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Time to step back

Roger Tomlinson confirms he is now “mostly retired” and shares some of his views on the state of the arts.

I closed down my business – Roger Tomlinson Limited – on 31 March 2017 – marking 49 years since my first paid job in the arts. I am not going quietly, and will still tweet and blog, though I suspect my perspective will change.

My friend and colleague Andrew Thomas is now the owner of and I have passed to him my technology and procurement practice, which he has already been making such a success of. I hope it won’t feel unfair to him, but I’ll be passing over to him the baton of helping address data protection issues in the UK, and liaising with the Information Commissioner.

My work in New Zealand, which I have much enjoyed ever since Cath Cardiff at Creative New Zealand invited me to their country, I have passed on to new consultants coming out of their arts organisation experience: David Martin and Michelle Gallagher would deserve recognition on any international platform. In the US I particularly enjoyed working on Project Audience with friend Alan Brown at WolfBrown who has pioneered so many in-depth research processes and admirable studies to inform our thinking, and I am still collaborating with Ron Evans of Group-of-Minds , working on a new book together.

I remember the time when a spreadsheet was an A3 sheet of paper you drew yourself

And my friends and colleagues Debbie Richards and Tim Baker at Baker Richards have long been the ‘go-to’ consultants for pricing, audience development strategies, loyalty, memberships, segmentation, and have even developed some impressive software tools to automate much of their detailed analysis processes. And I remember the time when a spreadsheet was an A3 sheet of paper you drew yourself, with columns and figures in pencil which you completed manually, with no automated calculations or ‘fill-down’ options. My colleagues in A.R.T.S. in the 90’s – Hugo Perks, Stephan Stockton, Mel Larsen – enjoyed the glorious opening up of opportunities that Macintosh ushered into our working lives.

We have come a long way over the decades, and I have enjoyed trying to be at the cutting edge of understanding the potential of the new technologies and deploying them for the benefit of arts organisations and audience development. “But you’re an old guy” said a young woman when I was challenging her arts organisation to wake up to the realities of the digital world in terms of marketing and communications. Well my favourite quote is “there is nothing permanent in life, except change” and we have to embrace it. I retain a concern, shared by friend and colleague Diane Ragsdale, that somehow the arts, which used to be early adopters and change agents, have slipped behind, and too many can be viewed by younger audiences – crazily that now means under 45 years old – as not being up-to-date and relevant.

There is no reason not to be ready for change.

And that’s despite the sterling work of membership bodies such as the Theatrical Management Association, (now UK Theatre), that made such a difference in the 80’s and 90’s, avidly collaborated with by the great Peter Verwey of the then Arts Council of Great Britain. I am very proud of setting up for the TMA the Druidstone arts marketing course and running it for its first six years from 1982, with funding from all four UK arts councils at the beginning; it is still run every year. Of course, my great love has been the Arts Marketing Association, which I had the honour of chairing, and for which I have attended every annual conference since the beginning: I am steeling myself for not attending this year. It is good to see Cath Hume picking up the baton from Julie Aldridge, and I hope the AMA continues to champion the professionalisation of audience development. And I have made so many international friends through INTIX, who gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award, and where change is a constant topic of discussion; it is good to see Andrew Thomas extending that ethos to the Ticketing Professionals Conferences in Birmingham for which he deserves huge credit. There is no reason not to be ready for change.

I remain very fond of Theatr Clwyd in North Wales because of a very special time setting up and running that complex in the 1970s but what pleases me most is to see current Artistic Director Tamara Harvey re-creating the original ethos driving us back then, but re-invented, new and different, for today. Every time I look at her programme, I want to attend. We need more arts organisations re-inventing themselves for today, willing to take the risks to commit to the public and open themselves to engagement on the public’s terms. Instead I reel in shock when I see arts organisations damaging themselves beyond belief: I am still incredulous at what the University in Aberystwyth did to their amazing Arts Centre, where I was in at the beginning, the University threatening to undo in a few short months what everyone had created over 40 years. It seems a miracle it has survived and is building a new future.

our ability in the arts to re-invent the wheel

I attended the recent UK Theatre Touring Symposium on 23 March and had to sit very quietly in a session on collaboration when speakers started suggesting forming consortia and partnering together to develop audiences in catchment areas around venues. Tim Baker always reminds me about our ability in the arts to re-invent the wheel. I had helped form nine of what became the regional arts marketing agencies – forming Cardiff Arts Marketing with the late John Matthews in 1983 – and I still feel it is a backward step that we have only The Audience Agency for England, Audiences Northern Ireland, and Culture Republic for Scotland, though pleased at the way that Julie Tait has taken Glasgow Grows Audiences and Edinburgh’s The Audience Business into a national organisation. The Audience Agency under the remarkable Anne Torregianni provide a data-led foundation from which audience development should flow. Could it be that collaborations/partnerships focussed on individual catchment areas will re-form?

I have too many friends and colleagues to try and mention them here. But there are some arts organisations I truly admire, and often that is also because of the people. The Victoria Theatre/New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent was formative and remains a remarkable venture. The ethos and drive of the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow means the legacy of its founders is made relevant today. The Traverse in Edinburgh is a cross-roads of new work which somehow distils a particular Scottish inquiry into the human condition. The Royal Shakespeare Company has been pleasing me for more than 50 years, keeps re-invigorating itself, and, for me, in the Swan offers one of the most engaging theatre spaces. Yes I like the National Theatre in London too, but my heart is with the RSC. Similarly, Welsh National Opera usually offers an emotional experience with their great chorus in full cry, in some radical stagings over the years.

As someone who likes classical music and particularly symphony concerts, it is galling to live in Cambridge and miss the glories of venues such as Symphony Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Liverpool Phil, the Sage in Gateshead, but I will always take my hat off to Louise Mitchell, who transformed Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and is now creating a new future for Bristol Music Trust and their Colston Hall. I suppose I can admit that I always wanted to run the Dukes in Lancaster – convenient for walking in the Lakes – so am jealous of Ivan Wadeson. And Chapter in Cardiff always seemed to be the venue that capitalised ‘Alternative’ to do something different, and I enjoyed watching Carol Jones lead their marketing for many a long year. I get similar feelings about James Wilson and his great team at Q Theatre in Auckland. And I can only admire what Philip Aldridge and his team at the Court Theatre in Christchurch NZ manage to consistently deliver, earthquake survivors insisting on being in charge of their own destiny.

