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Richard Jordan: The days of dodgy ticket touts outside venues are over, now there’s a far greater problem

Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Tristram Kenton Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet: the way the RSC's front of house staff handled a show's cancellation was commendable, says Richard Jordan. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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At first glance, theatre and aviation may not have much in common. However, a recent experience got me thinking.

In March, four days after its launch, I took a flight on Qantas’ new Dreamliner aircraft, travelling 17 hours non-stop from Perth to London.

Upon boarding, myself and 10 other passengers found a big sticker over our seat recline buttons instructing: “Do not use.” The cabin manager apologised profusely that there were no spare working seats for us to move to, but that Qantas would be arranging compensation.

After months of frustrated dealings with the customer support team, ultimately they declared that as my ticket was booked through a travel agent, it’s not actually their responsibility.

In entertainment, travel, and many other service sectors, the agent has always served as a key frontline ally to the vendor in terms of selling tickets. The question is: where does the exchange between these two parties begin and end? The lines in many service sectors are increasingly blurred and risk the customer feeling misled and underserved.

When booking a performance, travel or a hotel, the vendor may have sold out of its own allocation, making the agent the only one left with tickets.

But if something goes wrong during the experience, whose responsibility is it? If the vendors claim this is not their issue to resolve, even when it’s under their care, such a policy and information needs to be conveyed clearly on all its materials as well as being told to the customer at the time of booking – and the agent must do the same.

Such problems are thankfully rare. Nonetheless, you can only truly tell how good and responsible a vendor’s customer service is if you subsequently have to contact them. Back in 2016, I wrote a column about my experience at the Royal Shakespeare Company when a performance of Hamlet had to be cancelled. Despite the initial disappointment, there was an exemplary level of care by its staff and follow-up that made you want to return.

The customer always has a choice. In any competitive market, a business cannot hope they will simply keep coming back.

There are two vital elements in any relationship between customer and vendor that must be earned and never undervalued: the first is communication and the second is trust.

In the entertainment industry, the growth of secondary ticket agencies has added a significant level of confusion for the consumer. Ed Sheeran’s recent UK concerts saw those who had bought from disingenuous agencies, having tickets void on arrival, given the opportunity to repurchase them at face-value, and presented with a letter from the vendor to send to the agent for a potential refund stating that their tickets were denied entry.

If the customer has bought a ticket from a resale site, the venue should still take responsibility to support them in their refund follow-up and not leave that customer feeling abandoned

It’s easy to blame it all on the audience member who had bought from these agencies. But many are being misled by this toxic culture – especially when a Google search may list the resale site first.

A similarly deliberate confusion can also occur when an agency has cannily chosen to buy a domain name that uses or adapts the title of the venue, again making the customer believe there is a genuine association. This is no different within other service sectors, where, for example, an airline or hotel logo with information is displayed and can suggest a significant level of affiliation.

If the customer has bought their ticket from a resale site and is unclear about the association between the parties, then the venue should still take responsibility to support them in their refund follow-up and not leave that customer feeling abandoned.

Secondary ticket sellers fight back in war against touts with new lobbying group

Simply giving them a letter and leaving it at that is never going to eradicate these sites. Most people attending a performance and being denied entry will be genuine fans wanting to see their favourite star. They are the ones who ultimately lose out most.

There is arguably a need for venues to go back and review their own returns policy. Most of them will adhere to a strict ‘no returns’ rule: it means that someone who has purchased tickets and can no longer attend is possibly driven towards these secondary sites as the best chance of getting any kind of refund.

The days of the dodgy ticket touts hawking outside venues may have become eradicated, but in truth, and assuming their ticket was genuine, they always paid immediately and took the entire risk upon themselves to resell it.

The industry successfully reduced street touting, but instead is now dealing with a far greater problem: where the resale agent double-dips from all parties, taking their commission whether they sell the ticket or not. Amid all this confusion, the legitimate ticket agent suffers if customers start mistrusting them as a result of run-ins with more disreputable agencies.

The reality is that every service sector, from entertainment to aviation, is reliant on the agents who act on their behalf, and the businesses, or individuals, must take more responsibility for the product they’re selling. Because if the customer feels abandoned when a problem occurs through poor customer service and buck-passing, then the long-term damage and their loss of trust in the industries themselves will prove irrevocable.

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