Industry Editor Exclusive: Inside THE RIDE's Theatrical Quest to Take Over the Streets of NYC & Beyond
In summer 2010, something described in a Variety article as a "melding of a Broadway show and a Gray Line bus tour" was announced and I was very confused. And maybe appalled. In late fall of that year, when the large buses labelled THE RIDE hit the streets, none of these feelings subsided. Now, seven years later, THE RIDE is a hard-to-describe but well-known fixture on New York City streets, even being parodied on THE SIMPSONS and, more recently, DIFFICULT PEOPLE. Yet, despite the long lines to board, it still has yet to make money.
Originally conceived, designed and executive produced by Michael Counts, an immersive theater expert known for his work in the outer boroughs, the show/experience/bus arrived with theater credentials. In addition to Counts, Tony-winning producer Robyn Goodman was a founding member of the Board of Directors. Blue Man Group was an investor. Bruce Vilanch came on board to write some material at one point. It perhaps didn't seem as crazy to others as it did to me. According to current CEO and Chief Creative Officer of THE RIDE, Richard Humphrey, Counts had managed to attract 77 investors.
"It had gone on a long long time before it officially launched," Humphrey explained. "It kept needing more and more money. Finally there was over $22 million sunk in." All this for an enterprise that wasn't making money year-to-year, and in fact lost around $4 million its first year.
Part of the initial money went into the buses themselves. Basically everything for THE RIDE has to be built from scratch on top of a bus chassis. Lights, screens, three rows of seats that face in One Direction, giant windows taking up an entire side of the bus and the roof. It is like a combination of a party bus and theater. Each of the vehicles cost approximately $1.5 million to build. And the folks at THE RIDE paid cash to build four of them. Oh, and then there is the ongoing maintenance. There is a lot of technology inside the bus that can falter. Every three to six months Department of Transportation regulations require the buses are checked out--and, even if they didn't, the buses have to run. Of the four buses, Humphrey noted he always has to plan for at least one to be in the shop.
Then there are the performers. THE RIDE features two improv hosts (they work off a loose script written by Humphreys) and eight street performers. The experience is hard to picture--essentially 49 passengers per RIDE are treated to some tidbits from the hosts and also fun facts regarding businesses and the area spoken by "the voice of the bus," complete with data reported on 40 screens spread throughout the bus. Then there is the street performer element. As the bus slowly passes some areas, people dressed in street clothes perform for the bus riders. There is a rapper. There are dancers. Some of the performers interact with the bus audience, others seem to exist in their own universe.
It's an odd experience that seems to be popular with audiences. THE RIDE gets high marks on most tourism sites. After the trip I took, almost everyone raved. It won a Drama Desk Award. So why doesn't it make money? What will it take to get it in the black? These are questions Humphrey and his executive team--which also includes Dan Rogoski (previously an executive at Merlin Entertainments, the folks responsible for Madame Tussauds), Alan McKeon and Jeff McCormick (founding partner of Saturn Ventures and an original Boston Duck Tours investor)--have been thinking about as they try to raise an additional $7 million.
"[T]he concept originally was an 'if they build it, people will come' campaign; there was no pre-marketing campaign," Humphrey said. "There was a lot of naval gazing. Theater people had created it but theater people couldn't sustain it. You needed to market to the right people."
Humphrey believed in the premise so much that in 2012 he led a management buyout of THE RIDE. McCormack continued but the countless other investors were gone. Even more new investors later signed on in 2014. And now additional ones are being sought. On its surface, it seems incomprehensible that someone would want to invest at this point. After all, it's not exactly like investing in THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS; there is no righteous argument about supporting the arts. But Humphrey is confident THE RIDE can be profitable and he's also pretty sure he'll convince enough people of that to raise the money needed.
What it is going to take for the enterprise to be profitable, according to him, is more buses. Currently he has four, but cannot even count on three being out at one time. He said he turns down corporate bookings and school groups because he simply does not have the capacity: "Frequently I have three at a time, but history has proven it's not fair, so if I have a group of 150, I turn them down. I can't count on it." While 147 could fit on three buses, Humphrey fears the bad word of mouth if something goes wrong and two buses, instead of the typical one, are out of commission. He estimates that, while revenues were almost $5 million in 2016, another $1.2-1.5 million was lost last year because of route cancellations necessitated by equipment failure. That margin would have made the company profitable.
The plan is to build two more vehicles and launch them at the end of the 3rd quarter of 2018, just in time for the holidays. The vehicles will be versatile, serving where they are needed. Currently Humphrey and his team have THE RIDE in midtown, THE TOUR, which has more detailed NY factoids (and no street performers), and THE DOWNTOWN EXPERIENCE, which incorporates virtual reality. So it would seem like one bus for each, but that isn't how it works. If a group wants to charter two buses of just THE RIDE, it can. Additionally Humphrey said he has had luck with niche RIDEs. Soon after he joined the company, he had NY artist Charles Fazzino, known for his 3-d pop art, design the outside wrap for one bus and also work on some of the video inside it. Humphrey said the FAZZINO RIDE was a huge hit, as pairing with the artist drew people in. After that, Humphrey developed a special holiday RIDE, Halloween RIDE and now there is also QUEEN OF THE RIDE, featuring a drag show and booze. He wants to bring THE RIDE back to its theater roots as well, with a Broadway RIDE involving virtual reality. It's still in the planning stages, but he hopes to get theater owners on board.
According to an investor presentation, Humphrey expects THE RIDE franchise to make $5.13 million this year, $8.14 million next year (with two new buses incorporated in the latter months of the year) and over $14.51 million in 2019 with a stable of six buses. Those numbers include more than just revenue from running buses in New York however: they include licensing THE RIDE to other cities internationally. Humphrey stated that Tokyo is interested and so are other US cities, but he simply doesn't have the infrastructure in place to seriously pursue those leads. Part of the capital raise will go into raising the "depth of the organization."
If this all seems unbelievable to you, you're in a club Humphrey himself was once in. Before the launch, he attended a RIDE presentation and thought it sounded like a cool idea, but one impossible to execute. Now he sees the future in it of course. He believes the tourism business is moving toward favoring interactive experiences. The more performances and virtual reality he can incorporate, the happier he is.
And, while it is hard to consider THE RIDE theater, despite its Drama Desk Award, it has employed a good amount of actors and dancers. Matt Bittner (PRESENT LAUGHTER, SCHOOL OF ROCK tour and UP HERE at La Jolla), BrenDon Chan (BODYGUARD tour), Sarah Goeke (BEAUTIFUL tour), Jake Keefe (PUFFS off-Broadway) and Nate Miller (making his Broadway debut tomorrow in JUNK) were all employed by THE RIDE. Though the original behind-the-scenes theater folks couldn't really get it off the ground, it now seems here to stay. That is if it can just make some money.