The demise of the Box Office?

Okay – in this day and age of open and honest communication I need to declare an interest in this subject. Having spent many a happy year working in various box offices, it’s a subject close to my heart.

This week The Society of London Theatre has just published findings showing that, since 2003, online ticket sales have increased from 17% to nearly 50%.

So what is it like to actually book online and how are theatre owners and producers meeting this huge demand? Well, like anything, it’s a bit hit and miss.

Would you go into a clothes shop and buy the first shirt on the rack, regardless of size, colour, etc? No, but for many online box office services, this is exactly what you get. No chance to pick the seats you want – instead you are allocated ‘best available’. Interesting, though, is how some theatre owners define ‘best available’. Most people would go for a central view first over a seat at the extreme edge of the row but, for one of the major players in the West End, their ‘best available’ default is to sell from left to right across the row; so if you want central it’s worth opening up multiple windows and requesting several seats until the system gets to the central seats. Another major west end operator also has some interesting definitions on its seating – restricted views have now been replaced by the phrase ‘side view’. Perhaps more likely to sell but not likely to encourage return visits once you find the ‘side view’ actually means you miss 50% of the action.

Some theatres of course allow you to pick your own seats from a live seating plan and, on the whole, this is a much more customer-friendly system. No more getting side seats when two prime seats are waiting to be snapped up by someone who just happens to book later than you. It’s also a good bargain hunter – do you really want to pay £10 a head more when the row behind is cheaper? There are some problems with some of these systems, however; a couple of theatres have some price sections where there are only three seats in a row at that price, try and book two of them and it wont let you. Now, while single seats left over is the bane of box office staff’s life, groups of three are not that common.

The worst system of all is thankfully only operated now by a couple of ticket agents. Here, you don’t get to choose your seats, nor does the system allocate you seat numbers. Instead, you get a message telling you that you will be allocated specific seat numbers when collecting your tickets. Now, are you really going to risk that to find that you have been allocated the restricted view seats?

So, if the customers are now doing most of the work themselves, when are theatres going to pass on some of the savings and reduce booking fees, etc? While some venues waive booking fees for online sales, many still charge a booking or service fee and possibly also a postage and handling fee. Are they really trying to say that the costs for online bookings are the same for a staffed box office?

More importantly, if online sales continue, what is the future of venue-based box office staff? With increasing sales, will the box office clerk soon be replaced by a computer terminal? It’s happening now at cinemas and rail stations and for many theatre ticket collections so how long before this is extended? Having clerks sitting in a theatre from 10-8pm 6 days a week isn’t cheap and I’m sure some producer is already wondering how they can save this overhead. I’m not for one minute suggesting that box office clerks are replaced but I’m sure some accountant is wondering if they can get away with it.

From a producers viewpoint the convenience of 24-hour booking via the intranet is certainly a plus but, from a marketing view, it can also be a poison chalice. How many times can a theatre advertise ‘hurry and book now as this show is virtually sold out’ when customers can go online, access the seating plan and see row, after row, after row of empty seats.

So, yes, half of all theatre tickets may now be booked online and this figure is sure to rise but theatres and producers need to embrace new technology to keep one step ahead of the ever more demanding customer.

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