Karl Vosper: UK Champion of SRO

Karl Vosper is inextricably linked to SRO as its champion in the UK since 2002. That will confuse some people from the start. SRO, from Standing Room Only, is developed by TopTix in Israel, but was originally distributed in the UK from 2002 as Artifax Ticketing under that name. Then distribution was transferred to Blackbaud, and, aligning the product name with others in their portfolio, became The Patron Edge. It was not until May 2010 that TopTix UK was formed, with Karl as managing director and SRO, now in Version 4, became the recognised name.

The route to now is interesting. Karl started out in the box office at the Central Theatre in Chatham in 1993, who were to be the first arts venue to take Venuemaster from Synchro Systems in Newcastle under Lyme. At 19 he had to go out and buy his own computer to learn about what he would have to deal with at work. This was the time of the big move from DOS to Windows in 1997 and Synchro quickly decided they needed him on their team and he joined their staff, in charge of arts venues in the south with a 360 degree role from sales to implementation and support. After migrating the Royal Opera House to Venuemaster in 1999, ROH decided they wanted him on the inside instead of working for their supplier.

Artifax brought SRO into UK

At Artifax the enterprising Timothy Nathan wanted to add an integrated ticketing product to his suite of tools for arts venue planning, scheduling and operation, and chose SRO from TopTix in Israel whose SRO Version 3 was then cutting edge leader in terms of much functionality. Karl joined the team there and they were quickly successful, securing the South Bank Centre as a user. They became a by-word, reflecting the Artifax approach, for hands on help and support.

Blackbaud wanted a ticketing system too

At this time Blackbaud in the US and the UK was looking for a ticketing system after an unsatisfactory acquisition of Intellitix, in a plan to expand its portfolio of solutions to combat the rise of Tessitura in the US. The hope was an integrated ticketing, marketing, CRM, and fund raising suite of tools would help arts organisations work smarter. They decided they wanted the distribution license for SRO and the team from Artifax was TUPed across to Blackbaud.

Karl is unwilling to talk about this period, but I know personally from my own experience and a visit to the Blackbaud HQ in Charleston that senior management were concerned about the level of hands on help and support they needed to supply for ticketing, and the continuous user’ demands for better interfaces and deeper integration. When some users in the UK asked me to help arbitrate on their behalf, I was concerned to discover that ”billable time” was a key target for Blackbaud services management, responsible for support, on which bonuses were dependent. A big change in culture from Artifax.

I knew that Karl had acquired something of a reputation as the users’ champion at this time, with a friendly approach which often meant things got fixed on-the-fly instead of at the billable rates. I was once in a meeting at which his senior managers tried to persuade me there was not a serious problem in relation to credit card processing, when Karl simply confirmed that there was. This was doomed, and in 2007 he offered his resignation. Blackbaud insisted he stay on and he became the global product manager for ticketing within Blackbaud, liaising with TopTix in the development of SRO and the new Version 4. Then Blackbaud proposed at the end of 2008 he lead on the development and release of a new ‘general admission’ (GA) alternative product called Altru, now Blackbaud’s primary ticketing product. After Blackbaud decided they would not run a pilot project to introduce SRO Version 4 to the arts marketplace, Karl resigned in 2009, required to have six months “gardening leave”.

 TopTix UK launched in May 2010

John Pinchbeck had been freelancing for TopTix in the UK in the commercial entertainment sector and sport, since the distribution license for SRO held by Blackbaud was for the not-for-profit sector. So in May 2010 they formed TopTix UK led by Karl. At this time they had to work in parallel with Blackbaud, but their exclusivity for the not-for-profit sector ended and Blackbaud finally withdrew from supplying and supporting SRO in 2014. In the period before this many users realised they could switch their support to TopTix directly and many did so, with many ex-Blackbaud staff joining Toptix as a result.

I have detected here a “part of the problem, or part of the solution” dilemma for some users. Karl and some of his colleagues were seen as initially helpful, but unfortunately problems seemed to mount up during the Blackbaud years. Ironically, switching to TopTix direct support and finding these could be quickly fixed did not prove satisfactory to some people.

 “part of the problem, or part of the solution”

This situation was amplified in 2014 with Blackbaud withdrawing, users wanting to migrate to SRO Version 4, and Blackbaud’s credit card processing solution Logic TPS also being withdrawn at, interestingly, exactly the same time as Blackbaud’s withdrawal.  TopTix had used the YesPay credit card processing solution but unfortunately this had run into problems of PCI DSS compliance and in June 2014, YesPay could take no new customers, with 40 Blackbaud users due to lose their service in August.

By any standards that is an emergency, with just two months to find an alternative gateway supplier, to build and test interfaces, obtain approvals, and set up and test 40 separate users. For those two months Toptix staff were entirely on the road, already in the middle of a sequence of 9 go-lives for new users and migrations for existing users, and inevitably there were ”dropped balls” on the way.

SRO: “Best Kept Secret”

Where to go from here? My colleague Andrew @TicketTattle Thomas and I have thought in the past that TopTix could be described as “the ticketing industry’s Best Kept Secret”. There are now 250 users of SRO Version 4 around the world and over 40 in the UK, Including the Buckingham Palace operation for the Royal Palaces with 3.5 million tickets sold per annum through 80 points of sale. One of the advantages of Version 4 is that it is architected for large-scale, multi-user, multi-venue setups. The “Rules Engine” combined with the middleware capability gives it exceptional tools, helping provide City-wide solutions, such as adopted in Leicester. That means it can be the right system for people wanting an “enterprise solution”, providing an application that can integrate and interface with all their other software and solutions, and provide the ”database of truth” for the 360° view of the customer. If you can get your head round it, the Rules Engine delivers an astonishing configurability of functions and processing.

