What I learned from a Mall or Four ways to keep your audience at your theater.

If you run a theater anywhere in the world, your goal should not only be to get your audience to your theater, it should also be to keep your audience at your theater.

The longer they hang around, the more they think of it as a place of respite and entertainment, and the many more tickets they will purchase.  Expand the brand and they will buy.

I call it “Mall theory:”  creating a destination where people want to hang out . . . and eventually they’ll spend money, because you’ll be able to reinforce your message more often, and educate your consumers on all that you have to offer. For you Sondheim lovers, I also call it, “Spreading pitch on the stairs,” so your audiences get stuck.  (Name the show!)

While a theater or a theater complex will never have the traffic of the Mall of America, there are a number of very small and inexpensive perks that a theater can provide to keep consumers coming back, and maybe, sticking around.  Here are Four Ways To Keep Your Audiences At Your Theater.

1.  Free Wifi

With more and more devices that need Wifi (like the iPad) for their full functionality, a free Wifi spot is like an oasis in the desert.  I’ll plop myself for hours in a comfortable spot just to have that access, and I’m sure your audience will, too.  Add Free Wifi to all your common areas, and put signs for it everywhere.  You’ll have people stopping by sooner than you think (there’s no coincidence that Starbucks just traded out their pay Wifi service for free service for all).  Once your WiFi-ers are online, make them sign up for your mailing list in order to access the web.

2.  Live Music

People love live music and it doesn’t take much to get an up-and-coming singer/songwriter to play a few tunes in your lobby or wherever people may congregate.  Or better . . . use your theater itself (which is probably dark during the day) for free lunchtime concerts for local artists.  I know a bunch of folks who’d do it for tips or for the credit (it’s the coffee house or subway tunnel approach).

3.  Food/Drinks

Speaking of coffee, do you offer free coffee at non-peak times?  I’m not saying you have to have the best Columbian beans brewing for every passerby, but some basic free coffee is an incredible pull.  There is a Cub Scout group on I-95 that uses this bait and catches a lot of fish.  They put a huge “STAY AWAKE!  FREE COFFEE AT NEXT REST STOP!” sign on the highway, and get thousands of people pulling over.  They do have free coffee . . . and a bunch of other bake sale items for sale.  I bought a rice krispie treat.  And I don’t even drink coffee. Beyond coffee, strike a deal with a local deli or sandwich shop to get a few sandwiches on consignment.  How many times have you gone to the mall just for the food court, and ended up buying something while you’re there?  We need food and drink in order to survive.  Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for theater.  So, put what we need in your place, and you’ll get more people coming by.

4.  Lectures

People love to learn.  This is especially true of theater audiences (according to League statistics, 73% of the Broadway audience has college degrees, and 36% has graduate degrees).  So get some people to give free talks and lectures about a variety of subjects.  Have a Broadway Producer come and chat about what it’s like to Produce on Broadway (I’d do it).  Have a local painter come and talk about how she gets her inspiration for her paintings.  Or have an investment banker come and talk about how to navigate the choppy market (the subjects don’t have to be about the arts – they just have to be about the audience).  By providing these free mini continuing-ed courses, you’ll be giving something of great value to your audience, which should engender a reciprocal give-back to you, in the form of a ticket purchase or a donation.

Audiences are like children.  You want them playing in your own backyard so you can keep an eye on them, make sure they aren’t being influenced by others, and . . . tell them what to do.

How do you keep your audiences at your theater?

Come on inside for dinner. Or for a show.

101_0367 Meet Tae.

Tae is the street-greeter at Bangkok House restaurant on 46th St, between 8th & 9th Avenues, also known as Restaurant Row. I see Tae every day on my way to work.  She always smiles, says hello, and then tries to get me inside for lunch or dinner.

She makes me feel special (even though I know it’s only because she wants me to try their special).

If you walk down Restaurant Row, you’ll see lots of people just like Tae, greeting passersby, and hawking their cuisine . . . and filling up their empty tables in the process, maximizing their revenue.

Know where I’m going with this?

We’ve got flyer folks in the streets, and TKTS promoters in front of the booth . . . but what about a Tae in front of the theater?  I’d bet you lunch at Bangkok House that she’d get enough folks to come in off the street and buy tickets that she’d pay for herself faster than you can say “perishable inventory.”  (Maybe you can even maximize your investment by having Tae sell your upgrades after she’s done working the street!)

