Thursday, 26 March 2009

Petite Anglaise blog


Must just tell you about a great blog that I've been following, just in case you might like it too. Click the message title to go to the blog.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Period 4 - take 2

Have received an update via email from the online booking department which says :

"We are currently experiencing a cache issue on the production pages for BP4 – therefore booking is not currently possible from these pages but is fine via the calendar."


That doesn't sound like it's my computer then, does it ?

And why did they only realise this after I'd alerted them ?

So I asked for clarification that my computer was in the clear and that the problems were at their end, and all I got back was a sheepish "I’m afraid so."

I don't think the ROH do apologies, which you could almost overlook if only they would get the booking system right. I'm not sure how much more of this Friends should be expected to take. Will it take a mass cancellation of memberships before they really put in the resources needed to tackle the whole mess over the summer period before the wagon starts rolling again next season ?

I remember Tony Hall, the CEO, talking on the BBC's Any Questions programme a short while ago. He said how lucky he was that he could wander backstage any time he felt like it to watch performances by the best singers in the world (I don't ever get the impression that he is much into ballet).

Lucky Indeed.

The Any Questions website has a listen again facility for a short while.

I was struck by the unfairness of the situation the Friends face. All we are trying to do is pay to watch those same performances that Tony enjoys whenever he likes, free gratis.

I've said before that I don't think it makes economic sense for the Director of the Royal Ballet and her Assistant to sit (for free) in the Grand Tier for every performance when the Director's box is often empty and anyway, there for exactly that purpose. No-one would suggest that they should not be watching those performances; of course that's the only way to experience what the audience experiences. But the Grand Tier has only 139 seats - 137 if you take away the two which are never on sale and reserved for the Director and her Assistant.

It's one of the most popular seating areas and one of the smallest - comparable only to the number of box seats in the house. The orchestra stalls have 528, the stalls circle 287 and there are 108 box seats (presumably not including the Royal Box nor the Director's box but spread over the Grand Tier and the balcony). I would guess that the balcony (171) and the amphitheatre (700) are too far away from the stage. For reference, the remaining 324 seats are in the Lower and Upper Slips and standing places in the stalls circle, balcony, lower slips and the amphitheatre.

My final thought on this debacle is that we, the Patrons, pay for everything that goes on in the House; everything. We enable Tony Hall to watch rehearsals and performances for free. I wonder whether he has forgotten that and will only be reminded of our existence when there is not enough money to put on World Class performances ? I feel that the treatment of Friends in particular lets down the whole organisation. Certainly, the performances are world class, but the booking process is not. And it should be if it is to maintain good box office receipts.

The Royal Opera House website is currently running a reduced service and still not working properly.

The Royal Opera House - Period 4 Friends booking

What a fiasco.

It's actually right up there at the top of an immensely tall stack of fiasco's by the Royal Opera House.

I'm logged in at 10am, ready to purchase tickets - today is the first day for some Friends to book.

I keep refreshing the pages but by 10.15 I'm thinking that some new gremlin must have been generated by the changes made since last booking, because there are no tickets to buy.

Further refreshes of the page show that one production is on sale, but the others remain mulish.

I fire off an email to the online box office asking what is going on.

In the meantime I call the box office to try to book tickets over the phone. Eventually I get through and the operator doesn't really know which tickets are on sale and then leaves me on hold for a while. When she comes back she tries to tell me that I can only buy 2 tickets, and so I have to explain that as a member I can actually buy 4 if I want to - and she asks me to point out the small print which was sent to me by the box office, showing the same. Crazy.

But more to the point, it's time wasting. All the while, other customers are booking by phone or online (if they can), and some will have sent in postal forms which the box ofice will be working on at the same time to ensure fairness.

It's now 10.30 and I've persuaded the box office assistant that I am entitled to these tickets and so now she attempts to find me some. Only a few of my preferred seats are available and I have to buy in two pairs. And we are spending £85 here on each ticket !

I receive a reply from the online box office team telling me to check my browser settings and delete temporary files etc. Typical to suggest that it's my fault and slightly beggars belief given all the problems they've had.