‘annus horribilis’

But that “annus horribilis” in 2014 has dented their reputation in the sector, and quite a few users still can’t make up their mind on the “part of the problem, or part of the solution” dilemma. Karl has taken a lot of steps to address this. They have stopped working virtually and opened a new office in Clapham with a new staff structure and expanded staff. In the restructuring, two people were made redundant, some left, but more have been taken on in new roles. Industry stalwarts Pete I’anson (ex The Lowry and AudienceView) and Ken Paul (ex Delfont Mackintosh, NIMAX and ENTA) have joined. In addition to their 9am to 9pm office-based support, there is a user forum and a dedicated website that is helping users to network together and share solutions on a ‘self-help’ basis. Karl worries that while many venues have got 5 or 6 users logged onto this, there are still users who do not engage, and often these are the ones who have problems that could be easily solved.

Karl says the need is for more organisations to understand that ticketing is no longer just a sales operation and, in a sense, “the system does not stop when the box office closes”. He sees the need for users to understand the up-selling and extended sales and customer service opportunities of SRO, and take advantage of the Rules Engine. Instead of just talking about making tickets available through more channels, selling tickets in the bars and cafes in venues, plugging SRO4 into facebook, recognising members, subscribers and offering them additional benefits, he wants to see more organisations adopting this philosophy with the tools that they already have available. He remains convinced that SRO is a tool to empower organisations and he wants to help them to challenge the people who interface with the customers to make a real difference.

 users have to become the champions now

Karl acknowledges that TopTix had to address their relationship with their users following the events of last summer, so they come to see again that SRO is championing meeting their needs every day. I wonder if that means the users have to become the champions of SRO now?

 

Roger Tomlinson

June 2015

Update: Is Amazon About To Launch Event Ticketing?

Today, Amazon launched its new Amazon Home Services product, with a huge banner placement and video on its homepage. Amazon Home Services allows people to enter their zip code, and search for service providers such as electricians, home theater installers, or just “odd jobs” around the house (all in direct competition with Yelp, and somewhat in competition with listing services such as Angie’s List). All quite uninteresting to the arts, until a deeper search of the offerings reveals arts-based services such as voice lessons, violin lessons, and guitar lessons. There are also options to “Hire A Singer,” as well as the strangely specific “Hire a Silk Aerialist“. While the former are educational experiences, the latter are clearly performances.

Once you pick the service, you are asked to select from vendors for, say, TV installation, based on price and star rating. I loaded that link into three browsers, two logged into Amazon, and one not, and got prices for the same service as the first choice ranging from $145 to $199. Amazon seems to be experimenting with dynamic pricing as it does on its books and other products, selling it via algorithm to optimize the price. (You can see this by using a service such as thetracktor.com to track Amazon prices as they fluctuate on products. For example, this toy plane).

Amazon has already become involved with other arts-based services, such as its Amazon Artists Stores, and this strange page that mentions that concert tickets can be bought via Amazon’s partner, RazorGator (but the link doesn’t work). As of mid-2013, Amazon’s Internet Movie Database (IMDB) app also allows people to purchase tickets to movies through a partnership with Fandango. While these purchasing options are mostly via partners, Amazon sells just about everything else, and the launch of Amazon Home Services moves it one step closer to full-on event ticketing.

So, let’s explore what an Amazon-based ticketing service might look like.

  • Users would be buying tickets from a system they know and trust. That’s a benefit for everybody.
  • Amazon Prime members would likely be able to purchase tickets with no service fees, or have them physically mailed for no service fees.
  • Amazon already sells deals and items locally via Amazon Local.
  • Amazon would likely provide an app for service providers (cultural organizations) to check people into the venue.
  • Amazon already has an incredible review system that would easily accommodate a theater or dance performance review.
  • Cultural organizations would benefit from Amazon’s built-in dynamic-pricing algorithm, selling the ticket for the most it could get for it based on demand.
  • Amazon would provide visibility and exposure to cultural events to Amazon customers — a valuable marketing benefit.

Tickets are emotional purchases, and Amazon is an expert selling platform. Based on these points, I believe it is only a matter of time until Amazon disrupts ticketing by applying its selling system to cultural experiences. How would you feel about Amazon getting into the ticketing business and selling tickets for your cultural organization?

UPDATE — We have now confirmed that Amazon Local has begun selling tickets to West End shows. A sample of an Amazon Local ticket purchase page for “The Commitments” shows an interesting feature gathering preference data, asking the user to click either “like”, “neutral”, or “dislike” and then storing these data along with the user’s record on Amazon. Amazon claims that all West End shows are available on Amazon Local, and we have put the word out to see if we can get more information from show producers or an attendee to the service. Given the launch of Amazon Local arts ticketing in the U.K., a U.S. launch for Broadway seems inevitable.

How dynamic is your Box office?

We hear the word “dynamic” bandied about in regard to tickets and pricing.  But it struck me, working on the UK Theatre mini-conference Cultivating Group Sales on 18 March 2015, that we could apply that word across many functions of the Box Office.  Ironically, is it less “dynamic” today?

Let me be clear: the Box Office is in what customer-care people call the front-line of customer engagement.  Those behind the counter or on the phone spend all day every working day talking to the customers.  Are they simply responding to customer requests/orders or are they up-selling, encouraging customers, adding value, closing the sale?  Do they understand that when selling tickets to someone now, the most important visit is the next one after that?

are they up-selling, encouraging customers, adding value, closing the sale?

Actually the important question is whether they are empowered to up-sell, to add value, if necessary to negotiate with a customer?  Monitoring sales all the time, are they able to dynamically modify prices, moving price bands and breaks according to demand?  If we want them to be dynamic in their engagement with customers, we need to enable, motivate and empower them to optimise for revenue and customer satisfaction.

