Fairfield Halls struggling to sell tickets for Culture opener

Our veteran arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, on the council-owned arts centre’s struggle to win back its old audiences

Cheap seats: the ENO performed to a full house at the Fairfield Halls, with tickets at a fiver each

There’s mounting, and justifiable, concern that the Fairfield Halls, despite the best-efforts of its new-ish operators, are failing to win back audiences for some of its most prestigious performances.

Tonight the council-owned arts centre is staging the second in a series of international orchestra concerts, with the Swedish Philharmonia on its first UK tour since the 2020 covid pandemic. But despite a raft of special offers on tickets, discounts and free tickets for (accompanied) under-18s, even free glasses of wine for concert-goers, the 1,600-seater auditorium is likely to be barely one-third full.

Last month Richard Morrison, The Times newspaper’s veteran classical music reviewer, visited Croydon for what ought to have been a crowd-pulling offering of the London Mozart Players accompanying “cellist superstar” Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Morrison gave the performers, and the venue – “the best orchestral concert hall acoustic in Greater London” – glowing reviews. But he also wrote: “It must be noted that the hall was little more than a quarter full. Perhaps, like me, Croydon’s music lovers are still wondering if the venue is properly back in business.”

Cello superstar: when Sheku Kanneh-Mason played the Fairfield Halls last month, the place was three-quarters empty

Concert-goers who attended the more recent Armenian State Symphony Orchestra’s concert reported a similarly disappointing turn-out.

Judging from the Fairfield Halls’ own bookings pages, ticket sales for tonight’s gala event have also been poor. Tickets, priced from £28.40 up to £70, remain widely available. Only the central area of the stalls have limited availability. In the Upper Stalls, where there’s almost 400 seats, it is estimated that fewer than 50 tickets have sold. In the Balcony, by lunchtime today, just five tickets had sold.

And there’s a similar picture looking at ticket availability for Saturday’s Oratorio of Hope, the new work to be performed by the London Mozart Players in what is supposed to be the prestigious opening event of Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture.

This will be a council-promoted event, with substantial numbers of complimentary tickets distributed, and which sees the main Stalls area largely spoken for. But with tickets offered on a “pay what you can afford” basis, with a suggested fee of just £5.50, virtually all the seats in the Upper Stalls remain available with just five days to go. The management’s not even bothered opening the Balcony area for this gig.

There are various theories about why the Fairfield Halls is struggling to sell out for so many classical performances. Morrison’s suggestion may well be valid: after the venue was closed for more than three years for its controversial refurbishment and then placed in a covid hibernation for two years, it is obviously slow going bringing back the venue’s previously loyal audiences.

Pricing appears to be an issue: when the English National Opera transferred its performance to the Halls after a cancellation elsewhere, they filled the auditorium with music lovers who enjoyed a bargain with tickets only £5 each.

Lack of car parking facilities was also been offered as a disincentive for visiting. Now that the underground car park has been belatedly re-opened, some concert-goers have found it hostile and off-putting, with reports of human faeces, rats and other unattractive discoveries.

The Halls have been operated since its reopening in 2019 by BHLive, who arrived in Croydon with little experience outside the management of swimming pools and leisure centres on the south coast. A spectacular bust-up with the ambitious artistic director, Neil Chandler, saw his departure within a few months of the re-opening.

Dotty: all the red dots for Saturday night’s Oratorio of Hope concert are the as-yet unsold tickets

Marketing the Halls appears to have been underpowered, while BHLive’s clunky website hardly makes it simple and easy for potential punters to purchase tickets. The operators might be offering free tickets for accompanied under-18s for tonight’s Swedish Philharmonia concert, for instance, but that’s not clear to visitors to the booking pages. The website appears to offer tickets for junior concert-goers at £42.50.

Local amateur choirs, orchestras and drama groups have also been deterred from taking their productions back to the Halls, put off by BHLive’s high hiring fees, and the difficulty in bringing back ticket-buying audiences to help defray such costs.

Such trends would be worrying enough for those who want to see the Fairfield Halls bustling again and being the beacon for the arts in south London that they once were. But with the venue’s owners, Croydon Council, still bankrupt and unlikely to have any cash to invest in the Halls for years to come, it becomes all the more important that the operators start to bring in close-to-capacity audiences.

Because now, having had £67million squandered on the Halls in an unfinished and incomplete refurbishment conducted by Brick by Brick, the improvement panel which is overseeing Croydon’s financial conduct is also watching very closely.

