ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Ticket Scanning

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This week's question comes from the staff.

Question: Ticket takers at most Broadway theaters are now scanning the bar codes of tickets, as opposed to tearing them. What was the reasoning behind the switch, and what has been the effect? Answer: For this column, we spoke with Charles Flateman, the director of marketing at Telecharge, the ticket service run by the Shubert Organization, which owns more Broadway theatres than any other company.

Before ticket scanners, after everyone had been admitted into the theatre and the curtain went up, an actual human being had to count up the torn ticket stubs and make sure that the number squared with the number of tickets the box office sold. Around two years ago, the Shubert Organization started having ushers scan the ticket bar codes using a hand-held scanner. (They soon realized it was easier to mount the scanners on a stand, allowing the ushers to be able to use both hands to handle the tickets, making the lines move faster.)

So what are the benefits? "Any time you can move away from paper and having to count up tickets to something that's actually all right in the database on an instant basis, it's really for the benefit of everybody," Flateman says. "It gives us a lot more control, and makes it virtually error-free, and it's fast too."

Were the scanners introduced to stop counterfeit tickets sold by people on the street? "I don't think it had any real impact on counterfeit tickets either way," Flateman says. But scanners were required for the Telecharge's new system of allowing patrons to bring E-tickets, which they can print on their home computers. Scanners help theatres prevent people from photocopying those tickets, which, believe it or not, does happen. "You'd be shocked what we've seen," Flateman says. "The [scanners] actually pick that up and know that it's a duplicate ticket."

Scanners prevent all kinds of petty ticket crimes. "In the old days, if you had a ticket for Mamma Mia! and you walked into Phantom and the ticket taker wasn't paying attention, you'd walk in the door," Flateman says. "Now, when that person scans in, it will beep at them and say 'Wrong show.'" Flateman says that a patron once copied someone else's print-from-home ticket and tried to get into a Shubert show, but the ticket wasn't from Telecharge — it was from Ticketmaster, which is used by Nederlander theatres. Sometimes, Flateman says, well-meaning patrons will confuse two theatres that are next door to one another — such as the Broadhurst and the Shubert — and the scanners set them straight.

The scanners also have smaller side benefits. If there's an emergency and someone needs to reach a theatregoer, "we would know whether the patron actually made it into the theatre," Flateman says. Does scanning make the lines outside the theatre move faster than they did in the ticket-tearing era? "It speeds it up a little bit," Flateman says, but not by much.

Flateman also points out that the scanners record exactly when each patron enters the theatre, allowing Telecharge to amass and analyze data on when people tend to show up. What have they found so far? A lot of the data has confirmed conventional wisdom. For instance, at plays, which tend to attract native New Yorkers, lots of people show up five minutes before curtain. At musicals, which attract more tourists, people tend to show up earlier.

Despite the benefits of scanning, the new method isn't universal on Broadway. While the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn theatres scan the tickets, the Broadway theatres run by the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club still tear them.

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