Leadership / 11.16.21
New York: If Theatres and Venues Can Reopen There, They Can Reopen Anywhere
Is there any other way to describe New York City’s “Great Reopening” than, well, “great?” After all, this is a city that’s been nicknamed the “Big Apple” and has things like “The Great White Way,” Radio City, Madison Square Garden and Grand Central Station. New Yorkers don’t do anything so-so, small or “not so grand.”
The return of live performances on stages ranging from Broadway to Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center after the long COVID-19 shutdown has been a cause for celebration for culture-deprived theatergoers, music and dance lovers, and patrons of the arts. That’s not to say coming back hasn’t entailed some adjustments. It has, ranging from venue operators and their staff having to juggle proofs of vaccination, photo IDs and tickets to the absence of intermissions at some concerts and dance performances.
The Show Must Go On
Once inside a venue, other changes await. For instance, in the minutes leading up to performances of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” concert show, ushers stroll up and down the aisles of the St. James Theatre with poster-size signs that urge “Please Mask Up.” Chris Stasiuk, Head Treasurer of the St. James’ box office, says, “It’s been a challenge bringing audiences back. It’s hard when you know you still have a great product, and you do your best to sell it. But you’re not responsible for marketing and brand management and things like that. Sometimes, everything you try is just not going to accomplish what you want it to do, and you feel like a failure. But it’s not necessarily your fault.”
She continues, “The St. James Theatre, literally, opened Broadway on June 26. We were the first show, the first performance, the first audience, and that was because we had Bruce Springsteen. There was no begging people to come and see it. We were sold out for all 30 performances almost immediately. The challenge wasn’t getting people here. Our challenge was, post-pandemic, we had switched ticketing companies. So, to reopen with a brand-new ticketing company, we had to re-learn everything after months away, learn a brand-new ticketing system in about four weeks, and then put on a show that would be grossing millions of dollars. You don’t want to make a mistake in that! It helped that the Bruce Springsteen has the most professional camp I’ve ever worked with. As a result, we then started David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ with a lot less stress.”
Many Broadway shows came back more recently. Performances of “Wicked,” for example, resumed on Sept. 14. Original Glinda and Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth made a pre-curtain speech prior the show’s grand opening.
Stuart Levy, Director of Ticketing and Insights for “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre, says, “The most challenging aspect was allaying audience members concerns about what safety precautions were being done and what the protocols would be for admittance to the theater. My team was lucky in that we still had weekly Zoom calls throughout the pandemic, so we were well prepared when we first announced the show’s return.”
In the past several weeks, his and other theaters have grown more adept at swiftly managing the lines of people waiting to get in. In most cases, people get their vaccine status checked first, then move more briskly through security and into the venue where ushers scan their tickets.
But reopening was a long, long time coming. Charlotte St. Martin, President of The Broadway League Inc., says, “As Broadway has a very financially restrictive model, we are not in a position to socially distance our audience. Therefore, we had to develop the protocols that we felt assured would keep our theatregoers, cast and crew safe. It made our shutdown an 18-month event. As we were quite clear about our not reopening until we had solutions for safety, selling tickets was not the initial issue for our members. There was and is still a great deal of pent-up demand. Only time will tell how much true demand there is, but we know that safety and security are the single most important component of getting people back into the theater and selling tickets. It’s not about discounting to our audiences.”
Meanwhile, intermissions are indeed growing rarer. The New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and Carnegie Hall have all experimented with slightly shorter programs with no intermissions partly to minimize the amount of time patrons are together in crowds.
Adam Crane, Vice President of External Affairs for the New York Philharmonic, says, “We’re in the unusual position of not having a home this season as the renovation of David Geffen Hall continues [David Geffen Hall is scheduled to reopen in October 2022]. As a result, we’re performing most of our concerts in two smaller Lincoln Center venues: Alice Tully Hall and the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It’s almost like we’re on tour the entire season as we move from venue to venue. Just knowing where we’re performing week to week is an ongoing challenge this season. That said, ticket sales have been extremely strong so far this fall. Our audiences have been starved for live music. We indeed eased everyone back into the concert-going routine by starting the season with shorter concerts and no intermissions [NOTE: Intermissions returned in early November].”
Let’s Play Ball
Of course, Broadway and live music aren’t the only things that have had to take measures to get people back in seats live. New York sports have also had to show it was safe to attend games in person. Michael Berman, Senior Director of Ticket Operations for the New York Mets, says, “The biggest challenge has been that everyone's comfortability to return to the ballpark differs and New Yorkers aren’t afraid to share their opinion on how the ballpark experience should be now. The entire organization worked tirelessly in 2021 to follow the ever-changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York state guidelines. Being an outdoor venue certainly has worked to our advantage in terms of fans’ comfort. Some fans were ready to come back full force in April. Others were waiting for the summer or to be vaccinated. And yet some are still not comfortable and are willing to wait until conditions improve to their liking. Bringing back our large group outings and many corporate clients has been a challenge and will be one of the last big hurdles for us to overcome.”
