All posts by RT

New Year Resolution should be ‘User Experience First’

This article has been updated.  Fairly obviously, for most organisations selling tickets, they rely on ticketing system suppliers and their Internet ticketing engine developers to make sure that their on-line sales front-end is optimised, so ticket purchasers get the best experience and are most likely to buy.  However, organisations selling tickets must take some responsibility for pressing their suppliers to develop better solutions that meet the needs of the marketplace in 2018.

Ever made the mistake of answering a stranger’s “what do you do?’ question with “ticketing”? Common reactions are either the stories of how difficult it is to buy tickets (usually referring to high demand events), especially parents buying tickets for their kids, with websites getting a lot of blame, or you are talked to as if you’re a white collar criminal working in a fundamentally corrupt business! I can usually explain both, but it seems increasingly hard to do so over the justified complaints about the on-line ticket buying experience.

enable customers to buy tickets the way they would want

I always remember a colleague Richard at Dataculture in 1999 (taken over by, as we agonised about adding on-line ticket purchase to the Databox ticketing system, saying it would be different if, instead of enabling current ticket sales methodology on-line, we were looking at how to enable customers to buy tickets the way they would want using a web browser.

As far as I can see, reinforced by my own on-line purchase experience, the perspective hasn’t changed much in 17 years. There has been a benefit from increased broadband speeds, though too many on-sales are marred by poor server responses even at modest traffic levels. But we haven’t seen the purchase flow improved and optimised that much, or reoriented to how attenders might want to go about it. The “why don’t they remember me?” complaint seems very valid. Retail stores have adopted on-line selling and gone out of their way to help the buying process, with reminder emails when customers exit without purchasing, or advice on new discounts or time-limited purchase offers, and an effective e-marketing dialogue.

lessons to learn in how not to do it

If we extend ticketing experiences to include railways, it can give us lessons to learn in how not to do it. Ticket machines at stations are effectively on-line front-ends, and watching passengers trying to purchase tickets from them is salutary. The transaction flow process is plainly not what the passengers expect. OK, it is straightforward to start with selecting a destination and then ticket type, but it goes wrong here. Where do I choose Off-Peak which I know to be valid but is greyed out? Where do I choose a Railcard?

At Cambridge, UK there are two routes to London, with different fares, but the destination of London according to route is not presented  in a way that passengers immediately see. Fortunately there is a ticket counter and the staff don’t mind that the machines are poor, because they get a queue of people who have purchased the wrong ticket-type/fare and need refunds and a replacement purchase, which keeps the staff in work. Apparently the on-train guards have to be forgiving of the numbers of people who have bought the tickets for the wrong route.

there is room for improvement

Are we much better in arts, entertainment and sports? Fundamentally, Yes, since despite the arguments of the secondary ticketers, most people don’t end up buying tickets they didn’t want. But compared with how on-line purchase in other sectors has moved on, there is room for improvement.  And customers are judging us by their on-line and digital inter-actions.  Are we behind the times?

What about the What’s On search? Can I choose to search by date or week or month or time of performance? What about ticket availability? Does it obviously tell me, searching for 2 tickets, when it is down to singles? Can I seek a specific seat location?  Can I choose a price and a number of seats and search across a run for availability? When do I specify the make-up of my party so I can see child and pensioner discount availability, before selecting prices and seats?

Note I started at the ‘What’s On search’, but what about recognising me as a returning customer? Why does Virgin Trains remember me, wants to check on my Railcard status, and keeps my credit card purchase details etc., but my local venue does not? This is going to become significant because General Data Protection Regulation in Europe from May this year (2018) is going to require a very specific permission and recognition regime, ironically in the interests of the venue as much as the customer. We should make it possible for the ticketing engine to know if people are members or subscribers, frequent flyers, etc., perhaps even remember their preferred ticket type and seat location?  This takes us into Segmentation, but that’s a separate topic.

optimise to help people buy tickets

Of course, the number of people purchasing on mobile devices means we could recognise them even more easily, and simply offer near one-click purchase, perhaps optimised for last minute and near door sales. And tickets could always be supplied as on-device or print-at-home.