It always seemed to me to be a remarkable privilege to work with some arts organisations such as the Concertgebouw in the Netherlands, Dramaten in Stockholm (the Royal National Theatre of Sweden with its warm statue outside) and the arts organisations in Malmo, especially Thomas Wickell at Malmo Opera.

still don’t really understand how modern art galleries get designed

I much enjoyed working on feasibility studies and striving to achieve effective venue designs. My business partner Chris Baldwin at ACT Consultant Services pulled off frequent design and budget ‘coup de teatre’ which regularly astonished me. He reminded me recently of the long list of arts buildings we had achieved. I only wish the wonderful ‘new’ Liverpool Everyman was to our credit – we need more new venues with that integrity.   We have certainly seen a massive investment in arts infra-structure in the UK since the 1960’s, though as a lover of contemporary art, I still don’t really understand how modern art galleries get designed, with the exception of Tate Modern as an enjoyable friendly experience. Nicholas Serota and Jeremy Theophilus are the only visual arts administrators who made sense to me.

No brickbats. A previous Databox user talked to me at that Touring Symposium about the legacy of Jonathan Hyams and Charlie Davies in creating that ticketing and marketing solution, which reminded me that we don’t seem to recognise the huge contribution that a few people have made to helping us move forward in the arts with great technologies working for us, and often with degrees of altruism driving their ambitions. The Dataculture ethos that delivered Databox is pursued in his own way by John Caldwell and PatronBase, and Jack Rubin took Tessitura to be the high-end arts solution fundamentally owned by its users; they deserve especial thanks. There are of course many others trying to make a difference. I particularly remember the endeavours of Stuart Nicolle at Arts Marketing Warwickshire (now Purple Seven) and always Leo Sharrock (now at The Audience Agency) in terms of curating/piloting the benefits of what everyone now calls big data. The late Tim Roberts and I didn’t think of it as that (or even CRM) when I wrote Boxing Clever in 1993, or when we updated it into Full House in 2006, published in Australia and New Zealand, and later in Spain. Hard to remember that in the early 90’s with Duncan May (now at Ambassadors Theatre Group) we were trying to persuade CACI to build an Arts A.C.O.R.N. and we proved the concept.

So where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here? Well I am now on the board of The Audience Agency, which I think with the Audience Finder, Audience Spectrum and Show Stats tools is putting on the desks of arts marketers more power than ever before in my lifetime, and almost free. I continue my special relationship as Chair of the Centre for Performance Research, with Richard Gough as Director; CPR is another great survivor. And I see enough commitment out there from a variety of individuals, and some arts organisations, to a changing future in which artists and audiences can find ways to share ‘stories’ to make a difference.

I am not stepping back thinking the future looks good for the arts – indeed the prognosis seems to be the worst in my lifetime. I still regret the regional imbalances in funding by Arts Council England – so disadvantaging to many parts of the country. The damage done to the arts from education policies in the UK and the US will run through generations and undermine both creativity and audiences for the future. Too many government cuts in arts funding in countries across the world, the threat to local authority funding in the UK – likely to seriously undermine the available infra-structure for the arts – and the demographic cycles of the next thirty years, don’t bode well.  I share with Phil Cave and Arts Council England a belief in “representative audiences” but we still have a long way to go it seems, to even understand that, let alone achieve it.

I wish you all success. Thank you if you have been with me on the journey. It can be done. Don’t go quietly.

Onwards and upwards


3 April 2017

Why are we Evaluating Databases?

I am preparing for a return visit to New Zealand, working again for Creative New Zealand (CNZ), to visit their clients to carry out Evaluating Databases Audits. I am following on from a project started by my late colleague Tim Roberts, in a process we had originally developed based on our own separate experiences in Australia and the UK, shaped in discussion with Helen Bartle of CNZ.

Both consultants and arts marketers have to work in the real world, and Tim and I kept asking similar questions after visiting and talking to practitioners:

  • Why don’t managers know about the data the staff of their organisation collects?
  • Why don’t staff understand the basics of data capture and building useable customer records?
  • Since Data Protection is at the heart of collecting and using customer data, why do so many organisations not know about the details of the law?
  • Since staff work with “databases” each day, why do they get confused about “lists” and apparently create multiple “lists” with duplicate and non-synchronised records?
  • What are the real hurdles to staff joining up their data, synchronising between applications, working with a 360 degree view of their customer inter-actions?
  • What leads organisations, that could install a comprehensive software solution for ticketing, marketing, CRM, fund-raising, friends, loyalty and membership schemes, to instead choose separate and unconnected solutions?
  • Where do the issues come from that means data usage is often dysfunctional in organisations, sometimes working against its interests?
  • Where do Boards and Senior Managers sit in the responsibility for ensuring competent practices in their organisation (and using data in their decision-taking)?
  • How do we intervene to help organisations help themselves to work less painfully and definitely smarter?
  • How do we address – long term – the creation of professional standards and the challenges from staff turn-over and loss of institutional memory?

Whoa, you might say, that’s heavy.

Whoa, you might say, that’s heavy. But the questions haven’t changed in 20 years. And the questions are similar from Arts Council staff across the UK, other consultants, and of course some of the software solutions providers who wonder just what is going on in their users’ organisations.

The Evaluating Databases Audits are a relatively simple process:

