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Just the ticket: Richard Howle on why box office staff are theatre's unsung heroes – The Stage

High ticket prices and audience complaints mean box office staff can get a bad press. But ticketing is theatre’s success story, and the miracle workers underpinning the industry deserve greater appreciation, says Richard Howle

One of my proudest Olivier Awards moments was nothing to do with a show I had worked on. It was when Sonia Friedman, collecting the best new musical prize for The Book of Mormon in 2014, thanked her then box-office manager at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Mark Payn.

Finally, there was recognition for a set of unsung heroes in the entertainment industry: the box office. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of unsung people who work in the entertainment business – technical, stage, costume, wigs, front of house, stage door, the list goes on – but this moment was my sector’s turn. Ticketing was in the limelight.

Read The Stage ticketing survey 2019

Of course, it’s often in the limelight, but usually for all the wrong reasons. There aren’t many good-news stories about ticketing – even when we get it right and a show sells out, someone can usually find something to complain about. So Friedman acknowledging the role the box office can play in the success of a production was a moment to enjoy.

You don’t meet many people working in ticketing who started out with that intention – but you do meet a lot of people who have been doing it for a long time. As someone who has just passed 20 years, I can testify just how much it sucks you in. I only started doing it to learn about how theatre makes its money and how ticketing works. Now in my third decade, I am still learning.

People who work in ticketing are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in the entertainment industry, who provide a chorus of support and optimism for even the duffest of productions.

The most successful producers and promoters are those who understand ticketing and seek out the counsel of ticketing professionals to advise and guide them. It was for a good reason that several notable producers’ first calls of the day were always to box-office legend Edwin Shaw, who provided sage advice to producers (whether he was working for them or not) well into his 80s.

But does the general public hold the ticketing industry in such high esteem, or view it as a necessary evil? At the Ticket Factory – the ticketing company owned by the NEC Group, where I am based – we talk about being the gateway to our customers’ live experience. It is not uncommon for our contact-centre operators to have customers in tears on the phone as they secure tickets to see their favourite artists.

For many, getting the ticket is the start of the event-going experience. That is when the anticipation and excitement begins. That is when the memories begin to form. Like all ticketing professionals, we recognise that responsibility, the need for us to get it right so that the memories of the birthday, anniversary or first date are happy ones. And most of the time we do get it right. But it takes a huge amount of effort.

To most people, ticketing looks really simple. That is why they rail against booking fees – they think it is money for old rope. But it takes a lot of skill, talent and hard work to make it look that easy. Maureen Andersen, the indomitable president of Intix (the International Ticketing Association) describes the people who work in ticketing as “the magic behind the button”.

Not even Amazon has to deal with 100,000-plus people trying to buy the same single item in the same five-minute window

No other retail sector is as complicated or technically challenging. Not even Amazon has to deal with more than 100,000 people attempting to buy the same single item in the same five-minute window. As well as retailing that item we are also manufacturing it, building something on a computer that has to work first time, perhaps months later, to allow access to a remote field (with basic infrastructure) or to guide the purchaser to one of perhaps 40,000 individual seats.

There is no safety net, no option of returning a faulty product. We have to get it right first time, every time. Remember, this is people’s experiences and memories, not the inconvenience of a faulty tin opener. While we are doing all that, we are under attack by people who will use sophisticated technologies to defraud us or our customers. We have promoters’ and producers’ livelihoods at stake – get it wrong and it could cost tens of thousands of pounds. Get it right – sell the right tickets to the right people, at the right time at the right price – then everybody can begin to earn money.

We also need to get it right so that our colleagues at the venues can ensure that everyone gets in safely and on time. We need to get it right so that the finance teams can pay everyone correctly.

And that is just selling a basic ticket. Start throwing in memberships that provide a discount or special access, a promotional code that unlocks an add-on such as a free drink, or offers that mean that if you buy a particular item at a particular time you will be entitled to buy something else at a different time to everyone else at a totally different price, and you will hopefully start to understand that ticketing isn’t as easy as it first appears. What can seem a clever, innovative idea in a marketing meeting will often lead to hours of head-scratching and a lot of creative ingenuity in the ticketing office.

So, while ticketing does sometimes let itself down with confusing fee structures or websites that appear to break down, there is an army of people working behind the scenes trying to get it right. An army of passionate and talented individuals who just want to help people get in to a live event. Who, when they do, really appreciate a thank you every now and again.

Because without ticketing nobody gets paid for putting on or appearing in productions. Without ticketing, there is just a crowd of people with no guarantee of getting in, queueing on the pavement outside, scrambling to get a place to watch when the doors open.

Richard Howle is the director of ticketing for the NEC Group

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