Managing front-of-house

 11 May 2011

Britannia Morton is Director of Visitor Services and Estates at Sadler's Wells. The department manages front-of-house, maintenance, security, health and safety, events and catering.

Britannia is responsible for visitor services at the Sadler's Wells building. Photo credit Morley von Sternburg.
Britannia is responsible for visitor services at the Sadler's Wells building. Photo credit Morley von Sternburg.

Britannia's department is responsible for creating a safe and relaxed environment within the Sadler's Wells building, Peacock theatre and Lilian Baylis Studio.

Working with visitor services

Britannia has been with the venue since 2010. She is responsible for coordinating and managing all activities that fall under the department's wing. It's a busy role working with a diverse array of teams, from the in-house catering team, to staff that greet visitors and check their tickets.

"Even a ticket office job is quite difficult to get without experience. It's definitely harder now."

"It's about creating a friendly and welcoming feeling. Underlying that, is that it is all safe, the customer has the confidence that you are managing it all effectively and that they are going to have an enjoyable time."

The venue welcomes around 14,000 visitors a week through its doors. There is no such thing as a typical day.

"One minute you are dealing with the design of the new bins at the Peacock Theatre, and the next minute you're talking about what to discuss at the board away day, or our arts council funding. It's a big range of things, from the more strategic to the practical every day."

Building a career in the arts

Britannia initially studied drama at university but after graduating realised that she didn't want to pursue an acting career.

"I still wanted to work in the arts, so I got the first entry level job I could find which was working in the ticket office at the English National Opera (ENO), and I really enjoyed it."

She worked with ENO for seven years during which time she rose to the position of Ticket Office Manager. A similar role at the Royal Albert Hall, but on a larger scale, was followed by a role at the Barbican, initially as Head of Box Office, later taking on front-of-house, security, cleaning and health & safety.

From there Britannia moved to the Southbank Centre as Head of Visitor Services, Safety and Security, her role encompassing the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Getting into front of house roles

'There are more specialised courses now than when I started. The real change is that there are an awful lot of unpaid internships and you almost have to do some of those in order to get a job.'

This is something that Britannia has seen increase over the years, especially in programming and curatorial areas.

"But even a ticket office job is quite difficult to get without experience, at least retail experience. It's definitely harder now, but if you're willing to go into a front of house job, then you can still get those."

Front of house roles provide a real opportunity to get into an organisation, understand how they are structured and move within the organisation into other areas.

"Certainly at the Southbank we had quite a few people who started off in the ticketing side of things who went on to work in development or other departments. It's good to get a foot in even it's not where you eventually want to end up."

Developing managerial skills

Having worked her way up from an entry level box office job to running an entire department, Britannia understands the challenges that face her staff.

"When people want to push the boundaries, they are bound to bump into something. It's about allowing them to do their creative thing within the realms of what is possible."

"It's really important to know what it's like to work a ten hour day answering the phone and selling tickets, or what it's like to be an usher."

Having this experience enables her to have 'more credibility when you're managing those teams'.

Nevertheless, Britannia remembers the transition from working as Head of Box Office to managing a more diverse array of departments, "when I managed a ticket office I knew everything about it and had done all of those jobs myself".

She initially found managing things she didn't have experience of disconcerting. "You couldn't rely on that knowledge that you had, you just had to be a good manager."

Dealing with reduced arts funding

Alongside her current role, Britannia is also working as Interim General Manager whilst her colleague is on maternity leave. As well as dealing with issues relating to Visitor Services, she is looking after areas such as finance, technical and production and HR.

"There's always plenty going on. At the same time we're experiencing these cuts in Arts Council funding and the climate for getting donations is getting harder, so we're looking at areas where we can save money."

Whilst Sadler's Wells, like many arts organisations, have found their Arts Council funding reduced, their percentage of funding is relatively low (13.6 percent of turnover in 2009-10) compared to other venues.

"Whilst there is an impact, it's not as big as it might be."

Working with new exhibition ideas

One of the most interesting areas of Britannia's role is the enabling of new ideas. In her role as Head of Visitor Services at the Southbank, she worked on the exhibition 'Psycho Buildings' at the Hayward Gallery.

Her role involved finding ways to make the exhibits, which included a boating lake on the terrace and steel tunnel in the centre of the gallery, safe for visitors and staff.

"When people want to push the boundaries they are bound to bump into something. It's about allowing them to do their creative thing within the realms of what is possible."

Britannia also enjoys trying new things 'even if it's not new to the whole industry, but new to here.' She cites the move from outsourced catering to an in-house bar and catering service as example. "It's also about trying different food offers, finding what our audiences like and doing something a bit different."

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