Article / OneStopArts.com / Writing: Journalism

In praise of dynamic ticketing

While taking a deeper look at London tickets recently, I’m growing very excited about recent developments in “dynamic ticketing” – a new way of selling tickets that has vast implications for London’s theatre landscape.

So, what is “dynamic ticketing”? Well, generally speaking, it’s a form of price discrimination – different people pay different prices for the same event. It’s fairly commonplace for air travel, and sports arenas (eg. Derby County), and it’s slowly starting to make its way into theatre. Audience members at Southwark Playhouse may have noticed that they can buy “Early Bird” tickets to events, and that the price goes up closer to the event. But why is this such a good thing? Simple: it has the potential to revolutionise the way London theatre tickets work.

Currently, buying tickets to London’s theatre events is, to put it lightly, mayhem. Hundreds of websites and ticket booths offer tickets at a vast array of prices, but the reason for their range of discounts isn’t clear – are they touting tickets that they’ve bought and are now reselling? Has the theatre offered reduced tickets because the show’s not very good? Or is it just a theatre trying to open its doors to a crowd that can’t afford its often exorbitant prices? West End theatres can post record profits every year, but ticket prices still, in general, have creeped up significantly, even in smaller theatres Off-West End. Going to the theatre is expensive, confusing, and it’s not clear where your money’s going.

So, how to stop the rot? STAR make an effort to curb excessive touting (which still isn’t illegal, amazingly, though it is for other events such as football matches), and many popular theatres have started offering huge discounts for small numbers of tickets, including the Donmar Warehouse’s Barclays Front Row and the National Theatre’s Travelex £12 Tickets, but this doesn’t solve the problem. The problem of selling out is unavoidable, but these price-cut measures feel like sticking plasters on an axe wound. For example, in the recent fiasco over Jez Butterworth’s The River – which was inevitably going to sell out the tiny Royal Court Upstairs – offering cheap day tickets didn’t solve the problem, but may actually have exacerbated it instead.

Dynamic ticketing has the potential to fix this entire process. In a basic sense, it just requires that venues and companies offer tickets at variable rates – a ticket for a show will not always be the same price. This can be affected by time (as is the case in some fringe venues already), by demand in relation to sales, or by a more complicated set of factors. This means that a venue will always be the first place to check prices – and if they operate under a couple of fair policies, it’s entirely likely they will always have the cheapest possible offer, without losing money overall.

How does this work? Let’s draw a hypothetical example: a theatre is planning its ticketing for its latest show. They decide to run their dynamic ticketing system based on time and variable demand factors – the earlier a ticket is booked, and the more tickets they’ve sold in total, the cheaper they are. To achieve this, venues check their average revenue from the last couple of shows, set a production target, decide that ticket prices will decrease in stages based on every thousand pounds they get closer to that target, and set ticket prices to increase each week. They set a highest and lowest possible price, which they post online, and finally open sales.

So, in the first week, tickets will be cheaper: the time factor is low. As tickets are sold and demand targets are met, tickets become cheaper – and, if sales are exactly as expected, the time factor should keep ticket sales relatively even. If it’s a smash hit, the price will plummet as demand targets are met, and the total revenue might even be exceeded if the lowest possible price is sensible. If demand is low, and prices are increasing based on both factors, accepting losses and posting ticket offers come into play – but again, this is all run through the venue.

In this scenario, the customer always wins – they get the fairest possible ticket deal. The venue is trying to achieve a sensible target, instead of hoping for a smash success – and if it is a smash success, prices have been fair throughout the entire process. The tout can only offer cheap tickets if targets aren’t being met – which should mean they only have tickets to shows that aren’t selling well, meaning they’re actually helping low sales instead of “sharking” tickets for popular pieces.

And that’s just one model. Imagine if price increased due to daily demand, encouraging audience visits throughout the week? Or if this model was instigated across price bands, offering even more options? The potential for dynamic ticketing is endless. The only issue is organisation – you’d need a program that worked it all out for you, but maybe that’s a challenge for the ticketing software companies out there. There would also have to be quite a lot of transparency across the board – which some venues may shy away from.

In any case, I’m all in favour of this – I think it has the potential to make theatre-going more accessible and fairer to the customer, which is what it’s always been about. It encourages interaction with the theatre instead of the ticket tout, meaning that more money gets into the artists’ pockets. In actuality, while it wouldn’t completely change how ticketing works overnight, it has the potential to be the quiet revolution that fixes a lot of the London theatre’s ticketing mess. And who wouldn’t want that?

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