Bill Abbott discusses his weekly theatre show at Dave and Busters, why having a quality show matters, how he decides where to perform, and how he uses a custom backdrop for photo opportunities to help promote his show.
Bill was recently named Canadian Magician of the Year by the Canadian Association of Magicians. He has performed at over 5000 events in 11 countries. His clients include Microsoft, Kellog’s, and Coca Cola.
WILLIAM: Today, I had the opportunity to speak with Bill Abbott, who was recently named Canadian Magician of the Year by the Canadian Association of Magicians. Bill has performed in over 5,000 events in 11 countries. His clients include Microsoft, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola.
Today, we discuss his theatre show at Dave and Buster’s, why having a quality show matters, how he decides where to perform, and how to use custom backdrops for photo opportunities to help promote your shows. Let’s get into it.
Hey Bill, thanks for joining us on the show.
Before we start, can you give us a little bit of a back story about yourself and why you got into magic?
BILL: Yeah. I essentially started as a performer since I was very young. My father’s a musician and was a concert pianist and composer, so we travel quite a bit touring with him and I was on stage. My first memory is actually being on stage at three or four years old in front of like 500 people in an auditorium. And I played violin and I played piano. I also played drums and that’s my background.
And then, when I was 12 years old, I got a magic set for Christmas and I started doing magic shows in sort of my parents’ basement. Then, it became something that was a money-making thing for me in high school doing birthday parties for kids. And then, through university doing night clubs, doing close up magic, and then developing as a stand-up act throughout university.
And then, when I finished university, I actually worked full-time for a couple of years and then the magic got so busy that I had to make a decision, and then I made it full-time. So, that’s been since the year 2000.
WILLIAM: Can you talk a little bit about where you perform for the public?
BILL: Yeah, that’s a good question. For the past year and a half, I was performing at Dave & Buster’s, which is just north of Toronto, I would say about 20 minutes, half an hour north of downtown core, just north of Toronto City. I partnered with Bobby Motta who had been there three years.
Prior to that, they have a large theatre. It’s a large sort of dinner theatre setup, sits about, I guess, a capacity of about 180 people. It looks like a typical sort of Vegas show room, I guess, for a lack of a better example. I was there for a year and a half. I partnered with Bobby and I performed with him.
So we would do back-to-back shows, cross promoting each other. Bobby did a mentalism show and I did more of a magic show, so we were able to leverage and offer people two different options, as well as promote each other’s show so that if someone came in to see my show, he would open my show so they would see a bit of what he does and vice versa.
So, people who, if in case came to my show, you would be enticed to see his show, et cetera. It’s a win-win sort of scenario. That’s what we did for the past year and a half.
WILLIAM: How much crossover did you have when you opened? How many people then came to your show?
BILL: It was almost immediate. What we would do is like on a Friday and Saturday evenings, we would do an 8 PM show. He would do an 8 PM show and I would do the 10 PM show, and then we would flip it on the Saturday night. So, Friday night and then Saturday night, so I would do the early show, then he would do the late show.
And a lot of times, many, many times, people would see the one show at 8 o’clock and then, they’d be like, “Well, let’s just stay, have dinner and we’ll stay and see the next show.” That happened all the time.
WILLIAM: When that happens, how good do you think a show has to be, like whenever you’re opening them, for them to see you and say, “Hey, let’s stay, let’s have dinner and let’s go see Bill because he was great,” like how important is it to have, you know, people talk about this a lot, but how important really is it how to have a fantastic show?
BILL: I think it’s everything. I think this is your only opportunity to make that distinct impression and whether or not you’re just doing corporate shows. I mean, you and I know that that one impression is, for the most part, the only impression these people are going to have of you, of your show, what you do. It’s like we’re constantly having job interviews and the best way to showcase.
The hardest thing to do is to explain what you do in your show because a lot of clients will call you up cold and will say, “Well, what happens in your show? Describe what happens.” It’s almost impossible to communicate the feeling that you give in your show, sitting in that seat as an audience member. The best way to communicate that is for people to actually be at the show.
If you’re doing a public show, you don’t know who’s going to be in your audience. This could be company owners. It could be part of the human relations team. It could be someone who just wants to have a private party in their home who has the money to do that. These are the people that could be sitting in your audience. So, this is the only opportunity for you to do that.
