Pundits speculate that as many as 80% of tickets will be sold online by 2005. But Roger Tomlinson holds to his belief that even if the ticket sales operation changes beyond recognition, the Box Office sales team will be at the heart of customer relationship management and will grow in importance.

The arts and entertainment industries are usually ?late adopters?, slow to change unless really necessary; yet although ticketing is ?mission critical? for most arts organisations, the individual sales opportunities offered are not thought to be so. Some arts marketers say ?there is no need to go online yet; we won?t lose sales if we wait?. Whilst they can survive in the short term, I deplore the missed opportunities. The increasing number of ways to sell and market tickets must be used to build attendances. Marketing, and customer relationship management, will drive the sales opportunities.

Behind the times

The Box Office seems to have changed little in practice in the last decade, especially the physical Box Office. Still no chairs and low tables for customers to sit at - now common in travel agents - and very few reduced height counters for children and wheelchair users. Most staff do not have the required adjustable furniture and work station settings to comply with EU regulations on the use of VDUs. And some venues ticket offices still look more like old fashioned banks than user-friendly, relationship building, customer contact points. If hotels can ?disappear? the reception, then the in-venue ticket sales counter could be replaced by an open plan desk; any cash taken goes directly into a secure safe.

At Theatre 2001 last April some speakers argued that the public would not put up with poor uncomfortable facilities much longer: foyers remain cramped, many Box Office windows are still ?guichets? and crowds queue and jostle to collect pre-paid tickets. Why is there no desire to change this, as a matter of urgency? In most cinemas these days (and at the Tricycle in Kilburn), pre-paid tickets are printed out from a rank of kiosks; and some night-clubs now recognise ?m-tickets? in the window of mobile phones, their argument being that customers who have booked and paid in advance should be given a better experience.

A ticket-less future?

There are those who ask whether, fundamentally, we need tickets at all. The EasyJet ticket-less airline approach is in a sense a misnomer. Travellers on check-in are given what might as well be a ticket. The ticket has the same role on the aircraft as it does in the venue - the validation that this person should be admitted.

Pre-printed tickets could be eliminated by venues as well. Agents already supply paper vouchers; when people book in advance on the Internet they could print out the tickets for themselves at home; bookings by mobile phone can have the tickets appear in the phone window. But all these initiatives unfortunately involve the cost of extra equipment to check that these tickets are the unique valid ones. Tickets on mobile phones use transponders to confirm that this is the phone on which the tickets were booked. There are those who ask whether, fundamentally, we need the Box Office at all? Who will need to call in at the venue or phone its local staff when tickets will be accessible for purchase everywhere? Perhaps we can learn from the experience of the Smartcard?

How often have we been told that one day we will all have plastic cards with chips and proximity transmitters, and that we will gain access by swiping our card or the proximity reader recognising our presence? These will also have e-purses to enable us to be recognised and pay for car parks, merchandise and refreshments. Marketers are desperate for the benefits of this integration. In practice we have not yet seen this adopted widely in the UK despite the arrival of chips on our cards, and this could be overtaken by the convergence of technologies around mobile phones, personal digital assistants, etc.

Venues will only be able to justify the cost of implementing the use of such devices when a common platform and protocols are agreed. Bluetooth is the protocol expected to prevail for communication between devices, already being piloted in Scandinavia. There may well be virtue in late adoption.

e-marketing

For marketers this may not be helpful. If we want our venues to be seen as relevant and up-to-date, even if they are old buildings presenting traditional artforms, we need to use the current, dare I say fashionable, technologies. Fortunately, the developments for Internet Ticketing enable ready integration of ticket sales and marketing into other technologies. e-marketing is taking off, text messages are being used for marketing to people who have signed up for the service from the venue - especially good for the under 30s market - and WAP ticketing is appearing, if slowly. Arts marketers are recognising that these could be valuable tools to trigger purchases.

The UK has not seen the introduction of ticketing kiosks in the same way as other countries. This is in marked contrast to the integration of ticketing into banking in the US and Spain for example, and the extensive use of kiosks in many countries. We also appear to be reluctant to utilise kiosks in and around our venues. Both ticket collection and ticket purchase kiosks can be bought now but few venues have them. There is no doubt we enjoy the personal contact of using the real Box Office and speaking to specialist staff who understand what they are selling and our needs.

Arts marketers will also want to see the benefits to customer relationship management of the convergence of information about customer attendance and purchasing behaviour that the Box Office can bring. Systems such as PASS & Databox have offered this functionality since day one, but not enough data is captured from purchasers in many venues to make it truly effective. Ironically, Internet Ticketing does capture the key information and add it to the customer record. Marketing comes before ticketing so we need to ensure that marketers have effective tools to persuade people to buy the tickets, with as many ticket purchase opportunities as possible.

Proliferating fees

Of course, the potential for wider distribution of ticket sales through the web has brought forth problems, not least for the ethics of ticket sales. The potential for the replacement of traditional ticket sales routes by ticket agents and service companies who impose large fees and other charges to ticket purchasers is a major challenge. If you believe that tickets are price sensitive purchases for most events, then the blanket imposition of charges orientated to ?hot ticket? high volume/value shows is dangerous, and not a practice readily accepted by the public outside London.

The Stage newspaper reports the anger of producers being charged £1 each for any tickets for their shows in Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly Apollo) theatres sold through agents other than Ticketmaster. Essentially we are headed for the situation in which you would not be able to buy the ticket for its face value without someone paying somebody a fee. This is heading in the opposite direction from reducing costs for ticket purchases over networks.

Tickets.com experienced controversy over the introduction of ?convenience fees? as one way of paying for Internet Ticketing. Such charges are not imposed. The venue managers/producers/promoters must be in control and decide how they will pay for the ticket selling methods they want to offer their potential customers. The problem is that there are costs for every means of selling tickets, whether through the Box Office itself or by self service methods.

Releasing benefits

Venue managers and producers/promoters will want to see the cost of sales falling. The converging technologies may help in this process, especially as more and more systems offer integrated networked solutions. Venues have to avoid supposed ticketing solutions actually bringing them problems of extra work instead of releasing the benefits of expanding access to ticket purchase. But marketing will always come first and Box Office staff will find themselves increasingly managing customer relationships. The system developments will give them more time and better data and tools. They will be working to trigger sales through the most cost effective channels for building loyalty, and tracking everything their customers buy. Long live the Box Office.

Roger Tomlinson, now an independent consultant, was until recently Head of Business Development and Marketing for Tickets.com Ltd. He is the author of the Arts Council of England publication ?Boxing Clever?. t: 07973 397136 e: rtomlinson@tickets.com