A Future Without A Ticket Office Window

When I read a post on Marginal Revolution blog about high end stores hiding cash registers in favor of roving sales associates with mobile checkout devices, I immediately wondered if there might be some type of benefit in eliminating or diminishing the physical box office for the arts attendance experience.

As such this is largely an intellectual exercise. I don’t pretend to have thought through all the benefits and repercussions.

Tyler Cowen makes the following observations about the Wall Street Journal article that described this retailing practice. There seemed to be an idea that not having to stand in line was one element that gave online retailers a competitive advantage.

1. Waiting in line is described as “unenlightened.”

2. I enjoyed this remark: “We’re downplaying that last transactional part of the experience…” And this: “”Researchers have identified a concept known as “the pain of paying,” said Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at Insead, a business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “Doing away with the queue and even with the register makes the upcoming pain of paying less salient,” he said.”

3. When customers are not waiting in line but rather having their purchases processed “privately,” salespeople are encouraged to socialize with them and get to know them better. And: “Stores say sales associates are expected to sense when a shopper is ready to pay.”

Positioning staff to socialize with customers and get to know them better is definitely a plus for arts organizations.

I did see a couple factors that would make it difficult to replicate the experience of a retailer.

First, unlike retailers, people are looking to make a purchase the moment they walk through the door at an arts event. On the other hand, the fact that many may have already purchased tickets in advance means that when service reps aren’t busy they can engage patrons in conversation in a manner they couldn’t behind a ticketing desk.

Second, the physical design and experience of performance spaces means a person is likely to have to stand online at some point- getting in/out of the theater, buying food at concessions, getting out of the parking lot.

In terms of benefits for performing arts environments, one of the first applications I thought of was for admission to outdoor music festivals. Since people people often queue up early, roving sales people can allow the people who showed up at 3 am stay at the very head of the line without needing to pass through the box office position.

Multiple delays can be avoided if people are able to purchase tickets while waiting to pass through a security checkpoint, rather than waiting on the ticket line and then the security line, etc.

The other thing I envisioned for arts facilities was having large monitors mounted off to the side and overhead similar to how airports have the flight status boards. That way people can gather around them and view up to the second seating status and discuss where they would like to sit. If they have questions or have made their decision, they can gesture to a sales person hovering at the fringes. (Ideally, the sales person will have read their body language and approached them already.)

When the sales experience is designed in this way, those who know what they want aren’t held up in line behind people who are debating the relative benefits of different seating arrangements. This can also help further physically separate the will-call line from the purchasing line.

It would probably be best for cash sales to occur at a physical box office since staff pocketing thousands of dollars while wandering the lobby is both awkward and a huge security risk. There might be some issues if the wifi signal carrying credit card authorizations wasn’t secure, but on the whole a larger number of cash less transactions and mobility of technology can eliminate the annoyance of yelling through plate glass to buy tickets.

By Abesty (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Abesty (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Now, of course, this requires a certain level of technology. In order to sell tickets in this manner, a sales person would have to have access to a small printer they could carry around that printed a sales receipt and slips of paper the purchaser could use for admission. Or a small kiosk/pedestal nearby that they could retrieve the receipt and tickets from.

You wouldn’t necessarily need large monitors mounted in the lobby if the roving ticketing staff could check ticketing status on a tablet computer and point out available seats on it or a printed seating chart.

It also assumes the lobby is large enough to accommodate these sort of activities. On the other hand increased mobility could allow for sales in parts of a small or strangely shaped lobby that a full box office and associated line wouldn’t be able to fit. That in turn might open up the flow of people through the lobby and make the experience more welcoming. (Especially if congestion in the lobby previously force people to stand out in the weather.)

Any insights, inspiration or concerns about this idea?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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10 thoughts on “A Future Without A Ticket Office Window”

  1. I think you’re solving the wrong problem, at least from my experience. I’ve not been to an event in the past few years where the ticket line posed any significant delay—certainly far less delay than finding a roving ticket person! Who goes to a popular art event without having already bought a ticket? (A few, hoping for grabbing a seat from a no-show, but not most of the audience.)

