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.

“When I say Broadway, you say . . .” Survey Results revealed.

My staffers and I got into a discussion last week about what the word ‘Broadway’ meant to our ticket buyers.  What sort of images did it conjure?  What did they associate with it?  In other words . . . what did the brand of Broadway actually mean?

We decided to find out.

I sent a couple of my loyal staff members (and the ones with the warmest coats) to the TKTS booth to ask 100 female theatergoers the following question (we asked only females because they drive the majority of the ticket purchases):

“What is the first word that comes to your mind when I say the word . . . Broadway?”

Below is a list of the responses (only responses given by more than one person are listed):

Shows 15%
Plays 9%
Musicals 8%
New York 8%
Music 6%
Dancing 5%
Wicked 5%
Fun 4%
Singing 4%
Lights 3%
Theater 3%
Chicago 2%
Crowds 2%
Fabulous 2%
Lion King 2%

Pretty interesting, huh?

Kudos to the three shows that got on this list.  When your show equals Broadway, you’re doing pretty well.  The other good news is what was NOT on this list: expensive, uncomfortable seats, etc.  Actually, only one person out of the hundred associated the word Broadway with “expensive,” and that one comment was the only negative word associated with Broadway in the survey.

Since we found this information to be so valuable, and since my staffers’ coats were really warm, we decided to ask another question in the same style, to the same people.  Ready?  Here goes:

“What is the first word that comes to your mind when I say the word . . . Off-Broadway?”

Below is a list of their responses:

Plays 12%
Don’t Know 9%
Cheap 6%
Not as fun 6%
Theater 4%
Altar Boyz 3%
Fun 3%
New York 3%
Shows 3%
Small 3%
Avenue Q 2%
Comedy 2%
Dancing 2%
More shows 2%
Shoes 2%

Pretty scary, huh?

9% of the individuals surveyed couldn’t even come up with a word to describe Off-Broadway!  And not only were there negative associations in this top group, as opposed to Broadway’s survey which had only positive, but these negatives continued on with the rest of the sample.  Words like “sad” and “meh” and “wannabes” were amongst the single responses we recorded.  In total, over 30% of the people surveyed had a negative first thought about Off-Broadway.  (For those of you who think we misspelled “shows” and put “shoes” instead, unfortunately, you’re wrong. Google Off-Broadway.  The second search result is the reason why 2% of our survey said shoes.)

The takeaway from this survey is pretty obvious: Broadway’s brand is healthy and positive, while Off-Broadway’s image is damaged . . . kind of like Martha Stewart when she went away to prison.

But Martha came back . . . and so can Off-Broadway.  It’s just not going to happen on its own.

A model for the rebranding of Off-Broadway tomorrow . . .

What is the first word YOU think of when you hear Broadway?  Off-Broadway?  Comment below.

(Special thanks to Lindsey and Ashley for braving the elements for this sake of this study.

5 More things I learned about Las Vegas.

I’ve written about Vegas before, having spent several months working there as the Company Manager of Chicago at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, and having spent many hours there hunched over a poker table.

I like Vegas. Where else can you stare at a  beautiful nature-made mountainscape in one direction and a beautiful man-made pyramid with a shaft of light shooting out the top in the other.
Pyramids and pirate ships aside, it’s a tricky town, especially for Producers, with more live entertainment produced on and off the strip than anywhere else in the world.  Jersey Boys, Cirque, Hypnotists, Comedians, Strippers, Magicians, etc., you name it, and someone is producing it.
Whether or not they are making money, is another question entirely.
Every time I go out to that man-made-Mecca, I learn something new, and the trip I took this past week, was no exception (special thanks to the NATB and the Ticket Summit, who had me out to speak at their conferences, and therefore inspired the trip and this post – and put a few bucks in my pocket thanks to a Jack High flush against a set of 8s.).
Here are five more things I learned about Las Vegas:
1.  SIN IS IN.
When I first went to Vegas, The MGM Grand had a theme park, and New York New York was promoting its roller coaster.  “Bring the family” was the rallying cry.  There are still plenty of family friendly things to do in Vegas, but for the past several years, the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” marketing-mantra has had its effect on live entertainment as well. The old fashioned sexy/topless Vegas revue is back in style.  The in-room hotel glossy mag advertising the “what to dos” while it town, featuring ad after ad of Crazy Horse, Zumanity, Jubilee, Bite, Thunder From Down Under, etc., etc.
And of course, the Vegas-Broadway love child, PeepShow directed by Jerry Mitchell, with songs by Andrew Lippa, starring Shoshana Bean and headlined by Holly ‘Hefner’ Madison (and yes, you to get to see her two talents – I’ll let you decide what those are).
Down a ways from the strip is where Vegas began.  It’s old school Vegas with it’s 99 cent shrimp cocktails, penny slots, and more. It’s cheaper. It’s off the beaten path.  It’s intimate and more personal.  Some would call it more “real”.
Sound like a familiar description? It’s exactly what Off-Broadway is.  And just like we try to tell tourists here about seeing an Off-Broadway show, downtown Vegas (or The Freemont Street Experience) tries to let visitors know that they haven’t really experienced Vegas unless they’ve come downtown at least once during their stay.
And I agree with them.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had a 99 cent shrimp cocktail and a deep fried twinkie.
Vegas doesn’t settle.  Revising a show after it opens is common place.  Le Reve (which I heard was revised twice), Chris Angel’s Believe, and many others have undergone changes well after the shows were “frozen”.  If audiences aren’t digging it, they bring back the team (or bring on a new team), and tweak it until it gets a better response.
If only we could do that here (The Scarlet Pimpernel tried it, but it didn’t take).
It makes sense that Vegas is willing to make these investments. For one, the shows are capitalized at much higher rates, so tossing in a few more bucks doesn’t mean as much.  And two, the shows are designed to run a lot longer and need to, so getting them just right is much more important.
There isn’t much that isn’t advertised on in Vegas.  Everything is a billboard:  slot machines, walls, giant mobile signs trucked up and down the strip, and even the urinals.  I would have snapped a photo of that urinal mini-board, but frankly, I was a little worried that if I whipped out a camera, the biker standing next to me would stop what he was doing and show me why I should always wear a helmet.
Vegas is non-stop excitement. There’s an energy that sweeps you up as soon as you step off the plane and keeps you going, no matter what the time and now matter how much money you lose.  And let’s face it, most people go there to gamble, get drunk, and do the things that you’re not supposed to do at home. It’s an adult theme park.  People who go to Vegas want to play.
And playing doesn’t mean sitting back and watching a “play”.  Every single thing I’ve ever seen in Vegas has some sort of interactive element. Headliners, illusionists, comedians, Cirque and their clowns, and so on.  The interactive element has to be there.  Let your audience sit back and relax, and they’ll start getting anxious about getting back to those tables, wishing they could be losing money rather than sitting through a show.  You better not even think about a fourth wall.
That’s one of the reasons that traditional musicals don’t work in Sin City, and the only ones that even have a shot are the mega-brands like Phantom, J. Boys, Mamma Mia, and Lion King (And I’d double-down that none of these shows are as successful in Vegas as they have been in other locations).
You know what else I learned about Vegas?  Every time I go, which is usually about 4 times a year since I worked there, it somehow makes you want to learn more.