In North America, you will see in organisations with subscription schemes that dedicated staff are often available to “help” these customers, recognising their value and the need for satisfaction and renewals.  Increasingly in the UK we now see “fund-raising” and “development” staff who pay close attention to the needs of the donors and sponsors, and sometimes of their Members and ‘Friends’, almost providing a concierge service.  Should not we extend this approach to more of the ticket purchasers, and give them the benefit of more dynamic attention?

Should not we extend the benefit of more dynamic attention?

In the Cultivating Group Sales discussions we heard that sales staff sometimes negotiate with group organisers on the ticket price, help arrange coach travel, offer pre-booked programmes, ice creams, interval drinks, perhaps pre or post-show food.  The group organisers think this is great added value, but the sales staff find themselves working with restrictive software and sometimes a management willing to heavily discount a poorly selling show to everybody but reluctant to give an extra 50p off to a group bringing 40 people.

Various Box Offices now have staff whose job description includes tweeting about shows and related activity, and ticket availability.  Places like the New Wolsey in Ipswich and the Lowry in Salford – @NewWolsey, @The_Lowry – seem to me to get this just right: no hard sell, just positive information.  Sometimes they tweet about returns for sell-out houses or last minute availability; could they be also dynamically setting ticket prices for these limited offers with limited exposure?

tweet about returns for sell-out houses or last minute availability

The irony I see is that as ticket sales traffic moves steadily on-line, we ought to see that the people who contact the staff to talk to a real person give us a greater opportunity for engagement, and the staff themselves are our great opportunity to be dynamic in satisfying customers and bringing in the revenue.  Anybody who has heard Victoria Willingale talking about the Cambridge Arts Theatre ‘Panto Wheels’ scheme for which she personally raises money will see that Box Office staff can go a long way to help customers, and in the process the venue they work for.  The Box Office can be much more dynamic in achieving success than it is often allowed to be.

P.S. The UK Theatre Mini-Conference on Cultivating Friends and Fans – about membership and loyalty schemes –  is on Wednesday 22 April 2015 in Covent Garden, London.  More details and bookings: http://tinyurl.com/oowd7nr  You get a 20% discount if you or a colleague attended Cultivating Group Sales

PatronBase ‘does it different’

Apologies to English grammar and the original Apple ad, but in the same way that Apple intended, I think PatronBase defies convention, and ‘does it different’. A string of new developments prove that to me, being no way conventional.  I acknowledge that other system suppliers defy convention to a degree – Tessitura and Spektrix are examples – but the particular emphasis of PatronBase is intriguing.

 chief evangelist

I first saw the PatronBase system at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, New Zealand a decade ago, asked by Creative New Zealand to informally evaluate the system. I was on a speakers’ tour of the major cities with Tim Roberts. John Caldwell, the proprietor and “chief evangelist” of PatronBase, turned up at every one, not only taking notes but talking to us about how he could further develop his software. At the time I dubbed it as “the Databox of the Southern Hemisphere” because it reminded me of the refreshing innovative approach of Jonathan Hyams – always exceeding expectations – and his commitment to empowering arts organisations at an affordable cost.

Clearly proprietors/founders have a significant influence on the businesses they set up, not just Jonathan Hyams, but Richard Leggatt at BOCS then Galathea STS creating ENTA, and more recently Michael Nabarro at Spektrix, and in a different way Jack Rubin at Tessitura.  So when John Caldwell decided to introduce PatronBase into the UK, encouraged by Stuart Nicolle at Purple Seven and myself, this was a welcome addition to the available ticketing, marketing and CRM solutions, meeting a need from those arts organisations who simply could not afford many of the systems on the market. He said recently “the system does not have a higher price, perhaps commensurate with its features and its competition, because that would take the system outside of the price bracket of the very customers that we are committed to serve”. But PatronBase goes further in defying convention.

 published tariff

First PatronBase surprises people by having a published tariff, which is inclusive of upgrades and “continuous improvement”, supplied at relatively very low cost, without any fees or charges, just a modest annual software support and maintenance charge. Second PatronBase selects who should be customers, preferring to work with creative, usually producing, arts organisations that share their philosophical commitment to delivering the arts effectively and to developing audiences. Third it goes an ‘extra mile’ in implementation in making sure users can fully utilise all the opportunities of the system, without charging extra.

In September 2013, PatronBase was celebrating over 100 users in New Zealand, Australia, UK, Ireland and Spain (more than 160 now), and I was invited to meet their development team, drawn together from around the world to Christchurch, NZ, to talk about the future. I saw some exciting ideas being brainstormed, and, as ever, had my views on what the next generation systems should offer. So in February 2015 I was looking forward to seeing the outcome being presented to users in Auckland and Christchurch.

 what constitutes a “new” system

Afterwards, I found myself debating with David Martin, an experienced and knowledgeable ticketing consultant in NZ, exactly what constituted a new iteration of a system, or a new version, or a completely new product. Because what we had seen confounded our expectations, by defying the conventions.

For a start, we had seen a new browser-based “front-end” to the system – called the Web Hub – which offered a completely different ‘look and feel’ and user experience, with specific functionality, with touch screen capability and a breath-taking ease of use. Yet this was additional – the whole of the existing system with all its functionality and screens was still there to be accessed – this was almost as an alternative to the core offering, with a focused set of tasks. On top of the dashboard for senior management, running on Macs as well as PCs, and a ‘chat’ solution available locally or across a community of users, this felt like a new system.

 ship in a bottle

This was the core of what John Caldwell presented as his “ship in a bottle” upgrade, as in drawing together a large number of parts all working together to create the finished item, and he quoted Buckminster Fuller: “You can’t change the way people think, all you can do is give them a tool, the use of which will change their thinking”. The focus of this release was entirely on “the patron” and their interface with users’ organisations, and the means to reach them based on deeper knowledge and understanding of their behaviours, and to make sure for example that the loyalty points scheme was part of all the customer’s spending and purchases.

