Another thing I learned from the airlines.

The theater industry has learned a lot from the airline industry.

The airlines taught us about premium seating (first class). They taught us how to get rid of their unsold inventory with email blasts.  They taught us the ways of yield management.

And now they are teaching us about the upgrade.

I flew out West to see American Idiot at Berkeley Rep. on Saturday morning.  I was doing one of my favorite things to do when traveling coast-to-coast and making the trip in one day.  First flight out, and red-eye back.  No one even knows you’re gone!

I flew Virgin Airlines, which is pretty comfortable in coach, although the leg room is almost as bad as it is at a Broadway theater.

When I checked in for my red-eye back, the self-check-in computer popped up a screen offering me a chance to upgrade my ticket to First Class for only $250.

Huh.  I considered it even though I didn’t even think about going First Class when I bought the original ticket.  But since I knew how important it was that I slept the whole way home, and since I had saved myself a night at a hotel by not staying in San Fran, I did it.

After I clicked “buy” . . . I started to think about why it was such an easy choice for me . . . and then I started to think about how we could do the same thing in the theater.

It was obvious that the airline had some unsold first class tickets that they were willing to offer at a discount last minute.  Why not, right?  Get every dollar you can, before that flight takes off (curtain goes up) and the premium seat goes dead.  Additionally, by popping up only the upgrade price, it looked like a bargain. I already bought and paid for the coach ticket.  I wasn’t adding the coach ticket plus the upgrade together to calculate the total fare, which is why it was easier to buy.  And just like that, Richard Branson had a few more of my bucks.

We’ve all been to shows where the rear mezz or the balcony was sold, but the better seats weren’t, right?  And during intermission, or right before the show starts, there’s a mass movement of audience members scrambling to the better seats, even though they paid the cheaper price.

What if we could get those people paying a bit more and filling up the seats beforehand?

How could we do it?

  • What about sending the balcony seat holders an email 24 hours (or even less) before the show with a chance to upgrade for only $20? $30? (See, doesn’t it sound like a bargain already?)
  • What about a sign at the box office advertising an upgrade?
  • What about having the box office staff up-sell an upgrade when tickets are picked up at the window?
  • What about putting a seller in the house itself that roams the balcony before the show starts?

Upgrades are awesome.  Parsing the purchases in two makes them both seem more manageable, but ends up making you more money.  At the same time, the upgrade gives the audience member a better experience than they were expecting.

I know I slept a lot better on that flight home, thanks to my upgrade.

  • J says:

    My parents were visiting for the weekend and one of our traditions is to stand in line at TKTS and get tickets for a show. We had two or three options ready when we got to the front of the line, but with the odd number of three I always know it’s best to ask, “Do you have three together for such-and-such show?” first. As an avid theatre-goer I’m also picky about where I sit in some theaters. For example, I hate the rear-mezzanine of City Center and would rather sit in their balcony.
    When hundreds of people are in line at TKTS the last thing I’m sure the staff there wants to do is answer too many questions and I know for a fact the patrons in line behind you want things sped up too.
    It got me thinking why TKTS didn’t have a self-service kiosk like the airlines (or movie theatres) do. If I could punch in the show I wanted and a seating chart with available seats came up – along with the prices – it would certainly help let me make a better decision about what show I was going to see.
    This could obviously be brought into box offices in other theatres (although I know the lack of space would become an issue with some). Not only would it alleviate line congestion, and perhaps save money in box office personnel staff, but when picking up tickets, the buyer could be given the upgrade option you speak of, ask if they want to order a cocktail for intermission or even purchase their souvenir programs before the show starts.
    If airlines can do it, why can’t we? The technology is obviously available, it just needs to be tweaked a bit for our audience.

  • A Wells says:

    Ushers at a ball game (baseball, football, etc) always know when the big wig with the field level box is least likely to be in attendance. For a bit of extra tip they will show you the way to a great seat.
    with everything being digital and wireless why can’t an usher take a glance at a ticket scan thingy and upgrade a theater patron? its the same thing, but at the ball park the management never sees the money from the upgrade.
    it would also help with the last minute shift of patrons from the nose bleeds to the orchestra only to have the actual ticket holder show up.

  • Montserrat Mendez says:

    I love the idea of being able to upgrade to better seats. It makes absolute sense. Not only does the theatre make a little bit more money on unsold premium seating, but it gives the audience member a choice. Rather than looking down at the empty seats and saying, hey, why can’t i seat there, and then resenting the bold persons who move ahead, you can give them the choice up front. There could be an Upgrade section as you enter the theatre, in which you can upgrade your seats for an extra fee, not a lot, but more than enough to make it attractive to both audience and theatre. however, this TKTS kiosk, ATM style machine, BRING THEM ON!!! that’s a sweet idea.

  • Jeffrey says:

    The one thing airlines do that theaters *must* start doing sooner rather than later is to let me see the seating chart of the theater with the available seats clickable. Roundabout does this, but they already hold all the decent seats for their subscribers anyway. I am *very* particular about where I sit and have even missed shows that I would have paid to see, simply because the seats I found online weren’t that great and I didn’t have the time to go argue with the BO staff to try to get what I want.

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  • Kit says:

    This type of thing can be handled easily with a real-time app on your phone. When you create this and, make a killing on it, don’t forget where the idea came from.

    I’ve considered doing it myself for years, but lack the resources to accomplish such a thing.

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