Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Royal Opera House

Having endured yet another day of absolute hell on sticks trying to book ballet tickets via the Royal Opera House website, I am left reeling by their inability to fix long-standing problems.

The problems with system overload when the Friends try to book online, all at the same time, have been around for as long as I have been a member. Even when it was first introduced, as a way of alleviating the burden on the box office staff who processed postal ballot papers, and to give us members some control over the process and cut out the dreaded wait for the post, there have been problems.

Today's issues contributed to the worst ever booking experience, and an email to the Friends office elicited only an apology. That's better than nothing but with no mention of a solution in the pipeline, you wonder whether things will ever get better, and boy have we Friends been patient. Yes, we have been vocal in our admonition of the process, because the Company are so keen to promote themselves as a world class organisation, and this debacle every booking period shows that they are plainly not.

The unannounced introduction of the "waiting room" last year had angered many. As the website cannot cope with, I think it is more than 200, people at any one time, one is forced into an interminable wait. The number ticks round but I have never found it to be a true representation of my place in the queue and as often as not I will be nearly at the front, only to be thrown back to 1039 or something.

Another irritation is that fact that even though booking opens at 8am, the box office staff have to load each date into the system so that in fact, even if you are lucky enough to skip the waiting room and be one of the lucky few first in, you will still have to refresh the pages and wait around 10 minutes depending on how far down the list your favoured production is. I think they need to find a way so that everything is available at 8am as they state - so that the pour souls left worrying in the waiting room can get in faster.

One of the worst facets of all of this is the lack of transparency from the ROH. We are never told the extent of the problems, and never given any indication that they know what needs to be done to fix it. Even testing the system doesn't provide them with fool-proof workings.

In my own experience at 8am this morning, I was one of the lucky few straight in, but getting from one page to another I was timed out and had to start again. I don't understand how I missed the waiting room every time but I did. Even so, when I found the right page, there were almost no tickets left in the area that I wanted - and that was the top priced areas which are usually more freely available. Eventually I found a few I was happy-ish to pay for, but going through the checkout was a disaster. It took forever, but the payment was authorised by my bank. The ROH never got any notification of it and refused to accept it had been authorised. I called the Friends office and was told that they had experienced problems with MasterCard's the day before, so why on earth had they not emailed all the members they could to warn them ? The evening before booking I received an email reminding me of the date and time for booking, so it surely must have been possible. As it is, I am left with tickets reserved somewhere because they were in my basket, but because of the inability of the Company to retrieve authorised transactions, we have to wait for it to fall off my account and then they take the money again. I know there are plenty of people who end up paying three, four or even five times for the same tickets, and I suppose this gets sorted out later, but I simply refused to be party to this way of working when my credit card company assure me that the transaction is good.

I dare say the box office staff are swamped on days like this, and to their credit they are always helpful even when under the most intense pressure.

But is is just not on for a supposedly world class organisation to put it's members and staff through such stressful times during every single booking period and consistently fail to fix the problems which occur every time. I wouldn't mind betting that their solution this time is to limit even further the number of people who can access the site, when really an injection of capital and resource is needed to increase capacity. Maybe the money just isn't there - but then transparency is called for and we should be told that they are just unable to improve sufficiently. Sure, more members will cancel their direct debits but that's happening anyway because in all honesty no-one has the time or wants to be stressed out at 8am every time booking comes around.

I'm also very concerned about the lack of tickets available when I book. I used to find that my membership level was sufficient to be able to buy the top priced seats which I favour, but no longer. As each new booking period comes along I find that it's harder and harder to find available seats, and at the top price why shouldn't you be picky about exactly where they are ? I would like to know where all these seats have gone. I know some members say that they find a better allocation when public booking comes around. Again, transparency is called for when it comes to the allocation of the tickets for each membership level but I have never found the ROH agreeable to this. I dare say if a VIP needs a seat on any given night, they are not turned away, which means that there must always be spare seats held back. But this is just my assumption because the ROH never say how it works.

All in all, not impressed.