  1. We start with a briefing conference call to talk through the process and for example get the “key dimensions” of an organisation (you may not be surprised how often they don’t know them) and to identify the key staff who need to be involved (you may not be surprised how often they don’t know who they should be).  The basis of the audit is that senior managers must be involved.  In practice Artistic Directors, General managers, CEOs – it changes the dynamic of the whole thing.
  2. We start around 9.45/10am with a group session around ‘mission’ and ‘vision’, trying to understand where the organisation is going and what its data needs might be. We usually invite a Board member to attend (sometimes CNZ makes this a condition of funding the audit). This usually proves a rare opportunity for an internal discussion about translating their ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ into reality and the challenges they face in achieving it, often of staffing, resources and internal competences, let alone all the other factors.
  3. Hopefully after 11am we get into the actual audit, ideally getting to go round the organisation and sit with staff at their screens and see what they are using, what data they have, and what they are doing with it and using it for. This is usually where we hit the confusion about “lists”, and apparently separate multiple “lists” with duplicate and non-synchronised records, often on separate software tools, often without interfaces. And different functions not being aware what other functions in their organisation are using. In this stage of talking closely with staff we usually find the internal challenges, levels of understanding and competence, and how hard or easy it is for staff to get what they need to do, done. Issues of data quality, data capture, Data Protection, data processing, emerge quite quickly. But this is also a huge knowledge sharing session, filling in gaps in experience, explaining laws and practices, pointing out what is possible, briefing about audience development practice.
  4. By lunchtime we have usually identified the key points the organisation has to address and we offer to explore these and their implications with a senior manager over lunch. On many occasions they ask that this stage also involves the rest of their staff in a group, which we prefer, though it is challenging not to upset some people in the process. The ones who get most discomforted are those who have toiled at their task without being told there were better/easier/quicker/more accurate/friendlier processes/tools. You can imagine the brainstorming that happens as people identify what could be done to address the points and see some quick fixes as well as much bigger and harder issues.
  5. We go into the afternoon by building an Action Plan with tasks allocated and a simple timetable for implementation. This often involves proposed changes in software solutions and the procurement of new systems. There will be those daunted by what is ahead and what they may personally need to do, and we have to address their concerns. But we try and keep it focussed on the benefits of change. After long years as a consultant, I know change can be painful, so my first rule is that pain needs to be over in as short a time as possible, and if you can find an accelerator, stamp on it.
  6. The day ends with a de-brief, which again many senior managers want all the staff involved in the process to be present for. And again, the Board member in at the beginning often returns. So often this concludes with a much clearer understanding of how data is going to make a difference to their working lives and the success of their organisation. And staff feeling much clearer about both what is possible and what it is for.

The Audit is followed on by a written report, shared with CNZ. And CNZ often comment on how that report goes way beyond what you might expect from an Evaluating Databases session, as it reflects the wide-ranging ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ discussions we had. The good news is they usually invite the organisations to make an application for funds towards implementation, though that does focus more on the implementation of database improvements.

I am working in New Zealand with David Martin and Michelle Gallagher again this trip, as I am mentoring them to pick up the baton and carry on the work. They both have experience as arts managers before acquiring their data geeks status, able to work inside arts organisations on audience development and so on, as well as inside the software. They have got experience of a number of different ticketing systems, with PatronBase and Tessitura knowledge under their belt, and both work ‘hands on’ with arts organisations as the core of their work. Like my UK colleague Andrew Thomas, they bring a weight of experience alongside their technical skills, forming that 360 degree holistic view of what is really going on.

I think I see this making a difference

I think I see this making a difference, which is why I give priority to it. And those questions persist that Tim and I asked in the past. Indeed I sometimes worry that the situation is getting more challenging under the pressure of reduced funding for the arts across the world. The UK’s Audience Agency (of which I am now a Board member) supplies the Audience Finder tools to Arts Council England NPO/MPMs and in the summer of 2016 Firetail carried out a survey of the users; astonishingly 42% of survey respondents indicate that their organisation does not have the skills and capacity to make full use of Audience Finder, with a further 6% not knowing whether they did! That suggests there is still a lot to be improved. It begs the question of whether we need an Evaluating Databases Audit project in the UK too.  Not conducted by me, I hasten to add…

Roger Tomlinson

New Year 2017

Caught between a rock and a hard place?

For 25 years now, one of my side-lines has been to be involved as an expert witness, arbitrator, broker, adjudicator in disputes between arts and entertainment organisations and software suppliers of ticketing systems and similar marketing and CRM tools, web developers and even sometimes infra-structure providers. Who would have thought that things like electricity or computer cabling could be so disruptive? Who would have thought that such large sums could turn on who said what, when, who meant what, when? I won’t be quoting any names here.  And to be fair, some system supplier’s ownership and not-for-profit model such as Tessitura put them into a different situation.

working relationships are breaking down with a different perspective from those on the users side

The challenge, however, has always been that the people on the supply side come at situations where working relationships are breaking down with a different perspective from those on the users side, particularly it seems in not-for-profit organisations. I have sympathy with the users, because the marketing messages of suppliers will often have talked about working in “partnership” with their users, emphasising their commitment to joint success, their friendliness, and the diligence of their support, promising to go “the extra mile” to achieve customer satisfaction. Well they would wouldn’t they?

Some of the disputes I been involved in have been exacerbated by that simple disconnection between the offer and the promises of the marketing and sales team, and what is then delivered by the implementation team. One major ticketing system supplier seemed always to start their implementation by forgetting everything ever said during the sales process, and with their technicians and support staff unable to complete tasks demonstrated by their sales technician. You can imagine it was a confidence deflator every time.

That said, most of the disputes actually come down to communications and to expectations. It is easy to blame communications. One arts organisation had explained a major change to their website to their web developers in a long telephone call; unbeknownst to them, they were using jargon which had multiple interpretations, of which they only knew one, but their developer only understood a different one to them, and expensively did the work to deliver that. When he presented the results he was astonished to find they were disappointed, and blamed him and his team. Eventually, both parties agreed there was no evidence of any precision in what was specified or any check for understanding, and no arrangement to review iterations as the development went along.

most of the disputes actually come down to communications and to expectations.

So clearly getting communications right is crucial. Of course dialogue is helpful, and a record of what has been said and agreed is essential, but those checks for understanding are the vital ingredient. One of the biggest disputes financially I was involved in, as an expert witness, turned effectively on what one side understood by what the other said, and the unstated implications.

In another example, one supplier was asked if their system “could do X” and their response was “yes” – a frequent response from them to queries; but when clarification was sought, they explained ”if you specify what you want, we will pass it to our development team, they will cost it, and, if you approve, they will develop it, depending upon our other development commitments for the delivery date”. Their “yes” meant that their system had the capability to have the required functionality added in future, and nothing more.

