Upgrade Your Theatre Seat For More Legroom?

I caught a story on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that discussed the way airlines use premium seating.  One of the people interviewed mentioned that airlines craftily use the separation of time to get people to upgrade. Because the flyer is offered the opportunity to change to premium economy around the time they check in, months or weeks after they purchased the ticket, consumers view the upgrade payment as a different transaction from the initial seat purchase rather than thinking about the total amount they have spent.

Of course, that got me thinking about how this could be applied in the arts realm. While there are performing arts venues that employ dynamic pricing to extract additional revenue from ticket sales, by and large most organizations don’t have the interest or the computing infrastructure to implement that sort of ticketing.

However, many venues have ticketing systems that are capable of providing the view of the stage from a particular seat or notes about which seats have more leg room.  There may be other characteristics about the performance space people value that can be integrated into seating choice as well.

An email can be sent out a week before the event with information about how to prepare for the visit, including parking, restaurants, etc., and offering an opportunity for an upgrade in terms of sight lines, leg room, or whatever.

The offer of the upgrade doesn’t have to wholly be driven by a profit motive. It can be offered as a loyalty incentive to help fill houses now and in the future. Because you have been a loyal attendee or purchased well in advance, you can upgrade from the $35 seat to a $60 seat for an additional $10 rather than $25.

If you know that part of your audience base are price sensitive, last minute purchasers, you have just freed up a cheaper seat that can be sold and incentivized loyal patrons who plan in advance to continue to do so.

While I was thinking about all this, I recalled an instance where a person on my staff suggested that a renter do something of an inversion of the usual seat pricing approach and price seats up close less than those further back. I was a little conflicted about this because while we as insiders felt that seats in rows G-L are among the best seats, pricing should be based more on what seats the buyer thinks are the best.

But I also wondered if people have been trained by the way things are priced to think the highest priced, closest seats are the best? Given their choice in a general admission setting at a live, non-festival experience, people rarely head immediately to the front and fill in as close as they can possibly get.  More often than not, the front 2-3 rows are virtually empty by the time the show starts unless the event is close to sold out.

Is there a psychological element inherent to reserve seating events that changes the calculus for people? If the front few rows are priced less than those behind, do people think the venue management are fools and they are getting away with something by paying less?  And is that necessarily a bad thing if it has people watching closely for when tickets will go on sale so they can grab those great seats at a cut rate? Will they relent and buy slightly higher tickets if the cheaper ones sell out before they get there?

Of course they need to be confident those seats did sell and weren’t held back to manipulate sales or weren’t grabbed by resellers. This approach wouldn’t work well in places that are subject to scalpers with an automated purchase process.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


4 thoughts on “Upgrade Your Theatre Seat For More Legroom?”

  1. Interesting thinking. When 3D-Views of theatres and concert halls were first introduced (Berlin Philharmonic comes to mind, about 10+ yrs ago) the claim of tech-vendor was that if people could see how much better the seats closer to the stage would be they would feel incentivized to book the more expensive tickets closer to the musicians. However, no proof was ever given that this really worked.
    The type of upgrade you describe here (offer upgrade close to the show after the initial purchase was long made) was installed by the MET in NYC some years ago if I am not mistaken. If they are still doing it and how successful this was or is I have no knowledge of …

  2. Some of us have rather idiosyncratic seat choices. For example, my wife prefers aisle seats, even if the site lines are somewhat worse. I prefer to be close enough in a theater that I don’t need to wear my hearing aids (which doesn’t always work—sometimes even the front row requires hearing aids for actors with particularly feeble voices). Both of us prefer to have something in front of us. Both of us prefer clear sight lines (not blocked by insufficiently raked seats or the edge of the stage). So in one theater, our favorite seats are row B, center section, aisle on house right. In another they are row C, house left. In another, they are row D on the center aisle (row D is where the raking starts—row C seats are a problem if someone tall sits in front of you.

    In unfamiliar theaters, ones we visit rarely, or ones that are configured differently for different shows, we generally have to guess based on ticket prices and seating charts, which are often not very helpful for our particular preferences.

    • Some of the preferences you mentioned would fall under the classification of other things specific to your venue people value. For example, in my venue aisle seats, even on the outer fringes of the seating chart are frequently requested. So we might consider increasing the pricing on those were we to implement a similar plan.


Leave a Comment