The battle lines are drawn in what may prove to be one of the great theatrical customer-service wars of the 1990s. On one side are the Shubert and Chicago theaters, whose managements intend to provide precise seat locations to customers who buy tickets over the phone. Pitted against them are the Auditorium Theatre, the Civic Opera House, and the Civic Theatre, where executives insist such a move is an open invitation to problems that no one in the theater business needs.
Two weeks ago the Nederlander-controlled Shubert Theatre became the first of the large downtown houses to give phone customers information about their precise seat locations, a benefit long accorded ticket buyers at the box office. Previously, phone-order customers--who pay stiff service charges ranging from $3.25 to $4.25 per ticket, and in some cases an additional handling charge of $2.50 per order--were told only in the most general terms what part of the theater their seats were in, if they were told anything at all.
The policy switch at the Shubert is part of a plan being instituted at all Nederlander Organization-controlled theaters across the country in conjunction with Los Angeles-based Ticketmaster, the nation's largest ticket-selling company. Last Sunday Ticketmaster and Nederlander ran a two-page ad in the New York Times touting their new practice.
At the moment Shubert Theatre general manager Ken Shaw is firmly behind the new seat-location scheme: "I think it's a big plus." So is Ticketmaster founder and president Fred Rosen, the outspoken and notoriously aggressive businessman who succeeded in driving archrival Ticketron out of business. Rosen says his company has had the technology to provide exact seat locations over the phone for about six years, but his decision to offer the service now was driven in part by the economy and by what Rosen considers some of the theater industry's neanderthal marketing policies. "The 90s are about service and value," explains Rosen, "and this is something we have to start doing when you're paying $60 for a theater ticket."
But others worry about the potential for problems. The Auditorium Theatre has studied the issue and is not going along with the competition. "We're not having any trouble selling tickets," says Dulcie Gilmore, executive director of the Auditorium, where Miss Saigon opened an extended run last weekend and racked up advance ticket sales in excess of $12 million.
Auditorium manager Marie Cali says her theater briefly tried providing seat locations but backed off: "It created quite a problem for us at show time when customers would come up and insist the telephone operators had told them they were sitting somewhere other than what the tickets indicated." The Auditorium now provides customers with a description of the area where their seats are located instead of an exact location. Cali notes, "There is so much room for error with exact seat locations, because customers only hear what they want to hear."
Fred Solari at Civic Stages Chicago, which manages the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre, isn't sold on the new policy either. He worries about the ability of Ticketmaster employees to execute error-free transactions. "If the Ticketmaster staff were to make a mistake," says Solari, "we would have to deal with it when the customer gets to the theater." But the Shubert's Shaw is reserving judgment on Ticketmaster's capabilities until the new policy has been in effect for a while. He says, "Ticketmaster has assured me they have the staff to do the job, but that remains to be seen."
Solari also believes providing seat locations over the phone could slow down transaction times while customers decide whether to buy a seat in Row Y on one day or Row F on another. He maintains that theaters that buy into the new policy may find it much tougher to sell phone-order customers on what many perceive to be less desirable seats in the rear of the theater. Solari says, "The whole idea of doing phone orders is volume." Rosen counters that the new approach will actually increase volume: "I think I will double my productivity because more people will stay on the line to get tickets instead of just calling for information."
With the Chicago Theatre still in the process of introducing the new policy, the Shubert is likely to be the first to find out if such a system can work. "Right now things are going smoothly," says Shaw, "but we may have to fine-tune the procedure if there are problems."
The Blackstone Theatre, owned and operated by DePaul University, will undergo a name change on November 20 to become the Merle Reskin Theatre. The new name honors the wife of local real-estate developer Harold Reskin, who contributed $2 million to help pay off the cost of acquiring the theater and upgrading its facilities. Merle Reskin played a role in the original Broadway production of South Pacific. DePaul University bought the 1,325-seat theater from the Shubert Organization in 1988 and has used it for its drama-school productions and other university functions. First opened on New Year's Eve in 1910, the Blackstone under the Shubert aegis hosted a number of major Broadway national tours. But as the cost of touring productions escalated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Blackstone's relatively small number of seats made it a less desirable venue for such shows.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.