Back in 2013, John Caldwell had been keen on the next generation of integrated CRM functionality, going beyond what in practice many venues use, and accommodating the demanding needs of audience and fund-raising development, multiple ways of segmenting and profiling customers, with as much customisable functionality as possible, so venues could manage their specific needs. The emerging Patron Attributes tools, not quite complete because of the decision to incorporate Culture Segments natively into the application and not just for individual users who signed up, extends the suite of tools and the content of customer records to combine/create that 360 degree view of customer relationships from all their inter-actions, recording all the factors relevant to their record. There are then great tools to deploy, manipulate and utilise the results.

Combined with significant additional functionality for memberships, to track multiple memberships, people can also be linked together in groups, if necessary making group membership visible on customer records.  This is ideal for family or workplace groupings and greatly adds to the potential for what I call ‘US-style ‘task-based’ CRM’.  My late colleague Tim Roberts, who always questioned whether ticketing systems were true CRM, would have been impressed.

Also back in 2013, John Caldwell had referred to developing a “merchandise module” to extend the PatronBase ability to manage inventory and sell items other than tickets, part of a strategy discussed with Chapter in Cardiff and ONFife in Scotland to provide a “one-stop-shop” solution for customer-facing inter-actions such as purchases of food and drink, ice creams, programmes, merchandise, etc., helping join up the thinking by “following the patron” through all their F-o-H and purchase experiences.

Having evaluated epos, retail and catering systems for venues, where the software costs are significant factors, I was well aware of the wrinkles that make such solutions challenging, and too many fall short. So it seemed realistic to expect a cut down simplified solution. No, that is not what was revealed, but a full stock control inventory management solution, right down to handling items bought in larger units and dispensed in smaller ones such as bottles and glasses of wine, coping with stock and re-ordering, and deliveries and stock in multiple locations. And of course this functionality surfaces soon in the Web Hub and the Internet Ticketing engine for customer pre-orders with advance payment, all in the one shopping cart. What is there now is a QuickPOS front-end with catalogue, size, style and colour options, all reconciled back to both the customer and the stock control, right down to refunds and exchanges, optimised for various screens. What’s not to like?

 tools to ‘join-up thinking’

There were general managers, producers and directors as well as marketing and ticketing staff in these user sessions, and I was struck by the strong reaction of those senior managers to the tools to  “join-up thinking” that they were seeing. Some updates for the Venue Manager module nearly got a round of applause, since they confirmed that this was not some cut-down tool as a bolt-on, but a key co-ordinated module enabling them to manage resources and usage, room bookings and events across multiple spaces, completely integrated into the ticketing system.

I was surprised to hear John Caldwell talking about the “steady stream” of customers signing up to the “hosted version” of PatronBase in New Zealand, with existing customers migrating to the hosted solution, since this was news to me. Yes this is in the Cloud, but not a SaaS (Software as a Service) model, in this case with PatronBase handling the server hardware, inter-connectivity and software management for the users for a set annual charge. This is already an option in the UK. Once again PatronBase are offering this for a much lower cost to venues.

It was this that ultimately reminded me that ‘PatronBase does it different’. The PatronBase commitment to supplying low cost fully fledged solutions to arts organisations, joining up their tools and saving on having multiple software solutions for different functions, not charging for upgrades as such, and genuinely delivering continuous improvement, is remarkable.

the M.E.A.T. principle

I know some people in venues in the UK struggle to understand how such a highly developed system could be a modest cost, and effectively ask why doesn’t it cost more? It almost seems some people don’t want to be thought they are buying a low cost solution – “Cheap?”.   Clearly, it is the PatronBase philosophy to ensure the cost is modest.  Charity Finance Consultant Steve Mahon pointed out to me that Finance Directors of charities are supposed to follow the M.E.A.T. principle – the Most Economically Advantageous Tender – and secure certainty with containment of costs. Perhaps we need to remind cash-strapped arts organisations of this principle?

not just for profit

The philosophy of the company is part of the product: not just for profit say PatronBase.  Has PatronBase delivered a new version of their system, or just confounded us all by doing something different, which ironically presses the very buttons that many arts organisations want?

UK Consumer Protection debate in Parliament

Many venues and organisations in the ticketing industry welcomed the November 2014 move by the UK House of Lords to add clauses to current legislation going through Parliament to extend the Consumer Rights Act.  In a defeat for the Coalition Government, a cross-party coalition of Peers passed an amendment to curb the actions of ticket touts and to increase transparency in the event ticket resale market.

The amendments mean secondary market re-sellers and touts selling their tickets through major internet platforms like Seatwave and Viagogo will have to prominently disclose key facts to potential customers, including:

  • Their identity, particularly where they are selling tickets as a business;
  • The original face value of the tickets being sold;
  • The individual characteristics of the tickets being sold, such as the seat number or the booking reference, and;
  • Whether the terms and conditions on the ticket mean that it can be cancelled if the organisers find out it has been resold.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse, which held an inquiry at the beginning of 2014 into the secondary ticketing market, hope that the information being made public will enable event holders to identify the largest ticket touts and prevent them from buying up large quantities of tickets to re-sell, leaving ordinary fans with a better chance of getting tickets at face value, instead of being forced to pay inflated amounts on the secondary market.

It is almost 3 years since Channel 4 Television’s Dispatches programme: The Great Ticket Scandal, exposed how secondary platforms court major ticket touts and take allocations directly from promoters to sell on, above face value, to unsuspecting consumers.

And it is almost 2 years since Operation Podium, the Police unit set up to tackle Olympics-related crime, produced a report calling for legislation to tackle “unscrupulous practices, a lack of transparency and fraud” within the secondary market.