But how many systems enable a group to reserve seats and pay separately? This may seem a big ask when some systems haven’t yet got a shopping cart for multiple event purchases!  And my experience of dedicated Apps, such as the Picturehouse cinema chain’s, is that these are a step back, not forward.

So can the New Year Resolution be to put ‘User Experience First’ and optimise to help people buy tickets?  Bound to be a topic at Ticketing Professionals Conference, this March too.


Roger Tomlinson

2 January 2018

Audiences’ ‘experience’ crucial in engagement?

Most arts and entertainment organisations target previous attenders to persuade them to attend a new event by selecting people on their ticketing system database who had attended events of a similar character in the past. Fairly obviously this is done by either the title of the event e.g. a play, or for a concert perhaps the repertoire, or simply “comedy” or “dance”. This is a common practice, notwithstanding the fact that human happiness comes from someone being persuaded to attend something new, different, that they then enjoyed. Perhaps we should be targeting them on opposites?
‘high definition performance’
But my point is that if we are targeting people based on what they have attended before, we need to understand the ‘experience’ they had, and use it as part of our strategy to engage people. The Observer theatre critic in the 1960s Kenneth Tynan wrote about what he called ‘high definition performance’ as transcending an audience’s usual experience. Perhaps the ‘experience’ experienced needs to be at the heart of ticketing and marketing? Bear with me:
I like a wide range of music, especially live, and while I like going to symphony orchestra concerts, chamber music and recitals, I often find the presentation of classical music in concert “dull”. The ‘no announcements, no introductions, keep the house lights up, don’t clap between movements, earnest faced musicians ignore the audience except when it claps’ presentation style, I find drains the energy out of the event. I can still sometimes really appreciate the music and the performance, but something is definitely missing. I would be worried about trying to persuade an audience to attend another “dull’ concert just because they had already attended one, though for some the music to be played is their key deciding factor.
playing from memory
This was spectacularly brought home to me when the Cambridge Summer Music Festival announced the Aurora Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in Eb major known as ‘Eroica’,to be played from memory at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on 21 July. I didn’t know that playing from memory like this is rare for orchestras, and it is not known in ‘living memory’ when last it was done in the modern era. We might expect it of chamber ensembles such as string quartets and even some choirs, but not orchestras.
West Road is a modern unassuming concert hall, part of the university though out of term time, with a bright clear acoustic, a single rake of seats and open end concert platform. As the audience gathered, the stage had a handful of music stands and small platforms, no instruments, and the musicians did not appear on stage to prepare for the appointed start.
clearly choreographed
Instead Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 presenter bounded across the stage, microphone in hand, talking rapidly about the concert to come, quickly followed by conductor Nicholas Collon and the musicians carrying their instruments, though not heading for any obvious playing positions. Instead , in a double act, Tom and Nicholas, talked about how the symphony came to be written, its’ structure and themes, with the musicians moving to form groups and playing extracts, mostly staying standing up.
This was clearly choreographed, at one stage the musicians forming a semi-circle around the platform and Nicholas “surfing” the tune around the different instruments. This was clearly also immensely entertaining to audience and musicians, with some participation as we were asked to help sing a tune, and at another point the players stamped out the rhythm. The energy and enjoyment was palpable.
the physicality of playing standing
First the Aurora Orchestra was to play Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (which includes a quote of a theme in the Erocia), for 21 string soloists, so the musicians left the stage and two stage crew rapidly set up, including music stands, before they returned, the majority standing, to play. This in itself was an astonishing experience, the orchestra exciting the emotions from the work, delivering the vigour and the elegies of the piece, definitely gaining from being mostly standing, and the physicality of playing standing, knees bending to the rhythms, heads bobbing, arms vigorously sawing bows. The inter-action with the conductor, between the players, with us, was tangible. This got loud long applause.
After the interval, the orchestra returned, again mostly standing, no music stands, and great smiles of anticipation – that can’t be faked. They then played the Eroica, the music soaring and roaring, suddenly the themes and tunes, identified in the introduction, excitingly audible, and somehow visible in the performance of the players. The sheer energy yet control of the performance was remarkable, and the orchestra as a living breathing whole, inter-acting together, smiling and nodding at each other, and sharing with us, quite remarkable to witness. This enriched the performance and made it palpably tangible and visceral, a shared experience of the music. Actually, it is almost impossible to describe.
As the last note hung in the air, the audience now roared and stood as one for the loudest standing ovation I have witnessed (remember this is Cambridge, university town in England). After the applause died down and Nicholas Collon eventually left the stage, the musicians hugged and kissed each other!
what has it to do with ticketing?
Now dear reader, why have I explained all that and what has it to do with ticketing? Because it is not about what that audience attended, but about their experience of it, which in my own lifetime’s experience was unique and exceptional. And the ticketing database needs to be able to record for those attenders that this was an exceptional experience.
take the audiences experiences into account
Sometimes it is easy to connect what was seen with the detail of the experience – some musicals for example – but sometimes it is now and again in the run of a play or an opera, or dance, and certainly so with music. It may be exceptional to that audience in that venue, but it needs a flag and a narrative description in the attenders’ records. And when thinking about targeting, we should start taking the audiences experiences into account.
When an audience has had such an experience, it is my view that we are definitely further down the road to engaging with them, and we can quietly remind them that they shared a remarkable experience when persuading them to attend something else.
The Aurora Orchestra played the same concert for the BBC Proms on Saturday 22nd July 2017 broadcast on Radio 3, so catch it on iPlayer (but radio remember), and the Aurora make their Concertgebouw debut with this in Amsterdam on Friday 4 August 2017 at 8.00pm: 