    The only places I see ticket queues are at movie theaters, either because movie-goers are impulse purchasers or because the Fandango site is terrible (I don’t use it, so I wouldn’t know).

    The only queue I’ve waited more than 2 minutes in was for a theater broadcast shown in a movie theater. They had only 2 staff on hand: one at the ticket booth and one taking tickets (they hadn’t even opened the popcorn booth, which is the usual money-maker in movie theaters). I believe that the ticket seller became the projectionist. Increasing staff to do roving ticket takers is definitely a non-starter in that case.

    Huge events with large walk-up attendees (County Fair, Maker Faire, … ) may benefit from sales along the line to get in, both those events usually have multiple ticket windows that are easily found and where the queuing process is reasonably fair. Roving ticket sellers would result in substantial resentment (why did that person get served before me?) and immense opportunities for fraud.

    The idea in high-end stores is that you are charging a lot extra for luxury service, which means that a high retail labor cost is built into what you are selling (the products are not much better than the low-end stores—it is exclusivity and personal service that is being sold). Unless your events are very snooty, the labor costs of personal ticket sales isn’t going to impress your audience, who would rather the money were spent on paying the performers. If you are looking to increase personal service, valet parking would probably be valued more than personal ticket sales.

    • Are you talking about their online standby system? I couldn’t check out their reservation system because all their tickets are sold out through the end of May and they aren’t accepting reservations past that.

      • The on-site experience. They borrowed the Apple model and do not have a front desk. Staff walk around with iPhones and small printers clipped to their belts or on a shoulder strap.

        • Ah that is cool. Someone has already started to implement the idea in the arts world. I had considered a fine arts setting and had forgotten about the type of volume special exhibits attract.

          It also just occurred to me that if The Metropolitan Museum of Art is going to further commit to underscoring their suggested admission policy, roving staff who explain the policy and accept donations may fit into this philosophy.

          My suspicion is that being New Yorkers, they are bristling a bit about the recent settlement of the class action suit and they probably aren’t going to take too many more steps to call attention to the fact you can pay whatever you want.

  2. I would suggest that the big difference between a retail store and a performance is the time deadline. Going to a store, you have as much time as you have to shop and decide. Going to a performance, the show begins at a set time and therefore, everyone wants to purchase at the same time, if they are walk-ins. Lines and waiting are part of experience, easily solved with online advanced purchase, which I’m assuming if the organization is advanced enough to consider an individual sales force, they have online tickets available already.

    • I would agree – I think there are certain environments in which this type of model would work well, specifically large seated venues with reserved seating, and different price levels for seating areas. In a box office that has daytime hours, especially venues/art forms that cater to a more traditional theatre-going crowd, this kind of personal interaction, providing service for someone who has options, and time to consider them, is great. But when you’re up against a deadline, inevitably the best way to provide efficient customer service is in a very structured environment where patrons aren’t really given the opportunity to ‘waste time’ by walking around or having a conversation. I’m thinking of my experience working the Edinburgh International Festival – serving a mostly older crowd who still liked to purchase in-person – versus at a live music venue where the goal was to process the door sales queue as quickly as humanly possible!

  3. When I was working at the National Theatre in London a couple of years ago they were exploring this model. At first it consisted of FOH staff roaming the lobby in front of the box office desk directing people who had prepaid to collection kiosks. It soon evolved into FOH carrying ipads which pulled up reports on seat availability and VIPs. I know the plan was to move fully to roaming staff with the ability to book tickets with credit cards and print at a nearby shared printer. The ticket desk would still exist so that customers always had a focus and the FOH staff could either intercept customers on their way there or pick out people from the queue.

    • The comments on this post are really great. I am glad to see some groups are already moving in this direction. One of the scenarios I envisioned as I was writing was the large number of movie theaters that have been renovated into performance spaces. A lot of them have strangely shaped lobbies that may not accommodate a box office in a convenient position (for example, in a place out of the rain) so roving sales people or operating off a small pedestal desk would be a good option.


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