Jeff Hecker, Senior Director of Ticket Operations for the New York Jets, agrees, adding, “I think it all starts with understanding that the ‘new normal’ simply isn’t normal for most of our fans. We were very lucky at the Jets to have complete ownership buy-in on anything and everything we put in from of them, including giving money back to customers and spending money during a time no one wanted to spend. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Some were willing to run back to the stadium as soon as we opened the doors. Some still haven’t returned. Most, likely, fall in between. We tackled each separately. ‘Business as Usual’ was all that was needed for those that were ready.’”
Live Events Upstate
The reopening has, of course, extended out from Manhattan and New York City’s other boroughs to statewide. Live events are coming back all over the Empire State. Julia Elbaum, Director of Finance for the Palace Performing Arts Center in Albany, says, “Because our venue is primarily a live music venue, it wasn’t as difficult to get patrons to want to come back. But different demographics have reacted differently to the policies that are in place. Most of the venues in the Capital Region, and all of the theatrical venues upstate, are either ‘vax only’ or ‘vax and test.’ We at the Palace in Albany are fully vaccinated staff and masks required for all shows. If the artist requests vax or vax/test, we comply with that request, otherwise we do not require proof of vaccine or test. Not surprisingly, older demographics — i.e., symphony — and the theatricals are seeing a drop in actual attendance, despite strong ticket sales and the requirements.”
Alison Barry, Director of Guest Experience & Sales at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, says, “The most challenging aspect of getting fans back into seats was all the uncertainty. We found that patrons really wanted to get back out into the world, but they were wary, apprehensive. Every other call felt like a counseling appointment . . . on both ends of the phone line! How could we keep them safe when we had no idea, not only what guidelines would be in place, but what the status of infection rates would be, how compliant other guests would be, the list goes on. And of course, all of this was dependent on our staff and the artists remaining healthy. Ultimately, we decided to run a mostly vaccinated venue, with a smaller unvaccinated section. This seemed to work well for us.”
What’s Next for New York?
Most of the ticketing and live event professionals interviewed for this article concurred that New York entertainment and sports will be permanently changed in numerous ways as a result of the pandemic. Some changes will be for the better. Adina Irwin, General Manager of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, says, “The fan experience has evolved to include more ‘contactless’ or ‘frictionless’ interactions like Mobile Ticketing, Grab and Go F&B Offerings and contactless security screening to name a few. . . . The requirements for air quality (i.e., Merv 14 filters, etc.) has become the standard, and I can’t see these being rolled back.”
Sean Free, Vice President of Sales and Ticketing for the New York-based Nederlander Producing Co. of America Inc., says, “I expect we will have a higher level of communication with our guests than we ever had in the past. The requirements that became essential during COVID-19 — digital ticketing, staggered entry times, pre-check requirements, etc. — have acted as a catalyst for operational, technical and marketing innovation that ultimately provides for a better guest experience. As a result, we now have new tools in our toolkits that we never had before. We have seen that some of these innovations have improved our efficiency for managing events, and I suspect this will continue into the future.”
The Mets’ Berman believes there are two changes that will become permanent. The first is the pandemic accelerated fans’ and organizations’ digital mindset. “We went from scanning 45% tickets digitally in 2019 to 95% digital in 2021. We also introduced mobile food ordering and piloted a facial recognition access control program as we continue to look at ways to make the fans’ experience as seamless as possible. Secondly, it is to be more flexible when it comes to ticket policies. We are all living through a challenging time and need to continue to be more empathetic to fans’ personal situations. This could mean allowing an exchange or credit due to illness or quarantine, where pre-pandemic we may have been more rigid with policy.”
The Jets’ Hecker says, “I think when we look long term it’s going to be more about what was accelerated more than what was changed. In the last few years, the industry has been racing to a pure mobile ticket, with some parts of the industry adopting it more quickly than others. Now it’s simply a given everywhere. The same can be said of cashless purchase of tickets, food, beverage and merchandise. This was years away for many of us in the industry. Now, it’s here almost everywhere. Who knew the term ‘reverse ATM’ six months ago? We now have six of these at MetLife stadium.”
Other changes will just be lingering signs of a very different world. This has resulted in some opposition. For instance, a group of small off-Broadway theaters and comedy clubs in Manhattan recently objected to the mandates in court. They sued Mayor Bill de Blasio over the city’s vaccine mandate, claiming it had been enforced unequally.
Most venue operators have gone along to get along, though. And the results speak for themselves. The Broadway League’s St. Martin says, “As long as there is a threat of COVID, we will need to continually remind our theatregoers about our safety protocols, and we will need to continue to be vigilant about adhering to our own standards. So far, we have had over 1,200 performances since we opened in mid-September and have welcomed more than 1.2 million theatregoers through Nov. 7 — 81% of available seats have been filled.”
Levy concludes, “There are two things that have helped us have incredibly strong sales since returning. Even though [‘Wicked’ is] a long-running show, we are not dependent on international buyers as that is less than 10% of our sales, which will be surprising to some. And, after being locked up so long, people coming to the show want to see something fun, escapist and uplifting as opposed to more heavy shows. This was similar to 9/11 when I was working on two shows where one was an OK production of a farce and the other was a great production of a very heavy, dramatic classic. The farce wound up being a hit as people just wanted to have something to laugh about and be distracted for a couple of hours.”
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Tags: Music , Musicals , Leadership , Reopening