What are we counting?

Roger is not going quietly, and here is his latest, originally published by Arts Professional here:

This version is updated.  Roger has more questions than answers about the quality metrics system that Arts Council England’s larger NPOs will soon be required to use.  He was surprised to find the Arts Council of England’s only response to the original version of the article was to query his comments about the ACE contractors Culture Counts.  Researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide have now published an article in Cultural Trends ‘Counting culture to death’ severely criticising the Quality Metrics concept.  Liz Hill reports in Arts Professional on that here:

Counting what counts?

People keep asking me what I think about quality metrics, the audience research system that Arts Council England (ACE) will shortly require its largest National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) to use.

When I try to answer this complex question, many immediately tell me they were asking confidentially and don’t want their own views known. I hear a lot of reservations and many worries, but everyone seems reluctant to say anything during the current NPO application process.

Whilst understandable, this is not helpful. It is surely essential to embark on a proper discussion of whether this will deliver reliable results for NPOs and ACE, and to address people’s concerns.

Uneasy questions

I have been a champion of audience data for a long time. I conducted my first year-long audience survey at the Vic in Stoke on Trent in 1969, supervised by Keele University. I have been commissioning research surveys for over 40 years and the Arts Council published my book ‘Boxing Clever’ on turning data into audiences in 1993. And I have collaborated with them on many audience initiatives, including the drive to place socio-economic profiling tools at their NPOs’ fingertips.

So, I ought to be welcoming the concept of quality metrics and what Culture Counts proposes to deliver for Arts Council England. I can see why Marcus Romer (read his blog from 27 September) would welcome the voice of the audience, as end-recipient of the art, into ACE thinking. But I am left with a lot of uneasy questions, mostly methodological.

Unreliable research

Most people with any knowledge of research methodology are asking the same questions, because this type of research is inherently unreliable, yet a lot of reliance is being placed on the findings.  The recent experience of surveying potential voters in the polls prior to the UK election on 8 June have rather confirmed the unreliability.