Of course, in this crazy world of ours, there are people in the ticketing industry happy to perpetrate this fraudulent and/or unscrupulous activity, and a UK Coalition Government that prefers to encourage rip-off Britain in the name of market ideology, at the expense of the public.  So there is some dismay at the passage of the amendments, and plans to lobby Parliament against the amendment when the bill returns to the House of Commons.  You might think that if you are honest, not planning fraudulent activity, not intending to rip people off, then you have nothing to fear from this consumer protection.

Trends in 2015?

Making predictions for the future is not reliable forecasting.  Trying to assess where developments are leading and what developments will emerge and achieve traction and adoption is remarkably similar to guess-work.  But some commentators think it has a useful and helpful role if it focusses thinking on what ought to be seen as key issues.  So here goes:

1.  Focus on the Ticket Purchasers experience

If you spend any time on-line seeking out and buying tickets, you will find it can be a soul-destroying experience.  How often do suppliers and venues really look from the customer’s point of view?  Too many web pages are just not thought-through, with too many circular links, poorly designed, with key information and navigation not obvious (or below the fold).  Registration and log-in mechanisms are badly designed and illogical – and very annoying if they fail to recognise the pre-registered but then claim the new registrant’s email address is already registered.  Try browsing on-line from a smartphone or tablet and still many web pages are not mobile friendly, sometimes adopting the right format and size on the corporate website then going to the wrong size for the ticketing pages.

At Europe Talks Tickets in Amsterdam we were told it is usual in our sector to see an 85%+ failure rate of uncompleted on-line transactions.  Yet many venues (and presumably their suppliers) are complacent about this because the 10%+ who do complete often constitute over 50% of purchasers through all sales channels.  But how many of that 85% constitute lost sales, missed opportunities?  My colleague Ron @GroupOfMinds Evans makes the point that we don’t pay enough attention to the psychology of the customer during the sales process.  Damage your relationship with them at the very point they are committing to buy your product and you have already started to disappoint them.

The good news is that more and more people are focussing on the ticket purchasers experience, wanting to make sure their web pages and processes work on all the devices, minimise that drop-out rate, and make buying the tickets a successful part of the relationship.  Suppliers as well as venues need to make this a No.1 issue in 2015.  And see No.4

2.  It is about inter-facing

We’ve talked a few times at TheTicketingInstitute about ‘platforms’ and the systems that see themselves as providing what I have called the “beating heart of marketing” and that “database of truth” about customer relationships of all kinds, driving every ‘touch-point’ and inter-action.  Tessitura is of course, with its not-for-profit, network-owned, model, the exemplar here, actively helping venues integrate and interface with numerous software tools and solutions, relying on that single “database of truth”.  But equally PatronBase, in the UK, Spain as well as New Zealand and Australia, has made it a priority to ensure that venues can interface their system with the other software they use.  As John Caldwell of PatronBase has said, it is not rocket science, but neither is it always easy, so more suppliers need to understand that venues expect support in making the connections.  TopTix have intentionally built this into their SROv4 software, to make developing interfaces easier for third parties.  Perhaps it is not about ‘platforms’ but about attitudes – the venue is not being awkward when it wants to interface.

3.  Reducing the costs for payment gateways and payment mechanisms

The ticketing industry sufferers bad service from a number of the payment gateway providers.  “Don’t worry, they are low value transactions” is not a helpful response when hundreds of transactions have gone wrong, with the potential of customers turning up to find no seats booked for them.  Sadly this fits into a ‘rip-off’ attitude to ticket purchasers – “they have decided to buy a ticket, how much can we get off them” – that extends to venues as well, with multiple charges as well as commissions for the payment gateway service; and to that tendency to see if costs can be added on above the price – now thankfully illegal in the EU.  At priced tender stage during procurement, it is intriguing to see the difference in charges for the same gateway through different suppliers.  Do venues realise there are thousands of pounds/dollars to be saved in this?

Ironically there is a sector creeping up on ticketing where the competitive marketplace is driving down costs instead of ‘ripping-off”.  So-called micro-payments and mobile payment gateway providers are finding fierce competition to shave the margins as they seek to dominate the market and introduce near-field “swipe to pay” and other solutions.  Even Apple is vulnerable when chains the like of Starbucks with their huge international user base make decisions on points of cents and are not willing to pass costs on.  Will venues wake up to optimising for mobiles and tablets when they realise transactions are cheaper using these new payment mechanisms?  Suppliers may need to lead the way in adopting these new payment mechanisms.

4.  Talk to me

Voice activated ticket purchase, asking people to speak key information, proved a hazardous interface when first introduced for phone bookings, relying on speech recognition in answer to very limited options.  The software has moved on and opened out, with the various ‘robots’ on our smartphones that we can now ask questions of and give instructions to.  Of course, the smartphones have the key advantage of already knowing who the customer is, reducing the need for customer input.

The pundits say this technology and the related speech to text recognition is only two years from widespread adoption, likely to be led by who provides the most useful and helpful solutions.  So instead of all that difficult navigation to find What’s On and choose a performance and seat availability, let us reverse the process and let the customer ask the questions.  I suspect that a question-based approach may well be better for the customer than any process which requires them to know what they want before they start.

5.  Browser-based, Internet access systems

Thank goodness for terminal services and those “thin-client” solutions, since some older systems would not be meeting the specification for ticketing tenders where the venue is looking to what it thinks is the future, today.  But “browser-basesd” front-ends is the recurring mantra from venues for systems intended to be served up on multiple devices to everyone who might use the system, and in new ways of presenting the Box Office to the public.