But as indicated in that previous example, communications involve time. It is not being unfair to say arts and entertainment organisations often ask for something when they are up against a deadline or have suddenly realised a gap in their available functionality, and they want an instant answer and an immediate solution (sometimes for something they have already started to announce to their customers). But suppliers need time, perhaps because the person being talked to at the supplier doesn’t have the authority to make a decision, but essentially because it has to be checked out with the development team and possibly with the people who make decisions about priorities for them. This can mean that the simple dialogue wanted runs out over a week or more, coming back with a much more complicated, and not necessarily helpful, answer.

communications involve time

That leads us to expectations. For all their promises, most suppliers are commercial businesses intending to be profitable (you’d be surprised how many are not) and that will determine how far they can go and in particular, what things cost. During procurement processes, I can understand the disappointment of subsidised arts organisations that find they cannot afford the tender from their preferred system supplier, but I cannot understand when they think the supplier should do them a favour and charge them less (and which of course they won’t tell any other venue about)!

Having worked in business development for a supplier and knowing the way costs are calculated and the internal accounting for charges, I know it is not worth querying costs where the time allocation and day rates are clearly quoted. I know the day rates vary, sometimes ludicrously, between suppliers but the only solution is to choose a supplier with lower rates if you can’t afford the ones with higher rates. The rates might well be determined by where the developers are based – England? US? Slovenia? India? Argentina? – and their experience and competence; there are still developers who make their mistakes on their users. The rates will also be affected by the overhead of the supplier’s organisation.

Yes sometimes suppliers will re-negotiate terms, especially around license fees and similar, but I only see this where the supplier wants to keep the client, there is a degree of mutual respect, and certainly no abuse being aired. Expectations of civilised behaviour are to the fore.

situations need more like marriage guidance than dispute resolution

But expectations can lead us into situations that seem to need more like marriage guidance than dispute resolution. I have heard ”our supplier just doesn’t understand us” and “if only they would change their behaviour and their attitude to us, everything would be alright”. Clearly there is a wide range of expectations you can have, but it is important to understand where the supplier is coming from, how they make their decisions, and, fundamentally, what drives their business. I don’t like to say it, but trying to remove emotional tensions from what are practical business issues is the best way to make progress.   On one occasion the venue produced multiple sides of A4 in small print with detailed chapter and verse of what had been going wrong with their supplier’s staff, tape recordings of some of the conversations, and a desire to be proved nit-pickingly correct on each item. They could not understand when the supplier queried their behaviour and attitude, questioning why the obvious issues had not been raised at the beginning, as they unfolded.

It can often seem that a breakdown in practical relations happened months earlier and that both sides continued, with emotional tensions increasing, when both should’ve identified the issues and required resolution of them when the issues first emerged. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

After a breakdown, in my experience suppliers always want to understand what to do better in the future, often by talking about how they can make their working partnership with arts organisations better. My answer always lies in better dialogue, more account management, closer liaison on a formal basis with those responsible in a venue. And I find myself saying to the arts organisation that they are dealing with a specialist supplier and their staff need to have the skills and competencies to have the dialogue with that supplier on the right terms.

Suppliers’ staff will make mistakes and may not be as efficient and diligent as we want, but they are human beings who work for someone else, from whom we are taking a ‘mission-critical’ service.

Suppliers’ staff are human beings who work for someone else

Some arts organisations seem to think it will concentrate the minds wonderfully of their suppliers if they withhold payments for invoices and dispute payments. Now I have known system suppliers take many months to notice this – their “accounts department” not being connected to account management in support. But unfortunately many arts organisations are of the smaller end of the income flows in the larger international system suppliers and it is unlikely to impact on their behaviour and attitudes. So that is not the way to get attention. Once again, to get attention, it is about dialogue and effective communication with the right people at the right level.

Some arts organisations seem to think that legal action or threats of it will also concentrate the minds wonderfully of their suppliers; unfortunately suppliers seem to be very good at having lawyers who will tortuously consume time and money while not achieving resolution. It is depressing to be called in when situations have reached that stage.

suppliers seem to be very good at having lawyers who will tortuously consume time and money

My basic advice is always that arts and entertainment organisations need to decide what they want – are they willing to end their contract with their supplier and seek a new one? Colleagues Ron Evans in the US and Andrew Thomas in the UK point out that is what they often find – it has already gone too far, breakdown has already happened, confidence has already been lost, and the arts and entertainment organisation is going to start again with a new supplier, hopefully trying not to repeat the traits over the relationship with the previous one.

But often what arts and entertainment organisations want is to recover from the bad situation and the dispute. To the disappointment of many, that means leaving behind the issues of the past and concentrating on what is going to happen in the future. I use the expression ”reset” to describe as if starting at the beginning again. It is most important to define what will be the behaviours in the future, how communications will be managed in the future, and exactly who will be responsible for what, If there is to be a real chance of success. Sometimes that means that key individuals involved in the dispute have to step aside – they are carrying too much baggage from the past to make the future work without looking back. Sometimes that means people are involved who have not in the past been directly engaged in these matters, fresh heads, not coloured by the detail of the past and the nitty-gritty of previous problems, but crucially simply empowered to take things forward.

Oh, and partnerships are like marriages, where give-and-take is involved, lots of listening, being careful to say what you mean, and mistakes are forgiven, and collaboration is learned. It may be that some suppliers and some arts and entertainment organisations are never going to find a comfortable way to be working in partnership, but it would be good if they could find a comfortable way to not work at loggerheads.

Roger Tomlinson

August 2016

How many ‘complimentary tickets’ is too many?

Perhaps it is the old venue manager in me, but I don’t like performances with houses smaller than 60% and I don’t like complimentary tickets (comps).  So I am concerned at the huge numbers of tickets the arts and entertainment industry appears to give away as a matter of routine.  And I don’t think that is the answer to smaller audiences.  The practice of “papering houses” seems endemic and I remain convinced that it is not a good thing, and potentially dangerous.  Why give away for nothing the very thing that represents most people’s perception of your value – the ticket price?

a million give-aways per annum

The good people at UK Theatre keep their members up to date with their great tracking study of attendances, and I find it intriguing that recently UK Theatre members have been breaking cumulative records for attendances and income – already 7.7 million attendances and £174 million ticket income for the year to date, and a running average capacity of over 60%.  But despite this, depressingly, the running average for weekly capacity recently has been below 60% and the number of complimentary tickets is averaging over 20,000 per week.  Now I know we are a friendly bunch in the theatre in the UK but we haven’t got that many friends we are willing to give guest tickets to.   Last year UK Theatre members collectively averaged over 22,000 comps per week. Multiply that by 50 weeks and that’s over a million give-aways per annum.

it is not worth nothing, you are giving away at current average ticket yields £25 per ticket

When we are issuing genuine guest tickets, I have always argued that the full face value of the ticket should be printed on it – it is not worth nothing, you are giving away at current average ticket yields £25 per ticket.  When I worked at the RSC in Stratford I liked the fact that all departments had a budget to “buy” their guest tickets from the Box Office so we thought carefully about “guest tickets” even for press, and we could legitimately claim that we were playing at something like 95% of paid capacity!

plainly “papering” continues at high volumes

But we now have online schemes for complimentary tickets and plainly “papering” continues at high volumes – irritating as a paying attender to hear the people sitting next to you discussing how they came by their “free” tickets.  I still think the challenge is marketing and selling the tickets (and I accept we sometimes aren’t as successful as shows deserve) and we have to stop giving so many away that we devalue what is most valuable to us.