The Arts Council’s own former Senior Marketing Officer, Peter Verwey, constantly reminded arts marketers of the inherent unreliability of audience surveys, unless there were controls to manage the sample. Even then, reliability depends on respondents understanding the questions. If you ask a question and the respondent can’t ask for clarification on what the question means, then the answers can’t be relied upon. But if explanations are given, then bias creeps in, depending on what is said to them.

Sadly for Welsh National Opera, the majority who said when and where they had seen an opera, turned out to not actually have attended an opera at all.

At the Arts Council of Wales, we used Beaufort Research to check respondents’ understanding of some simple questions about the arts, including: “When did you last attend an opera?” Sadly for Welsh National Opera, the majority who said when and where they had seen an opera, turned out to not actually have attended an opera at all. The public have a very different understanding of the words we use to discuss the arts, and this can have a significant impact on whether survey questions are completed.

This is an inevitable drawback of quantitative research. Researchers have to decide in advance what precise questions to ask and have to constrain answers to a fixed choice. Qualitative write-in answers can’t produce reliable, comparable results, even though narrative answers can provide the richest source of our understanding of what a specific audience member thought.

Biased responses

Audience surveys have other equally large flaws. Peter Verwey’s joke was that the survey samples usually comprised “anyone who had a working pen/pencil when the survey was handed out”, though that has presumably changed to whether people have an email address and bother to open survey emails.

Surveys conducted in foyers after performances are inherently biased in that they capture only those with time to answer. And even “there is an app for that” only suits the tech savvy.

Analysis over the years shows that completion is biased in favour of the most supportive members of the audience and those keen to make their views known, sometimes complainants. You can overcome some of this by ruthless random sampling – only looking at the feet of the people to be selected to answer the questionnaire, for example – and similar techniques can be applied online. But the bias, of who actually responds when invited to, remains.

These days, when we are capable of creating a socio-economic profile of attenders who book tickets, we ought to, as a minimum, be expecting the quality metrics methodology to include a check for the representativeness of the sample.

Incomparable performances

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that audience surveys are inherently situational. They can only reflect what happened in a particular venue on a specific date and time, and gather the opinions of the people who both attended and chose to respond. If you have ever been a house manager and experienced the difference that a large group booking can make in an audience, you will understand the potential variability.

This makes comparability from one performance – let alone event – to another very difficult. Researchers have known about these issues for decades and therefore attempts to measure or assess impact based on audience surveys are always approached with huge caution, even if conducted for a single venue or a single performance.

Unexplored impact

Arts Council England’s own 2014 literature review by WolfBrown was clear about this: “the literature raises questions as to the plausibility of aggregating survey data across organisations and artforms, due to the highly personal and situational nature of impact, and because of differences across the forms themselves.”

It can be argued that valuing art based primarily on the experiences it produces, in fact devalues the work itself. Can you really tick a box to encompass your opinion? Indeed, post-event surveys primarily measure the ‘experienced impacts’, perhaps within a day or so, and ignore the ‘extended impacts’, probably weeks or even years later (typically assessed through retrospective interviewing and longitudinal tracking studies).

And while we try to understand these impacts on each individual, what role did pre-attendance marketing, the venue, pre-show talks, the people who attended with them, and the rest of the audience, have on the experience? Some researchers have expressed serious concerns about comparing self-reported audience experiences across different artforms and contexts because of the huge range of impossible-to-control variables being measured in these, in effect, crowd-sourced reviews.

Flawed evaluation

I had expected recent reports, commissioned by ACE, to provide the answers. I was surprised to find the final report on the quality metrics national test was assessed and written by two staff from the company that ran the pilot scheme, John Knell and Alison Whitaker. So the researchers were being asked to mark their own homework. Highly unusual, regardless of their integrity.

