Questioning why online tickets sales are so frustrating and why this will be hard to solve

Recently, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of trying to buy tickets to three high-demand shows, with each using a different purchasing flow. Out of the three, I ended up with tickets only for two and felt that the process for two was unfair. My feeling is that there has to be a better way. First, let’s take a look at the different cases.

  1. TicketMaster: wait or ye shall lose your place in line!

    TicketMaster: wait or ye shall lose your place in line!

    Taylor Swift at Levi’s Stadium. Tickets went on sale at 10am on a Friday in December on TicketMaster. These pre-sale tickets were made available to Taylor Swift fans with a code and to AmEx holders. At exactly 10am buyers were allowed to hit the “buy tickets” link. The code didn’t work to gain access but luckily I hold an AmEx. There was no stadium seating guide for the show, just the ability to buy certain price levels. I opted for the “best available” and was treated to minute after minute of a site “processing” my request, where it wasn’t clear that anything was happening. Finally, after almost an hour, I was given the opportunity to buy two (expensive) tickets. Not wanting to restart the process, I bought them. It was only two weeks later that I was able to see a seating chart with the stage location to realize that my “premium” tickets are on the very edge of the sight line, on the extreme side of the stage. Grade: C as I managed to buy tickets.

  2. A one-night-only event in New York. An interesting approach to a combination fundraiser and Broadway show was undertaken by the Actor’s Fund. A month-long Kickstarter campaign offered tiers with different merchandise but all with the ability to get an early access code to buy two tickets on April 13th. In the end, 1,485 backers pledged $318,120. The venue has around 1,600 seats and one savvy theater goer estimated that after comps, around 1,200 tickets would be available for purchase. Given the number of backers, that each backer could buy two tickets, and the number of available seats, well, it wasn’t going to be easy. On the morning of the 13th, a majority of the codes given out to many of the backers didn’t work (mine included) denying access to the pre-sale on TicketMaster. When codes finally worked for some, all the tickets were sold out. Grade: F, because many backers were never given the opportunity to buy tickets and because many felt the process was extremely unfair. Yet, an interesting approach, were it to have actually worked. Backers said that they were not angry because there was a very high demand but because they were treated unfairly.
  3. Smaller venue with lower demand shows. The Mountain Winery began ticket sales today for their summer concert series at 10am.  Anyone arriving at the site before 10am chose a specific show and was given a random place in a virtual line to buy tickets for that show. Anyone arriving after 10am was given a place in line according to their arrival time on a first come, first serve basis. The waiting page refreshed every minute and, at their turn, customers were given the ability to buy tickets to the show they had chosen earlier. To get tickets to another show, customers had to start over by entering a new line. The system allowed users to wait in multiple “waiting rooms” by opening a new tab for each show. Result: relatively smooth, understandable process that felt fair. Grade: A- for a smooth, almost entirely transparent process.
The Book of Mormon, 2012 run. Another case of many frustrated ticket buyers.

The Book of Mormon, 2012 run. Tickets sold out within 90 minutes.

Looking at the more frustrating aspects of these processes it’s easy to pinpoint some similarities, at least between the first two. First, these are high-demand shows where the number of interested ticket buyers exceeds the number of seats. This makes it very attractive to scalpers, and for both tickets are already being sold at higher prices on Stubhub. Second, both were sold through TicketMaster. An interesting article from over two years ago points out that TicketMaster has exclusive deals at many venues, especially arenas, that makes it harder for other ticket sellers to compete. It also makes it impossible for some artists to sell through other vendors. Yet Ticketmaster doesn’t seem to want to solve the “high demand” problem because it sells the tickets regardless.

A while ago I wrote about how Nick Kokonas had reinvented restaurant reservations by observing and then improving the process from both the diners’ and the restaurant’s perspectives. His solution, first implemented in Alinea, abolished traditional reservations after introducing prepaid tickets for meals, with different prices for more popular dates, times and menus. One of the benefits, said Kokonas, is happier customers. Before, when using a “normal” reservation system with phone and online components, customers were frustrated when trying to get a reservation. “Customers felt like they were being lied to.  How could you be booked 2 months out on a Thursday?  There was no transparency to the system.” The new system “creates transparency of process for customers and builds trust and loyalty.” It also benefits the restaurant by reducing no-shows and selling out less attractive times. For a particular type of restaurant, Kokonas defined it as “small, chef driven, limited seating per night, and high demand,” selling tickets instead of making reservations make everyone happier.

Can this approach change ticket buying for high-demand events? Looking at the restaurant approach and comparing TicketMaster to OpenTable and phone reservations, there are several similarities. First, an opaque process, causing a sense of unfairness. Second, unhappy customers when the transaction doesn’t happen, diners not getting reservations and fans not getting tickets. Yet the differences are vast: each restaurant manages its own reservation system and isn’t tied to one system like venues are to TicketMaster and high-demand tickets for a one-time show are harder to get than reservations to any restaurant that offers meals every night. The demand structure is too different.

Finally, scalpers are making a profit that should have been the artists. Perhaps TicketMaster doesn’t care who buys the tickets, fans or scalpers, as long as its fees are being paid, but the artists do. That’s why both Taylor Swift and the Actor’s Fund tried to hand out codes to fans and backers yet in both cases the codes did not work for me (and for others.) Are working codes the answer? Is a more stringent registration process (to weed out scalpers) the solution? Or perhaps a system like the Mountain Winery’s that always tells you your place in line and treats all customers lined up at sale time the same?  Yet as long as TicketMaster has no incentive to change, change will not happen. Only when competitors offer artists alternative solutions will change happen.

Until then, let’s all take a deep breath and hit refresh. Namaste!

Update. As I was writing this, Re/code published a short post about how Twitter was going to start selling tickets to events and will start with the NBA playoffs. Users will be able to purchase a ticket in a tweet, with a click of the “buy” button. As Re/code said: “Twitter a go-to distribution channel for last-minute ticket offers just like the Hawks promotion, as well as giving teams an alternative to working with ticketing middlemen.” This is true and it also lets real fans (followers of the official Twitter account) be the first to receive such offers. Of course, it remains to be seen how Twitter will deal with extreme demand, such as what Ticketmaster experiences when Taylor Swift tickets go on sale. Yet, it’s extremely encouraging to see a new take on ticket sales.

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