Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Car Rage



                       Image result for bad car dealer


The internet has changed how we do so many things. Retail shopping, travel bookings, home entertainment have been revolutionized by the online world. One area that it has failed miserably in though, is shopping for a car.

Sure, most manufacturers have lovely websites where all of their cars are shown off. There are online tools for "building your own" car, to mix and match colors, interiors, and optional add-ons. You then have the ability to peek into local dealers inventory to see if the car you've "built", or a similar one, is available to purchase nearby.

It all sounds so convenient, modern, and stress-free.

The reality, however, is that it is all just smoke and mirrors.

It shouldn't come as a surprise. Historically, car dealers have always had a somewhat suspect reputation, along with lawyers and politicians. These are the professions that make the art of lying to your face a virtue.

The way the game works is when you use these online tools to research or build your car, the only way you can get a quote on what you are looking at is to provide contact information. Your info is funnelled off to several dealers that reach out to you and invite you to call and come in to discuss your new car interests. You get the quotes you are looking for, with VINs and descriptions of the vehicles each dealer has to offer you. It seems like things are working just as they are supposed to.

It was this pattern that my wife and I followed a few days ago. Of the list of three dealers we were given, one dealer's offer was for nearly the exact vehicle we were looking for, color and trim level, and price. The problem was, this particular dealer was about 40-45 minutes away. There were closer dealers, but none had what we were looking for, according to our online research.

Several years ago, when shopping for a car, I followed the same routine and when I showed up at the dealer, I was greeted with lame indifference and ignorance of the information the dealer had provided. No car remotely like what I was looking for was available, so I left, of course, with a very bad taste in my mouth. Since this episode was over four years ago, I hoped that things might have changed for the better this time around.

Trying to not repeat the fiasco of four years ago, and now with a completely different dealer, I called the dealership to make an appointment and verify that the car I was looking for was available to be seen. With a dealer that far away, my wife and I reasoned that it would be worth making the trip only if we were ready to make a deal, and we were. When I called, I was told that the car I was interested in was, in fact, in stock.

Off to the dealer we went on a rainy and miserable day. Looking on the bright side, it would be useful to see how the car performed in less than optimal conditions. We arrived and the salesperson, a young and somewhat ernest fellow patiently offered a test drive, with a different version of the vehicle we had come to see. A bad sign, but the long test drive was instructive.

Afterwards, we found ourselves sitting at his desk for a longer and longer time as he went to "find" where the vehicle we had come for was. The salesman returned finally to tell us that the vehicle we were interested in, that I called to verify was in stock, that we drove forty minutes past local dealers to get to, was "sold" and unavailable. He claimed that the computer inventory system "didn't update" and that was why we were told that our chosen car was in stock. But, he'd love to make a deal on a different vehicle, and would make us a "nice deal". We were uninterested in any other vehicle, and despite his entreaties that he "could get" what we wanted, we left, frustrated and angry. Hell, any dealer "could get" a car we wanted, we certainly didn't have to drive forty minutes for that.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

The reality of internet car shopping is that it really doesn't exist. There are the same several dealers for any car you might want, in any given geographical area. The financial crash of 2007 and the subsequent implosion in the auto industry resulted in a great many bankruptcies of car dealerships. Those that survived were left to dominate their local markets. Many dealerships are now owned by the same corporate entities, thus reducing competition even more.

The services that purport to provide "True Pricing" and referrals to dealers willing to sell cars "haggle free" have no control of this process. The dealers themselves retain all control over their inventory, inspite of what these referral services suggest. The only purpose of any of the internet websites for these dealers and manufacturers is simply to "get them in the door", and "we'll sell them what we have, not what they want". What choice do consumers have? None at all.

So, continue to buy anything at all offered on Amazon.com, book your trips on-line, and keep trying to find a movie worth watching on Netflix. Just don't try to buy a car, it's a fool's game.

Two days later, we checked the dealer's website inventory and the car we went to see was listed as available and in stock. Big surprise.






Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Case Against TodayTix

                                     Image result for Todaytix
TodayTix is a smartphone app that allows people to easily purchase tickets to Broadway shows. That alone is a triumph, given the ham handed and frustrating mobile and web experience offered by the two major Broadway ticketing concerns. The TodayTix app is slick and easy to maneuver through, and it provides a quick and easy to complete transaction.

They charge their customers a small service fee and provide what they call "concierge" service that requires their customers to seek out the TodayTix representative out on the street near the theaters to collect their tickets, thus avoiding "long will call lines".

Their mission, they say, is to sell the almost 20% of unsold ticket inventory that they say exists on Broadway on any given night. They also promise to do this by providing "insider access" to "insider prices".

They claim that their typical customer is ten years younger than the industry average ticket buyer's age, and that they are bringing "new audiences" to Broadway.

Well, that all sounds like a very nice story, a win-win for all concerned. Maybe for some it is, but for others, it is not.

I contend that in many cases, the existence and function of TodayTix actually serves to reduce revenue to shows that they service, and I will explain my theory forthwith, but first some background.

Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are!) will be familiar with my previous arguments against TKTS. I've lambasted TKTS and their corporate parent TDF for advertising their protected discounts as an attempt to increase their revenue at the expense of full price ticket sales or other show approved discounts that are typically in the 35-40% range. TKTS, created to aid in selling unsold theater tickets at a discount appears to now want to usurp the ability of shows that use the TKTS booths to sell their tickets for higher prices than are available at TKTS.

TDF/TKTS revenue comes from the tickets they sell (per ticket fees), so they are in a push to increase the number of tickets they sell, even if it may lead to fewer higher priced tickets being sold. This clearly serves to reduce the revenue shows may get, while not necessarily decreasing the number of tickets sold. They seek to, by use of advertising prices that shows themselves cannot offer, shift as large a segment of the "low budget" audience as possible to their ticket windows.

Now, along comes TodayTix to enter the fray. Let's look under the hood, kick the tires a bit, and see what we find.

TodayTix obtains their tickets by use of runners that show up in the lobbies of all the Broadway theaters and buys their tickets at the box office. A surprisingly low tech method considering the gloss that accompanies press and marketing around the TodayTix app and the company itself. They buy tickets with no "insider access" at prices that are available to anyone at all that might be buying tickets at the box office. That's more than a little misleading, but the public is not informed, and so far believe the false information the TodayTix is offering up.

TodayTix is, essentially, an order taker for Broadway tickets, with no need to provide any of the infrastructure required to maintain a ticket inventory. This allows them to charge a barebones fee for their service, because other than the minimum wage runners and "concierges" in red vests standing forlornly on theater district corners, there are no other costs that aren't covered by the venture capital that they must be burning through in the start up phase that the company is in right now. At what point does TodayTix become a viable, ongoing, self sustaining enterprise? The answer is a definite unknown.

This is not a business practice that could scale well, by my lights. How many tickets might they sell before their runners and concierges are overwhelmed with late arriving customers? Maybe we'll find out.

What about the numbers and statistics that are bandied about in their press releases or are parroted in the fawning media profiles of TodayTix? None of these statistics have been audited, to my knowledge, no disinterested third parties that could be cited as sources of these numbers. What exactly does it mean when TodayTix claims that their audience averages ten years younger than Broadway's average? They admit that as a "disruptive" player, that cannibalizing other sales channels is part and parcel of the game. That only means that their customers prefer an "easy" way to buy tickets with a mobile device. Who wouldn't? That's why we're talking about them now, isn't it?

Broadway League attendance numbers fluctuate year to year. Up a bit, then down. The audience remains relatively stagnant, so where are the "new audiences" TodayTix claims to be bringing to the table? We'll see that one as new figures are released, but my prediction? No significant statistical change in either direction.

But what about my belief that TodayTix reduces revenue to the shows they sell tickets to?

As previously stated, TodayTix runners buy tickets at the various box offices. They utilize existing discount offers, that are available to the public. They use BroadwayBox, Playbill.com, TheaterMania, or any other discount that may be available. These are the discounts that many shows offer that I described in my previous TKTS argument, typically 35-40% off of the full price. They offer their customers these prices and tack on their service charge.