Watching: improvement panel chair Tony McArdle

Tony McArdle, the chair of the improvement panel, in his most recent letter to Levelling Up minister Michael Gove, wrote, “There is a concern that the full potential of Fairfield Halls is not yet being realised and further effort is required in marketing the venue to a wider potential audience.”

McArdle noted that initiatives “are currently being implemented”.

If McArdle and his colleagues have managed to score some freebies for tonight or, more likely, Saturday’s “Buwwa of Cultcha” spectacular, they might be asking some more questions about whether the Fairfield Halls is achieving its “full potential”.

Read more: Fairfield Halls offers some Easter movie magic for just £2

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This entry was posted in Art, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Croydon Council, Fairfield Halls, Improvement Board, Music, Neil Chandler, Tony McArdle and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Fairfield Halls struggling to sell tickets for Culture opener

  1. derekthrower says:

    Part time Perry’s year of culture is all going so wonderfully well.

  2. John Woodhouse says:

    Our first vist to the Hall involved climbing stairs from the car park as the lifts were locked. We can now park in disabled spaces at the front of the hall. All that money spent and the seats not refurbished! The staff do not seem very motivated. We loved the Sheku concert but Saturday’s programme does not appeal. The online box office is hopeless – you end up phoning up. We went to Poole Arts centre to hear the Bournemouth SO and it was nearly full and that concert was presented 3 times! There has always been a smaller audience in Croydon for classical music but that is no excuse for this disaster!

  3. Lancaster says:

    If the high street had less chicken shops and closed empty venues it might offer a better and warmer environment to attract a vibrant nighttime economy.

    “hostile and off-putting, with reports of human faeces, rats and other unattractive discoveries”… sounds like the current high street to me, and unsurprisingly it also sounds like the senior leadership at the council.

  4. Croydon’s Year of Culture. Another fine joke, brilliant oxymoron. There’s more culture in a pot of Aldi’s cheapest yogurt than there is in Croydon. It never used to be like that. The Fairfield and, to a lesser extent, the Ashcroft wee often full, there were world class acts in both venues and they were often full. The whole place had a vibrancy which was really enlivening. You actually had to fight to get to the bar during intervals. All that died with the so called refurbishment which has turned out to to be the final stroke of death to the corpse. Its never more than half full, if that. When there is no performance scheduled it looks like the aftermath of a very sad funeral. Its gone, finished, kaput. Like the blue parrot is it defunct, dead, an ex-musical venue. For the money that was lavished you could have knocked the whole venue down and rebuilt. That would have yielded a rebirth rather than what we have now: an establishment that is morbid, already out of date because it was never rendered in date, a place with no proud staff to show you around and help, only bored temps. It should be shut and wrapped in bright plastic, Christo style. That would bring sightseers from all over the world and you could even charge them for the pleasure of viewing. Minimal staffing would be necessary and day to day costs would be low. It would make a profit which could be used to help the rebirth of the Warehouse theatre! I would be proud to be one of the first volunteers to wrap the place up.

  5. yusufaosman says:

    This is a real shame. Given the size of Croydon and its transport links — anyone remember the joke the good thing about Croydon is it’s good transport links, makes it easy to get out of the town, it shouldn’t be hard to get more people coming.
    Another problem with the Fairfield Halls concerns accessibility. Finding out whether something is audio described, British Sign Language Interpreted, etc. isn’t easy and most things don’t have either. I was interested in attending the Oratorio of Hope but still don’t know if it will be audio described and given it has a visual element I don’t feel there’s much point me attending if I’m going to miss out.
    The whole redevelopment and continuing management of the Fairfield Halls has been badly mismanaged.

  6. James Seabrook says:

    I have fond memories of going there prior to the current council’s intervention, but unfortunately it looks to me like the unmotivated, uninspiring, soulless, oh so short term, abysmally inept Culture of Croydon Council has well and truly left its mark on Fairfield Halls. And the word may well have spread far and wide.

    When one goes to a concert, one goes for the whole experience. For example, going up to London is an experience – you remember the lights of the city, the different vistas, the food, the travel, the concert, the experience. Most likely the fond memories stay in your mind for a long time.

    From what it sounds like now you also get an experience when going to Fairfield Halls. You may also remember it, but neither fondly nor for good reasons.

    Well congratulations to you, Croydon Council, you’ve done it yet again. The infamous “Institution for Disastrous Results” has struck once more. The town is a mess (remember not so long ago you wanted city status??????? – yes really!), the council tax is a mess, Fairfield Halls is a mess, housing is a mess, finances are in a mess. The list goes on, and on, and on. Please tell us you’re not planning to bring the wrecking ball to anything else.

