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 ?

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