How is Tony Voter turnout?

During my years an Assistant Company Manager on shows like Ragtime, managing Tony Voters was my job.
It’s a pretty stress-filled process, as you can imagine.  You have to reserve hundreds of great seats with the box office (another reason it’s hard to get a good seat to a show), send out invitations, take the orders when the voters call/fax/email, change the orders when the voters call/fax/email again, place the orders, make sure certain voters aren’t sitting next to certain voters, etc.
And you have to answer the calls from the Producers who want to know how it’s going.  My former boss, the recently convicted Garth Drabinsky, used to call me daily. I’d have to give him the # of orders that I took that day, the total voter turnout, and the “mood” of the voters as well.
Obsessive?  Yes.  Justified.  You bet.  (Garth thought that if he could get more people to see Ragtime, he could defeat the hype and spectacle of The Lion King, playing across the street.)
There are only 805 Tony Voters out there, and despite popular belief, our voter turnout is not like the turnout in Malta.  I remember working on my first show and being shocked at the number of voters that failed to exercise their right to vote (never mind get free tickets).
So, I took an unofficial “back-alley” poll of a few of the Tony nominated shows from this past season.  The turnout for the shows that I polled ranged from as low as about 35% to as high as about 80%.  And yes, as you can imagine, the shows with the higher turnout did better on the big day.  Average for all of them in my poll?  About 60%.
60% of 805 is only 483 voters.
Garth was right to obsess about the turnout.  483 bodies casting votes isn’t a lot, when you thing about it. You add another 75 to that number, and you can have a much different result.
I guess that’s why Garth made me call all of the voters that hadn’t made a reservation 4 weeks after the invitations were out.
High turnout is essential for every show (especially the underdogs), but it’s also essential for our industry (and for our country).  Individual shows should do everything they can to encourage actual turnout (as opposed to Iran-type turnout), as should The League.
And maybe we should consider taking away voting rights for those that haven’t voted in several years.
It shouldn’t be a luxury. It should be a duty.

The Video Game follow up.

Who knew I had so many readers who were also gamers!  I got a ton of emails regarding my video game post, so I wanted to post a few quick follow ups based on a bunch of great thoughts from all of you.

  • Many of you mentioned that there were video game versions of Lion King, Aladdin, etc.  ‘Tis true, of course, but remember, these weren’t based on musicals.  They were based on movies that then became video games and then became musicals.  Could this be one of the (million) reasons that the Disney shows trounce others at the BO?  We all know that the brands are powerful before they come in to town, and this is certainly one of the elements of building that brand.
  • I agreed with so many of you who said the best shot we have at penetrating this market is in some sort of karaoke/video game.  BG commented about an “Broadway Hero” game instead of “Guitar Hero”.  I likey.
  • Looks like Lord Lloyd Webber may have beat us to the bunch of that one.  Braden and Paul sent links to this article about upcoming games on Cats and Phantom where you have to sing for your roles.  I would have preferred an action based Phantom game, but whatev.
  • Here’s a link from Gil to info on a homemade Les Miz game.  Unfortunately, it, like the Disney movies, was not inspired from the musical.  It’s a tribute to the book.  But hey, any branding of the title helps, right?
  • One reader has this thought . . . why not a musical based on a video game?  Super Mario Brothers The Musical anyone?
  • And finally, here’s a link if you want to download the Altar Boyz game I told you about, built by former employee and reader Matthew Smith.  Sinners, beware . . .

Thanks to everyone for all the cool comments.  And a reminder to the rest of you that the comments section on each entry is the place to be.  I’m lucky enough to have some smart readers so check out what people are saying and post your own.

Now, why do I have a strong desire to power up my X-Box for the first time in 6 months?