6 Things I learned at 6 Flags.

Yesterday, my office staff and about 40 other folks from the shows that we’re working on right now took a bus down to Jackson, NJ for the 4th Annual Davenport Theatrical retreat to Six Flags.

I’ve used the Broadway-show-is-like-a-thrill-ride simile before, so on this trip I tried to find some more specific things that all of us in the theater could learn from this pillar of an amusement park.

Here’s what I picked up:

1. Make everyone on your staff a marketer.

When I stepped through the entrance turnstile, the ticket-taker tore my ticket and then said, “Ride El Toro!”  Then she said the same thing to the person behind me.  And to the person behind them.

When I grabbed a good but expensive chicken sandwich, the lunch lady put my sandwich on the tray and said, “Check out The Dark Knight!”

The management of 6 Flags have turned their entire staff into marketers pushing their own product.  Why can’t we do the same thing?

Could shows buddy up and have their respective ushers pitching the other show?  Imagine an usher seating a family at Lion King and saying, “2 seats off the aisle.  Enjoy the show and check out Mary Poppins on your next trip to NYC!”  Or what about box office personnel suggesting to stop by the merch stand, or even the bar.  We’ve got people.  They’ve got voices.  We should (be able to) use them.

2. It’s not what you win, it’s that you play a game.

Does anyone really want a giant stuffed banana?  Or a Batgirl cape?  The prizes at the carny game booths are crap, but that doesn’t stop people from playing. Because it’s not about the prize.  It’s about the contest.  For what people spend on these games, you could BUY any of the prizes!  I spent $30 trying to get a plastic red ring around a bottle top, for you-know-who’s sake.  I don’t even remember what I was trying to win!

Maybe that’s why “Sign up to win free tickets” isn’t as effective as we all want it to be.  More effective would be “Sink this putt for a chance to win free tickets.”  People love to play, and they lust to compete, and they don’t even care what for.

(I won the Batgirl cape, by the way)

3.  Get ’em to take photos, and they’ll have something to talk about.

Enter the park, and there’s someone there ready to take your picture.  Exit any ride, and they snapped your picture.  Throw up in the bushes?  Most likely they’ve got in on film.

They’ve even got folks roaming around like the guy in the show above, reminding you to check out “your photos.”

Why?  Yes, because they sell them and make bank.

But also because they know that each souvenir photo that goes home is literally ‘captured fun’, bound to inspire the desire to return upon each look.

I’d put a photo booth in my lobby if I could, or even have a floating photog in the audience.

4.  Use your assets to advertise.

Something new at the Flags this year were the branded roller coasters and the outdoor advertising for other products.  Gum, hair products, candy bars, and more were being pitched to me all day.  (FYI, I only remember Snickers . . . the others brands are a loss to me, and I STARE at advertising . . . sorry, guys).

I’m certainly not suggesting we turn our theaters into minor league baseball stadiums, but there has to be ways we can use our assets to advertise other products (or our own) and offset some of our expenses.

Google AdWords, affiliate links, etc. are non-invasive ways to generate some income on your show’s websites.  As long as you’re not pushing people away from your shows, there is a way to make some additional money.

5.  Small crowds don’t pay less.

It rained yesterday . . . which means smaller crowds, less lines, and . . . unfortunately, less staff.  Look, I get it.  Reduce the staff if your revenue is reduced.  But unfortunately, they went a bit too far, and our experience was not as dynamic and exciting had it been a sunshiny day.

Just because we were weatherly challenged, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get all 6 Flags.  We got about 4.  And they’re paying, because I just told the whole world wide web about it.

This one is for all the actors out there.  I remember what it’s like looking out at an audience with only a handful of people in it.  I once did You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown to 7 people.  Yes, there were more of us on stage.

It ain’t easy, but those 7 people deserve the same show as the houses that have 700.

6.  The Premium Premium ticket. 

I’m a big believer in the pay-for-play Flash Pass system that allows you to jump the line and plan your day better.  And I’m happy to pay for it. Six Flags has obviously been taking lessons from Gordon Gekko, because this year they added another level to their Flash Pass:  Platinum.  Obviously they had seen enough traction on the Gold level, that they added another level to nudge some people up.  And it worked.  There were no lines, yesterday, and yet the woman next to me had to have Platinum . . . even though the woman selling her the pass advised her not to get it.