I go back into the site, via the grey waiting room, position 136, and log in again. Sure enough, it's the same, except that if I use the calendar then I can buy any of the productions.

So, the problem is not with my browser, but with the way they have loaded the information onto the system. Only one production could be booked via the "Book Now" link, but if you go to the calendar via the "What's On" link, they are all there.

Furious to have wasted half an hour when they've tinkered with the system yet again and it's been found wanting.

The box ofice told me that I was the only person to have this problem - so if others have found the same, or other issues, please do let me know.

Thank goodness that's it for the rest of this season.

Next month we will know what the 09/10 season has in store - and I'm not holding my breath for anything exciting. Perhaps that will make booking a whole lot easier !

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Friends of Covent Garden e-news

Hi Everyone,

I'd be really interested to hear from any Friends (who have notified the ROH of their email address) and who did not receive yesterday's e-newsletter.

The ROH have recently changed the template of the newsletter and because they don't publish the dates when they send e-news, so if you didn't get it yesterday, you might not realise you'd missed it.

It also seems as though only a tiny number of Friends took part in the system testing last week, and although this could have been for a myriad of reasons, I do wonder whether the Golden Tickets notification email got through to everyone.

It would be useful to get a sense of how many Friends are missing the e-news now that we know it was sent yesterday.

Please let me know.

Thank you !

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

"Golden Tickets" results

Well, news just in....

As I suspected, only a fraction of the Friends who actually book online tested the system last week, with apparently 600 waiting in the horrid grey waiting room. I don't think I've ever logged in on a booking day and found myself closer than 1000th in the queue, so perhaps testing at 3pm on a workday afternoon hasn't replicated the chaos of an actual booking day.

The waiting room has been moved to a new server, which they say worked well becuase people moved smoothly onto the main website. If that works on booking day, that will be a huge improvement because mostly you get timed out and thrown out of the site just before you get to a decent number in the queue and have to start again.

It's difficult to get across to readers how important it is to be first on the website on a booking day - because it is a race against the clock to find the tickets you want and pay for them before someone else does. Tickets for masterclasses and some Insight events go so fast, and you are also doing battle with the box office staff who are processing postal applications which means that as you sit in the waiting room for perhaps an hour or more, you can literally see your chances of getting the seats you want vanishing before your eyes.

For a supposed "World Class organisation", as they call themselves, there should be no waiting room.

And, goodness, even more news - they've managed to increase the number of concurrent users to - wait for it - 250. They call this "a significant increase on what was possible for booking period 3".

Well, let me tell you, I was told that 200 concurrent users was the norm until this momentus shift. 50 more concurrent users ? C'mon, hardly "a significant increase" and a drop in the ocean when you think about the proportion of the 56,000 or so Friends who might be trying to book as a rule.

Apparently over 500 Friends gave feedback which they describe as a "valuable insight into the way that many [Friends] use the website".

I'm not sure of the value of this testing at such a low volume, but next Tuesday is d-day for booking period 4 so we'll see what happens.

I don't even get the newsletter any more; since they made some template changes it just doesn't reach me any longer and the online office have to send me a link. I have told the Friends office but they have done nothing beyond suggesting that it must be my computer which is at fault. How then do they explain my receipt of the "Golden tickets" emails last week, also from the Friends office ?

Starting to gird my loins for the bun fight next week.....

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Golden Tickets

Today I was invited by the Royal Opera House to take part in a test of their online booking system.

The way the system has worked in previous years has caused untold stress to so many people trying to book tickets, for a changing variety of reasons. You are always kept on your toes because with each booking period a new set of errors will make themselves known to you as the pages hang and sometimes come back, sometimes not.

Maybe you will get past the awful grey "waiting room" and straight into the site, maybe you will even be logged in for long enough to acquire some tickets, but beware, all of a sudden your basket is empty and you are left staring disbelievingly at the screen, knowing that you will have to start again and that will certainly mean an interminable wait back in the grey area.

I wonder, what other "World Class organisation" has a waiting room ? Would New York, Paris or Milan put up with such a thing ?