It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also, once you have a good show and you can lock it in and know that you can deliver even in autopilot, you can deliver a fantastic experience. That is sort of the goal. I think the product is everything.
It’s like if you, you know, it doesn’t matter how much advertising a product has. Once you physically have the product and it’s crap, all that promotion was a lie. So, first of all, they’re not going to feel kindly and/or have a good impression of your promotion, but also, they’re not going to spread it around to their friends.
Most of what we did, it was foot traffic sales, so people walking in to the Dave and Buster’s experience and being confronted by sales people like they’re saying, “Hey, we got a great deal. See a show. Get an all-inclusive pass to the games, plus you get to sit down and you get full service.” So you could eat in the theatre during the show so you’re getting a full experience. The direct sales was our main thrust.
WILLIAM: If someone is just starting a show or looking to maybe rent out a venue to perform, how important would you say would be to find a venue that has some foot traffic going through?
BILL: So, this is something that I’m constantly thinking about, actually, because it’s really difficult to find venues that are heavily trafficked. It’s one thing to just rent a room in a venue, whether it was a banquet hall or I would say, hotels, obviously, they have foot traffic. They have guests staying there as well as people visiting the restaurant bar or whatever. Those are all foot traffic areas.
I think what’s most important is the relationship you have with the venue, who your contact person is, who your point person is, and are they going to work with you? To me, that, if they’re going to partner with you and help to cross promote it, if they can tell you that they can put table tents in all of the rooms in the hotel or at all the tables in the restaurant or whatever the scenario is, if they’re willing to do that, maybe post posters, as well as you can give them X amount of free tickets to give away as part of an incentive program, are they going to– because I’ve partnered with many different venues and that’s the hardest thing.
They’re all excited about having you there, but when push comes to shove, most are not willing or able to promote it with you, regardless of foot traffic, I think, because you want more ambassadors. The more ambassadors you have, whether that’s the wait staff at the restaurant, the front desk hotel people, even the cleaning staff, those are all people that can promote your show that can do that when you’re not there, and will go above and beyond a postcard or a business card or a poster to have, again, the personal connection to you as an entertainer.
If you have the opportunity to perform for the cleaning lady who’s in the hallway at the hotel, there’s your point person. You perform for her; she’s going to be amazed. And all of a sudden, it’s like she is now your ambassador.
WILLIAM: So personally, would you rather go rent out say a 50-seat theatre or would you rather go rent out like the back of a room or a restaurant that holds 50 people? Which one, just from a personal preference, which one would you prefer to work as far as a marketing standpoint and why?
BILL: So, my personal preference is to go with an existing venue that has either foot traffic or a built-in audience. So that could be a theatre, if they have a subscription series and they have people that they would sign up for and you have access to promote your show to that subscription. I’m just using it as a blanket thing, but that could be anything. That could be friends of the theatre or usually, they have some sort of subscription series so that they’re promoting it with this season’s plays or this season’s productions, you know, you are in that roster.
To be honest with you, theatre shows, if you’re doing it in your hometown, you may be able to pack up one or possibly two nights. Once you’ve run out of friends and family, you need to be partnering with either a theatre company that is willing to promote you and promote your show as they would all the other shows that they do. If you can be on their advertising budget, so to speak, or their advertising sort of bubble within that, that way you’re promoting it to people that don’t know you, which is important.
My personal preference is to partner with a restaurant or a hotel or a resort because they have in place different points. Different points, I guess, is the word I’m going to use, but contact points. So, there’s a contact point when someone checks into a hotel. There’s a contact point when someone goes to the concierge to book tickets or to ask what’s going on in the venue or in the city they’re staying in, et cetera.
There are so many more points of reference. There’s table tents in the restaurant. You could have table tents in the hotel rooms. There’s all these posters in the lobby. There’s just way more opportunity, where in a theatre, it’s like if someone could drive past the theatre, they might see you on the marquee or they might see your poster, but unless they have a really great system in place where they’re promoting directly to theatre goers, I think it’s a little tougher. There’s more hurdles to communicate to people that you have a show.
WILLIAM: That makes a lot of sense. And as long as they’re helping you out, in any venue, then you’d be okay working there.