The problem arises when you look at a certain segment of Broadway theaters. Many are very old buildings that are obsolete in many ways, but are frozen in time due to landmarking regulations. None of these old buildings have elevators, and several have balconies that present big problems to modern theatergoers.

As Broadway audiences have aged, loping up three to four stories by stairs has made these balconies an albatross to producers and theater owners. These balconies have significant numbers of seats that are, by and large, unwanted and unsellable to modern Broadway patrons. Often, these entire sections are priced at the very lowest end of the spectrum to entice students, student groups, rush or only the most frugal of theatergoers healthy enough and willing to hike up to heaven to see a Broadway show for a pittance.

It is in this situation that TodayTix is causing problems. In spite of their unverified claim that sixty percent of their tickets sold are regular or premium priced tickets, my experience has been, over the shows I have worked since the arrival of TodayTix, that they almost exclusively buy the balcony seats to satisfy their orderbook.

Why would they do this? Because TodayTix markets to their customers in the "From $25.00!" format in their advertising. The uninformed TodayTix customer, clueless to the lie that the TodayTix price is somehow an "insider" price, and already a low budget customer (ten years younger than industry average age), will certainly click "Order Now".

How is this bad for the shows if TodayTix is selling balcony seats that most anyone else would avoid? Because, just as with my TDF/TKTS complaint, TodayTix is taking a customer that would potentially buy a seat from TKTS, (or perhaps the Playbill.com, etc., discount offers) in the orchestra or mezzanine at a discount/price that would be higher than the balcony seat they are selling to their customers. The same number of tickets sold for the show, but with reduced revenue due to TodayTix moving the "budget purchaser" to the lowest possible price, rather than a higher priced, but still discounted ticket.

Broadway is not a growth business. The audience is essentially stagnant. What we are witnessing is the grotesque sight of a snake eating it's own tail. The fight is on for the wallets of Broadway customers, and while the producers are staking out an unsustainable high end, with dynamic pricing and insane premium tickets, they are not watching the low end, where the battle rages for ticket sales and commission fees with the result being an inexorable hollowing out of Broadway audiences and potential revenue.

When inflated regular ticket prices must invariably be discounted, as they are for all except the most high flying of hits, discount poachers like TKTS, and now TodayTix are pushing down the revenue for Broadway shows, while shows may not necessarily be selling fewer tickets.

TodayTix has created a stir with a buying experience that the major Broadway ticket selling platforms can't touch. It behooves the two major platforms to see TodayTix as a lesson and a warning. They must absolutely improve their ticketing interface, and the producers and their "marketing experts" must learn to price (and discount) their shows in a logical and easy to understand way so as to avoid these situations from popping up again. Literally everything is riding on it.


   

Friday, April 17, 2015

A New Sheriff in Town

                                   




                               Image result for joe friday


Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Mike: This is the city: Broadway, NYC. I work here. I'm a box office treasurer.

Those "marketing" folks have been warned to straighten up and fly right. But wherever comped Broadway tickets are illicitly sold, I'll be there. I'll be there to bring down the whole conniving bunch of 'em! (Cue patriotic march....now!)



                            



But..., not really. I don't think the sale of comped Broadway tickets will stop, but I hope that we can make a dent in it. I'll keep my eye out for them though. Maybe I'll find some more of these guys.

I did get something right though. No one, no one, seems to know ANYTHING about it. What a surprise!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Semper Fi

                                                

I began my tenure at the Music Box Theater just after the opening of A Few Good Men. It was written by Aaron Sorkin before anyone knew who Aaron Sorkin was. The show was riveting, rollicking and electric. As good as the movie was years later, the play was even better.