Roger Tomlinson

19 May 2016

UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse

It is not a snappy title, but Sunderland MP Sharon Hodgson and her co-chair Lord Moynihan’s cross-party Parliamentary Group, drawn from the Commons and the Lords, are the front-line of attempts by artists, managers, promoters, producers in sport, the arts and entertainment to stop the public being “ripped off” in the re-sale of tickets.  These are knowledgable people, who sit on the Boards of major organisations in our industry.  And the petition to Parliament they support, now has nearly 40,000 signatures.

the front-line of attempts by artists, managers, promoters, producers in sport, the arts and entertainment to stop the public being “ripped off” in the re-sale of tickets

The Parliamentary Group (APPG) thought that much of what they wanted was included in the UK’s Consumer Rights Act of 2015, which had specific provisions for secondary ticketing.  Originally rejected by the Tory Government, this was achieved after clauses were inserted in the Lords and later approved in the Commons.  However, as Which? reported last Autumn, from monitoring the secondary re-sellers sites, and as the APPG noted, the re-sellers are mostly ignoring the law and defending their failure to supply the information to consumers that the law requires.

Of course, with Business Secretary Sajid Javid have spoken out in favour of touts as “classic entrepreneurs”, it is not cynical to think a Government committed to the ‘free market’ might just be ignoring the inconvenient need to implement the provisions.  Which does make it odd that he has commissioned a detailed review from Professor Waterston into the implementation of the Act, when plainly it is not being implemented in relation to secondary ticketing.  Since people from the industry who had met the professor had found him to be ignorant of ticketing practices and the contractual arrangements for presentations in the UK, there is not a lot of optimism about this “review”, due out on 26 May 2016.

conflicts from time immemorial

There have been conflicts between those responsible for ticket sales and achieving audiences for events, and those who see an opportunity for exploitation because the public want to buy specific tickets, from time immemorial.  One senior Ticketmaster executive said “there are those who work in the entertainment industry and there are those who work on it”.  Pre-Internet, when they were plain “touts”, their often fraudulent activities and abuses were much more in plain sight; and of course some people responsible for ticket sales and achieving audiences abused their position and helped tickets reach touts or unauthorised agents – and some lost their jobs as a result (prosecutions were rare).

The Internet has turned this, as the Police pointed out after Operation Podium and the London 2012 Olympics, into facilitated white collar crime.  There is a challenging problem here.  If your moral compass doesn’t see”ripping off” the public by charging huge sums many times larger than face value tickets (plus large booking fees on top), then you don’t see any part of these activities as a potential crime.  Indeed more than one person has argued to me that if people are willing to pay then they deserve to be ripped off.

It may be that if you think the public are stupid then you extend that thinking to people in the entertainment industry who don’t agree with secondary ticketing.  If secondary ticketing is actually legitimate, then surely tickets could not be listed for sale BEFORE the primary on-sale has happened, and all tickets would carry the full information of the seat location, face value, block, row and number; and as originally proposed, the real name of the re-seller so an Amazon or e-Bay style reputable profile could be built up based on purchasers’ experiences.  And of course, there would be no “power sellers”, and tickets would never be especially bought for re-sale, or fraudulent non-existent tickets offered, or tickets fail to materialise (in these circumstances, the offer of a guarantee or refund is not much compensation when the person thought they had a real ticket to attend).

Since some of the primary sellers actually own some of the secondary ticket re-sellers, and try to make deals with artists and managers which encompass some tickets going straight to the secondary market, it is clear that there is a huge problem from those working on the entertainment industry.  Clearly they could check and provide the seat location, face value, block, row and number information since they supplied the ticket in the first place.  That vertically integrated Live Nation reports its huge increase in earnings from secondary market re-sales demonstrates the size of the problem.

tickets being offered for unauthorised re-sale

Many artists and managers, arena and venue managers say that despite their terms and conditions of sale they can see their tickets being offered for unauthorised re-sale – even when they offer an official exchange or re-sale mechanism.  Some simply cancel the tickets – not necessarily great for the innocent public end-purchaser – as the only way to keep sales secure, and the identity of the attenders known.


There are of course, alternative secondary market providers offering genuine attenders and fans simple face value (or less) re-sale mechanisms, though some of these are finding secondary ticketers trying to purchase tickets from them to sell at inflated prices on their platforms.  Twickets promise only face value or less re-sales and Vibe Tickets is running an OutTheTout campaign petition.

And arena and venue managers report that fraud continues to be a major problem.  The APPG think that if the Consumer Rights Act 2015 is correctly implemented, then some of the secondary market companies will join others in re-locating outside the UK (and probably EU) to avoid the UK jurisdiction and EU enforcement.  That tends to confirm that secondary ticketing is more underworld than mainstream.

Observer Special report (Sunday 15 May 2016):

Statement from Co-Chairs APPG on Ticket Abuse:

On-line petition to Government :

Roger Tomlinson

16 May 2016


EU-US Privacy Shield to replace Safe Harbor pact

The EU and the US have confirmed that, after two years of negotiations, they have agreed a “Privacy Shield Framework” which will in effect replace the Safe Harbor agreement with the US that the European Court of Justice struck down last October (2015).  The details of the new Privacy Shield were released on 29 February (2016).

No idea what we are talking about?  The Safe Harbor agreement enabled multi-national companies that traded in the EU to transfer  and process customer data to servers in the US and provide similar protections to EU directives on Data Protection of customer data in member states, such as the UK.  For all those companies agnostic about data flows on the web such as Apple and Google, and for ticketing system suppliers operating in Europe with server farms in the US, this was a serious problem.  The Safe Harbor agreement was struck down after the Edward Snowden revelations and subsequent US discussion confirmed that the US Government could over-ride Data Protection and access and process customer records of EU citizens without authorisation or any permission.

