The Gateway Playhouse, one of only three professional theaters on Long Island, has been entertaining audiences since 1950. Located just over 60 miles east of the Great White Way, it often casts its talent directly from Broadway, television and film. The seven acre property in Suffolk County, New York is home to a state-of-the-art, 500 seat main stage auditorium, a renowned school for the performing arts and a Haunted Playhouse each fall that is rated one of America’s most popular Halloween attractions.
In the midst of announcing their summer musical season back in March of 2020 – their 71st season – they were forced to close their doors like nearly every theater around the world. The stress-filled weeks following their closure were spent handling refund requests, rescheduling performances, soliciting donations to keep the cash flowing and so much more.
Once the leadership team worked its way through the initial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, they knew they needed to get creative to generate revenue and continue engaging with their community.
The Gateway team has a reputation for thinking beyond the stage – evidenced by their award-winning Haunted Playhouse. After seeing some pop-up drive-in movie theaters making the news around the country, they did some research and experienced it for themselves.
“We saw these other drive-in movie theaters popping up locally and sent scouts to check them out. Most were using inflatable screens that were blowing around in the wind during the movie and offered really poor images in even the best weather conditions,” said Jeff Bellante, Director of Business Operations at The Gateway. “There was no real attention paid to the quality of the picture, so the experience was quite poor for attendees.”
Jeff and The Gateway team quickly realized that they could build a drive-in movie theater in their parking lot – and a much better one than they experienced during their scouting trips.
“We’re known as a place where the people of Long Island come together to share some of the greatest stories ever told, so we wanted to continue delivering on that reputation,” added Jeff. “Continuing to host our loyal customers and local community – in the safest way possible while our main stage auditorium was closed – was something that we greatly desired and a drive-in movie theater allowed us to do just that.”
Instead of selling seats to their planned season of musicals like Evita and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, they were selling parking spaces to classics like Back to the Future and Jaws.
Concurrently, the organization’s ticketing team went to work building the events and putting them on sale. Admission is $40 per vehicle ($15 for the movie ticket plus a $25 donation) and capacity is limited to 60 cars – in adherence with social-distancing regulations set forth by the local government.
All tickets were sold in advance at thegateway.org, with customers given the option to use print-at-home or mobile tickets. And since the demographic skewed younger for these events, in comparison to their more typical musical theater patrons, they added the ability for event-goers to add their tickets to Apple Wallet.
The Gateway’s transition to a drive-in movie theater has been a big success for the organization.
“We set realistic expectations when we made the decision to build the drive-in movie theater in our parking lot,” said Jeff. “Financially, our goal was to at least break even and perhaps bring in modest revenue. Fortunately, we have accomplished that.”
More importantly, The Gateway was able to remain relevant and in the public eye. “We knew it was very important to continue to engage with our community,” said Jeff. “With the drive-in, we haven’t disappeared from everybody’s consciousness by going completely dark. So when we reopen our theater, our hope is that we’ll see our regulars return and our newfound audience go from movies to musicals.”
The Gateway team is like a family, so keeping their staff members employed during the industry intermission was also a big win for the organization.
“This pandemic hit our industry and our organization very hard. It was extremely important for us to get some of our people back to work and then to keep them on payroll for as long as possible,” added Jeff. “We were able to put some of our tech people back to work by leveraging their set-building skills to erect a 20′ x 40′ solid screen, while other members of the team were running cables and handling other tasks to make the drive-in theater a reality.”
The team of box office professionals also stayed busy, leveraging the AudienceView Unlimited event ticketing platform to sell tickets and create a great experience for their customers, including:
- Building events and selling tickets online in just a few days.
- Adding a checkout question to help them identify larger vehicles prior to the event so that they could park them in the back to avoid obstructed views.
- Setting up a mobile box office in the parking lot to scan tickets upon entry and troubleshoot customer issues.
- Adding event-level terms and conditions that educated prospective customers about the event safety protocols during the buy flow.
- Activating Apple Wallet to appeal to their younger demographic.
The most successful organizations have taken a “Yes, and…” approach as they’ve navigated venue closures and event cancellations over the last year. The Gateway is a great example of an organization that will come out of this pandemic stronger, thanks to their creativity and teamwork.