The Arts Council did commission an independent evaluation, from Nordicity (though the researcher is not named) though this only examined the experience of the organisations participating in the National Test, and not the methodology used in the pilot or the internal processing of the resultant data.

serious concerns raised by participant organisations about the methodology

Nonetheless, that evaluation reported some serious concerns raised by participant organisations about the methodology, saying “the majority of consultees questioned the reliability of the resulting data because of the sample frame, in terms of its representation and size” and commenting that “this aspect evidently impacted the organisations’ use of the data, with organisations unconfident to draw any firm conclusions, unable to ‘convince’ programmers of its value, and unsure of what ‘robust’ would look like in practice.” It went on to say “consultees suggested a number of areas where unintended bias or skewed data had the potential to be introduced. It is evident that these elements contributed to consultees’ overall opinion that the resulting data did not accurately reflect the quality of their work.”

Knell and Whitaker’s report makes no reference to statistical significance or reliability, or the representativeness of audiences; and despite references to “highly sensitive aggregation” there is no explanation of the basis for that data aggregation, except for some crude geo-location, artform, gender-based data-merging. It’s impossible to discern how they have overcome the huge problems of situational audience surveys and event comparability.

There is also no explanation of how audience responses are related to the other elements of the triangulated quality metrics research process, namely peer responses and internal assessments. Neither is there an indication of how respondents were selected. Indeed, the report is more about the findings of the surveys than testing the reliability of the methodology or its underlying fitness-for-purpose and statistical reliability.

Sampling problems

Obviously it is easiest to select survey respondents from ticket bookers with email addresses, and some of the organisations that participated in the pilot research chose people with particular characteristics, or a certain frequency of attendance. Some indicated that they wanted to input the data findings into their CRM systems. Did they select target samples accordingly?

Some added extra questions of their own to the survey, which in themselves might have affected understanding, response rates and completion. There is no explanation of how these additional questions were tested for respondent understanding. Also, only ‘30 responses’ is cited as an acceptable minimum for an event to be evaluated. How does this relate to the total attendance? There is no rationale given for this low number and no indication how an event with 30 survey respondents will be compared with an event with 300.

What’s more, there is no indication of how any of this will be possible under the new General Data Protection Regulation and its specific granular consent regime, which could further reduce the number of attenders available for survey and the use and processing of their responses.

The better news is that over 19,000 surveys were completed in the national test. This is clearly a large sample in UK terms, but size is not enough, especially when the integrity of the sample is unclear. We can’t rely on the national sample size if we need local reliability. We need to understand the reliability of the findings for each individual organisation in their unique catchment area. And we need to know the profile of the survey respondents in the context of both the universe of NPO attenders, and the actual attenders at each individual organisation.

Finally, there are of course other providers of post-attendance survey tools, and arts organisations already carrying out frequent surveys of attenders are worried about wear-out from over-surveying core attenders. All their other surveys are intended to understand audiences better and guide marketing, operational and audience development issues, not inform critical ACE grant award decisions.

ACE has a lot of questions to answer

I write this because I find ACE has a lot of questions to answer if it is to reassure arts organisations about the methodology and the quality of its proposed metrics. Just what is it counting, and exactly how?  The researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide have confirmed the academic concerns about using such research methods.  They write that metrics-based approaches to assessing cultural value “invite political manipulation and demand time, money and attention from cultural organisations without proven benefit”.

Their paper, ‘Counting culture to death’, refutes the “widely held belief” that “a set of numbers can provide vindication, or at least insurance, in the constant struggle to justify public funding”. They conclude that attempts to quantify cultural value are not delivering on their promises, and bring “destructive” unintended consequences.

The paper states that using indicators and benchmarks to assess cultural activities, “which exhibit no obvious capacity for scalar measurement” is a “political act”. The “ostensible neutrality” of this approach is, they say, “a trick of the light trying to launder responsibility for judgment in the competition for scarce resources”.  It is certainly clear to me that relying on an unreliable methodology could have dangerous consequences for the Arts Council.

This article is Rogers personal opinion and does not reflect the views of his colleagues or any other organisations.

Troy Kirby Podcast interview with Roger Tomlinson

Roger is not going quietly:

Troy Kirby of the renowned SportsTao in the US followed up on Roger’s ‘Getting Permission Wrong?’ piece by interviewing him for his regular podcast – up to number 775 – and the two had a conversation which ranges over management use of data, attitudes to ticketing and the Box Office, customer relations, ‘big data’, communications, sales teams, and even pricing, discounting and comps.

