Monday 11 August 2014

A few questions for the Barbican surrounding Hamlet ticketing policy

The much-hyped production of Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role went on general sale this morning. Sadly the process appears to be mismanaged at best, with hints of a cartel at worst.

That there are many more hopeful people than tickets is inevitable, and venues, festivals and promoters have struggled for years with the issue of how to disappoint people in the fairest way possible. The Barbican appear to have failed spectacularly.

This morning, before going on general sale, the website claimed that stalls seats were sold out for the entire run, with circle seats "nearly" sold out. This would seem to imply that large numbers had been sold to patrons, members, friends, and all the other various levels of membership for which punters pay a premium in order to enjoy benefits like early booking. This is entirely fair and absolutely standard across the industry. Presumably some tickets have also gone to sponsors and other partners. That isn't pleasant to think about, but a certain amount of back-scratching and palm-greasing (back-greasing?) needs to be done with sponsors in order to keep venues and productions viable. As long as the proportion of tickets going to sponsors isn't huge, this is also acceptable.

So far, so good, and when people logged on to find themselves in queue with upwards of 20,000 people ahead of them, they will have been disappointed but not necessarily surprised. The online booking system assigned places randomly in the queue to all those who were logged on before the booking window opened, which is completely fair. The queueing system was then torturously slow; I moved up 1300 place - a third of the way up the queue - in an hour and a half. Messy and frustrating, but nothing worse.

Then - perhaps inevitably - rumours started swirling around Twitter of alternative locations to purchase tickets. ATG (the Ambassador Theatre Group, of which the Barbican is not a member) was often cited. Sure enough, with a few seconds wait, I was offered 4 tickets for a total of £269 including a "booking fee" of £4 per ticket and a single "transaction fee" of £3 (quite what the difference between a booking and a transaction is escapes me, but I'll let it pass).

Fact time: booking via the Barbican website, tickets for Hamlet cost "£30-£62.50 plus £3 online booking fee". They also mention that "a limited number of Premium Seats are available" (their capitalisation).

Something else to mention: the Barbican advised punters on the best place to buy tickets:

The ATG tickets available were all "Band A" - and stated explicitly that this was the top price £62.50 + £4 "booking fee" per ticket. They all appeared to be stalls tickets; let's not forget that the Barbican claimed that stalls were "sold out" before tickets even went on general sale. There was no way of choosing individual seats via ATG but anecdotally people on Twitter seemed to be getting hold of some very good tickets.

But the Barbican isn't a member of the Ambassadors Theatre Group. It's owned by the City of London Corporation. So presumably the Barbican have simply sold a load of tickets for a show for which they knew there would be extremely high demand, so that ATG could sell them on at a premium.

Worse is to come.

At around 1030 the reputable theatre website - always a good source for listings, reviews and debate - tweeted that they had some tickets for sale. I followed the link and sure enough, they had tickets for sale for all nights. Once again there was no facility for punters to choose seats. The price: "from £78" on weekdays, and "from £119" at weekends (no mention was made at this stage of booking or transaction fees).

£119 is a 90% increase on the Barbican's top ticket price.

Fact time again: the Barbican have introduced special anti-touting measures for this production - the lead ticket booker needs to show photo ID.

To reiterate: £119 is a 90% increase on the Barbican's top advertised ticket price.

I tweeted WOS about this and got the following reply:

So presumably WOS are selling these "Premium Seats" with a 25% markup on...well, the Barbican don't mention prices so let's assume £95.50 (incidentally, ATG were selling "Premium Seats" for £99.50 which would make sense if their markup is £4 again).

An aside: "STAR" mentioned by WOS are the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers. They do indeed mention 25% as the maximum generally acceptable markup

To be clear, I don't have (much of) a problem with WOS or ATG; it would appear that they're playing within the rules of the system, even if a 25% markup on top of "Premium Seats" is pretty outrageous. They're businesses trying to make money. However, I do have a very big problem with the way the Barbican are dealing with this and the way they are allocating tickets for one of the most in-demand productions in recent years. To that end I have some questions for the Barbican:
  • Did all Barbican members who attempted to buy stalls tickets get them successfully? [**update - see comments below - if I was a member I would be livid]
  • Does the Barbican think it is hypocritical to introduce anti-touting measures whilst at the same time allowing tickets to be sold for 90% above the advertised top ticket price?
  • Can the Barbican, and indeed other venues such as the Old Vic who operate a system of "Premium Seats" (their capitalisation) admit that this is nothing but a ruse to inflate prices, as there is nothing "premium" or special about them - they are simply standard top price tickets to which a substantial additional sum has been added, presumably to encourage punters that those "standard" top price tickets are better value than they would otherwise appear? (This is classic behavioural economics).
  • What is the reciprocal arrangement between the Barbican and ATG [edit - see comments below]? Was the Barbican contractually obliged to sell what appears to be a substantial proportion of stalls seats to ATG, even though they could easily sell them out - probably several times over - themselves?
  • Why did the Barbican advise that the "best" place to obtain tickets was from their own website, while it actually appears that ATG was a far quicker and more reliable method? When all stalls and most circle seats have been given to agents, does that mean the Barbican site is "best"?
  • What does the Barbican stand to gain from selling off tickets to third party agents versus selling them via their own website? What is the point of going to the effort of a "fair" online ticketing system when agents can sell them however they want?
  • Does the Barbican feel that the process has been well managed overall?
** A couple of updates: it seems that ATG and are "official ticketing partners". Presumably they bought their tickets from the Barbican more cheaply than at the full retail price. Meanwhile, WOS have an article which summarises the popularity of the show whilst tactfully not plugging their own £119 tickets.

***Update 2: after a 3-and-a-half hour wait in the queue I did get tickets, and for a Saturday to boot. The stalls and circle are indeed sold out being sold via agents only, but there is still decent availability at time of writing (1330 on Monday 11th) - it's a big venue with a long run! The queueing system provided by works fine, even if the wait is extremely long.

***Update 3: some very interesting comments below.