  7. Don White says:

    My local bus routes used to go to Fairfield Halls. Now they only go as far a West Croydon as that is ‘more convenient’. But I can always transfer there to the tram – oh! that doesn’t go to Fairfield either; or to another bus route – but they bypass W Croydon bus shelter.
    I guess that most people when they hear of “City of Culture” and “Croydon” together form an image of mould growing up the walls of our substandard housing.
    I am told by neighbours who have been interested in seeing some of the tribute acts which have featured so heavily in refurb. Fairfield’s programme, that they prefer to go and see the same acts at Wimbledon where the tickets are considerably cheaper.

  8. Kevin Croucher says:

    The way things are going, I can see the Borough of Culture being little more than the Boxpark

  9. Keith Ebdon says:

    Swedish Symphonia were fantastic but exit to find a PCN for minimum £65 on car despite correctly displaying a Blue Badge whilst at least three other cars were in the disabled bays without Blue badges but not given a PCN. This Croydon Council attitude that the motorist is just a ‘cash-cow’ will not encourage people to attend the Fairfield Halls.

  10. Pete Jenkins says:

    Borough of Culture…. we wondered why the launch of this year of “culture” was at Boozepark, rather than at Fairfield.

    They are moaning of lack of audiences, yet the same council decides to ignore the fact that Fairfield even exists.

  11. Lewis White says:

    In the past few months, my wife and I have been to the Fairfield to the Armenian State Symphony concert, which was a superb concert programme delivered by an orchestra of real power. I bought 2 tickets–and — also won the 2 Inside Croydon tickets! Some music loving friends came along with us. . Thanks to the Inside Croydon electronic random number raffle ticket cardboard box. I would certainly love to see this orchestra again.

    Last year, a friend and I went to see the London Mozart Players – again, an excellent evening of music from one of the UK’s best orchestras…and Croydon based..

    We will be going to another soon, the Estonian National Symphony, and look forward to another evening of live classical music from another of Europe’s top orchestras. I’m sure it will likewise be superb.

    The Fairfield experience in the hall was very good, and, the restoration of the hall interior I think has also been done well, respecting the 1950/60 design quality, but with some modern details, like the wonderful areas of wall paper of Croydon architectural icons from that era. A nice touch.

    The bars had a good range of wine and beers… no complaints there….
    neither with the staff, who were uniformly nice, and very helpful, in our experience.
    That has always been my experience at the venue.

    The thing that really reduced the whole quality of the experience for us was the arrival experience — we too parked in the car park. In the past we have come by bus as well.

    We drove down the ramp, and entered a well-lit, clearly recently refurbished car park. So far, so good. Now… to pay ! Find a machine ? I hoped to find either an airport style system where one got a ticket and then paid by credit or debit card on exit OR– a traditional “put your cash or card in a slot and pay for a ticket”. Hopefully, a 3 hour ticket that would not be too expensive. How wrong we were.

    Instead, we were not confronted with a “Pay by Ring Go !” machine. No slot or reader pad for a payment card. No slot for cash.

    It took many, many , very stressful minutes–like 10 — faffing around , trying to get our payment set up, number plate added, all that stuff. Then , we had to pay for all night. I really feel for the payment sting in the tail for Keith Ebdon above.

    I was not just feeding a cash cow, but finding it very hard to do so, and paying a lot for it. The Council needs to put in a traditional payment system NOW !
    Or doesn’t it care about making the Fairfield easy to access for visitors by car?

    Then, as the above Inside Croydon article, mentions, there were piles of rubbish and -unmentionables- all round the subterranean areas under the hall, and around the ramp area. The smell of urine was not too pleasant.

    The feeling was that the Council have abdicated responsibility for the whole space– and subbed out the money-taking to Ring Go ! –and are doing precisely nothing to keep the nicely refurbed, brightly lit car park, in clean and sanitary good condition. I have written to Jason Perry about it, and am awaiting a response.

    The ramp took us up to the bleak street side spaces between the halls and Cryoydon College, next to the now derelict and hoarded-off College Green. Once a large expanse of grass, which would have been great for people to use during lockdown, had it not been trashed and a third of its area stolen by the council, and redesignated as building land, by stealth.

    I will not mention in depth the rather kitsch, and paving – dominated design proposed for the remaining open space site. But it did have a very promising water feature — a fountain splash zone. It has all been delayed –so far–as a result of the council’s financial situation. I really hope that the council takes a really good design look at the proposals and ensure a greener design, on which people can sunbathe on grassy banks, and chill out, as people want to do this, as well as have things to do.