Ben Curthoys of Monad Ticketing was the first person I heard arguing that the same design rules should be applied for the staff in the Box Office and the back-end as the public accessing the front-end of ticketing systems.  That goes farther than most systems, but the principle of user-friendly screens in multiple formats is a new given. Michael Nabarro and his colleagues at Spektrix got an early edge from this and are now taking their approach into the US.  I had a preview of the first steps toward the new PatronBase front end in October 2013 in New Zealand and due to see the progress there this February.  The systems that pre-date this fundamental change need to catch up.  Ironically, I don’t think this means systems such as AudienceView who pioneered this innovation can sit on their laurels, since now they need to match the ‘state-of-the-art’ out of the box.

6.  Solving the cost issues of ‘the Cloud’

I have never forgotten Fujitsu giving me a detailed presentation on why Cloud-based ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) was “always lower cost than locally hosted or managed services”.  I spent some time explaining that in the ticketing sector, all the SaaS Cloud solutions were more expensive, quoting details anonymously from various tenders.  They were at first incredulous, then confused, because of course the real question is why the cost savings were not passed on to the venues using solutions delivered from The Cloud.

They pointed out that generally in the IT sector, procurement was by people who were able to compare prices and costs and who genuinely understood how the cost savings could be made compared with locally served software.  In the ticketing sector, procurement was less well -informed, and you also needed to factor in people making comparison with Ticketmaster and other service providers, so the real cost comparisons were not being made, not helped by disinformation from some sales people.

Can that position hold?  The pundits say the Cloud wars will escalate in 2015, in terms of lowering costs and improving security and services as Google, Microsoft, etc. go into competitive battle with Amazon to get costs down.  We know The Cloud is where we should be going, so are the SaaS ticketing suppliers going to deliver the benefits to the venues in terms of costs in 2015?  I suspect we are going to see some serious changes in approach.

7.  Re-thinking the physical Box Office

Places like the new ‘Home’ in Manchester, due to replace the old Cornerhouse and Library Theatre in Manchester this spring, are re-thinking the physical Box Office.  Tablets have untethered the Box Office sales person from the counter, able to serve customers where they are standing – Apple store style – as Nimax Theatres have demonstrated in London using ENTA, and we are getting closer to the Citizen M type attended self-check-in where staff hover to help customers complete their transaction.  Home will have six cinemas for its film programme and there is no reason why “door sales” cannot be genuinely at the door of each screen.  At the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge the Box Office is almost never physically open, because people buy tickets at the bar or confectionary counter if they arrive at the cinema without a ticket, though the majority have pre-bought on-line and got numbered seats.  Expect to see more innovation in how the physical Box Office functions in 2015.

That’s my views for now – interested to read what yours are.  Best wishes

Roger

Spektrix focuses on UK and US

Having opened a US office in New York to front a drive into the North American marketplace, Spektrix has confirmed that its current focus will be on the UK and the US.  To that end it has announced that it is closing down its service provision in Spain, as of November 2015.  It is also declining, despite interest in their system, to tender into other European countries at present, as part of that focus.

Their advice to current customers in Spain states: “We have made the difficult decision to withdraw Spektrix from the Spanish market in 2015.  We know that Spektrix has a devoted following in Spain who will be sad to see it go and we are sad to disappoint you. However, after three years of hard work in a challenging market, we have realised the timing simply isn’t right.  As a result, we are no longer taking on any new customers in Spain. Existing customers will all be able to continue using Spektrix until 30 November 2015, and full assistance will be given to all customers in extracting their data from Spektrix to be used in a new system.”

Of course the ticketing marketplace in Spain has been disrupted by the adverse effects of the recession there, including impact on the regional banks which used to provide popular ticketing services.  Many arts and entertainment organisations have been struggling to survive after cuts in funding and reduced attendances.  The increase in the VAT rates for arts and entertainment has also led to some surprising alternatives to ticket sales, such as charging by the laugh or selling porn and giving free admission to shows.  Definitely a challenging market.

Spektrix, now with over 180+ users in the UK, continuously expanding its functionality, with a major extension into fund-raising tools, is well placed to take its ‘software as a service’ offer into the US.  It has a stand at INTIX in Denver 13-15 January 2015.

S.T.E.Ps to New Technology

Roger and I keep coming back to the conversation of WHAT IS a ticketing system?

The word that’s important here is SYSTEM, as we are trying to distinguish between a system you purchase or access through a SaaS model and a ‘Ticket-Selling’ website you may place your ticketing inventory on. Of course, there are then the systems that are more than just ticketing and offer additional tools around fundraising, eCommerce and/or extended analytic or CRM functions.

It is then a little unfair to potentially say something is “not a system” when it may serve a very useful purpose to certain sizes or types of organisation.  Now how about we come up with some names and definitions, so that way we can start to look at where the offerings of different vendors sit?

So I am using STEPs – Systems, Tools, Enhancements and Platforms,

Enhancements

Enhancements do not directly sell tickets, they may promote, they may analyse, they may have great fantastic marketing outputs or management information tools.  Some may simply make the ticket-buying process better, faster, more efficient or generally nicer.

Examples of enhancements would be

Queue or Capacity Management software or services, such as Queue-it and Crowd Handler

Analytic and Profiling tools such as Purple Seven or Baker Richard’s Revenue Management Application

Tools 

I struggled to find the word to describe what I meant here. Tools is what I settled on.

Some may push the boundaries….but basically they just sell tickets

Tools are just that – “things that you can use to do a job”.  Tools are often websites or SaaS based modules that allow you to create a webpage to promote or sell your tickets and capture some basic or extended information on your customers, typically without a basket or sign in process.  They are purely to sell a ticket. Some may push the boundaries of this and have some promotion codes, or other extras, but basically they just sell tickets and produce a print at home style ticket and some very basic reporting.

