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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Gretchen Shugart

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-24

Gretchen Shugart of North Carolina is a matchmaker.

She started learning the art while working as a waitress during her high school days down South. She would study customers and suggest dishes that might match their mien. After earning a degree in economics from New York University, she upgraded her skills at a commercial bank. When an invitation came to join an investment bank on Park Avenue, she found herself with unparalleled opportunities to match entrepreneurs with venture capitalists. Those opportunities led to the establishment of her own boutique investment company.

"My father would always say, 'Listen to what other people need, and then give them that,'" Ms. Shugart said. "I get a kick out of making people happy, especially when it makes economic sense."

Now she matches thousands of people every day with TheaterMania.Com, an online service that offers discounted tickets to nearly 3,000 shows, half of the plays and musicals that are staged in the country at any given time.

Direct ticket sales are in the thousands, with additional thousands directed by TheaterMania to affiliates such as Ticketmaster and Telecharge.

Moreover, at least 400 people sign up for free with TheaterMania every day to receive e-mail alerts about shows. The company's registry has ballooned to nearly 500,000 names.

That's a lot of names. Recognizing the commercial potential of the list, the organizers of the United States Open tennis championship -- which starts next week -- contacted TheaterMania to sell tickets to the tournament.

How about opera, the reporter asked, somewhat in jest?

"We already do opera," Ms. Shugart said. "And magic shows, dances, concerts, and arts festivals."

Her formal title of CEO doesn't truly convey her role. She's really the backbone of the company, which she joined a year after its founding five years ago. She was recruited not for her knowledge of show business or, for that matter, of the Internet.

Ms. Shugart was brought in to keep TheaterMania afloat. The dot-com bubble had burst, and scores of online companies were switching off their computers permanently.

"We were determined to stay in business," Ms. Shugart said.

She began tapping her formidable Rolodex. She raised the money needed to keep TheaterMania going. And then came September 11, 2001.

The attack severely affected show business. Broadway's 40 theaters and touring shows, which ordinarily do $1.9 billion in business annually, saw audiences thinning. The $10 billion national show business industry was in a parlous state.

But Ms. Shugart showed pluck and fortitude.

"I love selling," she said. "If I'd seen a great opportunity to sell shoes on the Web, I'd have taken it."

She did not sell shows, of course; she was in the business of selling shows, a far more difficult proposition when tourist traffic into New York fell dramatically. She cannily positioned TheaterMania as offering an affordable way to attend the theater. In time, Broadway made a comeback. The company became the leading online source for theater tickets nationally (with more than $10 million expected in revenues for 2005). TheaterMania was on its way to making profits, and has remained profitable for the last two years.

The profits could be explained by the fact that TheaterMania is a 24/7 operation. Besides its online service, the 22-person company also has human order-takers.

The orders are growing rapidly. TheaterMania last year channeled millions of dollars toward Broadway shows, many of which, like airlines, offer discounted tickets to fill seats. It also sold 135,000 tickets to 700 off-Broadway shows with a ticket sale value of $3.5 million. And nationally, 180,000 tickets at various prices were sold for some 1,100 shows. Revenue reached more than $4 million.

"We put on a show that never closes," Ms. Shugart said.

Has her ambition been finally matched with the business of show business?

"I have learned that, in business at least, all you can do is to put one foot in front of the other to get ahead," she said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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