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?





8 thoughts on “BA or Ryanair? The pain of theatre ticket buying.

  1. Christine, today you’ve scratched an itch that I’ve had for a very long time so thanks for giving me a platform to express my views in more than my normal 140 characters.

    I love going to the theatre. I go to the theatre a lot. For the right show distance is no object. So I’ve a fair bit of experience in dealing with the various booking systems of theatres, large and small and my biggest bug-bear with them is the way that they sell their tickets.

    We live in a digital age where on-line self service is the norm; for businesses it’s cheaper and for us it’s usually more convenient. But not the theatre booking experience. From woefully poor websites to rip-off booking charges I’ve almost given up in seeing plays because the online experience was so bad.

    In my industry average transaction costs are web: 0.15p; phone: £2.83; face-to-face £8.62. I’d love to know what the costs are in theatre. And I’d love to know why we are charged an online booking fee for a transaction that actually saves the theatre money.

    In researching this response I was told of £12 in additional charges for two tickets, £4 admin fee per ticket and a £4 transaction fee. Faced with charges like that I may have decided to pass

    I bought tickets this morning to see a touring production perform later on this week in a large city theatre. Nice website, big ‘buy tickets’ button and I was taken through to a nice menu that gave me a range on ticket choices and offered me a plan to either select my seats of have them chosen for me. Crucially the seats taken weren’t blanked out so I was stabbing in the dark unless I clicked the ‘choose best avail’ option.

    So seats selected, off to checkout and BOOM, £2 booking transaction fee and £1 seat restoration fee (preselected – I had to opt out) so my £31 seats were now £34.

    I went back to the beginning, no warning of additional fees to come so back to scratch on the home page.

    I found the box office number, negotiated the menu and selected 3 for the box office.

    Theatres, your box office is your income stream, always, always, always, make it option 1.

    My call was answered quickly and a helpful man, who wasn’t in the least put out by my confession that I couldn’t find my card, just calmly input my details while I turned my house upside down. The same details that I would have been charged £2 for providing online.

    He then offered my 3 seating options and after discussion we settled on Row C in the middle. Best I’d been offered online was Row F to the side.

    The phone call cost me pennies, I got far superior experience and better seats to boot. So in answer to your question today and most times my online experience is most definitely Ryanair and face to face or phone BA all the way!

  2. Dear Christine

    Sadly the costs of the ticketing are extremely expensive, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe the investment made into what has the foundation to be one of the most sophisticated ticketing networks, has cost in the region of £1.5m pounds over the last few years. That is not to mention the huge charges that are taken by credit card companies, payment gateways, software providers etc on top.. The cost of building these systems is so large that the agencies that run them are few and they are able to charge large booking fees or an internal commission back to the companies or theatres. Either the theatre has to deduct this figure out of the ticket price (in the region on average of 12.5% from the face value of the ticket), or it is balanced between the booking fee and a commission, or indeed passed onto the customer. As you know well, most of the theatre, outside the commercial sector in this country, is under resourced and therefore ticketing charges made as an internal commission become a real problem for most theatre companies. If you spend all of the money on administration, marketing and ticketing charges, there is often very little left to spend on art. If you rob the marketing budget, which is the alternative, you don’t get an audience.

    The ticketing agencies are essentially removing money from the theatre economy. Money that if kept, could be reinvested into Art. Some of it is invested back into marketing, but not enough. I agree there is a fundamental problem here and I think the answer in my mind is a national not for profit box office network that reinvests these charges back into a better centralised marketing platform. If you knew that the booking fee made possible the marketing umbrella that then supported a huge amount of marketing and therefore reduced the cost to the theatre and the companies presenting it, we might then be able to put a substantial amount of money back into the industry itself. This is a subject very close to my heart and that of the Pleasance it is something we have been working on for a number of years. If you wanted to speak about it more I would be delighted to discuss it.

    Best wishes


    • Hi Antony

      Many thanks for this response. Glad to welcome someone from the theatre/venue angle into the debate. I have sympathy with your situation — especially regarding the Fringe website. I think it is excellent we can buy tickets on line for all shows on the Fringe in the one place and even better that I can then pick them up from the booth at Queen St station so big thumbs up from me. I have some comments I would like to make about how the costs are dealt with and your proposed solution. However I want to get others involved in the debate and see where this might go. Thanks again.

  3. That’s all very well Antony, but it still leavs the issue of what the actual price of the ticket is which is what consumers want to know when they begin the purchase, not at the end. By all means explain where the costs go with the receipt. As to the vast costs of computerised and ever-more sophisticated ticketing systems, at that kind of level I’m wondering if anyone has actually done a rigorous cost benefit analysis that compares old systems (no doubt with staff costs attached) with new to show that it is all actually worth it and we are not all mesmerised by shiny software sales people. We all know the adage (though probably none more than John Morgan) about erring being human and really screwing up requiring a computer.

  4. Update on this issue. First, there is a new piece in The Stage about alleged sharp practices of ticket agencies when dealing with sell out concerts.
    And second, an update on the sorry tale of my ticket- buying experiences. Last week I booked over £70 worth of tickets for a range of shows at one theatre. I did this by phone because I avoided charges that way. I arranged to collect the tickets on Saturday night when at another play for which I had already bought tickets. Unfortunately come Saturday one of my party had to drop out and so I had a spare ticket. As the play was sold out– and very popular– I knew the ticket could be resold and I would be doing someone a favour so I contacted the box office to alert them and handed back my spare ticket when I arrived at the theatre. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I would be charged a ‘£1 admin fee’ AND I would not get my refund in cash but that it would be ‘credited to my account’. That will be the account where I have just spent £70. I love this theatre. I love the work. I don’t believe that the motivation is to rip me off. But what it does put me off and if I did not work in this sector but was ‘ an ordinary theatre goer’ I might be tempted to spend my £70 elsewhere in the future.

  5. Pingback: Want to buy tickets? Forget it! | Christine Hamilton Consulting

  6. After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment
    is added I get four emails with the exact same comment.

    There has to be a way you are able to remove me from
    that service? Thanks!

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