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Roger Tomlinson takes a snapshot of the wide range of options available these days to arts organisations that sell tickets

Photo showing Spektrix is pleasing both customers and staff at the Belgrade Theatre  © PHOTO George Archer

It’s rare that all the key suppliers of ticketing and related web technologies get together with their customers ‘under the same roof’ – and usually only in some far-flung European convention centre. Today, ArtsProfessional is the venue, and you, the visiting reader, get a chance to see what new ticketing and web tools are available to help you weather the choppy economic waters of the years ahead...


The first system offering joined-up ticketing, marketing, and what we now call Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was launched in the UK in 1988, and supposedly led to the widespread adoption of direct marketing. However, more than 20 years later, many venues are still transaction-focused: most direct marketing is neither tailored to the individual nor personalised, and is usually sent out to too many people, whether by email or otherwise. Now in 2011, the next generation of systems is arriving, encompassing social media networks and bringing inter-operability to connect to other channels. Loyalty schemes, reward points, packages and promotions can use customer recognition and link with partner restaurants, hotel chains and High Street shops. But this could all be unnecessary – unless venues appreciate the power of the data in their systems and start to make intelligent use of it.

Return on involvement

Purple Seven has a huge data warehouse from Vital Statistics, pulled from ticketing systems across the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Stuart Nicolle has shown with his Balanced Database programme that it is now imperative we actually understand customer behaviour from the data we have and respond accordingly. His results, for venues such as Richmond Theatre in west London and Colston Hall in Bristol, show there are clear opportunities to reduce costs and increase the return on investment from campaigns – indeed, to achieve the ‘return on involvement’ we want from engaged attenders.

Next generation

Ticketing system suppliers are now able to offer solutions at all sizes and scales of venue, putting powerful tools into the hands of everyone. The challenge escalates as the wave of next generation systems breaks over the established order at the start of 2012. Tickets.com at last delivers ProVenueX, well worth it after a very long wait. Calling it ‘ticketing’ is outdated phraseology, since it delivers a customer-centric, CRM-focused, sales channel management system, with impressive functionality around ticketing and marketing, taking it to the next stage of engagement, recording ‘opportunities’ for CRM or fundraising purposes, and enabling a task-based approach to relating to people and prospecting.

Serious competition comes from SRO Version 4 from TopTix in Israel, better known in the UK as Blackbaud’s The Patron Edge. Version 4 brings true ‘service-orientated’ architecture, with an open Application Programme Interface (API) for all parts of the system, a developers’ toolkit as standard and tools enabling third party integrations. These systems are ‘hubs’: fundamentally expanding the business opportunities in ‘self-service’ and partner sales environments, with rich content on venues and events. Blackbaud will be rolling out Version 4 with an early adopter programme in the New Year. As is increasingly common, it is a browser-based system, easy to install anywhere, to access anywhere, from an Internet connection.

Parachuting in as a ‘boutique supplier’, Tickethour from Greece arrives to match these state-of-the-art offerings with a bespoke service, supplemented with ScotComms card solutions and Fujitsu’s cloud services. Again, it is the ability to enhance customer relations and to extend what it does for the purchasing customer that makes the real difference, with rewards schemes and loyalty points linked to High Street outlets. This comes on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Stalwart Tessitura, the not-for-profit provider, delivers an enabling platform for some of the world’s top arts organisations, and brings Version 11 this month. Built from a road map developed by their network members, they are already offering multiple mobile ticketing solutions and social media integration strategies, with the new version focusing around enhanced relationship management and communications, and an Executive Dashboard to deliver those scientific analyses. Enterprisingly, you can now join Tessitura through its consortium models, with, for example, the Wales Millennium Centre servicing a number of other users in Wales.

London-based ENTA, stabilised under its new owners, also has a comprehensive road map discussed with users, for a new version next year. The good news is that major users such as Chichester Festival Theatre, the Royal Academy of Arts and NIMAX Theatres have renewed and upgraded. This is a classic demonstration of how really understanding a system’s capabilities and what it can deliver makes a huge difference.

AudienceView from Canada had in a sense already delivered its next generation system, and its latest fully featured version has started to arrive in both HQ Theatres and the Ambassador Theatre Group’s 39-theatre chain, adding extensive customer relationship functionality. Going live in the Lowry in Salford, it will also be in the Brighton Dome in 2012, driving >> a customer-focused solution with management of extensive member benefits. Centred on its internal Content Management System it brings new opportunities for web interfaces. That is leading to some re-thinking about exactly how ticketing systems should relate to purchasers.

