In a twist, traditional marketing tactics reign on Broadway

In a challenge to the conventional wisdom that social media is a ‘silver bullet’ for any sales campaign, one of the nation’s most storied institutions is gradually realizing that old school sales tactics can still be effective.The below NYT story explores how group sales on the Great White Way are still largely driven by cold calls and quick, personalized thinking.
It’s a classic example of the importance of ‘knowing thy audience.

Good Tweets are Nice, But Group Sales Fill Seats

By Patrick Healy
More than 55,000 Facebook users “like” the new Broadway musical “Sister Act,” which, like most major theatrical productions today, has its own page, as well a Twitter account (1,300 followers), YouTube channel (30,000 uploaded views) and set of apps. (Photoshop your face into a nun’s wimple and win free tickets!)

Yet how many 50-year-old white female tourists — the average Broadway ticket buyers — are plunking down money for “Sister Act” because @MzzzD17 wrote on Twitter that seeing it “made  me want to go back to church! :-)”? Ask Broadway insiders to say how many tickets have been sold as a result of all this social networking, and the look on their faces reads, “Server not found.”

“You hope these sites generate good word of mouth, but they’re not the thing that is still, in this day and age, the best measure of our show’s potential popularity and financial return,” said Jerry Zaks, the veteran director of “Sister Act.” “That’s group sales.”

If Facebooking Broadway is all the rage for shows, the real economic engine remains the sales agents wearing old-fashioned headsets and tapping through decades-old databases to pitch group buyers working with churches and synagogues, schools and businesses, and the “theater ladies” who have kept the Wednesday matinee in business since before Steve Jobs founded Apple.

This season these ticket agencies are exercising more muscle than usual. They are the first line of arbiters for groups in a product-packed spring, when nine plays and musicals opened in March and 13 more will have opened by the end of April.

Take Group Sales Box Office, founded in 1960 and today one of the most profitable group ticket agencies on Broadway. The company projects sales in excess of $30 million this year, with “Sister Act” (its current top seller with groups) accounting for more than $1 million in tickets so far. With offices just off Times Square and across the street from the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (a show that has not been a group magnet for the company), Group Sales Box Office and its 22 sales agents may still be version 1.0 in Broadway discounting and promotions, but in terms of results, they are the hare to social networking’s turtle. Ticket orders were up 43 percent from Feb. 1 to April 1, compared with the same period in 2010.

Among the staff of several retired performers (one of whom appeared in the original “West Side Story” and another in the first “Hello, Dolly!”) is Shawn Campbell, a 35-year-old former actor who is known around the office for his knack with cold calls. Like the salesmen out of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” who followed the maxim “always be closing,” Mr. Campbell veered from show to show one morning this winter trying to make a match.

On the other end of the line was Thelma Kaltbaum, a group organizer for Jewish Women International.

Sitting in his generic office cubicle on the company’s trading floor, Mr. Campbell almost had a sale with the new musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (three drag queens on a tour bus; a widow landing a man) until one detail halted the deal: Wednesday matinees, popular with older theatergoers, weren’t on offer. He pivoted to highlighting the jazzy score of another potential crowd-pleaser, “Catch Me If You Can,” and then the character Florence Greenberg in the new Shirelles musical, “Baby It’s You!”

It wasn’t until he mentioned the actress Sutton Foster — “Broadway royalty at this point,” Mr. Campbell made clear — starring in the revival of “Anything Goes” that his ship came in.
“So what you’re saying,” Mr. Campbell said to Ms. Kaltbaum, “is that Sutton Foster plus ‘Anything Goes’ equals an easy sale to your group? All right, Thelma! And know what? Joel Grey  is in it too!”

The four-minute phone call was enough to induce mental whiplash, but Mr. Campbell and his fellow brokers were pros at the chief duty that some Web sites have only begun to master: aggregating details about the 39 Broadway shows this spring and then differentiating them for longtime customers whose preferences are reflected in databases listing their past purchases. (For example, past groups for the drag musical “La Cage aux Folles” are the prime target for “Priscilla” sales calls.)

“Sister Act,” based on the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, has been competing hard against other new movies-turned-musicals like “Priscilla” and “Catch Me.” The “Sister Act” producers prospered, according to company executives, by setting a lower group minimum for discounts (10 people, versus 15 or more for other shows) and continuing an “early bird” discount offer (of $79) longer than most shows.

The producers of “Priscilla,” based on an Australian cult favorite film from 1994, have  ountered by offering $500 gas vouchers for groups, while the sales pitch for “Catch Me” is that its creative team also made the hugely popular movie-based musical “Hairspray.”
Sales agents for the new “Book of Mormon” musical, meanwhile, have pursued devotees of past hits with irreverent humor, like “Spamalot.” Those pushing “Baby It’s You!” are describing it as “ ‘Jersey Boys’ with girls.” The big-budget musical “Wonderland” is promoted as “Alice in Wonderland” for grown-ups, and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is the chance to spend face time with its wildly popular star, Harry Potter (also known as Daniel Radcliffe).

“In most seasons the rule of thumb is that the show that has the widest charm would sell best to groups,” said Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office. “That’s helping ‘Sister Act,’ no doubt. But group organizers know there’s a huge number of shows this spring. So they’re shopping around, seeking a lot of answers — Whoopi Goldberg is not in ‘Sister Act’ — and the best-selling shows will be those that find ways to stand out.”

Like other group sales agencies, including Broadway Inbound and Givenik (a fairly new enterprise that funnels 5 percent of each ticket sale to charity), Ms. Lee’s company works off the same sets of discounts provided by producers — frequently, 10 percent to 35 percent off the face value of tickets purchased by groups, which may mean 10 people or as many as 20.
Producers usually allot a set number of free tickets to invite top group buyers to sample their shows during early previews. And groups tend to choose an agency based on cultivation, customer service and relationships rather than by shopping around.

“When the ‘Spider-Man’ musical recently canceled a bunch of performances to go on its hiatus, I stood to lose real money until Stephanie assured me that she would find the right shows with available dates to take care of our ‘Spider-Man’ groups,” said Margie Lance, whose Pennsylvania-based company Go With Us Inc. sends 35 groups to Broadway by bus regularly each year. “This is a relationship business, and I know I can trust Stephanie. I don’t know who is on the other end of some Web site or Twitter account saying such-and-such show is good.”
All of Ms. Lee’s agents attend Broadway shows a few times a week — Mr. Campbell has been to “Priscilla” several times so far — which allows them to provide firsthand details to group buyers. Such insider knowledge, Ms. Lee said she believed, has been leading to longer-than-average sales calls lately.

“I can’t remember the last time we had so many star-driven, big-budget, well-advertised shows opening all at once, and our group buyers want the skinny on them,” Ms. Lee said. “Facebook is a way for shows to tout themselves and then hope fans will post on the site so buzz can go viral. That’s a great tool, but the buzz from all these shows can become deafening. We’ve found that on Broadway group buyers still want an agent they know who can tell a hit from a flop.”