Tim Dolan Spent Ten Years Building His Broadway-Based Startup into a Profitable and Sustainable Business. Then the Pandemic Hit.
When most of us think of the Broadway business, we think of the three major theater chains that own most Broadway theaters, the consolidated talent agencies that represent most of the creative teams and actors on Broadway, or the mega-shows that are, themselves, multi-million dollar organizations.
But the theater industry is actually mostly supported by much smaller “mom and pop” based businesses. These are the press agents, general managers, group sales agents (although those too are slowly being bought up by bigger companies) merchandising companies and businesses that help support Broadway as a tourist entity.
Tim Dolan, who joins us today, is the owner of Broadway Up Close, a company that supports the tourism economy of the Broadway industry by providing walking tours of Broadway architecture mixed with the history of Broadway.
As with any entrepreneur, Tim spent years building his company, only to find himself facing his greatest challenge yet in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has crippled so many Broadway businesses.
Below, Tim talks with us about growing his company, and how he plans to keep the lights on in the face of the pandemic.
Tim – you moved to NY from Michigan shortly after you graduated high school to pursue acting. Was your decision to skip going the route of a four-year degree program driven by financial considerations, a burning desire to start working right away, or some combination of the two?
Like many decisions during my life, my move to NYC when I was 18 years old to pursue an acting career kind of just fell into place. I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college, only that I wanted to pursue Musical Theatre as a major. I auditioned for a couple of 4-year programs and was accepted academically, but was waitlisted for the theatre schools. And then, out of the blue, I got a call from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (then only represented in NYC, but now on both coasts) that they had gotten a request for marketing materials from me.
I thought long and hard about how that could be possible, and realized that while taking my ACTs that I had to submit my scores directly to a few schools and that was the first alphabetically that sounded theatrical, so I checked the box.
Little did I know, that one simple action would set into motion a life built in NYC. Fast forward – I was accepted after auditioning in NYC, I sang “This Is The Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde (still a guilty pleasure of mine!) at my high school graduation, and then 10 days later I got on a plane to begin classes for the summer semester. That was June 26, 2003, and I’ve been in love with this industry – and this city – ever since.
So you come to NY and you clearly have some success. You were in Altar Boyz, a revival of Once Upon a Mattress and in Season Two of Boardwalk Empire. Was pursuing a career as a performer what you thought it would be?
Yes – and no. Some things were exactly like I thought: waiting in long lines to audition with many other hopefuls. Pounding the pavement all over NYC, going from audition to audition. The side of the business that I didn’t ever think about are the times in between shows. Or waiting for your next show to begin.
The financial crunch of navigating the constant search for the next job. And, frankly, I had to reset my idea of the business. The job isn’t the job – the “job” you think you’re pursuing is doing 8-shows a week. Developing the stamina and mental acuity to execute at a high level in the watchful eye of thousands.
And while that is a monumental challenge in itself, to me your actual job is the pursuit of the next contract. The maintenance of classes, lessons, networking, and auditioning to stay relevant and hireable. That’s the job. The contract is the payoff of that hard work. That’s the joy.
Okay, so you’re doing the hustle, doing the “job” between the jobs, acting and landing some gigs. When does the idea for Broadway up Close start to materialize?
In 2010 I had finished a few years of doing Altar Boyz on the road, in California, and in NYC at New World Stages. It was a dream come true and still one of my favorite theatrical experiences as a performer. As a job between shows, I began teaching at Rosie’s Theatre Kids, an arts charity that provides arts education to underfunded public schools in NYC. I loved it! I loved connecting with these young people who had so much energy (especially during an 8am 5th grade musical theatre class…) and I loved sharing stories about my theatrical life.
I began to pursue my tour guide license (there’s a 150 question test you have to pass that has the MOST random questions), and started to hatch an idea of concentrating on tours of our theatrical industry. I didn’t know much about the theater’s individual histories, so I began to research. And read. And ask questions. And visit archives. And meet with other historians.
Piece by piece, story by story, photo by photo, I began to build a tour of the theatre district that explored the magic, excitement, and stories from past and present, using the 41 theaters as the framework to tell those tales.
I’m an entrepreneur myself. I’ve started a few businesses, including 10glo. I’m looking at your website and I see a full staff of a dozen tour guides in Broadway Up Close hoodies, t-shirts and button downs. You have thousands of reviews on Tripadvisor, over 5,000 Instagram followers. Press is covering you. Seems like you’ve created an instant successful business.
But, as most entrepreneurs know, by the time most of us have a profitable business and appear like we just snapped our fingers and created a thriving business, there’s actually been a very long, sometimes years long, period of challenges when it seemed like the whole house of cards may come crashing down, when we think we’ll have to find desk jobs at a large corporate company to pay back our debt.
In short, it’s not a cake walk! Can you take us back to those early years of starting Broadway Up Close?
This is a brilliantly worded question from someone who has been in my shoes, so I appreciate that immensely. I equate building a business to an iceberg. By the time any success arrives you’ve made it to the water line and the tip of the iceberg peeks out into the world. And while you continue to grow, unseen in the depths, the entire iceberg grows and rises even further.
