Broadway, fans, and COVID-19: The show must go on(line)

Micah Hollingworth is a Broadway veteran who knows the business model for engaging theatergoers has to change. He has a plan for the fan experience going forward. Come from away to here, and read what he has to say. You will be happy you did, I promise.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I love Broadway. I love the theatre, especially musicals, but the whole thing really. I love being in and around Times Square as the crowds go from tourists to people heading home to those who are there to go to the theater. I love the dinner that comes either before or after the play. Broadway is the only place I know where the servers at restaurants will ask -- "You have a show?" -- to do a time check on your order. I love the entire experience. I have some connection to it, as well. 

My cousin, Richard Greenberg, won the Tony for Best Play in 2003 with Take Me Out. My mother-in-law's cousin, Beulah, is a central character in the massive hit musical Come From Away about the town of Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. I have been going to plays since I was a kid and would be continuing to go if it wasn't for the pandemic.

So, imagine my delight through sheer serendipity when I was introduced to Micah Hollingworth, who runs Broadw.ai, a really very clever and useful integrated mobile platform that organizes ticketing and marketing around the Broadway theatre-goer's experience. Micah is a Broadway industry veteran who has served as GM of Clear Channel Entertainment and GM of Hilton Theater. He is uniquely suited to thinking about both how Broadway and its venues work and how omnichannel fits into its future. 

Plus, he is a seriously cool guy. Good nature. Good heart.

Here we go. Micah is going to tell us what it takes to keep fans engaged on Broadway -- and what that means for its business model as the pandemic continues to keep New York theater shut down until at least May 2021.

Tell the story, Micah. Break a leg (in the Broadway sense).

Broadway is an industry made up of expert planners. From nurturing an initial creative idea and putting together the team, to planning every hour in tech leading up to Opening Night, to maintaining and running a hit, sometimes for a decade or more, the commercial theatre industry is a complex, organized, tightly interwoven industry.

For the better part of a hundred years, Broadway has performed eight shows a week, for 52 weeks a year. We've had brief interruptions or pauses imposed on us before -- most recently after the attacks on 9/11 and the Northeast blackout in 2003. But we've quickly returned to performances. As they say -- the show must go on.

Professionally, in my previous life as a venue operator, I've had several additional close calls when I've almost had to cancel shows. Most notably, when the deluge curtain flooded the orchestra pit during testing three days prior to the official opening night of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Hilton Theatre in 2005. But even while watching the sheet music float down the hallway, I never lost the belief that somehow, someway, the show would go on. Thanks to an amazing crew, we didn't lose a single performance.

So, what happens now? The global pandemic has brought commercial theatre to a complete standstill, and the business is left with the Herculean task to review the operations in their entirety and determine how to best restart the plane, while it's still in the air. That implies that a complete rebuild isn't advisable. What are some realistic technological opportunities and solutions that will help Broadway restart and welcome back fans?

Thankfully, Broadway has fans to welcome back, as they are a passionate and dedicated bunch. As my career began transitioning from venue operations to technology solutions, I became even more familiar with our fan base as part of the team that built www.luckyseat.com. A digital lottery platform created to move the analog experience (entering in-person lotteries to win low priced Broadway tickets) to digital (online entry and drawings daily). At Lucky Seat, we would see fans enter every day for weeks or months at a time just for the chance to win low priced seats to see their favorite Broadway shows. Nothing was better than hearing from winning fans.

Those fans, and that pent-up demand is there, waiting for the moment we open our doors again and welcome them back. We see this in our digital channels via engagement with video content or even direct messaging to the show itself. "When will you be back?" is the most common inquiry we've seen for shows with chat features enabled since early this summer.

The pandemic has changed our daily routines, and engagement with digital platforms has increased at a 10-year pace in less than six months! The major tech companies, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google, are all continually improving the customer experience, and by doing so, are raising expectations for all of us. 

When theatre closures were first announced, many fans were understandably confused and sought information on refunds, exchanges, and general questions regarding COVID-19. Quickly and simply communicating the details via the fans' preferred communications channel was crucial. "Are you providing refunds; Can I exchange my tickets; What is your refund policy?" Answering these questions, preferably on demand, provided shows with the best likelihood of a fan rebooking their seats for a later date thanks to their overall satisfaction and brand affinity.

Each of the major tech company's platforms provides their own solutions and opportunities to connect with fans in this hyper-connected instant answer world. Apple Business Chat, Google Business Messages, Amazon Alexa, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Google Assistant are all tools built for this new machine supported, answer engine-dominated landscape. Knowing what your fans are asking, and the channels they use to connect becomes a new and powerful data source for shows looking to re-engage fans and restart ticket sales. Call it "zero party data."

Now, a little over seven months into the pandemic, fans are starting to ask questions like "When will you reopen?  How will you reopen? What are your safety protocols? What do I need to know before I arrive at the theatre?" Again, being able to provide these answers immediately, via the fan's preferred channel, will provide the best likelihood of success and a quick restart. Thanks to the improvements driven by the major platforms, the fans expect immediate answers, and without them, will choose to do something else (or stay home!).

Once that ticket is purchased, expect a nearly contactless customer journey once you've arrived at the theatre. While we're unable to create more space in those nearly 100-year-old buildings, we can get you into the theatre by scanning tickets off your phone, providing easy ways to purchase concessions or merchandise without waiting in line, or even connecting with your favorite performer after the show, rather than waiting at the stage door. All of this again, provided to the fan within their preferred channel.

Removing or greatly reducing friction, in a world full of it, will be one piece of Broadway's multifaceted plan to restart. We cannot wait to welcome you back. Curtain up!

Great show! Thank you for that, sir.

ANNOUNCEMENTS: By the time you read this, CRM Playaz will have done -- either successfully or not -- its first hybrid Mystery Science Theatre 3000/Watch Party event with Larry Ellison's CX speech on Monday, Nov. 9. I'll keep you posted on how we did.

More germane to the future, in mid-December, we will hold a two-day (two hours per day) BYOB 2020 extravaganza. For those of you unaware, BYOB stands for Bring Your Own Band. Playaz Productions is holding a corporate band competition that 10 bands are playing in. They are each producing three music videos and will be judged by both a panel of judges and a popular vote -- one vote that we hope is yours. If you're interested, here is a sneak peek (please note these pages are a work in progress) of each of the bands. The bands are:

There are some heavy hitters here, trust me. 

The two-day extravaganza will be a showing of all 30 music videos -- and interviews with band members at a special CRM Playaz event. That will launch the popular vote. More details will be forthcoming at the mid-December event. 

Time to rock.

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