Tools examples would be Ticketscript and Believe.In (closing shortly)

Of course, many companies may start out as Tool but through years of development and refinement progress to a complete SYSTEM, a good example of this is Advanced Ticketing’s Web product.

So we come onto the difficult words Systems and Platforms and their definition. We had a great debate at the Ticketing Institute Session in Bristol in July on this subject, with some vendors unable to agree to what a platform WAS, let alone whether they were one or not.

John Caldwell, Chief Evangelist for PatronBase went on to blog about the subject , which you can read here

From My point of view, with Roger no doubt to contest, a platform is an extension of a system, so let’s start with system first.

Systems

Systems are collections of functions into one software package that allow box offices, along with their attached marketing and other customer-facing departments, to effectively create, administer, sell, report and market event tickets. It is vital that they must be able to complete these tasks.  The level, speed, automation  and efficiency at which they can do this is what is used to set them apart, along with price of course.

Some systems do do things differently. Spektrix, for example, offers some amazing service levels to its customers by creating and editing seating plans when needed; others give the tools directly to the users.  Both of these approaches have benefits, but show the requirement is met.

With regards to selling, some offer browser based solutions, others locally installed programmes, somewhere in between we see hosted / hybrid solutions.

There are a great number of sales terminals that still offer  a text based sales screen, like we see below,

SensibleCinemaSoftware

whilst at the other end, SaaS cloud solutions such as Spektrix  and Ticket Solve offer elegant pleasing user experiences. Again, what it looks like is not relevant in saying “can I sell ticket myself, in the office?” If the answer is yes, you are one step closer to being a system instead of a tool.

TicketSolve

TicketSolve, like many systems offer far more than just buying a ticket

Some would argue marketing is not part of ticketing. That might be true, no more than finance is. It IS however essential to getting the message of the event out to the ticket buying public, and doing this with data that comes from ticketing. They form a symbiotic relationship, they are both reliant on each other. The box office is a prime source of data, so the ability to extract and segment this, then execute a campaigns is key. In this area, again, there are clear ways in which some systems perform in a different, perhaps better, way, but all systems must offer the chance to do this, even if as basic as people who came to A but not to B.

So systems must be able to create, sell, report and market the inventory

I always referred to Reporting as ‘the boring bit’ when demonstrating systems, it is, unless you love financials and analysis. It is, however, another essential item, that must be on offer in systems. Some trying to prove their system credentials may talk of being able to put sales into Excel or similar – this is not reporting. Through pre built, user configurable or completely custom reports, systems MUST be able to give sales totals by user, time period, event and possibly more criteria, but this does set the minimum level for what we should expect. Since every producer seems to want a “sales movement report”, it is surprising the number of systems that don’t have one as standard.

So systems must be able to create, sell, report and market the inventory. So what makes it a platform?

Platforms

Platforms are more than systems, at a higher level?  They have all the features of systems, or do they?  Platforms are still at their heart a ticketing system, but with the ability to launch other applications, interact with them, perform different and more varied tasks in an organisation or can be modified, adapted or added to as the venue sees fit.  As Roger would have it: they provide the ‘database of truth’ for interactions with customers, and the data can be deployed in whichever software needs it.

AudienceView has recently adopted the platform word as part of its core marketing message and brand, as it offers much more than just ticketing – EPOS, eCommerce, fundraising and CMS tools to name but a few. We also see Tessitura wholly in this categorisation; after all how many systems has the add-ons that it does, with multiple third-party providers, whether commercially available, or developed in house? Despite John Caldwell’s view, I would also consider PatronBase to be moving towards the platform end of systems, as from its modular design, it allows other applications to replace its offerings and gives its users the choice of which e-marketing solution or payment authorization systems it wants to deploy and integrates with Artifax and other software.

Toptix’s SRO4 must also be seen to be in the platform collection as it has, similar to AudienceView, a whole range of extra features that allow it to be deployed throughout an organisation as well as beyond its boundaries, thanks to a thorough and well thought out API.  It has an ability to create ‘data views’ which can be fed to other software to enable customer data to integrate live into other applications.

Summary

Whether you agree that systems and platforms are two different things or in fact largely the same, they are different to the separate enhancements and tools that are often seen at trade shows or promoted online. It is interesting the rate at which suppliers are seeming to move from the Tool to System stages or how Systems are adding features (Queuing engines, rules engines, pricing tools, venue management sections) or embracing the Cloud to help differentiate themselves or establish what they believe is a USP.

Regardless of their features, or how they or others define themselves, there will always be the need to maintain sensible pricing, tangible value, required functionality and continued investment. These should be the marker when evaluating any technology, not just a ‘ticketing system’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting needs – localisation, customisation (and versions)

Having recently debated exactly what defines a ticketing system – and these days one that needs to drive marketing, CRM and fund-raising for many organisations – the next question was about what constitutes “fitness-for-purpose” in terms of meeting the needs of arts and entertainment organisations?  One venue manager, wanting to change from a long established but also long-time legacy solution, was surprised to find how many systems could not match what their “old” system had done for years, especially what Andrew often calls the “bells and whistles”.

Fitness-forPurpose

Managing tender processes in multiple countries to procure ticketing solutions, the names of major international suppliers recur fairly often.  Of course there are some decidedly European focused and some North American, and some from ‘down under’.  But what do we get in terms of localisation to meet the needs of individual countries?

Some say it starts at the level of languages.  Some systems to our surprise have the language used in field names hard-coded, whereas others have a table where multi-lingual field names can be added.  The ones where each operator can choose the language for their terminal are preferred by those in bilingual countries.  There are those, including me, that argue there is psychological disruption if we expect an operator to talk in one language while reading another.