    The visitor experience of the setting of the Fairfield is of a dystopian non-place.
    All is tarmac and paving — a widswept treeless desert, dimly lit. An oversized cyclemotorway from nowhere to nowhere zig zags its way past pathetically small wooden crates containing a few dried up grasses. No trees– there used to be some , in front of the Fairfield, and large raised beds. All these have been taken away, leaving an environmental void. It is a design non-entity.

    To be fair to the architects who designed the current stalled proposals for the “Fair Field” aka College Green, they had proposed trees to rectify that loss. Sadly, to landscape the whole area in front of the Fairfield is really diffficult as the whole thing is a concrete raised deck over the underground car park. To plant a tree needs an engineered support column and a big concrete crate filled with soil, costing many thousands. Maybe £10 k each. Not like planting a tree in the natural ground of a park.

    A thing that is strikingly lacking from the outside of the Fairfield is an clue to waht it is–or excitement. There used to be giant posters on the front, so that one knew what was coming up.

    I hestiate to suggest an eco-unfriendly, global warming feature, but maybe the power of capitalism could provide (free of charge) an illuminated advertising column like a big version of the signs increasingly seen at bus stiops and down the escalators on the Tube. It could flash up adverts for what’s on and upcoming on the Fairfield stages. Plus adverts for burgers. Oh, maybe toothpaste

    Finally, ticket prices– as the IC article mentions, many of the seats are at central London rates, or even more.

    To raise a new audience for all forms of live music and dance in Croydon–whether classical, multi-cultural, jazz, and all others, the Fairfield needs to bring prices for all seats down. Central London concert halls are doing this, and they also attract a substantial tourist market that Croydon does not share.

    There are so many classical concert venues in London– South Bank, Barbican, Wigmore, and others, that Croydon has to price very competitively.

    The Fairfield management are trying hard and succeeding to bring quality events to Croydon.

    The Council really needs to step up now, and find the money to transform the appearance of the current setting of the Fairfield, including not just the frontage but the College Green open space.

    Plus, much cheaper, immediately deal with the cleansing of the underground car park, and install eaasy-to-use pay machines as a start. And get more buses to stop right outside.

    • Nick Davies says:

      You can be sure they use Ring Go because there’s no machine to be robbed and vandalised and no need to pay someone to check tickets. Just ANPR cameras to do the enforcement. Which means anyone who for whatever reason doesn’t have a smart phone is screwed.

      How much extra would it cost to engage a couple of extra front of house staff to look after the car park for the duration of a concert? £200 maybe? A trivial amount in the scale of things.

      • 2deal2 says:

        Ring Go is an absolute scam! It doesn’t work and you will end up with a ticket, so you have to a park a distance away where there’s a meter.

        Let’s face it Fairfield Halls was always in the wrong location to be an musical venue. In the 21st Century, you need modern and sizeable car parking, a multi-purpose venue capable of holding sports, music, awards, celebrations and conferences, public transport links and/or plenty of space for taxis and coaches and a much bigger space for 5,000+ people, a seamless digital experience from payment to social media feedback and the staff needed to serve and provide security for it. Just a sense of professionalism.

        I think the FH location should not be a theatre, but a campus with additional lecture halls for Croydon College so it could become a potential University.

  12. 2deal2 says:

    Sorry, I thought it was closed! I had no idea of any interesting events that were put on starring actors, comedians or singers, that I know of from the TV or radio. I have no point of reference and I’m 40! The last time I went there was 10 years ago to see a Black comedy show, which I though was expensive, but the promoters told me they don’t normally go this far as they hold most shows in North and East London and the furthest they travel South was Brixton as they have the Academy and Electric Brixton there.

    Why doesn’t FH use social media, targeted e-mail or even junk mail to advertise? Who is their media/tech team?

  13. JayBe says:

    Publicity needs to be greatly enhanced, using as many means as possible, both in and out of the borough. Someone I spoke to yesterday (at a concert in central London) who lives in a neighbouring borough, thought Lewisham was still the borough of culture! Many people I know do not have access to “social media” – so some other forms of communication (old -fashioned maybe!) should be incorporated into the advertising strategy. I have told people about events but it is not always easy to get all the information/access tickets especially via an often clunky website – not user-friendly in many respects. (They sometimes forget to send you an email with the ticket as well!) Needs to be made easier to use and display information more clearly. Prices also need to be considered. Perhaps schools, churches, youth clubs could be encouraged to attend, with special offers. It’s a shame as several events I have attended, including the LMP/Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the big band one, were excellent, but not well-attended, as mentioned in previous comments. It’s a shame that the outside area is not very welcoming – and the catering facilities very limited.

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