BA or Ryanair? The pain of theatre ticket buying.

I am very fortunate to receive invitations to opening nights or special performances from friends, former colleagues and professional associates.  However I also attend lots of arts events on my own initiative and therefore, like anyone else, I am used to booking and paying for tickets.  This experience has, at times, left me feeling ripped off and exasperated with how bad performing arts organisations are at selling tickets. All (bad) examples are unidentified but all happened to me- across theatres in Scotland.

A friend, frustrated about the process of collecting a ticket in Edinburgh this summer, mused about how he could sail through Glasgow Airport flashing his iPhone and board a BA flight to London without ever having to fumble around with a bit of paper. Of course we all have our horror stories about air travel but, in an effort to drive down costs and improve efficiency all airlines encourage you to book and check in on line—and you save money by doing so.

Let’s contrast this with theatre.  Yes you can book online.  Yet all issue you with tickets which you need to pick up at the venue or pay to have sent out.  This becomes even more complicated if the venue is not the booking office.  The Edinburgh Fringe made steps this year to make this easy and hurrah for the Queen Street station booth in Glasgow. However it becomes very tricky with re-sales.  I know of two spare tickets for the sell out Barrowland Project on Sunday afternoon because the selling agent could not arrange a resale via its system.

Some websites are better than others and some are just terrible.  What about the theatre which does not let you book two tickets if it leaves one seat empty next to it?  I know the argument but what if you and your friend really want to sit in the middle of row H because you have a hearing impairment and this is the best place for you to hear?

Plaudits must go to the ‘BA of booking sites’, Edinburgh International Festival.  The site is several years old now, but is relatively straightforward and you can select your seat.    But the real reason I love the EIF booking system is that you don’t pay anything more than the price of the ticket. Some of our most valued theatres – funded by the tax payer- would make Ryanair blush.  £2 ‘transaction fee’ for booking online- what’s that all about?  This can work out at more than 10% of the total cost.  And then you get asked for a donation! It’s like Michael O’Leary asking for you to buy him a wing for his new plane after you have paid for using the loo.  I know, of course that the booking fee is widespread in the commercial sector- including theatre, bands and big sports events.  I can just about understand why a business model which involves the venue/promoter using an external agent to sell tickets might have to charge extra for this service –although I am not totally convinced this cost cannot be absorbed into a ticket price.  I am at a loss, however, to know why a theatre which runs its own box office feels the need to add an extra booking fee for its own productions when booked on line where little staff time is involved.  And like Ryanair they don’t tell you until it is almost too late.

Of course I could book by phone—although again this often incurs a booking fee. You would think that if there were a booking fee, you would be phoning straight through to handling centre.  No. You have to decide if you want to speak to the box office, the artistic director, the catering manager and someone who sorts the education programme .  Once you have pressed the buttons you are in a queue and this is costing you.

Let’s turn now to the issue of efficiency. In the Alice and Wonderland world of theatre booking, my face-to-face transaction with a member of staff does not incur a booking charge. So I turn up on the night and wait in a queue.  Back in the day, I had management of a box office and I did my bit of counting ticket stubs, writing up the advance sales, calculating door sales on the basis of marks on a plan and managing the sales queue on the night.  Of course it is so much better now we have computerised systems. NO IT’S NOT.

Rather than focusing on getting the sale done, today when I book in person the poor member of staff feels the need to show me the seat by pulling the computer screen round for me to see which seat I am being offered.  I make my selection and as the queue builds up I am then asked if I have ‘booked with us before’.  Not sure. Give over my postcode. Then remember I did book before but that was under another address. By the time we have located me on the system and changed the address – or entered an address if I am a new customer, the queue is restive and the stage manager is urgently asking front of house if they are ready to go.

So whatever way we look at it, we have an inefficient system (sorry ‘systems’ plural because there is not just one), which makes you as a customer feel ripped off and dissatisfied.

But the great advantage of the computerised box office is that it provides a wealth of detail on who buys tickets.  From a customer’s point of view this holds few advantages.  OK I go on the mailing list and receive a regular brochure but beyond that I rarely receive targeted information by post or email (again the Edinburgh International Festival is an exception). Unlike supermarket loyalty cards, there is no benefit to me to have my data held by the venue.

From the theatre’s point of view the data provide management reports on the audience profile and a good example of how this is used can be found with the audience development agencies.  But I know from the work we did on the theatre review that not all venues can use their systems properly; there is an issue about sharing data between the venue and the visiting company; and there is still a gap between gathering and analysis and actually doing anything with the data.

This is not an easy issue- let’s not forget the one persistent problem with the Olympics/Paralympics was about how the tickets were sold.  But we are not talking here about global events  with huge demand. We are trapped in a system which is inefficient, costly and ultimately rips off the customer.   And that is before we look at the actual cost of the ticket. So which is your local theatre? BA or Ryanair?