WILLIAM: That makes sense. So, whenever you’re at Dave and Buster’s, I know you relied a lot on foot traffic, what types of marketing did you do? And what did you find out that worked best for that show in that particular venue?
BILL: We had a team–a sales team–so we had three or four people on the floor. And then we had someone on cash who would sell the tickets. But the sales team was directly responsible to engage people as they walk into the building. In Dave and Buster’s, they were great about it. We were able to set up a table and banners sort of promoting the show.
We came up with a price point that we were happy with. I think it was like $29.95 or something or 30 bucks, and it came with a ticket to the show, unlimited video games, like 40 credits for the ticketed games and sort of a shopping list that was on our banners, you know, for 30 bucks you’re getting this, this, this, this.
And during the show, you can eat. It’s full service, so there’s servers that would come right to your table, take your drink order, take a food order. You can do a full dinner show experience in addition to getting these game cards that would do all these things. Our selling point was that this was a better deal than anything else you would purchase here at Dave and Buster’s. You’re getting a pretty unbelievable game card deal in addition to having this awesome show.
Our sales people, that’s what they were promoting. The foot traffic thing, that’s really, I think I spoke to you earlier about it, I would say at least 50 to 60% of our audiences did not know they were coming to a show when they left their door at home until they walked into Dave and Buster’s and were presented with this offer.
So our audiences really walked in cold, a lot of them, which is really our game plan, obviously, and our thrust was getting sales to the foot traffic that was coming in.
WILLIAM: So what other types of marketing did you do in Dave and Buster’s? I know I saw a lot of Twitter posts, a lot of Instagram posts, of people standing like in front of a wall taking photos with you. Can you talk a little bit about that marketing and what that did for you?
BILL: Yeah. So when I came on about a year and a half ago with Bobby, there was nothing really in place that’s kind of in terms of something official. The idea was with the photo wall, so what we’re talking about is it’s called an infinity wall and they run anywhere from $800 to $1200 bucks a piece. We got two–one for my show and one for Bobby’s show.
They pop up. They’re, I’d say, 8 feet by like 12 feet across. They go in like a duffel bag, so they’re packed down. You pop that up and then there were lights that would attach to the top of it so it was well-lit. We would set those up prior to the audience coming into the venue and we strategically put them at the back, like at the back doors. They were kind of along the wall and so that people could not leave without either seeing them or at least making eye contact with us when they left the venue.
Because of the nature of the audience, I think this is what we didn’t do back of room sales. Those are all things that we tried but didn’t work and we realized that our audience was really there to see the show, grab a bite, and then get back out on the game room floor, so the more we can make that easy for them the better. Backroom sales would really plug up traffic-wise our venue, so we decided to cut that.
Backroom sales, it cost money to do backroom sales, whether that’s buying products, having a product made, and having someone to sell it because, obviously, we are too busy with the show and also meeting and greeting people, to sit down at the sales table and sell it. We just realized it didn’t work for the audience that we had.
What did work, though, was this photo wall. So, what we would do is pop this up and put the lights on. People would pull out their cellphones and we would also have somebody there in addition or Bobby and I would take turns taking pictures for each other with our own cellphones. And what would happen is we’d get a picture with their phone, a picture with our phone, and because it’s a photo wall, it’s got the name of the show and our names as well.
It’s easy for people to hashtag that. We did different things where we have business cards with hashtags on them in our Instagram account, et cetera, so that people could connect with us. We found that just by promoting that ourselves, it would go on and had an instant sort of feed through Tumblr on to my website, so the photos would all be posted instantly on to my website.
So people, who went to buy tickets, they would see, “Oh look, hundreds and hundreds of people in these photos at this event having a great time.” For me, that really promoted the show, but also, more importantly, just created goodwill vibes, like, “Oh wow! It really is a show and there’s really people attending.” We never had a problem getting pictures from people. People were excited to meet and greet us after the show.
And again, I guess, that comes down to having a great show so that people actually want to be seen with you and actually want to get a shot with you. It’s nothing strange like in the Vegas world, you know, something like meet and greet after the show is kind of part and parcel to most of the major shows going on in Las Vegas.