We can learn a lot from our perishable inventory brother and sister industries around the world, from the airlines, to the restaurants, to the sports teams.  In fact, I think there should be a Perishable Inventory Convention, where the leaders of PI industries all over the globe get together to share the best practices for their business.

If there were a conference like that. I bet it’d sell out . . . and at the max price possible.

We might even see Tae out front, selling any last few remaining seats.

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(Not So) Favorite Quotes Vol. XXIV: Won’t you be my neighbor?

One of the couples on my floor loves the theater.  They go on a regular basis, have great taste, and are always asking me for recommendations on shows to see.

Oh, and get this . . . they always pay full price.  (insert “whoopee!” here)

Last week, I ran into them in the elevator and they told me they were on their way to see Red.  I started asking them my usual string of mini focus group questions:  how they heard about Red, if they could describe the artwork, and then I landed on my finale of, “Where do you go to get your tickets?”

Their answer was Telecharge . . . but then the husband’s eyes widened and I could tell he wanted to share some sort of secret.  Here’s what he said:

“Yep.  We buy on Telecharge.  And pay full price.  But we never buy in advance.”

My heart sunk . . . and I kind of wanted them to move to another building.

He continued:

“Yeah.  We find we get better seats when we buy last minute. Whenever we try to get something in advance, we always get crap. But if we go online the day before or even the day of, we usually find gold.”

When I heard this, I wanted to move . . . to Tallahassee. There’s something wrong with a ticketing purchase process that reinforces full-price buyers to wait until pulling the trigger.

So what’s the problem?

There are probably a few issues at work here, but I’d bet a couple of full-price tickets to Red that the issue most at work is that theaters and shows are holding too many of their best locations for House Seats, etc.  House Seats (or quality locations held for use by the Producers, Theatre Owners, Actors, Designers, etc.) that are not used get dumped back into the general pool of available seats 2-3 days before each performance, which is why there is sometimes a flood of good seats available closer to the performance.  My neighbor was probably getting the tickets held for the Set Designer, or one of the Principal Actors, etc.

The problem is . . . there are so many people that have House Seats in their contracts, that up to 75 prime orchestra seats can be held . . . for every performance.  I mean, is the Set Designer or Principal Actor really going to use 2 or 4 seats every night???

In survey after survey, our audiences tell us that the #1 thing that they want is a great seat . . . and we’re holding them back.

By serving our own selfish needs, we’re causing our customers to do one of three things:

– Not buy at all (there’s really no better seat than on your own couch).

– Wait until something better opens up, thereby decreasing our ability to build advances.

– Find better locations elsewhere . . . translation:  they are going to brokers.

That last one is the most ironic.  Everyone in our biz has been concerned about the huge amount of business going to third party ticket brokers.

Well . . . news flash:  we’re part of the reason our audiences are seeking them out.

We’ve got to find a way to give our customers as much access to the best seats possible.  And one of those ways is to decrease the number of house seats we all hold.

Then, after we’ve decreased the number of house seats . . . we can start charging for them.  (For more on house seats, click that link)

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Overheard at Angus: Volume VI.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken you all on a trip to Angus to hear what’s being gossiped over lunch or pre-theater din-din.

The last time I was having my usual burger, my dining partner and I heard this little gem of a conversation being bandied about over a couple of brandies.  Knowing (as you do) my affinity for focus groups and research, I think you’ll see why I felt I had to pass it on to all of you.

Brandy Drinker #1:  I just did a focus group for one of my shows.  Learned some great stuff.

Brandy Drinker #2:  I just did one, too.

Brandy Drinker #1:  Oh yeah?  Which company did you use to run them?

Brandy Drinker #2:  I did them myself.

Brandy Drinker #1:  You what?  How’d you do that?

Brandy Drinker #2:  Simple.  I have a 15-year-old daughter.  I took her and ten of her 15-year-old friends out to dinner.  I told them about the show that I was doing, and then I asked, “Would you stamp your feet until your parents took you to see it?”

Brandy Drinker #1:  What did they say?

Brandy Drinker #2:  They said they wouldn’t stamp their feet.

Brandy Drinker #1:  Oh.  That’s too bad.

Brandy Drinker #2:  Not really.  They said they would tell their parents that they hated them unless they got them tickets.

Brandy Drinker #1:  Next round is on you.

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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