Ben Curthoys, with developer experience at Artifax and ENTA, believes it is necessary to address the front-end of ticketing systems and just how they operate for both Internet purchasers and box office staff, so you can make them truly user-friendly with the right process flow. His new MONAD system, live for Windsor Council, brings refreshing thinking to what we expect from customer-facing tools, with an exceptionally friendly interface and easy to use system which delivers strong functionality. The first venues to sign up can expect to achieve a very good deal.

Value for money race

Some systems have, of course, already delivered a degree of inter-operability and connectivity. PatronBase is winning the value-for-money race, while bringing interfaces with Artifax Event, and delivering increasingly sophisticated tools for membership and loyalty schemes (now live in Chapter Cardiff with their CL1C Card scheme) and social media, and integrated web solutions (working with Tincan at Aberystwyth Arts Centre). That value for money race has made more than one Chief Executive question, when reviewing tenders, just how much some ticketing systems are now quoting, since changes to payment mechanisms are hugely increasing costs. While ‘pay-as-you-go’ commission-based solutions might seem low cost up-front, and if wedded to ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) ‘Cloud’ solutions can bring operational benefits, in just three or more years they could add hundreds of thousands to the cost. “I can buy a lot of marketing for that” said one manager.

Relative newcomer Spektrix is clearly vying with the major large scale suppliers in terms of cost, its rapidly expanding feature set matching the pace of sign-ups to new users, with the Mercury Theatre Colchester joining recent go-lives such as Northern Stage and Southampton’s Turner Sims Concert Hall. Their Cloud-based SaaS solution charges an all-inclusive annual commission, though it remains to be seen how far they would go in achieving inter-operability with other channels and outlets within that charge. For many, this is clearly an attractive solution, with apparent ease of front-end use definitely a factor.

Competitor IRIS, known by many from the ticketingsolutions software, offers a wide range of charging options to try and meet the changing circumstances of different venues, in the tough competition on costs. Similarly, they are adding to their functionality and ease of use to meet the changing, growing needs of venues.

Having rescued the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Red61 has gone on with its robust VIA system to offer many festivals and venues an ‘on-demand’ ticketing solution able to service numerous outlets, with online, in-house or mobile solutions, coping with frankly astonishing volumes of events and tickets.

Cost of sales

Of course, there are more suppliers than those referred to above. At the other end of the financial spectrum, Savoy System’s Oscar continues to offer a low-cost solution with extending functionality, especially to help membership-based organisations and cinemas, with a new ‘look and feel’. Oscar satisfies the likes of Southwark Playhouse, many Little Theatre Guild theatres and keeps users happy with their feature set and helpful service; it has been signed to be installed in the new Park Theatre at Finsbury Park opening in 2012. This confirms that in practice there are a wide range of options for obtaining ticketing solutions and a very wide range of costs.

Some venue managers are still seeking to remove the cost of sales from their financial equation and one route open to arts organisations is to out-source as much as possible to service providers – though these do tend to be wedded to per ticket or transaction fees passed to the ticket purchaser. Eventim, from Germany, now with an established presence in the UK, See Tickets, now owned by Vivendi, with the See360 ticketing system, and Ticketmaster, now owned by Live Nation, can be seen as transaction-focused solutions, about shifting inventory.

Alternatively, regional providers such as The Ticket Factory at the NEC, and rapidly expanding Quay Tickets, based at The Lowry in Salford, provide full service solutions, based on using AudienceView, with individually ‘skinned’ websites and delivering more of the personalised CRM that ticket purchasers increasingly expect. Rather different, aimed at local promoters, is Brown Paper Tickets, based in Edinburgh, whose Open Ticket Network aims to widen distribution to informal outlets as well as delivering on-line sales.

The obvious point to make, of course, is that if you apply the science to working out the costs fully, then there are multiple options and in-house solutions with considerable CRM advantages where venues can keep the per ticket or transaction fees in their income and still save on costs, even after paying staff to provide the customer-facing service. With many venues achieving high percentages of Internet ticketing, quality customer care for those who want it adds a premium to sales income. The sums add up beneficially.

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Photo of Roger Tomlinson