New ‘notification’ requirement if EU data processed in US

The fundamental changes the EU-US “Privacy Shield Framework” makes do introduce the right for EU citizens to take action in the US if there is a breach of their privacy, but lawyers are unclear how that satisfies the challenge of US Government access.  It also introduces the requirement to notify customers if say their data from an Internet Ticketing transaction will go to servers in the US.  And there is a fundamental requirement for a contract where an EU company is agreeing that its customer data will be transferred to and/or processed on servers in the US.  Read more here, with the full text available, on the US Department of Commerce website:

Useful blog on this from the helpful web developers TinCan:

Roger Tomlinson

3 March 2016


Fair play for ticketing professionals, and the customers?

Coming out of the first ever Ticketing Professionals Conference (TPC) in Birmingham, UK on Friday 26th, it felt good to be part of our industry.  A hugely successful conference run by ticketing professionals for ticketing professionals, which must be repeated.

Then I saw the reports about Live Nation (LN), with a record year of revenue “and a whopping $1.2 Bn in secondary-market tickets alone” according to IQ – – out of total revenue of $7.6 Bn.  A sixth of total revenue on the secondary market?  Weren’t these the people who put the tickets on the primary market in the first place?  But LN owned Ticketmaster owns leading secondary ticketers GetMeIn and Seatwave anyway, so they are part of the problem while pretending to be the solution.

Live Nation: $1.2 Bn in secondary ticket sales

Then one of the less controversial BBC Radio 4 programmes Moneybox on Saturday lunchtime 27th broadcast a complaint about the booking fees at the Colston Hall in Bristol.  By a twist of coincidence, Jonathan Brown of STAR and I had presented a session on the law around booking fees at TPC on Thursday, moderated by Colston Hall’s Jon Swain.  And Colston Hall is a registered charity fully compliant with the law, only quoting inclusive ticket prices, with no surprises.  The BBC piece seemed to suggest that booking fees were a terrible rip off and why weren’t ticket prices like supermarket prices – inclusive?  Which of course they are required to be in the UK and are at Colston Hall.  There is the daft complication of per transaction fees used by some venues, but not Colston Hall.  Double daft for the BBC and a trading standards officer to so misrepresent this.

payment-method related charges now history

I suspect the Bristol complainant was fondly remembering the days before the law intervened when many venues did not charge booking fees to personal bookers buying tickets over-the-counter and paying cash.  But payment-method related different charges are now history.  Perhaps the Colston Hall mistake is that as a registered charity they do carefully explain on their website how ticket prices are made up, based on a 7.5% commission rate.  What?  Only 7.5% you chorus, when it is usually 10-15% and higher!  Well as Newcastle Theatre Royal has pointed out, once they stopped their booking fee being explained separately, the complaints stopped.

Adele tickets £24,000 on secondary market

Then on Sunday 28th the front page of The Observer heralded Adele’s tour starting in Belfast today (29th) with news of secondary market tickets for £24,000.  Yes that is twenty-four thousand pounds sterling for one ticket, including GetMeIn’s £2,840 booking fee (at least they included it in the price quoted); Seat face value £85.  Upwards of 290 times face value.  StubHub slightly cheaper at £23,600.  What is painful about this is that Adele did not want this to happen to her fans, and a pre-registration process had been thought to eliminate 18,000 touts, and Adele had agreed an official re-sale site Twickets at face value.  The Observer story:

if a rip-off is possible, somebody will rip-off

But if a rip-off is possible, somebody will rip-off.  Fans of Brit award indie group Catfish and the Bottlemen found out to their cost on Friday (26th) when tickets for their tour sold out instantly then appeared moments later on the secondary ticket sites, £27.50 tickets offered for £328.90 on GetMeIn.  The law is supposed to protect fans using secondary ticket sites by giving full details of the seller and their tickets, face value, area, row and seat numbers, but monitoring by Which? found that many of the secondary market companies were letting re-sellers break the law – because in some cases the primary ticket providers have terms and conditions which mean they can cancel tickets re-sold unofficially.

Of course Labour MP Sharon Hodgson co-chair of the UK’s Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse has called on the Government again for protective legislation, protection that some artists like Adele, Sir Elton John, Prince, Mumford and Sons and Coldplay all want.  There is a Government report coming in May on whether the UK Consumer Rights Act 2015 provisions on secondary ticketing are working.  They are not.

It is about time the ticketing industry wanted fair play for itself and for its customers.  And not to feel that we have ‘white-collar’ crooks in our profession.

Roger Tomlinson

Monday 29 February 2016

New UK guidance on Data Protection changes the rules

Websites and Internet ticketing engines need to be changed to accommodate new guidance agreed with the Information Commissioner, which applies specifically to how arts and entertainment organisations operate under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (2003), known as PECR (pronounced “pecker”). The whole process of recognising returning customers, what ‘notifications’ are given to purchasers about who is processing their data and what for, and how permissions are collected is interpreted differently for on-line sales, over-turning previous guidance.

The Audience Agency, in the form of Leo Sharrock, and I have been in discussion on this with the Information Commissioner since the end of 2014. This all started when various presenting venues objected to sharing their data with touring companies, a requirement that comes into force for Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisations in April this year (2016).

I had previously been researching this issue together with Andrew @TicketTattle Thomas on behalf of Peter Bellingham, then at Welsh National Opera. Clearly, many venues were not complying with the previous guidance agreed with the Information Commissioner in 2005, negotiated by Tim Baker and I, which actually was a fairly positive regime in terms of assumed “soft” opt-ins and “dual-key control” sharing of data. Non-compliance included problems arising from not recognising returning customers, as well as what happened when ‘notifications’ were served up and ‘permissions’ collected.  This often meant that the customer’s status and permissions were not correctly recorded on the system. The ICO officer helping us, simply said our sector had had over 12 years to comply with the 2003 PECR rules, so it was not unreasonable to expect it now!

Don’t confuse Data Protection with PECR

The fundamental issue, covered in the new guidance and information website – – is that PECR is different and on top of the 1998 Data Protection Act (DPA). That means it over-rides DPA on-line.  Looking around, it seems most ticketing system suppliers and the websites of arts and entertainment organisations have based their on-line processes and texts on the DPA, and not changed them when the 2003 PECR came in.