Members of the Royal Opera House below the level of Trust have been putting up with this erratic performance for a long time. You could say, putting their trust in the fact that someone will fix the problems in the hope that it'll be better next time.

The Trust members are ring-fenced and have their own box office and are not expected to endure the same hazards. Of course, they do pay a lot for the privilege - you need to be paying over £800 a year for any kind of real booking advantage, and the Trust members pay a minimum of £4,600 per year.

Apologies from the Friends office are often profuse, and promises made about improvements, but it seems with this new idea that we, the people using the system, are being asked to test it. It's a step in the right direction.

So it was with some trepidation that I clicked on the link inviting me to partake of the golden tickets trail. At first I went straight in but there was nothing on the screen to help me get any further. Launching the link again gave me the grey waiting room. I went from 268 in the queue down to 20 in about 8 minutes. I'd normally expect to be about 1168 in the queue for a good hour or more so I wonder how many people are testing the system at the appointed hour as 3pm on a workday afternoon could be imposible for many and notice was only issued yesterday afternoon.

After the wait, I found the first golden ticket question and was off around the site with the clues. Even if you knew the answer without checking, you were encouraged to follow the clues becuase I suppose that is what they think members do when booking. Personally, knowing how temperamental the system is when over-loaded, I know exactly what dates I want to book and don't need to travel around the site; indeed I would positively avoid having to do so, but perhaps I am in the minority.

By 15:21 I have my confirmation email from esales with my phantom golden tickets secured.

This in no way replicates my usual booking experience, so I await with interest the results of the live testing, plus the results of the draw for actual tickets as reward for taking part.

My over-riding concern is that with so many new levels of patronage, (I think 14 at the last count), if you are towards the lower rungs then your chances of getting your preferred tickets appear to be substantially reduced. Indeed, my own experience has been that my preferred seats have been snapped up before I've even had the chance to book. This could be for a variety of reasons, not just that other patrons have secured them ahead of me.

The Royal Opera House keep their ticket allocation & distribution a closely guarded secret, and it is a very complicated picture. There are 39 seating areas in the auditorium, all at varying prices aligned with their proximity to the stage. Roughly there are around 2200 seats in total. Some seating areas, especially the more popular ones, only have a small number of seats, for example the Grand Tier. For every performance by the Royal Ballet you will find two seats in the Grand Tier reserved for the Director and her assistant, as well as, from time to time, persons deemed important or relevant to that performance. Given that there is a Director's box, sometimes empty, this is puzzling.

During each booking period, of which there are currently 4 per year, tickets are divided between membership levels and then between ways of booking e.g online booking, booking in person, telephone booking and postal booking. There is also the provision for patrons who want to book for several performances using the advance booking offers, (which reduce the overall cost of buying a set number of tickets and afford priority booking). Finally, it is a condition of their Arts Council funding that a certain number of seats in all areas are available for public booking and 67 days seats are available for every performance.

Whether or not this allocation changes for each booking period, to keep everything fair to all members, is not known.

What has been my experience, is that since the introduction of many new layers of patronage last year, the seats that I would normally be able to buy unhindered are simply no longer available. Of course, that may be because they have gone to higher members or it may be that they have not been sold and are held for the public.

Indeed, testing the system over the last few booking periods I have found that waiting for public booking provides the seats I prefer - so what is the point in paying for membership ? This is a question over which many, finding themselves in a similar position, have been pondering in recent times, and many members have simply not renewed as a result.

Sometimes, with the picture so oblique, it may be that the tickets you want are only available if you call in, in which case how are you supposed to know that ahead of booking and decide to try online because it suits you better ?

A recent article in Dancing Times has criticised the Friends of Covent Garden as being the worst example of it's kind. There are apparently a large number of Friends - around 56,000, dotted all around the country. It can't be easy keeping such a large number of patrons happy but finding that the ticket allocation is better during public booking isn't the way forward.

I'm interested to know whether there are other's out there interested in classical ballet and blogging about it. Also do others have experiences of booking at the Royal Opera House ?