Getting ‘permission’ wrong?

Roger is not going quietly…

I am not the right person to discuss the implications of the new General Data Protection Regulation, approved by the EU in May 2016, whose draconian penalties apply from May 2018. I have been frustrated by the attitude evidenced by most arts organisations in how they relate to and engage with their attenders, specifically their ticket purchasers, since the 1990s, when email exploded, having learned nothing from the experiences of the direct ‘snail-mail’ years.

I wrote my first book ‘BOXING CLEVER: Turning data into audiences’ in 1993, published by the then Arts Council of Great Britain. Though it pre-dated the use of terms such as ‘Customer Relationship Management’ and ‘Permission Marketing’, it echoed the likes of Don Peppers’ and Martha Rogers’ The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time (also published 1993) and Seth Godin’s later Permission Marketing (1999). It is worth setting out how this is defined. In 2008, Seth re-described it thus:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention”.

Putting respect into arts marketing is a key value for me. The direct marketing revolution experienced in the UK from the 1970s into the 1980s relied on getting people to sign up to receive brochures and mailings, which in the days of mostly on-the-phone and over-the-counter bookings meant dialogue was needed to comply with the law and obtain the contact details from people. People gave permission to receive what they hoped would be relevant, personal, appropriate communications posted to them in their homes. Later, the rising volume of credit card payments meant some venues started to ‘capture’ customer addresses without necessarily explaining the contact implications, and this started (or amplified) customer suspicions about direct mail, especially when many mailings weren’t relevant, personal, or appropriate communications.

This was when I found I thought differently to many other arts administrators. Running Theatr Clwyd in North Wales, for example, I thought it seemed essential to have more than enough staff to answer calls and serve purchasers, and indeed to encourage them to extend their dialogue to understand and inform the customers better, perhaps advising them of other events they might be interested in seeing, booking them a table in our restaurant, etc.; what I later found was called “up-selling”. Essentially, customer contact hopefully got permission to add people to our mailing lists and started to create the relationship we wanted. My colleague Mike Grensted was then very sensitive to what we might send out to those people to reflect that relationship; wonderfully he once sent our subscribers a photocopy of the marked-up printer’s proof of our next season brochure to give them priority to renew their subscription!

the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time

Elsewhere the sales staffing culture seemed to be to ensure the minimum number of people were on shift at any one time, with Box Office queues and call waiting times almost a badge of success. When as a consultant after 1988 I started delivering customer care training and helping arts organisations optimise their sales processes, the fundamental issue was always the time to enable staff to serve customers properly. Many venues had the same staffing levels and shift patterns all year round, depleted by holidays as staff took them, regardless of pantomime on-sales, brochure releases, etc. Yet it was easy to work out that an extra member of staff in most cases only had to sell one extra ticket per hour for the venue to be better off (even based on margin retention). Without the extra people, the sales staff were under pressure to speed through transactions, and door sales were a missed opportunity for getting permissions. One large concert hall contracted me to help them optimise their sales process to eliminate 19 seconds from transactions, since that was the average time making sales calls too long for the staff complement to get through their typical call volumes…

That pressure meant Data Protection got in the way of speeding through sales, and managers and sales staff were reluctant to spend time seeking permission from purchasers when their contact details were captured during payment. I proved that an extra person on door sales could easily help process all the customers so permission could be asked if a venue really wanted to. Our sector did not cover itself with glory when a number of Theatrical Management Association (TMA) members decided to lobby their MPs in the Parliamentary discussions about the provisions in the 1998 Data Protection Act. They received somewhat quizzical replies, advised by the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, pointing out that these provisions were already law in the 1984 Data Protection Act; more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Given the embarrassment, it was agreed with the Arts Council of England, the TMA, and the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) that I should write a “good practice” guide to the 1998 Act – actually an official status under the Act – which was published with a Foreword welcoming it from the then equivalent to today’s Information Commissioner, Mrs Elizabeth France, whose staff in Wilmslow had been very helpful and supportive during the drafting process. The Guide was published and promulgated with seminars around the country, encouraged by the Arts Council England regions and the AMA. Of course, given the law, my emphasis was on getting the right permissions from the customers.

arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law

I began to have to field lots of questions about interpreting the new law, and I maintained my dialogue with the staff in Wilmslow. They did point out to me that they received quite a few calls from arts organisations essentially asking how they could avoid complying with the law! The Act clearly and unambiguously required arts organisations to say who they were, what they would be doing with their customers’ data, whom they would be sharing it with, and to get permission from the customer for the chosen communication methods. Treating customers with respect should make this easy.

There were ways to make the process easier – large printed notices on display in Box Offices, recorded messages before calls were answered, full details printed in brochures and programmes, but the key fundamental was that the customer’s permission be obtained properly. Wilmslow told me of various complaints that people were being contacted without their permission, and they and I deployed some ‘mystery shopping’ to understand what was happening – permission was simply not being asked for. The irony of course is that most of these venues now had computerised ticketing systems which could easily track the ‘permission’ levels and identify which staff were complying with the law. One large venue trained up a new team of staff to obtain permission and indeed sell a paid-for list membership, and simply fired the old team members who did not comply. But the culture of selling under pressure persisted, as did non-compliance, and therefore lack of respect for customers. This seemed a matter of regret to me.

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats”

Why did/do some people in the arts talk about “bums on seats” (horribly “butts on seats” in the US) and treat valued customers whose “hearts and minds” they need to relate to, as if them purchasing tickets is a necessary evil, and returning customers are a necessary nuisance, de-personalising them in the process? Does that explain the terrible mistake of introducing booking fees and charges on top of the advertised price, instead of putting these inside the price? Do we see people just as income providers and not as customers we need to persuade and retain?

Note that for most marketing purposes the 1998 Act effectively pre-dates email marketing and on-line ticket sales, though many arts organisations were early adopters of websites. As the email explosion happened, the EU introduced new rules on privacy and the UK enacted in 2003 the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, known to insiders as PECR (pronounced “pecker”). Something odd happened. As computerised ticketing systems had already introduced Internet ticketing engines, they had busily ensured their software complied with the 1998 Data Protection Act, and email was just another communication method. Now PECR had a lot to say about permission regimes for email and SMS, but to my surprise was largely ignored – surprise because it introduced an assumption of consent if there was a transactional relationship i.e. an on-line ticket purchase (with various notifications given to purchasers in the process). Odd and ironic that systems weren’t quickly modified and processes changed to enable this easier permission regime.

Email marketing suddenly made direct marketing an inexpensive method – mostly the time spent crafting the message and selecting the targets from the customer database – and the desire to share customer data for e-marketing campaigns, especially between presenting venues and touring companies and artists increased. By 2005 Arts Council England was unhappy at the frequent complaints from touring companies and artists about venues refusing to share data, and Tim Baker of Baker Richards and I were commissioned to ascertain the state of play. We were clear that the 1998 Act and PECR should be enabling data sharing, provided the appropriate permissions had been obtained. We held the view that purchasers would give permission if they were asked appropriately by venues, and the right respectful dialogue and processes could get those permissions.

Essentially, we quickly confirmed that data was not being shared because the permissions were not being properly obtained, with some venues belatedly discovering that with a stretch PECR could justify them contacting only their own customers. This was an interesting moment, because the Information Commissioner, still being helpful, suggested that arts organisations could jointly notify purchasers that their data would be shared with venue and the touring company or artists performing, and permission be assumed from their ticket purchase (this no longer applies).

