Ticket to success


tickets.gifEmpty seats are a problem.

Whether it’s a movie at the cinemaplex or Cirque du Soleil in the city arena, the place should be filled to capacity with fans enjoying the latest cultural offerings at fair prices.

Instead, empty seats.

At the theaters, people are staying away in droves because the moviegoing experience is lousy. And even a great concert like Sarah McLachlan or a regular match with the arena football team can find itself lacking in paying customers.

But the solution is just down the runway: Sell and manage tickets like the airlines.

But wait, you argue, aren’t airlines going bankrupt? Isn’t travel a hassle, too? Why mimic a slipshod industry?

Good points, all. But we could learn a few things from the airlines (especially Southwest).

One way airlines maximize revenue is that crazy real-time pricing structure. The same coach ticket from New York to Los Angeles for a Monday morning flight could cost $500 on one day, $700 the next day, and $300 two weeks later.

The guiding principle is trying to price to meet current demand — and to sell as many tickets as possible. The best outcome is a full plane. After all, that plane goes to L.A. whether it has one paying passenger or 300, and so it costs the same in fuel and personnel.

Well, a movie theater is the same way. You’re still going to have showings of “Basic Instinct 2” at 1, 4, 7 and 10 p.m. Better to have a full theater (happily munching on profitable popcorn and Cokes) than a nearly empty one.

The theaters already use a very simple pricing structure: before 5 p.m. is $2 cheaper. But a better solution would be to implement airline ticket pricing. It doesn’t have to as complicated, but it could put more bodies in seats.

Movie theaters are never crowded on weekday afternoons, but they still show the movies. Cut the prices, and pull in the college kids, “sick” workers and old folks. If “Ice Age 2” is popular, discount it to pull in stay-at-home moms or dads and kids during the week.

Consequently, raise the ticket prices on Friday and Saturday nights, when movies are in high demand. Teens will still shell out for domestic escape, and couples still need an easy (if pricey) date.

And popular destinations, such as “Inside Man,” would charge more for tickets than less popular fare like “She’s the Man.”

The ticket prices would change more frequently. The one you buy in advance today might be cheaper than the one you buy Friday night at the window.

Oh, and frequent movie flyers receive preferred seating and free tickets for chain loyalty. Airlines have done well with frequent flyer programs because a good many people never redeem their miles — but they continue to use those airlines again and again.

Speaking of airlines, Southwest doesn’t quite follow the old airline ticket rules. Their fares seem to be a little more steady, with fewer price levels. But its success has been providing cheap fares and no-hassle flying to many U.S. cities.

How does that apply to a Sarah McLachlan concert?

Let’s say she charges $40, $60 and $80 for tickets for upper deck, lower deck and floor seats, respectively. She might sell out the arena, or she might sell out the cheap seats, or she might have a nearly empty venue.

Instead of assigned seating, follow the Southwest method (one other airlines have refused to adopt). For those who’ve never flown Southwest (pity you), it’s simple: When you buy a ticket, you’re not buying an assigned seat. The first 30 passengers at the gate are in the first boarding group. That group picks their seats first, encouraging early arrival for an airline that has a stellar on-time record.

If you show up last, you sit between the fat guy and the screaming baby. (Of course, you could end up sitting there anyway even if you’re first on the plane.)

You all still end up in Los Angeles, and you all still paid different fares.

At the concert, we have two Southwest options. The first option is to let the $80 buyers in two hours before showtime. They can sit anywhere they want and claim their seats by taking the tickets placed in all seats. The $60 buyers are let in one hour before showtime, and so on. (By the way, taking more than one seat ticket is automatic ejection.)

The second option is to let everyone in when the doors open, and the $80 buyers claim any floor seat, the $60 buyers claim any lower-level seat, and the $40 buyers are still up in no man’s land.

But what’s the point?

First, no huge gaps of empty seats. Performers don’t like to look out on big stretches of vacant seats. And why leave prime seats open just because a radio station or corporate sponsor didn’t use their ticket allotment. Let real paying fans use those seats.

Second, no scalpers. Scalpers have legal and not-so-legal ways to get their grubby little hands on the best seats, long before you can actually buy them. But if you can sit in the front row just by showing up the earliest, then scalpers are out of business.

Third, it rewards people who show up. You may think Ticketmaster is the greatest cultural innovation, but it does a lousy job of putting fans close to the action. When you look around and see someone sitting 10 or 20 rows back or ahead, and that person paid the same as you, who cares if someone switches seats?

Fourth, it gives promoters another chance to sell out the place. Let’s say it’s 30 minutes to show time and thousands of seats are still available. Sell them all at $60 (or even $40). Put bodies in those seats, because that’s still money made for a show that must go on. (And more people means more concession and souvenir sales.)

If people can get better seats just by showing up earlier, or paying less money, you’ll see better attendance. Promoters and theater owners will make more money. And changing the ticketing system won’t cost very much.

And we’ll be able to put empty seats behind us.


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