There is always someone who wants to fly first class.  Coming up with a high-roller ticketing option might be a way to get a few more dollars from a few more people with very little effort.

Broadway is not a theme park.  And it should never be.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what the parks do well, and what they don’t, in order to make our world the happiest and most profitable place on earth.

  • Robyn L says:

    Great call about the photo booths! My sisters and I stopped in the lobby of Promises Promises to check prices and rush policies, and my little sis was so excited to take a picture with the Sean & Kristen lifesize cut outs! We didn’t end up getting tickets, but we still have a memory from the show. That wouldn’t suit every lobby, for sure, but it’s a great concept when it’s the right fit!

  • Emily Acosta says:

    Not sure if you’ve heard of the Gamepocalype, (http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/04/05/games.schell/index.html) – it’s the idea that with advancements in technology, everything around us is becoming more and more like a game. Foursquare is the perfect example – there are SO many other channels by which you can tell people where you are, but the fun of Foursquare lies in the digital rewards you get (like becoming mayor!!), and the small chance that you might get an actual reward, like a discount on goods/services. I totally agree that games are a really effective marketing tool, especially ones that involve technology to make the game more widely distributable in some way, unlike having to go to a specific location to throw a red ring over a bottle top, for example. It’s hard to think of what games might be worth pursuing in the theater world, especially since the fun of theatre is that it is live – not on the computer or behind a screen, and you have to turn those phones off, lest an usher publicly yell at you in front of your fellow theatergoers. Hmmm… I imagine some sort of Broadway passport where you get stamps for seeing different shows, and once you see a certain number, you get an autographed poster of your choosing? Or a free upgrade from rear mezzanine to orchestra? Or maybe even some sort of fancy schmancy certificate? Or perhaps another idea would be to implement something like the in-theatre texting campaign in “reasons to be pretty” where the audience had to rate their beauty on a scale of 1-10…. OR maybe there can be an actual game on the show’s website, or a downloadable game for one’s phone that relates to the show in some way, and the top scorer on any given day is sent a signed playbill of the show. This would be even better on your phone, since you can carry the memento of the show with you at all times. So many possibilities!

  • janiska says:

    How about a creative marketing contest kind of like the green contest? Or maybe it’s been done? My undergrad major was marketing so here’s a couple of ideas I stole from another marketing oriented theater that was not too artsy to survive even in down times.
    In a marketing oriented theater, the show was sponsored by a maker of whisky whose company staged a live commercial before the show and during intermission. In addition to being mentioned in the program, the whiskey maker had their logo embroidered in gold on the curtain which they purchased for the theater.
    They sold ads for other companies on the backs of the seats. Almost every seat had at least one ad. It was a good buy for an advertiser despite the relatively small market because the audience was exposed to the ad during the whole 2 hr. show.
    Selling photos with cardboard cutouts worked in D.C. for a while until someone outlawed it. Maybe it would make money for theaters too. Of course many shows already sell cast recordings, tee shirts, etc., but something unique like a silver plated ticket charm or something might be a money maker too. Everyone wants a souvenir of their trip to a great show.
    Marketing is everything today and marketing oriented companies all use the old, “While you got ’em, why not fleece ’em?” technique because it works.
    You can’t even drive through a McDonald’s for a burger without being asked if you want a fried pie or some other over-priced caloric temptation. Like Six Flags and McDonald’s, theaters could make more money from “add ons” than from admissions. A theater audience is a “captive audience” and everyone knows you just need one “yes” to make a sale. An audience has alredy said “yes” once to the ticket so they’re your best target market. It almost makes me cry to say it but theater may have to resort to the Six Flags and MCDonald’s “add on” mentality to survive. It’s the cold hard reality of the twenty-first century.

  • RS says:

    I was standing at the back of the Oriental Theatre in Chicago a few nights ago before the show started and one of the ushers was leading people to their seats by saying- you are in M as in” Mamma Mia!”, or your seats are in row L as in “Lion King”. R as in “Ragtime”. I don’t think she was ever instructed to do this but it made me smile to think that she was promoting other theatre experiences while leading people to their B as in “Billy Elliot” seats.

  • Agree with you and Robyn on the photo booths (when appropriate). And what about video booths? You could get reactions from audience members during intermission and after performances…and then use them in future promotions (website, facebook, etc).
    – Timothy Childs

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