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What is Companion Seating, and Why is it Integral to Access Booking?

A view of empty theater seats sloping down toward the stage.

For most patrons, booking tickets is relatively quick and painless. Online booking offers a plethora of options for seat location, price, and quantity: patrons can pay a little more for the best seats in the house, or grab the cheap seats in the back, snag a box, or sit in the front row. Once they choose and pay for their tickets, all that’s left for patrons to do is show up on performance night and enjoy. For most, the experience is relatively seamless, and it takes no longer than five minutes from search to completed booking. 

For patrons with accessibility needs, approaching the purchase path looks very different. For example, someone who utilizes a wheelchair is going to need a few more questions answered before they can confidently begin to book their seats, including: 

  • Is there an accessible ramp to enter the venue? 
  • Are there accessible restrooms? 
  • Is there parking available? 

The same can be said of all individuals with accessibility needs. Planning a night out takes a greater amount of time and care. It also takes a certain degree of self-advocacy that can leave an individual feeling strongly othered in a space that, at its core, is about bringing people together.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Companion Seating

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2010 established minimum criteria for accessibility in design and construction. To comply with the ADA, theaters must have a certain number of wheelchair-accessible seats. The number of accessible seats depends on the theater’s size, seating areas, and price bands. Additionally, theaters must provide at least one companion seat for every wheelchair-accessible seat and they have to be next to each other. ADA Law strongly advises that there should be three companion seats available, but requires only one.

Accessibility and Companion Seating Requirements

The ADA’s companion seats regulations remind organizations that accommodating someone’s accessibility needs is not simply about ticking the checkbox of legal requirements. Companion seats remind us that individuals with access requirements have the same right to see a show with their friends as anyone else. 

With wheelchair seating, it can be a challenge to find a group of seats together for friends to enjoy a night out. By holding companion seats with accessible seats, an organization protects the rights of wheelchair users to enjoy the performance with their friends the same as any able-bodied individual. 

Companion seats also allow individuals to attend who would not be able to without their companion, or caretaker. For this reason, in the United Kingdom organizations make companion seating free in most cases.

Selling free companion seats online opens up some possibility for ticket fraud, be it accidental or intentional: During a busy sale, for example, patrons who don’t require companion seats might unintentionally book them, especially if they’re not clearly marked. Because of this, it’s fairly common for UK theaters to lock wheelchair and companion seating and require patrons to unlock the seats with a code or customer tag. In the US, ADA specifies that patrons with access needs cannot be assigned additional steps to select the seats they require, so this is not currently an option for American organizations.

These different ways of approaching companion seating work in their respective markets, but there could be a universal solution to preventing ticket fraud out there; after all, regardless of location, the goal of the arts industry is to create the most inclusive and empowering experiences.

Designating Accessible Seating Online    

No matter where patrons are booking accessible seats, it is of the utmost importance for an organization to let their patrons know which seats are accessible and which seats are designated as companion seats online. Most ticketing systems have a way to input information about certain seats. When patrons scroll over select seats, seat information will pop up, alerting the purchaser that they are looking at a wheelchair or companion seat.

Screenshot of Capitol Theatre Yakima's seating plan. When patrons hover their cursor over a companion seat, an information box pops up saying the seat location, price and the message

The Capitol Theatre in Yakima, Washington use information boxes on their seating plan to communicate which seats are companion seats. 

Related reading: How to Tell Your Customers About Your Access Performances

Like any organizational change, creating a comprehensive access booking experience takes time, organizational buy-in, and a solid understanding of why this change is important. Creating a positive and accessible experience for patrons requires organizations to think beyond box-ticking and instead consider what an individual with accessibility requirements must have in order to be able to enjoy the performance with similar ease as their peers. What does it take to ensure that no member of an audience is made to feel othered, and what must be done to create the most inclusive space possible?

These questions are vitally important factors in building an audience that is primed and ready for the performers. They’re also essential for creating a culture of loyalty and reattendance, ensuring that patrons return to the venue safe in the knowledge that their needs will be met and their expectations will be exceeded.