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Web deal for group works out for theater

Road Less Traveled Productions, a Main Street theater company, did a two-for-one deal on show tickets with LivingSocial shortly after the group-buying website arrived in Buffalo.

"I made sure I walked through all the different scenarios of what would happen after all these people bought packages," said Scott Behrend, artistic director at the Buffalo theater. "I wanted to make sure we didn't get overwhelmed."

The 60-seat theater capped the amount of tickets available at 40 (all of them sold), specified that none could be used during Curtain Up! and spelled out other restrictions in a section called "The Fine Print," which is featured prominently on the same page as the deal offered.

That anticipation of a sudden rush of business is important when using a social group-buying site. At Sweetfind.com, the buying site operated by The Buffalo News, companies are prepped for what the offer may bring. Emily Lowery, director of online operations, said a company is advised about what the offer may bring.

"We make sure they can handle the volume they are going to get," Lowrey said.

Social group buying sites offer special deals to their members, who join just by signing up online. LivingSocial and Groupon are the two national heavyweights, and many local sites are springing up across the country.

During its foray into the realm, Road Less Traveled was careful not to offer a deal that undercut its subscribers, the loyal return patrons to whom theaters need to cater the most. Behrend was also worried the discounted deal would cut into the theater's earned revenue -- that current customers would be the only ones to respond to the deal and end up paying 50 percent less than they normally would.

"The good part is that nobody who bought tickets was already in our database. It was all new customers," said Behrend. "I think that's the ideal situation. Everyone is hoping to tap into a market that doesn't know anything about you."

Still, Behrend is not convinced those new customers will come back for tickets that have returned to full price.

"This kind of marketing is changing the way a lot of things happen, and I'm not sure how effective it will be. You're undervaluing your product to some extent," he said. "But whoever figures out how to specifically target a new audience is going to be very successful."

Still, he's glad he tried it -- though he may not necessarily want to do it again.

"It was an experiment. It showed us where the potholes were and what we would change," he said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com