Welsh National Opera (WNO), under the enlightened direction of Peter Bellingham, were keen to manage their relationships with their attenders, especially those they realised could be attending in any of a number of venues, chasing their repertoire. They did not want to be over-mailing these people, to manage their communications, and needed to understand their behaviour and frequency, so wanted to know who they were, where they went, what to see – the world of big data! By prolonged negotiations, they secured agreement for the data to be shared and appropriate permission regimes to be in place, at all the venues they toured to. It was somewhat laborious and involved manual interventions but it worked. Why am I telling you this? Because when Arts Council England proposed their data sharing conditions for their National Portfolio Organisations, Peter realised he needed to re-visit their data sharing. Deep analysis by Ed Newsome of the data they had, told them something wasn’t working as it should.

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders

I think we hope that most of the established attenders for the arts are in fact repeat attenders, so will be coming back to buy more tickets. This ought to mean we want to recognise returning customers on-line as soon as they arrive on the website, so we can serve up tailored content. In practice, most websites are set up not to recognise returning customers until they fill in their details to make payment for a new transaction i.e. at the end of the purchase process. (Some system suppliers boast that their system then adjusts the prices in the shopping cart to reflect their status!). This meant for WNO customers that in most cases the procedure of serving up Data Protection notifications, and asking for permissions where relevant, was repeated every time they booked, at every venue.

When Andrew Thomas of investigated, he discovered some systems allowed customers to click past the Data Protection questions (possibly an unintended “feature”), and then the system changed/over-wrote their Data Protection status to effectively a ‘not answered’ status, so no permission recorded for anything. WNO discovered that meant some of their most frequently attending customers, such as their subscribers, were not selected for contact, even for brochure mailings as well as regular email updates. This is when the permission regime and the relationship with the customer is likely to collapse. Some of these customers with high frequency attendance patterns but apparent ‘no permission’ status were phoned, and they made clear that booking for WNO and agreeing to receive communications did not mean being bombarded with (what I call ‘shouting louder’ email) messages about booking for that venues’ pantomime; relevant, personal, appropriate communications?

Unfortunately, not only the customers know that. When ACE, The Audience Agency, and I, met the Information Commissioner’s staff to update our guidance on sharing and the necessary permissions, I was reminded that the staff in Wilmslow are, of course, arts attenders themselves, and able to talk from their own experience about booking with venues. A previous Information Commissioner had served on the board of one Manchester music organisation. Our sector’s unsatisfactory ‘do minimum’ compliance is all too visible. The Information Commissioner’s staff remain very helpful, but perhaps not as friendly as in the past.

How did we ever get here? And why does the General Data Protection Regulation apparently so disturb some people? I go back to first principles, that we need customers to volunteer their permission, freely given, and that is the start of our relationship with them, as a valued customer likely to return; that we need to treat customers with respect, as people in a valued relationship.

We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Mark Hazell at Norwich Theatre Royal has made the point for many years that if they know someone is a “friend” he can write and talk to them differently, because being a “friend” means something about their relationship. That is true for all types of relationship, based on frequency, interests, what is attended, who attends, and so on.   We don’t have to keep asking them for their permission. And ideally we would give them an on-line tool to edit and update their records (less messing about for changes of address or email, chance for self-completed profiles and preferences, and more up-to-date accuracy). We want customers to look forward to our brochures and emails, offering them great going-out opportunities, experiences to enjoy and value. My mantra is ‘stop selling and help people buy’, getting them into a relationship with us.

Now our sector seems to be reducing Box Office hours (while travel agents are re-inventing their High Street stores to “help people buy”) and we are pushing for/hoping for more on-line sales. That means we need to re-think websites, and make them mobile friendly, and understand who we are communicating with. When we email them and they read on their phone or tablet, when they visit our website from those devices, we know precisely who they are – so why aren’t we recognising them and treating them as the valued customers they are? With respect?

Obviously I am the wrong person to talk to about permissions, as I don’t understand our industry.


Roger Tomlinson

2 May 2017

If you do want help or advice about the application of the General Data Protection Regulation, I recommend you contact Andrew Thomas about system processes and website flows and Leo Sharrock about the permissions for data sharing, profiling, research, etc.

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