Exposing the Seamy Underbelly of the World of Scalpers

I have a lawyer friend who works in a big L.A. firm that gets tickets to everything…

…GREAT tickets – really good seats. If there’s prestige attached to having the seats or if there’s an opportunity to make a client happy with premium access to a game, concert or cultural event, no problem, done deal, you’ll have them this afternoon.

I asked my friend how his firm gets the tickets and he said, “We have a guy who knows a guy.” So I asked my friend to ask his guy if he ever works directly with the venues or event producers. And sure enough the next day my friend called and said, “I stopped into Bill’s office today to ask if he ever goes directly to the venues or producers and here’s what he said:

“‘Go to the venues? Yeah, right. Those people don’t know me, they don’t know why I buy tickets and they don’t care about my business. Hell, they can’t even get me what I need. Frank at Tickets Direct takes care of me. He’s on my side. He knows what I want, he sends the tickets here by courier and he and his wife take me and my wife out to shows every now and then. Why would I call a box office that treats me like some schmo off the street when I can work with a pro who treats me like gold? Do you have any idea how much money this firm spends on tickets every year?'”

Michael Rushton has an interesting post over at Artsjournal.com this week where he suggests that arts and entertainment providers might be able to win back some of the business they’re losing to “scalpers” by rescaling their prices to more accurately reflect market demand. The theory suggests that my friend’s colleague Bill might be more inclined to buy direct if the venue offered him good seats at the price he was accustomed to paying. I suspect, however, that Bill’s comment reveals a different reality – one that looks something like this:

“Those people don’t know me…” There’s a point in just about every arts marketing brainstorming session where somebody says, “Hey, why don’t we reach out to the law firms,” whereupon some enthusiastic young person is dispatched to get a list and start making calls. Soon, however, this person learns that “the ticket guy” in every law firm is a different person, and even if you can figure out who that person is, getting to him means running a daunting gauntlet. In most cases, this is where the process stops.

“…they don’t know why I buy tickets…” Nonprofit arts organizations function on a business-to-consumer (B-to-C) model that’s built on the assumption that everyone who buys a ticket wants to see the show. In a business-to-business (B-to-B) context, however, the motives for accessing ticket inventory vary greatly and understanding why a particular business buys tickets and how they use them is utterly essential to meeting their needs.

“…they don’t care about my business…” Nonprofit arts organizations care about: 1. Donors, 2. Subscriber/member donors, 3. Subscribers/members, 4. Individual consumers who attend frequently (and give), 5. Individual consumers who attend infrequently, and 6. Group buyers (well, sort of). Major buyers in the B-to-B category rarely make the list.

“…they can’t even get me what I need…” Servicing B-to-B buyers means managing high-quality, high-risk, last-minute inventory, which usually conflicts with accepted “first-come, first served” B-to-C box office practices. The development department can pull rank for a major donor, but major buyers have to get in line with the rest of the world.

“Frank takes care of me.” Frank takes care of his clients according to their relative importance to his business. Most nonprofits couldn’t tell you who their top ten B-to-B accounts are, let alone describe how they take care of them.

“He’s on my side.” Good ticket brokers work on the audience’s behalf to get tickets from the venues and producers. They’re the audience-centric counterpart to arts & entertainment providers that tend to be too self-absorbed to see themselves and their service mechanisms from a volume buyer’s perspective.

“…he sends the tickets here by courier…” Good ticket service providers know that major buyers deserve priority services.

“…he and his wife take me an my wife out to shows…” Frank can often use his company’s tickets to entertain clients, whom he treats as social equals. Arts marketers don’t generally socialize with major buyers from the business community.

“…Why would I call a box office that treats me like some schmo off the street…” In the business world, major buyers grow accustomed to working with vendors who appreciate their business and who offer a level of deferential service that’s reflective of their value. In the arts world, such services are rarely available to major buyers.

“…when I can work with a pro…” Frank works for a legitimate ticket agency. He’s a talented sales professional who makes good money so he can provide a nice home for his family and send his kids to good schools. Bill likes doing business with Frank because he is a fellow professional.

“Do you have any idea how much money this firm spends on tickets every year?” The impulse to reach out to law firms makes sense. They spend a lot of money on tickets and could conceivably become major buyers. But the arts aren’t structured to cultivate and serve B-to-B clientele. It’s just not part of our culture. We make a point of not being business people and we don’t do business-to-business sales.

And what about pricing? Can arts & entertainment providers push resellers out of the way by opening up premium inventory at broker prices? The answer is yes and no. Some consumers will gladly pay top dollar for great seats as long as price is the only discriminating factor. But expecting to capture resellers’ clients without offering the same level of sales and service is naive and counterproductive. Raising prices may shut out the B-to-B resellers, but it stands to also shut out their clients, many of whom care more about access and service than they do about what the tickets costs.


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