a source of anxiety.”
A large proportion of the Adelaide festival audience comes from interstate and overseas (nearly 20,000 in 2019). If border closures or changes to quarantine regulations are a feature of 2022, Healy wants to assure ticket buyers that they won’t be out of pocket.
“We have the most fantastic team of ticketing staff who have worked in the arts forever and they are really sensitive and when it comes to selling tickets and coming to the theatre, we will do whatever we can do to exchange and if we can’t exchange we will refund. We’ve got your back.
“This is the new normal.”