Most just see what they can see in their view. Only those who have been in the trenches creating something from scratch (Look, I made a hat…) can see the massive undertaking of ice that lurks beneath the surface.
But it’s all connected. Without the foundation underneath – created from sweat, tears, frustrations, early supporters, mini triumphs, and everything in between – there is no success.
And if I’m going to continue this iceberg analogy…this pandemic and shutdown is like the Titanic, barreling straight into what I’ve created, full steam ahead. Lives will be lost, melee ensues. We know what happened to the Titanic.
But what about that iceberg? With almost full avoidance, the Titanic struck the side of the berg, leaving a streak of paint from the hull of the ship permanently etched in ice. But it withstood the strike because of the deep foundation below.
So, hopefully, at the end of all of this, the work that I’ve put in will be enough to sustain even this direct threat to our existence – both as a small business and our wider Broadway industry at large.
Iceberg analogies aside, at the end of every day, it’s still one person at a time. One theatre-goer at a time. One tour-goer at a time. And, ten years later, I’m happy that we’ve hit the water line and are feeling a little sunshine. (I’m Irish, so I sunburn easily, but with some SPF by my side, and a mask too, I should be fine!
So you navigate these challenges, it takes ten years to build up your business to the point where you can say to yourself, “Okay, this is a real thing that I’ve built,” and then the pandemic strikes. First Broadway shuts down for a couple of weeks, then a few months, and then it dawns on most of us working in the industry that oh, wait…this could be a year plus and after that who the heck knows what our jobs will look like or what kind of revenue our small businesses can expect.
When did you realize you were going to have to make some changes to survive the Broadway shutdown and can you tell our readers what those changes have looked like?
When this pandemic first took hold, I did what most Broadway businesses did for the first week: I processed A LOT of refunds. While hemorrhaging money and trying to mitigate disaster, I put my head down, took a breath, and let it wash over me. It wasn’t just my business. It wasn’t just my industry. It was the entire WORLD.
There was some small comfort in knowing we were all in the same lifeboat (I know, I know, another nautical reference…that’ll be the last, I promise!). I began to ponder the length of the shutdown, the grim future, and flatlined revenue. I set a goal for myself: don’t pivot.
It sounds insane, I know. I didn’t want to suddenly pursue a track for my business that wasn’t what I intended, just for the sake of necessity. I wanted to expound upon things that were already set in motion, so that on the other side of this, that expansion would enhance and strengthen my mission, instead of take it in an entirely new direction. With that intention set forth, I began to look at this as an opportunity of time.
What can I say? The Irish are an optimistic lot!
I had opened a gift shop in the middle of Times Square in April 2019. It was the first chance for me to put down roots in an otherwise mobile business model. 60 square feet doesn’t seem like much, but I was determined to make the most of it. We created custom merchandise all centered around a 6-foot tall BROADWAY sign I had created as a photo opp next to our gift shop. We did the standard tote bags, keychains, magnets, and apparel.
This shutdown has gotten me to think creatively outside of the normal merchandise. So, we’ve created ticket stubs magnets that can be customized with all of the info from a show you’ve seen as a souvenir of a theatrical moment in time, picture frames that are customized, and some fun new stuff that I’m really excited to unveil.
We are going to change the Broadway merchandise scene one square foot of Times Square real estate at a time with unique, personal souvenirs of your theatrical memories.
The future of this pandemic, that has brought our industry to our knees, is just so unknown right now. But can you talk about what kinds of opportunities you’d like to create for yourself and your company over the next couple of years as we all look to rebuild?
Right now we’re about to launch virtual experiences that reposition our in-person tours into interactive Zoom-hosted sessions with my Green Team. We won’t be streaming live from Times Square as the technology isn’t there – instead we’ve found ways to host them with photos, stories, and trivia questions to fill the void while most aren’t traveling.
I’m hopeful this will allow us to reach groups and individuals that wouldn’t otherwise have found us as they were too far from NYC to visit in person. On the business side I’ve met with lots of other industry professionals in the past few months who are also having to re-think their business models in this precarious moment.
It’s been fun to get acquainted with other Broadway adjacent businesses and pursue partnerships that have the potential to blossom down the line. Separately, I opened our first interior Broadway tour last October: Hudson Up Close, inside of Broadway’s Oldest Theater – the Hudson. I’m hopeful that we can add other interior tours to our offerings and really show people Broadway as up close as possible.
Amid the darkness we have to find some light. In the meantime, we’re one day closer to Broadway.
Tim, thank you so much for joining us today. From one entrepreneur to another, may I just offer my sincere wishes that you and the rest of the Green Team will navigate this truly devastating blow to our industry and come back stronger than before. Thank you for your time.
You can learn more about Broadway Up Close’s in-person socially distanced tours at broadwayupclose.com/tours or support them by making a purchase from their gift shop at: broadwayupclose.com/souvenirs.
You can see some of Broadway Up Close’s fun and inventive virtual tours at 10glo.vincentragosta.dev/user/BroadwayUpClose.
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