Some 500,000 children climbed on the bus last year. They boarded Scholastic’s Magic School Bus on its U.S. tour, which not only promoted the TV show and merchandising tie-ins, but gave kids hands-on science experience playing with the experiments and software on the bus.
Considering the success of shows like the Magic School Bus tour, it appears that tours are back. Not only are retailers crying out for free entertainment to lure traffic and move merchandise, but studios find they’re a powerful way to leave an indelible impression on kids. Disney estimates that its pre-release tour for The Hunchback of Notre Dame reached four million kids who either attended the ’96 show or heard about it.
‘Fifteen years ago, Universal Studios had tours that went all over the country,’ says Debbie Robinson, president of The Robinson Group, an Indianapolis retail marketing consulting firm. But a subsequent glut in entertainment sources and the recession decreased the number of road shows. Now, ‘the pendulum has swung back,’ she says.
‘[Today], there’s a real focus in the retail industry to generate or host entertainment events at shopping centers,’ Robinson explains. Finding new ways to draw people into the mall is all-important considering that statistics show of the average 200,000 shoppers who visit a large regional shopping mall in a week, more than half of those visitors make purchases.
‘If you’re trying to reach consumers, malls are the perfect opportunity to do it.’ Robinson adds. ‘It’s another way companies can cut through the media clutter.’
From a publicity viewpoint, says Ann Piper, media relations manager at Lyrick Studios, which organizes tours for Wishbone and Barney, ‘there’s nothing like going to local markets.’ While many touring shows have grown into large-scale productions, she says that simple visits can be enough. When Wishbone and his trainer recently toured Store of Knowledge venues, as well as select Target and FAO Schwarz locations, Piper says approximately 3,000 people came to meet them.
The appearances almost always go hand-in-hand with sampling and special promotions, and with good reason. A recent Bananas in Pajamas 10-city tour of JCPenney stores helped introduce the popular Australian program to the U.S. Throughout the tour, people wanted to know where they could buy Bananas in Pajamas merchandise, says Polly Barry, director of account planning at Promotion Management Network, who helped organize the JCPenney tour as well as separate mall visits for syndicator Sachs Family Entertainment. During a recent performance at a Chicago JCPenney store, she says, overall sales rose 22 percent and consumer traffic jumped 50 percent.
When tour schedules are rigorous and the number of appearances high the Magic School Bus, for example, made 150 stops, many to out-of-the-way cities much of a tour’s success depends on the local retailer and the community, stresses Keith Harband, director of brand management for Scholastic. When Toys ‘R’ Us invited the Magic School Bus tour to its stores, Scholastic supplied the posters and ads, says Ellen Dowling, director of promotion marketing for Toys ‘R’ Us, but the store helped plot locations for visits. At two Borders stores in Texas, 800 kids showed up for the bus. Barbara McNally, national events coordinator for children’s promotions for Borders, says local staff were responsible for promoting the events.
But, while Dowling praises tours for giving kids the chance to interact with a product, she insists they must be relevant, and the target audience must be receptive, ‘otherwise, [the tour] becomes meaningless.’
At places like FAO Schwarz and Mall of America, consumers have come to expect entertainment. ‘It’s part of the theatrical experience of shopping at FAO,’ says David Niggli, senior vice president, new business product development and visual merchandising at FAO Schwarz. Character visits ‘add significantly’ to their sales, he says, adding that FAO works closely with manufacturers and licensors to coordinate tie-in marketing efforts.
The risk of overmerchandising a property and devaluing it is a valid fear, which explains why some tour organizers have held back the support for merchandising. For instance, Brett Dicker, senior vice president of promotions at Walt Disney Pictures, says that in the pre-release Pocahontas tour, Disney declined doing any big retail tie-ins. ‘We didn’t want to muck it up,’ he says. As for merchandising and licensing efforts, ‘there’s plenty of time for that later.’