The Music Box was helmed by Herman "Hy" Pearl, a real old timer in the industry. It was a terrific experience working for Hy, his stories of the old days were always quite entertaining. I got a chance to learn a lot about a Broadway box office, not just simply selling tickets at the window. I got the opportunity to really learn the ins and outs of all facets of a working box office. Bob Kelly, Hy's first assistant, would become the head treasurer at the Music Box years later, when Hy passed away.

At that time, the Music Box was still majority owned by the Estate of Irving Berlin. Berlin died the year before I arrived, so I never got a chance to meet him. His family still had a great interest in the theater, and his daughters would frequently stop by the theater to show it to friends, and they'd be there for every opening night.

The teeny tiny box office at the Music Box, which at first seemed to me to be much like a submarine, would become my home on Broadway for the next twenty years.

A Few Good Men had a very nice run for us, but it all ended quite abruptly when the first Gulf War began. As you might imagine, a play that questioned the integrity of American military officers would not survive during a war of choice by this country. The armed forces were back to being unquestioned heroes, with no room for nuance or charges of immorality. So our first Oil War had begun, and I'd be out of a job for a while.





                      


This program gives a very interesting backround to the show "A Few Good Men." Some participants are gone now, and everyone is so very young. I recommend this show for it's historical value and it's very interesting information. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

                                              Image result for Pete Rose

Pete Rose, the all time hit leader remains banned from baseball after famously lying about his betting on baseball games in violation of MLB rules. He has admitted his guilt, and has for years sought to be reinstated by MLB, and he hopes that by receiving this "pardon", he will  become eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I've never been a champion of Pete Rose. He's not a great guy, a convicted tax cheat, and has lived a dissolute life through his baseball career, and after his playing days were over. He was, however a great player, with indisputable career credentials.

Being a bad guy has never really been an impediment to entering the Hall of Fame, it is loaded with mean sumbitches of all stripes. Rose's crime of gambling on baseball has historically been the ultimate crime against the game. The "Black Sox" of Eight Men Out infamy, members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series and were banned from baseball with no chance of review or reprieve.

The crisis of gambling on the sport of Baseball was deemed serious enough at the time that the punishment of those Chicago players was felt to be necessary for the game itself to survive.

The Black Sox scandal was nearly one hundred years ago, and times sure have changed. Sports betting, on all major sports and college games as well is firmly part of the modern sports landscape. Legal and illegal sports betting is thoroughly interwoven in American society. Salaries of pro athletes and under the table payments to amateurs reduce a gamblers opportunity to alter or affect sports contests in any realistic way.

Casino resorts now sponsor sports teams on radio and television. All major sports leagues are trying to figure out how to get a slice of the fantasy sports pie, where players pay cash to play against others in a multitude of leagues. Gambling at casinos or state run lotteries and racinos has become the real national pastime.

From a perspective of trying to avoid hypocrisy, it's probably time to relent and reinstate Pete Rose back into MLB and make him eligible for the Hall of Fame.

I don't know if it's a result of a more enlightened society, or if it's just because in the endless pursuit of cash, society and the sports that entertain us have been just that much more degraded over the decades since Rose's banishment from baseball. In either case, it doesn't make sense to not allow Rose back. 

Saudi Oil and Broadway

Saudi Arabia's Plan to Extend the Age of Oil - Bloomberg Business

                                     

                                   Image result for cartoon oil rig



The linked article very interestingly lays out the case for why Saudi Arabia has not reduced it's production of crude oil in the face of increased production from the United States and the subsequent drop in the price for oil.

Basically, after $110 per barrel oil as recently as last year, the price has recently plunged below $50 per barrel. The world over-production, combined with reduced demand is cited as the cause. In the past, Saudi Arabia being the largest exporter of crude oil, has been willing to prop up the price by lowering production, but not this time.

The article explains that now, with the emerging economies of the world seeking to develop alternative energy sources, and with China slowing it's growth and reducing its thirst for oil, Saudi Arabia is worried that it will be awash in oil that nobody will want or need, hence their willingness to allow a substantially lower price for oil. The want to assure continued demand for their oil for they fear a world with no need for it and an end to their economy that is fully dependent upon it.

