Booking tickets for a show is key to the audience experience, but the importance of an efficient operation can be overlooked. Box office staff from around the UK tell Nick Smurthwaite how they make sure sales run smoothly
For many theatregoers, buying the tickets is the start of the theatregoing experience. Whether online, over the phone or in person, that initial transaction kick-starts the anticipation ahead of what will hopefully be an exciting and enjoyable evening.
Richard Howle, director of ticketing for the NEC Group, wrote in The Stage last month that no other retail sector is as complicated or technically challenging to get right as ticketing for shows. “There is no safety net, no option of returning a faulty product – we have to get it right first time, every time,” he wrote.
Online booking has revolutionised buying tickets for the theatre, and most of the larger venues have their own centralised ticketing operation. When it works, online booking is quick, easy and efficient. Once booked online, all punters have to do is present their credit card at the box office and the ticket is waiting.
The public is largely unaware of the effort and organisation that goes into keeping that ticketing machine firing on all cylinders. Box office and ticketing staff are routinely taken for granted in theatre’s ecosystem, but they provide a vital service. We talk to five people working in ticketing around the country about what is needed to succeed in the role and how it’s never just about selling tickets.
I started out at Watford Palace Theatre, my local theatre, at 16 as a front-of-house casual. I studied drama at the University of Northampton, and thought about acting, but I wasn’t sure I could handle the pressure and the insecurity.
I came to the Park three months ago from Watford Palace, where I’d been sales and events manager since 2016. It was really daunting to move on because I’d been involved at
Watford for so long.
My first day at the Park coincided with the opening night of Whodunnit (Unrehearsed), one of its most successful ever shows, so my first two weeks were a very steep learning curve. It was sold out at every performance, so it was all about returns and waiting lists and standing-room allocations.
It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Luckily the team were very welcoming. Online booking here is about 80% to 85% of sales. The Park is only six and a half years old, so that infrastructure for people booking online was in place from the start.
We have an outsourced box office phone line that links up to Cambridge Live – which handles our phone box office because it is such a small proportion of ticket sales. I’m responsible for three box office supervisors. The turnover can be quite high when you have a casual team. We all make sure we’re singing from the same hymn sheet. I can’t imagine myself working in any other industry. I’d like to get to the top, maybe an executive director eventually.
I began as a volunteer at the Barn while I was still at college. Rather than go to university I decided to stay on here, and I took up the position of box-office manager in March.
We’re a very young team. The artistic director, Iwan Lewis, who turns 31 in December, is one of the oldest members of staff. The chairman, Ian Carling, likes to encourage young people. He put a lot of faith in me.
I did computing at A level and I’ve always been around computers, so dealing with the ticketing system came quite naturally to me. Box office is a good fit for me: it helps to be able to do sums in your head. As one of the main roles of the job is selling tickets, you have to know all about what’s coming up at the theatre.
We’re a producing theatre so all our shows are rehearsed on the premises. I’m invited along to watch some of the rehearsals so that I know what’s what. I’m also invited to the meet-and-greets with the cast and creatives.
Originally I fancied getting involved in the technical side of theatre. I stage-manage for one of the amateur companies in Cirencester, Tinkco, which sometimes puts shows on at the Barn. When there is a performance, the hours are long – from 10am to 10pm – but we work on a shift system.
After the show we all tend to go for a drink together. One or two members of staff have children but it’s mostly people living on their own or with a partner, so this is like our family. Everybody here is listened to and has a say in what goes on. My favourite thing about the job, as front-of-house manager, is seeing people leaving the theatre with smiles on their faces, having enjoyed the show.
I’d definitely like to stay working in theatre. The Barn has given me opportunities to explore other areas of the business.
I’ve been interested in theatre since my teens. I’m interested in writing rather than acting or directing. When I started to look for work after university, the theatre seemed a logical place for me to be.
If you live in Nottingham, you’re always aware of Nottingham Playhouse. Before I came to work here, I was aware it was going through a bit of a renaissance under Adam Penford as the new artistic director, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to work here.
If I’m allowed, I see myself having a future here. I like the direction of the organisation, and I’d like to be part of that. It’s very apparent to me, working in the box office, that our audience see it as part of the community.
I work closely with the marketing team, and all the five-strong box office personnel keeps up to speed with what’s coming up. We’re encouraged to read scripts, attend rehearsals and liaise with marketing. I see most of the shows but it never feels like work. There are technical demands in the job, but they are skills that can be picked up as you go along.
My dad worked at the Theatre Royal as a spotlight operator so I had a lot of trips to the theatre when I was growing up. I’ve worked here for 18 years.
The box office team is 21-strong, a mixture of full-time and part-time. We’re open seven days a week, so we work shifts. Each theatre’s ticketing system is different so it’s just a question of getting to know the one you have to deal with.
More people book online than when I started. I’ve got to know some of our regulars, especially the members of our Friends’ of Theatre Royal, which is about 10,000-strong. You get asked what the show is about and who’s in it, as well as people wanting to know where to park and where to eat.
We have brochure briefings for each new season. We’ve just put the 2020 pantomime on sale, and booking for Les Misérables, which we’ve got coming in March and April, has been heavy. I pick and choose which shows I see.
I started as an usher at the Rep while I was at the University of Dundee. When I left I came to work here full-time and became box office manager in October 2017.
I’ve been coming to the theatre regularly since I was 11 as I was a member of the youth theatre. I got acting out of my system. It’s a friendly, close-knit place to work, which comes from having an ensemble company. Working in the box office, you need to be as well informed as possible about the season.
We’re constantly updating and reviewing the software we use, so we have to keep on top of that. Our team is about 25 including casual staff. Booking online is about 40%, with the rest by phone or over the counter.
Many people book tickets when they come in to use our cafe. We get to know people. The hours are antisocial and it can seem relentless as you’re always having to look ahead to what’s coming up. But it’s such an enjoyable job and the people you work with are so nice that you put up with the drawbacks.