Broadw.ai CEO Explains How Artificial Intelligence Is Disrupting the Theater Industry

TKTS ticket booth in Times Square

All the world’s a stage… or now an ‘AI stage.’ Ben Hider/Getty Images

When you buy Broadway tickets, it’s not like buying groceries. It’s a top-of-the-line purchase, with lots of complicated details that need to be worked through. However, the future of the theater ticket buying experience is about to change, thanks to a company called Broadw.ai.

The complications of life in general, and theater in particular, is what the character Jaques describes in William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. During his renowned “All the world’s a stage…” monologue, the melancholy Jaques likens the world to a stage and everyday people to actors, playing many different parts throughout the phases of life.

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But whether you’re an “infant” or a “schoolboy” from that famous Shakespearean speech, making your first trip to the theater, or you’re the more experienced “lover” or “soldier” who has been to Broadway shows several times before, you’re going to have different needs and will provide different information that theaters want to know.

How Does the Show Now Go On?

According to Broadw.ai co-founder and CEO Micah Hollingworth, visiting the theater is different from going to a baseball or football game. “A sports team owns the stadium and the team that plays there. On Broadway and with live music, you’re dealing with a landlord and a tenant,” Hollingworth said. “The agreement is often with a theater owner, not the group putting on the event. Typically, that means that the performer cannot sell tickets directly. And nearly half of all traffic in Broadway tickets comes from referrals.”

That’s where Broadw.ai steps in with “Intelligent Ticket Agents.” Wait… what are those?

“Everyone in the industry knows the ‘box office treasure worker,’ who can start a conversation, find out more about the customer and what he or she is looking for, all with a smile,” Hollingworth explained. “But all that data coming at the agent is a bit of a firehose, flying at you with more than you can keep track of.”

When you have a concierge who knows an incredible amount about what you’re looking for, he or she can greatly enhance your hotel and travel experience. But what if you needed an army of concierges? And how could those helpful workers keep track of every detail you’ve mentioned to pinpoint what you like to do when you’re having a night on the town? It would take a supercomputer to do that, right?

“We need to make that data actionable,” Hollingworth told Observer. “What were all the questions asked? How many engaged with the chat? What dates, prices, numbers of tickets, trends and what rates worked better for the customer?”

Broadw.ai’s technology, powered by Satisfi Labs, allows Broadway shows to place assistants on their websites, which allows for direct sales.

“These assistants can come up with a lot of ideas you hadn’t thought of, for when you go see a play,” Hollingworth noted. “These ideas include security, recommended restaurants, who’s in the play, parking or transportation, placing it where you want it, on Facebook, SMS, on your cell phone. The integration with ticketing allows you to market better.”

How does it all work? “Via our service, the fan is purchasing the ticket directly from the primary provider (e.g. Ticketmaster),” Hollingworth offered. “That means it will be a verified ticket, and any service fees related to the purchase would be no more than if they purchased it from the Ticketmaster site.”

Broadw.ai has started working with productions, ranging from Come From Away and Moulin Rouge, to The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and Oklahoma!  A voice option will be available in the fall, and the company has already begun a conversation with Apple Business Chat.

“The theaters are interested in this as well,” Hollingworth added. “They have their own websites that can be driven to the show’s website. You can give out discounts, maybe 10% off at the bar, taking a picture and posting it. There are all kinds of opportunities for online and brick-and-mortar establishments.”

So what kind of information are these virtual ticket agents looking for? “What’s most important is the context of how [customers] arrived to us. Are they a domestic or international tourist, purchasing on a mobile device the day of the performance? Are they a local resident, purchasing tickets in advance for a family outing? Any additional information we can have on the context of how the fan arrived to us will aid our goal in providing them the experience (and seats) they are looking for. We have a number of projects in process to start to develop this functionality… look for them in the coming years.”

Questions About AI in the Industry: Computer and Job Security

My daughter, a budding theater tech major about to go off to college, sat in on my interview with Hollingworth. Naturally, she was very concerned about artificial intelligence taking over the industry. Would that be the case? Are robots on the verge of replacing humans?

“These systems, whether it’s about handling light and sound and special effects, or a virtual ticket agent are there to assist, not to take over,” Hollingworth pointed out. “You still need humans to not only operate the technology, whether it’s putting on the production or selling tickets for it. Systems are there to assist, but you still need humans. It’s a very unionized field as well. You can see the tech folded in, but it wouldn’t remove the people. You can’t replace the box office treasurer.” Not to mention, there will be new needs for collection of the data, making sense of it and changing marketing as needed.

My wife, who loves going to shows and purchasing items online, asked about how secure these ticket purchases are. “We spend a lot of time and effort on security,” Hollingworth insisted. “Because of how our technology is built, the risk is very low. We do not touch the fan’s credit card or personal information of our fans. We use a service provider (Spreedly) to capture and tokenize the payment details. They have the highest level of PCI security certification.”

You may think Broadway would, in fact, be the last area to integrate into the virtual world. “But the tech startup world is pretty similar to the theater world,” Hollingworth mused. “You’re working on dozens of new shows a season, trying to find an audience and building a business model that could make it all work.”

How to Succeed in Business… While Really Trying

Broadw.ai’s founder has worked hard his whole life, both in the business world and the world of the theater. “I became an entrepreneur when I was nine, bringing in produce from the vegetable garden to the farmers market on Saturdays,” he explained. “It was ‘Micah’s Growing Business,’ and Mom was my first business manager. I’d put in the extra work to get a new pair of shoes. Then, I got into the restaurant industry, going up from dishwasher to chef, working hard, figuring out how to pay for school, as well as doing shows.”

Hollingworth studied at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as a theater major. “It wasn’t just theater… but a broader, generalist, fine arts approach. It made me a well-rounded person, helping me figure out my place.”

Doubling as an entrepreneur and show producer led to opportunities as a company manager and eventually landed Hollingworth at Jujamcyn, the third-largest theater owner on Broadway, where he served as vice president of company operations, before founding Broadw.ai.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity in the business side, with technology,” Hollingworth concluded. “Commercial theater is a walled garden. Hard to get new processes and tech. Current ones work well. Everywhere else, there’s room to grow.”

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.

Broadw.ai CEO Explains How Artificial Intelligence Is Disrupting the Theater Industry