Services or systems or a combination?
There are many different ways in which a venue can meet its need to sell tickets and use information on ticket purchasers for marketing and building relationships with customers. The essential choice is between out-sourcing (using a ticketing services supplier) or obtaining an in-house system (using a ticketing system supplier) or a hybrid model. The essential choice is therefore between either a service provider or a system supplier, though it can become more complicated, because you can use both together.
Most venues recognise the essential choice is between deciding to out-source their ticketing to some kind of agency/service company or obtaining an in-house system which they run themselves. If only it was as easy as that in practice.
First, you must decide: what kind of ticket sales operation/Box Office do you want? The choice may be clearer if the alternative options are polarised:
You want to control how your tickets are sold; you want ticket purchasers to deal with you, your way, to buy your tickets; you only offer sales channels you control so purchasers are within your brand and values; you regard your customer care as a fundamental part of closing the sale and selling the ticket; you want to ensure customers are charged the price you set and judge your value on the price/product equation; you want to build a relationship with ticket purchasers, capturing their details, and relating to them as customers who may come back and buy again. Conclusion: You need an in-house system.
You simply want to ensure the tickets are sold at the lowest cost to you; you want the widest distribution of access to ticket purchase so a variety of channels and methods is on offer; you accept that ticket purchasers may be charged a variety of fees and other charges as part of their transaction; the customer care and ticket purchase experience is of less importance; you accept that you may not get details on who the ticket purchasers are; you do not mind customers being anonymous and perhaps experiencing variable customer service from third parties. Conclusion: You can use ticketing services.
These alternative polarised options can be affected by the kind of tickets you have to sell. So called ‘hot’ or in-demand tickets may quickly and easily sell through ticketing services, where public demand means that many customers are chasing tickets. So called ‘cool’ tickets where demand may be lower or purchasers more selective, benefit from the in-house solution and the ability to help close the sale with quality, informed, customer care.
The danger is that the polarisation confuses the two separate approaches to achieving sales. Marketing and sales managers may want to deploy both:
- Distributed ticketing
- networks of ticket agents & travel agents, outlets in every high street
- inventory on a variety of systems, Ticketmaster, etc
- web sites, portals
- mobiles and Smart Phones, iPads, etc.
- kiosks and ATMs
- outlets wherever transactions can be packaged as “added value”
- Personalised ticketing, with increasing tailoring & personalisation of offers and sales mechanisms:
- specialist phone rooms run by the producing companies and presenting venues
- increased tele-marketing personal services: “when would you like to come?”
- personal service from staff with access to your customer record
Taken to the extreme, the distributed ticketing option could mean that the physical Box Office at the venue disappears, as is the case in some European countries, where the venue only has a welcome desk or reception to handle customers with queries.
However, the personalised ticketing option can develop the best qualities of the two, in the “connected Box Office”. While using an ‘in-house’ computerised system, this is no longer a “stand-alone” system:- the system is wired to other systems and networks:
- Internet gateways
- multiple line/number phone access
- numerous sales terminals on the WAN with auto-attendant call handling to route calls
This puts the ticketing system database as the heart of an arts organisation’s ‘knowledge system’, centring records on customer relationship management, linking all external relationships: fund-raising, sponsorship, accounts, press and media, artists, Friends, customers, funders, Boards, etc.
The “connected Box Office” may require the procurement of both an in-house computerised system and some external ticketing services. See the separate briefing paper under Advice on Choosing Systems.
There is then the challenge of choosing suppliers. If you talk to users, they have very clear expectations:
- a transparent sales process in which WYSIWYG, without “bull-shit” and “over-promisiing”
- a supplier who respects them and their busy lives and the time-frame they have for making selection decisions, which may involve Board decisions, funding applications, different financial years, etc.
- full support through the installation, commissioning and configuration process, especially intelligent advice about how to do what they need to do; it is surprising the difference in the knowledge base of trainers from different suppliers
- understanding and intelligent support go-live, without querying why someone does not know how to do something
- full documentation especially manuals, and these days a reliable on-line ‘ticket’ system for logging support calls and issues, including FAQs and a support forum with other users
- a “can do” and “will fix” positive attitude
What users don’t want is a supplier who has a “charge for everything” attitude and uses triage and diagnostic calls to work out if there is anything to sell to the users or to charge them for. Answering support calls asking how to do something, with offers of training at hundreds of pounds per day, is not helpful for cash-strapped arts organisations.
There is only one way to really find out about suppliers: talk to their users. This in itself can be misleading, because you need to know why a user is saying what they are saying. Better a detailed case history than their off the cuff opinions. “Such and such system let us down because” is much more helpful than a “not very good”. Check also what versions of the system users are on and Why? It is surprising how many venues operate with problems their suppliers fixed long ago in upgraded versions. And be careful about assessing from web-site implementation – do query how a system was enabled on-line and who did what with whom. The best solutions often involve a key role for the web developer.
