19 May 2011

The Queen's Hall of Shame

[NOTE: I'm very happy that Andy Catlin, the Marketing Manager at the Queen's Hall, has taken time to respond to this post in the comments: his responses are interesting and illuminating and I strongly recommend everyone to read them.]

In general, I am a big fan of the Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall. It has a wide and varied programme that frequently includes many of favourite (living) performers; why, I’ve even listened rapturously to some of favourite dead performers there (none more than John Martyn). I like to think of myself very much as a friend of the Queen’s Hall.

One of the roles a friend sometimes has to perform is that of purveyor of unpleasant truths, and I feel that is necessary today.

I received a mail from the excellent Songkick service informing me that Janis Ian will play the Queen’s Hall in October. If you don’t know Songkick, I strongly recommend that you check it out. It is a site that implements an service I’ve wanted (and considered building) for the best part of a decade, namely, you tell it which artists you like and, where you might be interested in seeing them, and it informs you whenever they announce a new concert that meets your criteria. It has been a long source of frustration to me that I sometimes miss concerts that I would have gone to had I only known they were on, and Songkick aims to eliminate that situation, which it does with a reasonable degree of success. If anything, it issues the notices slightly too early, often a few days before it’s possible to book them; but it remains an extremely useful service.

Anyway, I dutifully looked up the gig on the Queen’s Hall website. All is in order. But here is the ticket information:

Tickets: £22.50 + £1.50 booking fee per ticket. This fee is charged on all sales for this event (ie telephone, internet, in person).

As far as I can see, this is a willfully distorting way of presenting the information a prospective customer needs that I strongly suspect is bad for business.

If the Queen’s Hall had simply said

Tickets: £24.00

I would undoubtedly have bought tickets by now and been happily looking forward to seeing this excellent performer in October. Instead, well, I’m writing this blog post. If the primary breakdown of the £24.00 cost of a ticket of interest to the Queen’s Hall is really into a £22.50 “ticket” and a £1.50 “booking fee”, then obviously its internal systems could report that, though I strongly suspect that £1.50 is an entirely spurious, pretend number that has no more real meaning for the Queen’s Hall than it does for its customers. But the breakdown is entirely bogus from the perspective of the customer, since it’s always payable. Why not

Tickets: £23.86 + 14p chair handling fee (always payable)


Tickets: £23:72 + 28p lighting fee (always payable)


Tickets: £18 + £6 performer fee (always payable)


Tickets: £23.99 + 1p directors’ daily biscuits fee (always payable).

£22.50 is either a made-up number that has no basis in reality (my best guess) or is an approximation to a number that is of no relevance or interest to (almost) any paying customer.

So why does the Queen’s Hall do this? I can see three plausible explanations.

  1. Deliberate deception. Although I think it's pretty clear that this isn't the case with the Queen's Hall, especially given Andy Catlin's comments below, it is not unusual for businesses to try to present a low price to “suck people in” towards a sale, holding back extras (mandatory or otherwise) in the expectation that, having been sucked in the customer will be willing to pay a higher actual price that she would have prepared to pay had it been declared initially.
  2. Comparability. There is an argument that if other venues present a headline ticket price that excludes a booking fee (as they do), then by failing to do the same, the Queen’s Hall would put itself at a competitive disadvantage, making its prices appear higher than they really are relative to other venues. This explanation makes very little sense for a concert venue, since people almost never have a practical choice of venue, but it remains a possible “explanation”.
  3. Historical relic. Sometimes, booking fees are in fact avoidable. The most obvious case is that when tickets may be bought both directly from the venue and through a third party, the third party will often mark up the ticket with a booking fee, while it can be bought directly from the venue without a booking fee. In that case, it can be helpful for the customer to see the booking fee, because she actually has an option of avoiding it by going direct instead. Obviously, however, this does not apply in the present case.

(I suppose there is also a possibility that there is some poorly drafted or poorly understood legislation requiring booking fees to be broken out, but I am not aware of any such law, and if it does exist, it would have to be very poorly drafted indeed to apply to mandatory, unavoidable booking fees.)

Needless to say, I don’t regard any of the three plausible reasons as a good reason for the Queen’s Hall to do as it is doing. In particular, I think any possible benefit of a (slightly) lower headline price is more than offset by the customer hostility generated by booking fees. (In strict economic terms, my guess is that for every customer who will not buy with a headline price of £24.00 but will buy at the same price if a headline price of £22.50 is presented and a £1.50 booking fee is charged, there will be a more than counterbalancing number who will be so irritated by the deceptive pricing that they will not buy when it’s broken out in this way but would if it were presented plainly; but this is no more than a guess.)

So come on, Queen’s Hall. Strike a blow for transparent pricing. Call a £24 ticket a £24 ticket and let people who expect a booking fee to be added to come away pleasantly surprised, rather than annoying those who don’t.