But, I found in a lot of smaller venues and especially people in smaller towns, maybe in the US, it’s not a regular thing. And I think part of what my idea was that it elevates you in the eyes of the public. It elevates you in the eyes of your audience that you take this seriously. This is something that’s not, “Oh, yeah. Let’s get a picture backstage after the show.”
No. We actually have a meet and greet. We’d love to hear what you thought of the show. We’d love to hear what your name is and how you got here and all those things. That direct contact will feed you all kinds of information, will tell you how to promote your show, because you’ll say, “How did you find out about it?” “Well, the guy at the front door talks so highly about it and the deal was so good that we couldn’t pass it up.”
So all those things with the meet and greet are, I think, the audience will tell you what they like. The audience would tell you what they don’t like inadvertently. The audience will also tell you how they came about purchasing a ticket.
WILLIAM: Now, I’m just thinking for people that have shows, maybe back-to-back, how long did it take for you to take those pictures with your audience?
BILL: Yeah, so we would do a show at 8 PM. The show would be finished by about 10 to 9, 9 o’clock-ish. We would have probably a 20-minute meet and greet time. We’re talking 100 to 140 to 150 people in the room that we had just sort of a change over. Then we had people lining up for the 10 o’clock show at around 9:30. We had to clear everybody up by 9:30.
Part of our thing was that we had a pre-recorded announcement so at like 9:10, we would have a pre-recorded announcement that say, “Thank you for coming. The theatre is now closed. Please make your way to the back.” And then, slowly, the announcements would get more rude, so by 9:20, if people are still in there, it’s like, “The theatre now is closed. Please exit the building,” you know, very matter of factly. That seem to work out really well.
Occasionally, we’d have someone would come and celebrate a birthday and they didn’t think they’d ever have to leave, you know, they have a big group of people. Occasionally that would happen and we’d have to personally ask them to leave. Or, because of the venue, there is a restaurant sitting area right outside our theatre, so we had the ability to say, “You know what? You guys seem to want to continue to party. We’re just going to move you into the next room to another table the same size. You guys can just continue to party out there.” That was also a plus. So, that was it.
Turnaround time was always an issue because some of the staff, every week it seemed, that we had a new staff member from the venue working in the restaurant or working the tables and we have to tell them that this is the time when we need to clear tables quickly, get people out, get fresh table cloths on for the next show. That was always kind of an issue.
That changed over time, but having the photo walls up enticed people to get up out of their seats and to move to that, which is basically out the door. So they would finish up, pay their food bills and then make a bee line for the exit to get a quick picture, and then to get out.
WILLIAM: I really like that recording idea because that doesn’t make you the bad guy anymore.
BILL: No, we did. And again, that was just something that we came up with after over time because we were originally would be flashing the lights and the servers who, you know, when you’re partnering with someone, your service level–I don’t know how to put this gently–but, basically, the level of service that you have maybe not be in line with some of the people that work for the venue that you’re performing in.
So, with us, it was like we can ask the server to tell the people to get out, but they may not do that in a way that is conducive to giving you a good reputation. For us, it is important that at any time that we had to communicate with people, that we did it in a way that was still courteous, but at the same time, communicating information so that they knew that it was important, I guess.
WILLIAM: From a quick technical standpoint, did you just have somebody with an iPad or on a phone just hitting Play for those messages at the appropriate times or did you have that setup so it would automatically play in 10 minutes, 20 minutes?
BILL: That was automatic with both of our shows because we both used– We had music playing before and after the show, so we had pre-recorded, obviously, music before and after the show, and that was just part of that music, so at the end of the show, my playlist just continued. There would be music playing and then that music would fade out. There’d be an announcement. Music would fade back in for another couple of minutes and then there’d be another announcement. That was all pre-recorded and kind of in the system.
As soon as the show started at 8 o’clock, the show was done by 10 to 9, that 5 after 9 in the post-show music, that was just all part of the playlist.
WILLIAM: What program did you use to make that and to play that?
BILL: Well, I had a friend actually, who owns a recording studio. So, yeah, I kind of lucked out. My friend, Danny, was able to– He had someone else do the voice over and it was great. But, I mean, that’s obviously not what everyone could do, but I think through when we know how to use a microphone and GarageBand, you can probably whip something together pretty simply. I mean, I scripted it. I put together the script and basically they just read it into a really good microphone.
