Fashionably late: Festivals sweat post-pandemic trend of last-minute tickets

Key points

  • In Melbourne’s ‘Mad March’ the Melbourne Fashion Festival, Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival host hundreds of separate events across the city.
  • Festival organisers say following the pandemic an increasing number of people are leaving their ticket purchases until the last minute. 
  • All three festival organisers said ticket sales were tracking on 2019 levels but they were reliant on late purchases to make the festivals a success. 

Festival organisers are feeling the pressure as Melburnians continue to leave their ticket purchases for the city’s swag of March festivals until the last minute.

During the jam-packed month of “Mad March”, the Melbourne Fashion Festival, Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival are hosting hundreds of separate events across the city, and many are increasingly reliant on last-minute ticket sales.

Audiences are buying tickets for events later than before the pandemic.Credit:Melbourne International Comedy Festival

While organisers are reluctant to provide exact details of how many tickets they have sold, they have all noticed a wider trend of attendees booking late.

Susan Provan, director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, said after two years of pandemic interruptions, ticket sales were tracking well and were slightly above 2019 sales for the same period.

“The festival is very much a late-booking pattern, and that is actually something that has been impacted by COVID. People are booking later than they did previously in the ‘before times’,” she said.

“People book for the well-known names in advance, and then they sit and wait, and for promoters, that’s really, really hard, because it’s terrifying. It’s like, ‘Can’t you just buy the tickets now and make us all feel better?’ We’re used to holding our breath.”

Caroline Ralphsmith, head of the Melbourne Fashion Festival, said ticket sales often went up on the day of the events now.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Provan said the audience for the Comedy Festival’s 600 shows – which include Hannah Gadsby on opening night and Circus Oz – skewed young.

She said these younger audiences often made last-minute plans to get friends together and then choose which show to see, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.

“With the COVID festivals in 2021 and 2022, people were not booking until the last minute because they didn’t know whether or not they were going to be sick or whether shows were going to be cancelled or whether a lockdown was going to happen or what,” Provan said. “That habit, maybe of booking a bit later than usual, has not gone away yet.”

The Melbourne Fashion Festival started on Friday and is also banking on a rush of last-minute sales.

Chief executive Caroline Ralphsmith said ticket sales for the festival, which is being held at the Royal Exhibition Buildings, were back to pre-COVID levels and selling well.

“Whilst no doubt there will always be some last-minute ticket sales, several events across the program such as the David Jones Autumn Winter Runway have been sold out for weeks,” she said.

Ralphsmith said there were two groups of ticket buyers: those that wanted to get the best seats and booked well in advance, and those who were happy to be more spontaneous.

“You can buy electronically,” she said. “You can look at what’s going on. You can look at the weather. If there’s a bit of an outdoor component, you can sort of choose the day that looks better and so and you can actually buy three minutes from walking in the door.”

Ralphsmith said the curve of ticket sales went up sharply on the actual days of the festival, which was all part of the festival experience, but it did make planning difficult.

On Friday, the festival’s website still had tickets for sale for each one of the festival’s four premium runways.

At the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, creative director Pat Nourse has also been keeping a keen eye on ticket sales.

He said three weeks out from staging 200 events was always pretty intense, but “it feels a heck of a lot better than it did this time last year”.

The festival’s flagship events – The World’s Longest Lunch, where 2000 people eat lunch in Treasury Gardens, and the World’s Longest Brunch, which is hosted by Beatrix Bakes’ Natalie Paull this year – sold out quickly. But other events were more reliant on the late comers.

“With ticket sales in the last three years … people [are] leaving things later,” Nourse said. “So I would say it’s been a mixed bag in that regard.”

Nourse said while it would be great to sell out every event in advance, the festival’s strategy has been to cater to people who didn’t want to commit in advance by offering a range of events that did not require bookings.

“We put plenty of stuff in the program for the person who hasn’t really thought about booking a seat months in advance, who just wants to rock up at the festival,” he said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of family-friendly stuff on in Federation Square, and we’ve got the Festival Bar, which brings together the hottest food and drink talents in town right now.“

Nourse said he was confident Melburnians would back the festivals.

“I think people are showing they want to get back and embrace what living in this city is all about,” he said. “If you’re in Melbourne in March, it’s everything about Melbourne, turn it up to 11, it’s maximum Melbourne.”

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