Do talk through with users exactly what they use their system for and how. That can be educational, as well as identifying that a user cannot comment on functionality they never use, but which is vital for you.
And since the commissioning and go-live process is of concern to people planning to change systems, ask new users of systems to share their experience of the project implementation process. I know users who have complained of the rigour of the process from some major suppliers, with detailed project plans and timetables, statements of work and change processes, and then complex User Acceptance Tests, but then said that though it was onerous, it would have been impossible without it.
Of course technology is also important, especially now we have externally hosted as well as in-house solutions, browser-based front-ends without applications on terminals, and Software as a Service (SAAS) delivered “in the cloud”. While you can see the argument for taking the responsibility for hosting the system out of the venue, there are legitimate concerns about a “mission-critical” sales tool, essential for admission to every performance being vulnerable to Internet connectivity.
Where sales terminals access the system via the Internet, the security of this relies very much on where you are located and your broadband connection’s speed and reliability; outside metropolitan centres, in rural Wales and Scotland, there are too many examples of slow and even intermittent connections. Ideally a “mission-critical” tool requires a second fail-safe connection using a different backbone e.g. BT and Virgin cable (less available in rural areas when you need it) or even Satellite broadband. Some suppliers say users with 3G dongles achieve good back-up connections, but that mobile signal is all important. Remember everything rests on that connection, from seating plan to ticket printing to credit card processing. If it goes down, the sales terminals have nothing.
Of course, with the rise of “in the cloud” computing, you can also see the cost of in-house servers falling, with ever larger performance speeds and more RAM and memory. With some systems you can have the flexibility of browser-based front-ends with the re-assurance of local servers. Make sure there is a at least a local half-hour maintained power supply in the event of electricity supply failure – there is a lot you can do to keep going in 30 minutes.
Lots of venue managers emphasise that the right solution “fit-for-purpose” must be the key criterion for choosing a system and supplier. But the simple fact is that costs vary enormously. It is not uncommon to see the highest tender more that three, sometimes five, times the lowest tender. And that is for systems known to have broadly similar functionality, so they could be said to be equally “fit-for-purpose”.
A small dedicated system supplier is going to be different and therefore charge differently from a large multi-national corporation. Perhaps the expectations placed on the smaller supplier should be different, though many users point to their experience being that they get better hands-on dedicated and constructive support from these than from the bigger institutionalised companies.
The charging model is crucial. There is more interest in 2010 in the “pay-as-you-go” model, usually based on small percentage fees or a commission on the value of sales. Suppliers on the SAAS model often state that their intention is to “share in your success” so charge commission on the value of ticket sales (typically 2-3%). While “pay-as-you-go” gives a low up-front costs option, either per-ticket fees or even a small percentage commission soon adds up to significant repeating sums. I have seen venues surprised that what they perceive as a low-cost system is equalling the major, supposedly high cost, systems over five years. Year on year, they accumulate to become more expensive than the systems sold based on license fees, though someone else taking care of the servers, the software and the Internet sales connections, etc. seems to re-assure many venues.
Some suppliers base their system supply only on an up-front cost and then annual charges, which is usually the most competitive. You might see a tariff for various system modules, sold on the basis of a lifetime license fee – free to use thereafter – and then a small annual license fee for the on-line sales module and software support and maintenance. The up-front costs are usually one offs, including installation, commissioning, configuration and the training of staff to use the system.
Some suppliers charge a single Enterprise License Fee which again secures lifetime use of the system, though look out for the variations such as the license being for a fixed volume of tickets per annum, or a fixed period dependent on renewal. Those that provide a fixed volume of tickets per annum, usually then charge a quoted per ticket fee for tickets over the volume per annum, or else offer the option of buying additional tranches of lifetime value. It is certainly better to be fixing your costs and charges on the basis of volumes rather than values.
There are still suppliers who concentrate their fees on a per-ticket charge and/or a booking fee for on-line sales as well (often passed on to the ticket purchaser), which increases the costs for those venues selling a high volume and value of tickets on line, and is usually not competitive when you calculate the cost of sales over a few years.
And there are still suppliers who charge on the basis of per terminal and the character of the system user. Though the license may be for concurrent users, they charge for each terminal their software is installed upon and how many are using it simultaneously. They usually have different charges according to whether it is for the Box Office, marketing, and administration. Remember, that these come with annual software maintenance charges, and sometimes some additional charges for on-line sales modules, payment gateways, quick addressing and so on. However, if you calculate the cost of ownership over a few years – five is recommended – the total cost on this basis becomes lower than most pay-as-you-go solutions.
It is worth paying particular attention to what they charge for and how, since this can be a key discriminator between systems. And the key to the affordability of a system and supplier.
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