Recognise returning customers

From a process point of view, returning customers on-line need to be recognised early in their transaction process and their status used to determine if they need to be served up notification statements again and asked permission again. This isn’t a matter of choice: returning customers must be recognised and then advised on how to change their permissions if they wish, and subsequently given the opportunity to unsubscribe at the top of every email communication. The words meaning “at the top” are in the law. Don’t see much compliance with that.

So recognising returning customers comes first.  It is also a serious problem if the system allows duplicate records to be created or confuses the status and permissions of existing customers. What we see at present is that some systems permit purchasers to click past the notifications and permissions without answering anything, and then shows their status as “None” or even “Not asked”, in some cases meaning subscribers and members end up as “Do not contact”. That in itself could a breach of the law.

Some see that the real challenge to existing practice is that notifications are different and specific for PECR and not the same as for over-the-counter or phone sales under the DPA. So on-line terms such as “third parties” or “other arts organisations” are not acceptable. This completely changes how ‘notifications’ are worded and permissions obtained. And it completely changes the basis for permission to share data.

Data sharing under new rules

Ironically, the major objection of some venues has been that Data Sharing is not permitted under the DPA – always entertaining to wave the ICO’s large green published guidance document Data sharing code of practice in response – you wonder how hard their lawyers had worked on this? However, the ICO emphasises that on-line under PECR it is the notifications given and how the permissions are obtained that are crucial. Best practice is always to seek separate permission for the venue by name and the touring company by name, with the customers being asked to opt-in to hear from each.  Looking at venue websites, usually on system supplier pages, that needs big changes.

New notification and permissions regime

The guidance has lots of detail on this, including the long convoluted wording the ICO wants if it is thought difficult to insert the name of the touring company the customer is buying tickets for into the notification. No, don’t laugh, some people have actually said it might be difficult. I am sure system suppliers will not be laughing, since supplying software which is not ‘fit-for-purpose’ under UK law is a breach of various laws in itself. And venues won’t be laughing as they review how they approach getting permissions on-line on a company by company basis.

Leo Sharrock and I will be talking this through at the Ticketing Professionals Conference in Birmingham on Friday 26th 10.45 to 11.30 so that is a good opportunity to get your questions in:

Roger Tomlinson

February 2016

Keeping up to date: whose responsibility?

When Andrew @TicketTattle Thomas, Ron @GroupofMinds Evans and I compare notes from our experiences with, we are always surprised about how easily, sometimes how quickly, users of ticketing systems become disenchanted with their suppliers. It can sometimes seem that it is not what their system can do that pleases users, but entirely the service they get from their supplier and, fundamentally, the relationship with them.  Genuine communications seem to break down so easily and people can feel neglected and taken for granted when what they are receiving is “normal service”.

Is their current system a ‘match’?

One particularly concerning dimension of this is when users complain of the inadequacy of their system, when in fact it can already do what they want, usually because of upgrades. This is not when users have failed to upgrade to the latest version, but simply because they are not keeping themselves up-to-date with the functionality being delivered to them. Ron Evans therefore offers venues the opportunity to put their needs profile on the Functionality Builder and simply for him to report whether their current system is a ‘match’ that meets their needs: Quite often it is, and the users have then to either tackle their relationship with their supplier or still decide to change.

Oh, but it does!

I recently found myself meeting a number of users of one system and hearing their feedback about the software. Unfortunately this was “the system doesn’t” with the repeated refrain “Oh, but it does” routine. But what I also heard was users who assumed it was the responsibility of their supplier to keep them up-to-date with the knowledge about their system’s capabilities.  If necessary they expected the supplier to be returning to give them the training their staff needed to ‘work smarter’ and get the most out of the system. Their expectations went way beyond release notes with a new software version.  They were surprised to be told this was unrealistic.

Staff churn defeating continuity

Not much dialogue was needed to find that any supplier’s communications strategy to convey knowledge about the system capabilities is quickly going to be undermined by staff churn in their users, people changing jobs so core expertise leaves the user’s organisation with them, no handover – often significant gaps before the new person arrives – completely defeating continuity. I can recall Select Ticketing (before they merged into expressing concern about the impact this had on PASS users, at a time when systems were less intuitive in their interface than today. Select managers wanted to make it a condition that, to obtain support, at least one person at a user had to have been fully trained by Select, and if that member of staff left, the user organisation was to be immediately informed of their need to get someone new trained – at a cost.

Charles Shatzkin (now fronting PatronBase in the US) tells me Select never actually removed support, but their “PASS University” did inculcate a culture of being a trained and knowledgeable user, and, like Tessitura today, the network of users was able to deliver much training on new initiatives and share case histories at their user conferences, to “raise the game” of system users.

Too low a common denominator

But there is another and equally concerning dimension to this. It appears to me that too often the staff, as everyone says, “in the front-line” using these ticketing systems, are not given enough training to be able to properly do their job.  Their supervising managers are often not fully versed in the latest marketing and sales promotion techniques (and are often the ones with unrealistic expectations of suppliers).

Talking to one system supporter, the challenge is that sophisticated systems require intelligent users with knowledge of CRM, direct marketing and related functions and strategies. If the users do not know what they should want to use a system for, and how to carry out advanced ticketing, marketing or CRM tasks, then they may find themselves in a Catch 22 before they even look at the software. Setting up a membership scheme, configuring a subscription package, sorting out the rules for a fund-raising campaign, are not tasks to be tackled without prior knowledge.  This rapidly translates into managers who don’t know what they could use their system for, and sales staff who can’t do much more than sell a ticket. That is one big gap for any supplier to close. It is to be hoped that the new ticketing staff qualifications being proposed in the UK (details at the Ticketing Professionals Conference: might start to challenge that issue. More than one international supplier is discussing providing “foundation” training in ticket sales to help close this skills gap.

Users need to get real

But more attention needs to be paid by users to this issue. We have seen the way Select in the past, now Tessitura, has managed to get on the agenda of the senior managers in arts organisations, and therefore get the attention and resources that ticketing and marketing needs if it is going to deliver the CRM and fund-raising benefits most organisations want. It does seem to me that senior managers need to get real about their responsibility for ensuring staff are knowledgeable and trained up-to-date.