This is in sharp contrast to the past decades when the highest possible price was always sought, and always gotten. From wars and through boycotts, the Saudis have always absolutely maximized their oil revenue without regard to the effects it had on their customers or the citizens of the world.

It will be interesting to see how this situation evolves in the coming years.

Which brings me to Broadway, of all things. As I read the article about the new state that Saudi Arabia finds itself in, I was struck by the odd similarities there are to the industry of Broadway.

For years, Broadway shows have been criticized for what always seemed to be ticket prices that were simply too high. Producers have always been accused of gouging ticket buyers, but always offered the defense that their costs required the exorbitant pricing.

The last ten years or so has seen the rise of "dynamic pricing", the practice of raising prices from the established price whenever it was deemed appropriate by the producers, and sustained by the "market". What were once simply expensive theater tickets suddenly became incredibly costly, marked up to stratospheric levels for the most popular shows.

Like any commodity, when the Saudis raised the price of their oil, all other producers of crude oil benefitted. Tiny United Arab Emirates, would collect the same price as the Saudis for their oil, though they only produced a fraction of the Saudi production.

When Broadway producers introduced dynamic pricing, not just the "big hits" benefitted, but all shows felt they needed to join this party. Pricing any show substantially different from a "hit" implies damaged goods, a show unworthy of purchasing tickets to. Hence, all shows suddenly offered "Premium" tickets at inflated prices, even if the demand for a specific show could not support these extra high ticket prices. An era of "$100 per barrel oil" had begun for Broadway.

In the last seven years, the world has gone through a wrenching financial and economic restructuring. The middle class has been crushed in this country, continuing the trend begun over thirty years ago. The new technologies in fracking have brought oil production back to high levels in this country with the unforeseen price destruction in oil that we are now witnessing.

When oil can be brought to the point it is now, where it is no longer absurd to consider a world with little or no need for it because of an overabundance of it, or cheaper clean alternative sources, is it such a stretch to think that the industry of Broadway, overpriced and out of reach for so long for so many, will see it's relatively stagnant audience drift away to more affordable alternative sources of entertainment in the face of $500.00 tickets?

Will Broadway have a similar reckoning as Saudi Arabia has had, that squeezing every penny from its customers will one day move those customers away from their product? Who would have thought it possible for oil? Who thinks it impossible for it to happen to Broadway?



Image result for closed theater










Saturday, April 11, 2015

In Olden Days...


                                                  


I went to work at the Vivian Beaumont on a Monday morning, the day after Anything Goes won the Tony Award for Best Revival of A Musical. The lines of eager ticket buyers were long and amazingly unending! I remember starting that long, long day just punching out tickets at the window non-stop. It was so busy I think everyone was kind of giddy, but for me, I was just blown away at how massive an experience it all was. It was my first taste of working a bona fide Broadway hit, and probably still the biggest I ever had. The show was a juggernaut!

I had a great time working at Lincoln Center for Fred Bonis, (Lenny's brother!). I learned a lot about the business and the demanding Lincoln Center Theater membership provided a unique lesson in dealing with a public that was not always easy to satisfy.

I remember one day, raw that I was then, I answered a customer in a particularly unprofessional way. Luckily for me, Bob Belkin was on hand to straighten me out, and I remember the incident to this day. I hope I've helped others along the way the way he helped me.


A Journey of a Thousand Miles

                                         


It was short and sweet, but my first Broadway box office work was at the Ambassador Theater, the show was the Brazilian revue, Oba Oba. It didn't make much of an impression, yet it did return to Broadway twice (!) in the next several years. 

The head treasurer was Lenny Bonis, and I'm glad he took a chance on an untested greenhorn like me. I was fortunate to work for and with Lenny several times through the years. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

When It Rains, It Pours


No sooner do I make like Elliot Ness and destroy a lethal underground crime syndicate....well, no, not exactly. All I did was use information a friend collected and connected a few dots and exposed a dopey private Facebook group selling comped trade tickets. Nothing earth shattering, by any means, but definitely an economic drain on Broadway shows. Then again, except for the mega hits, what isn't a drain on shows struggling for a few crumbs that fall off the plates of Disney or the Mormons?

