Pandora’s box office: Theatre ticket agencies go viral

Do we even need to write a post on this topic, we ask ourselves?  After all, most of the time, we avoid ticket agencies as much as we can.

However, seeing this picture of Sir Howard Panter in the papers receiving his knighthood from the Queen for ‘services to theatre’

Panter and Squire

we felt compelled to revisit some of the ‘disservices’ we feel he has done to theatre-goers as co-founder of the Ambassador theatre group.  ATG have pulled off a particularly clever trick – they own theatres; they own a ticket agency.  So when you try to find the box office for one of their theatres so that you can buy tickets by the most direct (and hopefully cheapest) route, you are endlessly redirected to ATG tickets.  And they certainly don’t miss the opportunity to make the most of this situation.  Despite what must be embarrassing publicity from three prominent comedians who have refused to play their regional venues because of unfair charges, ATG continue to charge the public excessive booking fees.

Moreover, ATG were in the headlines earlier this year, being ticked off by the Advertising Standards Agency for unfairly hiding fees.  The rulings, available in full on the ASA website, focus on the fact that booking fees are not added until late in the process – a similar issue to ‘no-frills’ operators offering cheap flights, except that in this case the theatre tickets rarely start out cheap.  Now, we are told, companies have agreed to be more transparent.  And a quick glance at most agencies’ websites seems to show that this is the case.  However, the big casualty in this ‘victory’ has been the ‘face value’ requirement.  Incredibly, the ruling by the ASA does not insist that agencies clearly show the face value of the ticket, so as long as the price given includes all fees, they are at liberty to quote the price of the ticket without any reference to the face value.  More transparent, in that ticket-buyers know from the start how much they will be stung for.  But less so, in that the agencies can take a massive cut and give the impression that it is just the price of the ticket.  We think agencies must be wondering why they didn’t do this before – there are even headlines in The Stage proclaiming that agency fees have gone down, with only the text of the article explaining that this is because the fees are more often included in the ticket price, which has gone up accordingly.

Theatres certainly don’t make it easy to avoid agencies either.  Take the new official website for Miss Saigon.  When you click through to ‘book tickets’, a page comes up explaining the options.  At the top is a box marked ‘click to book tickets online’.  Clear enough.  But at the bottom is another option, ‘click below to book tickets through our ticketing partner ‘theatrepeople’.  There are warnings about fees, etc, but a vital piece of information is missing.  What is the difference between the two options?  Well, if you try to purchase two £45 tickets through the first option, you’ll pay £94.  Just face value plus £2 per ticket booking fee through the Delfont Mackintosh website.  Go through ‘theatrepeople’ and you’ll pay £116.25 for exactly the same thing.  So the difference for a pair of tickets is £22.25.  And yes, that differential widens as you go up the price scale, with theatrepeople creaming off £51 for a pair of premium tickets.  Whoever these people are they are not our kind of theatre people.  Why would the producers of a show place a link on their own website which results in customers paying significantly more for their product for no extra benefit?  It seems to be official policy for members of the Society of London Theatre, whose ‘Official London Theatre’ website has some friendly advice on ticket buying suggesting that 25% is a reasonable top limit for a fee, before providing an ‘easy’ link to Ticketmaster, a ‘bargain’ at 10%, but more than many theatre-goers need pay if they go elsewhere.

In any other sphere of consumer activity, this practice would surely be frowned on.  When companies try to make money out of consumers by charging extra fees to ‘help’ them fill in their passport form, get an EHIC card or renew their driving licence, although not illegal, consumers are warned against the practice and the purveyors of the official service are unhappy to see people getting ripped off.  The Advertisting Standards Agency have even issued guidance to consumers about this in a recent press release.  In theatre, apparently, it is encouraged.  These companies often use Google to appear in searches and make themselves look like the ‘official’ source.  Similarly if you google the name of a theatre or show, you will also find that agencies tend to come top of the list.  But searching for the official source of tickets can be nigh on impossible.  Look at a show like Phantom of the Opera.  Go to the official website and you will find yourself choosing between ‘See tickets’ and ‘Ticketmaster’ (again no warning of the differences in fees).  Go to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s site, the Really Useful Group, and you will either be redirected to the ‘official’ site or be able to buy tickets directly through See tickets, depending which part of the site you navigate through.  Where to get the best deal?  Once again, Delfont Mackintosh, the theatre owners.  You have to work pretty hard to find that out though.  Theatremonkey, the original and best provider of ‘seat opinions’ in the West End is more important than ever, and in some cases the easiest way to get some objective information on face value ticket prices and options for buying.

There is no advantage in this system for the average theatre-goer, and we would have to seriously question whether consumers are making an informed choice when they book through an agency.  As far as we are concerned, the Advertising Standards Agency has a long way to go before they can say they have really dealt with this issue.  With the advent of the internet, booking tickets to see a show should be laughably easy and transparent, and for independent theatres outside the West End, it usually is.  Get involved with agencies, and it seems to get harder and harder.  When you go to book tickets, many websites will ask your requirements and then you will click a button that says ‘find tickets’.  The idea is that getting a ticket to a show is a difficult thing that you need help with.  Sometimes a message saying ‘no availability’ will show up.  This does not necessarily mean the show is booked up, it means the agency’s allocation of tickets has run out.  They will promise you the ‘best available’ seats but you will have no way of knowing if that is true – it is the best that they have at the time (in their opinion), which is actually meaningless.  Moreover, we regularly get marketing emails with names like ‘Love Theatre offers’, ‘Whatsonstage promotions’ and ‘Discount theatre’.  Would it be reasonable to assume, as a casual observer, that there is some discount on offer here?  And yet, most of the time, the ‘offer’ is simply to book tickets at the going rate.  The ‘promotion’ is just an advert.  Surely a website with the domain name should be only be allowed to operate if all the shows on sale (not just a select few) are at a discounted rate?  What is the ASA doing about these misleading claims?

Are we really to believe that theatre-goers are not price-sensitive?  Or do they just feel they don’t have a choice?  Endless headlines about soaring ticket prices are not necessarily a bad thing for producers – they help to prime the public to expect to pay more, and soften them up to a whole range of extra charges.  Theatre owners, producers, and agencies clearly have a complex symbiotic relationship with a long history.  We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but one thing we do know: they don’t need more bums on seats to make a profit, just bums whose owners are willing to pay more.

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