But the biggest challenge comes on customer-facing web pages.  We see the repeated problem that field names on web forms are not carrying the local language but are using the system core language.  That can mean a system running in English but in Sweden for example, puts up English terms on a web page otherwise in Swedish.  More difficult, for those systems with customers speaking more than one language, when no matter what the browser language the customer has chosen, the field names appear in a different one.  The “fixes” we have seen to these difficulties are sticking plaster patches and not solutions: editing the registry seems high risk and won’t survive upgrades without causing pain; creating single multi-lingual field names strains the length of fields when presented on-line, especially in forms, and is not user-friendly.  Just how far do we need to go to make systems “international”?  What do we expect in localisation and if necessary, customisation?

Localisation

I have recently been surprised to see responses to our Functionality Builder which indicate that some suppliers could not provide integrated ‘chip and pin’.  Why?  Well of course in their home country this is not needed so they expect venues to use a Work-Around to cope.  Is this reasonable?  Another supplier says VAT – an EU-wide requirement which must be accommodated inside the price and extracted separately – is also a Work-Around.  Most European countries have multiple rates of VAT, often different rates for tickets than merchandise, so systems need to accommodate more than one VAT rate, but quite a few don’t.  Another says it cannot do US Sales Tax – the opposite of VAT and outside the price.  How is this ‘fit-for-purpose’?

Another says it cannot do US Sales Tax….  How is this ‘fit-for-purpose’?

I remember from my days at Tickets.com, working with Vicki Allpress-Hill on researching the payment methods and banking practices for each European country.  The one common factor was that they were not the same.  Only in Germany could you have your payment charged to your mobile phone provider account if you wished; the Benelux countries had a variety of Giro payment mechanisms – based on authorising payment from the customer’s bank account – but similar looking solutions in Scandinavia turned out to be different in detail.  Payment gateway providers would all say they could accommodate different country needs, but in fact failed to understand the nuances to ensure connectivity, reliability, and successful transactions.  Let us add Direct Debits as a payment method say venues.  Who knew this term describes a quite different method in Canada from the one in the UK?

Customisation

Well I can tell you that venues in these different countries expect their potential suppliers to meet their needs with full local conformity.  Some suppliers talk about using “customisations” to meet those needs.  Now I understand that in these days of sophisticated report writers and business intelligence analytical tools, that systems can be set up to deliver reports based on complex/complicated routines.  Not sure how the UK’s HMRC would accept these for VAT, when they used to check on what basis the rounding had been calculated in separating the tax from the price!  But customisations are intended to be venue specific, rather than country-wide.  And many customisations are venue (and version) specific and don’t survive upgrades unscathed.

many customisations are venue (and version) specific and don’t survive upgrades unscathed.

You have to acknowledge that those single iteration web-based systems have an advantage if everything they do goes into the core product and there is only one version in use, though I imagine meeting every venue’s needs in separate countries strains the ingenuity to keep one configurable solution.

Version Control

Distressingly for those systems where there are local servers or externally hosted separate solutions, there is an increasing issue of ‘version control‘ and ensuring most users are on the same (and current version).  We find too often venues criticising their system when if they were running the latest version their complaint would be invalid, with issues fixed and huge amounts of functionality added.  But the common refrain is cost, fear of disruption, bad past experiences, and insufficient attention to their specific needs, whether in terms of hand-holding through the upgrade process or understanding all the localisations and customisations involved.  And of course, many venues do decide to change their system because of not being up-to-date and feeling neglected by their supplier.

many venues do decide to change their system because of not being up-to-date and feeling neglected by their supplier.

Cost is an interesting issue for upgrades.  Many suppliers assure their users the upgrades are free – and get cross with those Cloud-based suppliers who guarantee there are no costs for upgrading and criticise the alternative model – but the training and professional services, and sometimes even data migration requirements, can soon add up to significant sums beyond the reach for hard-pressed arts organisations, with grants being cut.  And it can seem a cost too far to be charged for testing the localisations and/or customisations, and to then update them.

There is not an easy answer to these challenges, but if there is a shift in the balance in the relationship with suppliers/vendors, it is that venues want their needs more clearly met, with no hidden costs.  And do we need to re-define what it means to be an international supplier?

Banking on your income

Innovation is a good thing, but I sometimes worry about what is the motivation driving it?  Sitting in yet another conference session where service providers have identified that, because people want to buy tickets and have to pay for them, and we need to sell those tickets, that there is money/margins to be taken from our transaction chain, I have to ask if all this is really necessary?

TheTicketingInstitute generally welcomes innovation, including in payment methods and on new devices, creating new channels, especially if they make it easier and quicker for customers to buy.  Yet too often there is a sting in the tail.  One ‘solution’ being touted did provide a new way of listing ticketed events, combined with one click purchase, and the ticket purchaser “only paid a 1.50 euro booking fee” and the seller a 10-15% commission.

The switch to the smartphone is seeing a race to provide effective secure, minimal input, purchase solutions, with banks and their competitors bringing out alternative solutions, swiping, near field, account based, etc.  Apple are clearly in a significant position here, and integrating that with Passbook will give them an advantage, if venues accommodate to it.  The questions will all be about charges.

But in an ideal world, venues and their solutions providers want to keep it simple.  Why can’t the payment gateway providers extend to offer a variety of tools within a single suite to accommodate the obvious payment methods, including credit card one-click purchase on smartphones?  Ironically, the latter is one of the most secure payment methods since the device ID is communicated along with the customer’s details.

In that conference session referred to above, PayPal were again advocating their solution, as an alternative to Visa and Mastercard channels.  Yes they have now improved their protection for sellers and buyers to bring it nearer to that of the credit card providers, but they still treat tickets and their sellers as “intangibles” with less protection.  Of course, with their App they are targeting young mobile consumers so venues may need to offer that payment channel.  But the question must be: how much is being taken out of the income supposed to be in the ticket price?