Before I even get a chance to stop patting myself on the back, even more evidence regarding the resale of comped trade tickets for Broadway shows literally falls into my lap! As I'm wont to say, "The soup thickens!"

While continuing my private Facebook group inquiry this evening, three ladies come up to the window with a very common request. One of the three has lost her ticket, and needs to get it replaced. It's the middle seat of a three, so it's easy to know exactly which seat must be replaced. What catches my attention is the fact that their tickets are comps. Hmmm.

Checking my records, I see that their locations are not what I'm looking for tonight, I'm focusing on the source of the Facebook tickets, and these are not them. I do notice, however, that their tickets were also trade comps, but they were issued to a different entity, one that had not, to this point, seemed suspicious.

After reprinting their missing ticket, I asked them where they got the tickets from. They said a major local hospital. I asked if if they paid for them, they said, "Why, yes!". "How much?", I asked, my heart pumping fast, and a bead of sweat dripping down my forehead (not really.) "$55.00", she told me.

Aha! Yet more comped trade tickets being sold! These from a major hospital! "This is getting more absurd by the minute," I thought to myself.

On my way home, I Googled the hospital and found they have quite an extensive website devoted to supplying their employees with cut rate theater tickets and other amenities. It all looks quite above board, but it doesn't seem right that comped trade tickets for Broadway shows should be funneled to this hospital program. What of the money collected from these ticket sales? None goes to the shows themselves. Who made the decision that fundraising for a hospital (if this is indeed what this is) is an appropriate use of comped trade tickets?

There is a distinct smell of rotten eggs in this situation, and I hate to see eggs go rotten. More to investigate.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Not Cats, Cat and Mouse



These days, Broadway shows make available complimentary tickets to various entities that are distributed by marketing agencies. These comp tickets are offered with the understanding that they will not be sold by these entities. But by golly, often times they are sold.

Why does it matter? It matters because a sold comp ticket is a ticket not sold via legitimate means. The show does not receive the revenue from these sold comps. These tickets are distributed with the understanding that there will be bodies occupying these seats. The reason is so that these people, seeing the show for free with these comp tickets, will spread good word of mouth and increase interest in the show, with the hope that this will translate into increased sales.

With the help of my friend Bob Kelly, a retired box office treasurer, I came upon information that linked the sale of comp tickets to a specific private Facebook group. He had obtained access to this private group, and passed along key info regarding dates and quantities of tickets being offered that enabled me to nail down, without a doubt, what was going on.

Over the past week, I have found that people with these tickets, allocated by the marketing agency to other entities, have been sold. How? I asked them! When these people came to collect their tickets, I simply asked how they got them, and how much they paid.

While I've now presented this information to theater executives for them to decide the best path to take, I remain amazed at the scope of this operation. Apparently, this illicit resale of comped Broadway theater tickets has affected all theater owners, and most shows, from the biggest hits, to the also rans. Who is to blame?

Well, those wonderful marketing agencies must be the first to be looked at. As Broadway marketing has evolved, there is simply no control at all on how many comped trade tickets are made available, and to whom they are offered. Is there any sort of under the table financial remuneration involved between the agency and the comps recipients? Is the specific marketing executive simply free lancing for extra dollars? As things stand, there's no way to know. I predict that everyone will deny any knowledge of the existence of this "system". They'll be shocked, shocked, that trade comps have been offered for sale. Whatever happened to the notion of knowing one's customer?

In any case, the marketing agencies are collecting huge fees from the shows that employ them for not much in return. Hits are hits, flops are flops, and no marketing agency has ever made any significant impact in either direction. In all cases, the audience decides what will be a hit and what won't.

In addition to the piles of money wasted on these useless agencies, we now see that they are further leeching more money from the shows they work for by allowing the diverting of comped trade tickets to brokers for sale to the public, in competition with the shows themselves. Is general management to blame as well? There's plenty of blame to go around.

It's time to clean house.