BILL: It was recorded really well.
WILLIAM: So to kind of wrap this up, what’s one thing that event producers can do today to help increase their ticket sales?
BILL: It’s funny because I’ve never seen myself as an event producer, but that’s exactly what we were when I partnered with Bobby to do the Dave and Buster’s thing. For me, Bobby really taught me a lot about point of sale reference or I don’t even know what the correct term is.
But, essentially, what it comes down to is that every human contact you make, whether you’re in a supermarket, you’re getting a coffee at the coffee shop, you’re dropping your car off to get an oil change, each one of those moments is your moment to sell your show. And Bobby’s strength–and he actually still has the show at Dave and Buster’s–his strength was in making those connections.
One of the major things that we used to do when you make a connection, so you’re at a restaurant and you’re talking to the waitress and she’s asking you, say, “You know what? I would love for you to come to my show.” “Oh, you have a show. What do you do?” “I’m a magician.” Maybe you show them something, maybe you don’t, but we always had business cards printed that had the name of the show, obviously the website, contact information.
Originally, we had a promo code printed right on the business card or flyer or whatever we had in our pocket. But then, we realized, in that moment, wrote, like physically hand-wrote the promo code that they could punch in to get like a two for one deal or a percentage off the ticket price, that made a much stronger connection because now, it’s like you are now their hook up. You are the point of reference and it’s so much stronger.
As you can imagine, from a human perspective, if you were to go to purchase, say you went to purchase something online, you met someone who sells something, and they said to you, “But you know what? Bypass all that. Go to this web address. You’re going to get this percentage off, plus it’s going to come directly to me. I’m going to know that you purchased this thing and I’ll look after you.”
That totally changes your perspective because now you’re excited to buy. Now, you’re excited not only go to the show, but to support this person and because they’ve also done you a favor. And I think it’s like if you can make people believe that they’re doing you this incredible favor that they get so much out of by coming to your show, it’s just that much stronger.
I think, previous to that, I’ll just end on this, previous to that, I’m an introvert. I’m not the type of person who engages in conversation in public spaces. I’m just not that person that starts talking in an elevator about the weather with somebody. That’s just not my thing. What I learned from Bobby, who was a great teacher and a great salesman, was that those are your opportunities to sell your show because it’s not going to happen any other way. This is your opportunity to do something that’s going to make a direct impact and that would make a direct impact on your pocket book, on having people in your shows.
WILLIAM: And I guess the important thing here to note is that should be conversationally, correct?
BILL: Exactly. I think we get this idea that, “Oh, I got to get my elevator pitch down. I got to get this 20 second sound bite into the universe,” but it’s not that. It’s more about friendship marketing, I guess, for lack of a better word, is basically is having the ability to strike up a conversation or having someone, you know, if someone says “Hi” to you, say, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your day going?” And they can, “You know, it’s awful. You know, this happened, this happened. I woke up late. I was late for work and now I don’t even know if I still have a job.”
Say, “You know what? Since you’re having such a bad day, I want you to come to my show. I do a weekly show at this thing and I’m going to give you a two for one tickets. That way, you can bring a date or bring four people or do a double date and come to my show. I think it will give you lots of laughs and you’d forget about the world for 45 minutes. I think you’ll have a great time and I want you to come as my guest.”
In that moment, you’ve now created a friend who’s excited. They may or may not come to the show, but they will know about the show. They’ll talk about, you know, “I met a magician today.” And it’s always a win-win-win-win. I really had an experience where some who did come to the show after doing something like that, after having a conversation like that.
WILLIAM: What’s the best way for our listeners to keep up with you and where you’re performing?
BILL: If you’re not a performer, BillAbbottexperience.com or BillAbbottlive.com are two ways of getting in touch and also, finding out about public shows that I’ll be doing and probably announcing a show in the fall, which I don’t have any information on to give you. But essentially, that’s the best place to hook up and you can also sign up to the newsletter there as well.
If you’re a performer and interested in professional-grade props, instructional and scripts, you can go to BillAbbottmagic.com. That’s my sales site for pro performers who are interested in material. That’s the other site.
WILLIAM: Okay, great. Thanks a lot Bill, for coming on the show.