Leadership / 06.15.18
Radical Hospitality: Technology Solutions for Audience Inclusivity
While everyone understands the need to make venues accessible to all audiences, it can still pose a challenge for some, especially as the demand for accessibility continues to grow. But, as the Shubert Organization has discovered, with every challenge there is opportunity.
In a presentation at INTIX 2018 in Baltimore, Shubert’s director of digital projects, Kyle Wright, eagerly explained how a change in mindset is helping his organization tap into opportunities that come with compliance. He also shared tips so that other organizations can achieve similar success in equally welcoming all audiences.
The NYC-based Shubert Organization has been at the forefront of American theatre for more than a century, operating hundreds of theaters and producing hundreds of well-known and critically acclaimed Broadway plays and musicals. In more recent years, the organization has also gained a reputation as a technology innovator by making live entertainment more accessible through radical hospitality.
“You notice the title of this session is not accessibility,” Wright told conference attendees. “That's a big part of what we are talking about today. But, the biggest thing I can leave you with today is the benefit of framing accessibility as an investment in your audience and explain why opening your doors and meeting your patrons where they are is the best thing you will ever do to get any traction in your organization.”
You could almost hear the eager audience shout out, “Tell me more!”
That’s exactly what Wright went on to do, adding a dollop of humor by handing out $20 iTunes cards to participants who could echo back industry best practices reflected in four essential points:
- Building the case for this type of accessibility in your own organization
- Finding the right solution
- Testing the solution without destroying the experience for everyone in the audience
- Positioning your organization for success
But first, an important observation: Audiences are getting older. The number of Broadway attendees over the age of 65 has grown by 500,000 in the last five years and, as a result, what Wright describes as the “Grandma Millie” effect is coming into play. People who have difficulty hearing or seeing a production are less likely to go to a show. This also means they won’t be bringing any grandkids they may have, which helps sell more seats today and contributes to building new audiences for the future. “Making content accessible keeps current audiences coming,” said Wright.
Building the Case for Accessibility
The concept of investing in future audiences by ensuring accessibility goes beyond age of course. The number of patrons whose first language is not English is also growing. There are now 60 million non-native English speakers living in the United States and every year another 1.3 million people from non-anglophone countries attend Broadway productions.
“Those are big numbers,” said Wright. “We need to consider not only the language issue, but also how content and culture is created and presented.”
Finding the Right Solution
So, where to begin? Identifying technology that helps make your venue even more accessible and offers a return on your investment goes beyond compliance and goodwill.
Wright offered a range of options. For example, venues used to be limited to Game Boy-type devices such as My Caption. Now, apps like GalaPro allow theatregoers with a hearing loss to use their own mobile devices to access on-demand closed captioning and audio descriptions.
“You sign in, create an account, pick your show, your language, your service, captioning or whatever you are going to consume, and you’re ready to go,” explains Wright. “Apps let you control your experience and you can do it all on a local network in the theater, so you don’t have to worry when the internet goes down in the middle of a show.”
The Importance of Testing
Regardless of what technology you decide to use, Wright stresses the importance of pilot projects and beta testing.
“It is 100 percent about reducing fear,” he said. “Everyone thinks it's going to ruin the experience, but when they get it in their hands, they are like, ‘Why was I so worried?’”
In the case of Shubert, numerous focus groups were consulted. “The biggest advantage we had apart from framing it around impact was inviting members of the deaf, blind and low-vision community to help us from the beginning,” said Wright. “Did we learn anything? We sure did!”
One problem that stood out during testing was when accessibility features went out of sync and some people appeared to be laughing too early or too late.
“The whole point is to bring people into the theater to experience stories with other people at the same time,” said Wright. “So, if you are laughing in front of everybody like you get the jokes sooner or later or you are crying at a different time, you haven't had a shared experience. It was important to get that right. We made big leaps and bounds because of testing.”
Wright said Shubert had the same experience with captioning. “Pay attention to the punch line, how people consume it, and at what rate they consume it and experience it together. That’s really the whole point of this.”
Keys to Success
Wright was quick to remind his INTIX audience that people aren’t robots. “Everyone consumes or understands technology in a different way. People may need help, especially if we are trying to, as we like to think we are, help them have fun. We don't want anyone to be here and be panicked or stressed,” he said. “Anything you can do to help people figure it out and plan for user error is really going to be your biggest success.”
No presentation on assistive technology would be complete without answering the question: How do you pay for it? The good thing is that moving to software and app solutions — and away from hardware — is dramatically less expensive because costs can be offset by associated revenue. As an example, Wright suggested a nominal fee for language translations as well as building in advertising, cross-promotions and sponsorships.
On the latter, Wright reminded attendees that accessibility is something a lot of people will want to have their name tied to. “It’s high profile and a ‘feel good’ thing in which to participate,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to be the person or organization that enables access to those who might otherwise not be able to enjoy a show?”
INTIX thanks the Shubert Organization and Sound Associates for sponsoring accessibility services at the 39th Annual International Ticketing Association Conference, held January 23-25, 2018, in Baltimore. Thanks to their sponsorship, attendees had the opportunity to see live captioning in action in every session.
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Tags: Accessibility , Theater , Broadway