Perhaps I can make a simple comparison: most venues today have sophisticated computer controlled lighting systems for their stages, which require training on what you can do with the system and how you do it. I don’t know a single venue that puts an untrained member of staff to drive the system during a live performance with the audience. Why, if that is the case back stage, do we it allow untrained staff front-of-house in daily live interaction with our audiences?

Roger Tomlinson

February 2016



Ben Curthoys takes a different path

The software supplier marketplace for ticketing, marketing and CRM solutions in the UK is over-crowded, too many suppliers chasing too few customers, and ‘entry-preneurs’ always wanting, they think, to make easy profits out of ticketing.

So it is not surprising that many ticketing system suppliers emphasise their differences and some claim they do business on a different basis. For example, Spektrix have made a virtue of their Cloud-based SaaS model and high levels of customer support; Tessitura champions its not-for-profit co-ownership network; AudienceView the first comprehensive browser-based solution; SROv4 with the first system centred on a powerful Rules Engine to enable huge configurable flexibility; and PatronBase with their unique “not just for profit” low cost but high spec. model. Ben Curthoys and Monad Ticketing is different from all these.

From Backstage to Front-of-House

I am intrigued that Ben Curthoys helps make an argument I feel strongly about: that backstage in venues high standards of systems and training are an absolute requirement of computerised systems, but F-o-H lower standards are allowed to apply, despite being the centre of inter-actions with audiences. Ben is the proprietor and developer of Monad and wants to deliver ticketing, marketing and CRM tools with a different design philosophy, focussed on helping people ‘work smarter’, evolving to meet future needs.

He started out as a backstage techie, doing lighting design for example at the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) – a shared experience I have – and worked at the C Venue in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1996 where he found the venue was struggling with a poor ticketing system. Of that geeky generation that had started programming as a teenager on a BBC Micro, Ben decided that the challenge of earning a living as a freelance lighting technician was too much (Michael Nabarro at Spektrix still freelances as a lighting designer) so he joined the Artifax development team in Epsom.

Ben clearly feels strongly about the commitment of suppliers to their customers, and praises Artifax for employing people with a practical operational background in the arts and entertainment industry and a “real world sense of urgency” about what people need and the fixes they require. Asked to work for a web-based recruitment company to re-write their technology and expand their team, Ben thought he had found the way to manage delivering success, but “job done” wanted to be back in ticketing. He decided to contact Richard Leggatt at Galathea STS, part of the Seatem Group, and with synchronicity Christian Terrill from them (another NSDF alumni) proposed he apply for their Director of System Development role. Ben was appointed, confident he could achieve a new standard of system.

He is reluctant to talk about his experience there, but he says he learned the hard way about people “over-selling” and the system being perceived as “under-delivering”, where internal conflicts between sales, support and development actually got to impact on customer relationships. The challenge was that the back end of the system at the time prevented it becoming the excellent system Ben believed was necessary.  And, “as someone who could read a balance sheet”, he was concerned about the company’s health, especially after staff were asked to take a 20% pay cut, with some redundancies. From that bad moment came the liberation of deciding to form Monad, using that balance sheet understanding and his development skills to take a different path:

Monad is the name of a hieroglyph

So first what about that name, eschewing anything to do with the usual ticketing or patron? Ben named the company after one of his tattoos (I have seen it in the flesh!) – a hieroglyph devised by Elizabethan alchemist John Dee, preferring a name that did not limit the company and its solutions to the core around ticketing. That certainly seems to be borne out by the ticketing system delivered so far.

So second, what about that ticketing system and its differences? Ben remembered one of the pitfalls they had found launching Artemis at Artifax – “they had made the system so flexible you needed to be a computer programmer to make it do anything useful” – and strove to balance abstract flexibility with concrete functionality, adhering to the principal “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible”. He was also aware of the surprising contrast between how people designed for the web and their end-users, and how they designed for the back-office system functions in a different way, with some systems offering “buttons everywhere’. He naturally wanted to do it differently.

The same ease of use for everyone

From his experience, he knew of the challenges users found in getting the best out of systems. He decided he wanted the staff on-the-phone, over-the-counter, in the marketing office, should have the same ease of use and logical process flow which helped ticket purchasing customers. “If you’ve gone to the trouble of making your website as easy to use as possible for your online customers, why are you giving your staff an interface which is harder to use?”. That has proved the core of his development philosophy and what Monad delivers to a small group of committed users. This runs from how you set up and configure performances and prices through to the ticket sales front end, customer data capture, and the marketing tools.

It took Ben on his own a year to deliver a competent system to sell tickets, and a second year to deliver a complete venue solution, with quick sign-ups once people saw what he was delivering. His chosen business model is the partnership, where venue and supplier work together to achieve success and therefore he decided on a ‘per-ticket charge’ for using the system, believing that both sides benefit. He doesn’t see that as a charge on the end ticket purchaser, but simply a way of counting up the cost for users using the system, and one related to their degree of success: the number of tickets they sell. His focus is on functionality to achieve larger audiences, with venues earning more, so marketing needs to drive sales, enable revenue management, and help venues be successful. All service and support is encompassed in that per ticket charge. He writes an unusually frank blog, which certainly is very honest about his experiences in developing Monad:

“Small is beautiful”

The software certainly delivers on his approach and there are about 20 satisfied users, and rising, from the Hazelmere Hall in Surrey, the Old Firestation in Windsor, and the Cockpit in London. Latest to join is the Broadway in Barking, where to re-develop their website as well they are using Monad as their Content Management System: Intriguingly, if you visit that website (February 2016) you’ll find it connects to two ticketing systems, since Monad is migrating their inventory, so events on the previous system are transferred steadily to Monad as the data is converted, taking some of the pain out of data migration.

Current USP is the way he developed dynamic pricing, with NESTA support via the Old Firestation, which helps venues maximise incomes in response to demand. Firestation MD Dan Eastmond has written an interesting blog about this:

The other part of Ben’s business model is “small is beautiful”, with Ben joined by Jo Scott and a distributed team of free-lancers, slowly expanding when they find the right people with practical experience.

Ben hopes that users are staying because they are on a journey to a better future together. That sounds like a different path and it will be interesting to see how the company grows and keeps close to its users.

Roger Tomlinson

February 2016