Zumba and the Price of Interpretive Programs

We need to be honest with ourselves about the impact of price on the demand for our programs.

More and more in the world of interpretation, we charge fees for our programs. And if you’re like me, you’ve known the frustration of trying to convince your customers that there is monetary value in guided walks or evening programs or gate admissions. It’s a tough sell.

What’s really frustrating is that the fee we charge is generally quite modest. I’ve heard it a hundred times: “I’m only charging eight bucks for my event. People have that in their pockets; they’re carrying $600 smart phones in those same pockets. Price is NOT the issue here.” Unfortunately, I’ve learned that it doesn’t work that way. I’m here to suggest to you that price is a big, big issue, all of the time. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about Zumba.

Zumba Class
Photo credit: Zumba! By Brittany Carlson (USAG Stuttgart) (United States Army) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I should explain: I have the sweetest job in the interpretive world at the moment. I am a guest lecturer on a cruise ship; I sail and eat and talk to the public about animals for a living, and I can’t believe how lucky I am. But I’m not here to gloat. I’m here to share a little revelation I had the other day while sitting in the theatre preparing for my presentation.

You see, as I prepare my talks, I watch the activity that takes place before mine: the Zumba workout. It’s a lively 45 minutes, led by one of our two fitness instructors. They’re both energetic, passionate leaders, and the music they choose is fantastic. It really looks like a great start to the day.

But here’s the thing: they offer that class free of charge for the first two days of a cruise, and then they start to charge for it. And unfortunately, attendance for their class plummets as soon as they charge a fee. Participation goes from about forty to about four. That’s quite a drop. How do we explain it? Price.

How do I know? Well, in the world of business, demand for any product is determined by five factors: publics, promotions, placement, price and product. These are the 5 Ps of marketing, and they work for Zumba programs and interpretive programs alike. The Zumba example is a good test case: it’s one of the few examples I’ve seen where we can control for the other variables, the other 4 P’s that influence demand. Let’s look at them:

Publics: the public on a cruise ship at sea is finite and unchanging. It’s not as if your available pool of participants changes between day 2 and day 3 of the cruise. (They don’t offer the class when the ship is in port, so it’s not as if the public has left the ship.)

Promotions: the same promo techniques are used throughout the run of the Zumba program. If anything, promotion is increased for the fee-based programs as word of mouth has had time to get around.

Placement: The program is offered in more or less the same place—it’s true that they move the class from the theatre up to the gym for the smaller paid classes, but that shouldn’t influence demand; the venues are equally visible and equally accessible.

Product: It’s exactly the same class with the same music and the same instructors. And repeat attendance from day one to day two is very high; it’s a popular product.

That leaves us with price. Charge ten dollars for a Zumba class, the same Zumba class you’ve offered for free, and 90% of the demand disappears. What gives? We know that the guests have ten bucks to spare. This is a premium cruise line; a glass of wine costs $9.00 plus a mandatory 18% gratuity (and demand for those is pretty steady, let me tell you.) These same people are paying $120 for a shore excursion six times over during the course of a cruise; they’ll pay over $100 for a soft drink package.  What could possibly be the problem?

I suspect there are three problems, actually. The first is backlash; people are disappointed that a class that has been offered for no charge now costs them money. Does that sound familiar in the world of interpretation? “I grew up coming to these programs for free! How dare you charge for them!”

Then second is entitlement: people feel they’ve already paid for that Zumba class; they’ve dropped hundreds of dollars on the ticket for the cruise, and feel that it should be included, like my nature presentations. Again, that sounds familiar: “I paid for this park with my tax dollars! Now you want me to pay to walk through the gate?”

But I suspect the real problem is that the Zumba class, though a good product, is not a unique one. While it is the only Zumba class on the high seas, there are many ways a cruise ship passenger can keep fit for less. Despite the reputation cruise ships have as floating fat factories, they actually have excellent free gyms, tracks and pools.

Contrast that with access to wine: there is only one place to get a Chardonnay in the middle of the Coral Sea; it’s not like you can swim over to the cruise ship across the bay to get a better deal. Likewise shore excursions: if you want a safe, guaranteed, easy shore excursion, you need to buy it from the cruise ship. It’s good old-fashioned supply and demand, and our poor Zumba instructors haven’t managed to convince their clients that what they offer is unique and valuable.

Zumba Class
Photo credit: By U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Anthony Sanchelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What does all of this mean to us in the world of visitor experience?

It means that we need to be honest with ourselves about the impact of price on the demand for our products. Managers and boards of directors are quick to slap a fee on programs. They’re equally quick to declare that the cost is nominal and shouldn’t affect demand. But here’s the question to ask: is the experience you’re offering for, say, $8.00 more captivating to your target audience than every single thing they can do for less? That’s a pretty tall order for most of us. Why on earth would people drive 200 km and pay $9.80 each to visit a national park when the provincial park down the road offers a comparable experience for no charge? Why do we think people will pay $15.00 to walk around a lake with an interpreter when they can do it for free themselves?  Why would I pay to sit for 40 minutes listening to a historian speak when I can read the Wiki page on my own time? Until you can answer these questions (and these questions do have answers), you have no sale. And that can be humbling.

We believe so strongly in our programs, our staff, our stories. We know there is value in them, and it’s deeply frustrating when the market coldly says, “Actually, there isn’t as much as you think.” But the fact is, if the visitors aren’t showing up, or they’re showing up but not willing to pay, you’ve got a problem with at least one of your five Ps, and you need to fix it.

Yes, you can still charge for your programs. But unless you can promote a unique and compelling product, in an accessible place, that meets the needs and interests of its target public—and can do so better than anyone else in your region—your audiences will stay away in droves, no matter how faithful they were to you before you started charging. And an interpreter without an audience is about as sad as a Zumba instructor dancing by himself.

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