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)

or

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

or

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

or

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.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Andy Catlin said...

Firstly, we feel we should detail some areas that aren't clear in your post. Booking fees are added by the promoter, not The Queen's Hall. From Jan - July 2011, we will have presented 71 public shows. 12 of these have charged separate booking fees. They are added by commercial promoters (eg DF Concerts, Regular Music, PCL, GMH. CPL). They are not used on promotions by The Queen's Hall, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, ecat, Hebrides Ensemble, New Town Concert Series, etc which form the bulk of our work.

As an organisation, we are no fans of separate booking fees and encourage other promoters not to use them. No one charges customers separately for the amount of technicians or security staff working on a performance, so it makes no sense to us why people who hire The Queen's Hall make this particular cost a separate item. Our staff are at the sharp end of customer criticism about booking fees so we are aware of how people feel about them. However, the promoters are paying for the use of the venue and we have no final control about what they wish to charge for either tickets or ticketing services

Why do some promoters charge booking fees? They sell tickets through a variety of channels such as Ticketmaster, Ticketweb, Seetickets, etc. Each of those 3rd party sales channels can add additional fees to the overall ticket price if they wish. We are therefore obliged to show it as a separate fee. They feel that the ticketing is a separate cost to the overall production costs of the event.

Why don't some promoters charge booking fees? They build it into the overall event costs. They don't use separate commercial sales channels. They see the advantages of an inclusive cost.

Why do we describe booking fees as "charged on all sales for this event (ie telephone, internet, in person)"? The wording we use has recently been revised following a complaint from a customer who was unaware that booking fees were charged on counter sales. We approached the Trading Standards Service at the City of Edinburgh Council for clarification and produced this new version. It was approved by them in April 2011 and we believe that this is the most transparent wording possible. Even if we don't like booking fees, the last thing we're trying to do is 'deliberate deception'. We're trying to tell people as early as possible in the booking process of what the costs are going to be. No small print, no pop-ups.

Should we just tell the venue hirers that they can't do this? Unfortunately we live in a commercial world with commercial values. We simply do not have that much leverage with the people who are hiring the venue to demand they stop using booking fees.

I hope this answers your questions.
Andy Catlin
Marketing Manager, The Queen's Hall

11:19  
Blogger njr said...

Andy

Thanks for commenting --- there was lots of stuff I didn't know in there and I appreciate your taking the time to respond helpfully to what was probably an annoying post from your perspective. Your figures on not breaking out a booking fee on most events are strong evidence of your attitude.

I fully accept that there was (is) no intention to deceive on the part of Queen's Hall and have modified the post to make that clear. I apologise for any offence caused.

I do have one suggestion. Although it has the same information content, I wonder if you have considered saying

£24.00 per ticket. This fee includes a £1.50 booking fee, which is charged on all sales for this event (ie telephone, internet, in person).

rather than your current wording. I'm guessing that would annoy people slightly less; at the very least, it would annoy me less.

Ironically, I was unable, in the end, to buy tickets from your website because the Java didn't work on any of the four browers I tried it in (Safari, Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome on a Mac on Mac OS 10.5.8). So in the ultimate irony, I ended up paying more at Ticketmaster.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, the process of buying at Ticketmaster just provided further grist to my mill. As I said in the blog post, I heard about the information from the excellent Songkick web site. I almost fell of my chair when I went to this page:

http://www.songkick.com/concerts/9171746-janis-ian-at-queens-hall

and saw it advertised at £20 from Ticketmaster.

If you click through to Ticketmaster, and select a ticket, the Any Price drop-down says £20 ticket + £2.50 fees. Then, of course, when you buy it, they add on a further £2.75 of postage.

So it looks as if it's not Songkick getting it wrong, but Ticketmaster---er---contriving to present a lower headline price. I don't know how that fits with the £22.50 being the "real" ticket price, but obviously I would be tempted to make all the same points about that breakdown as I made originally about the breaking out of the 'booking fee' above.

Thanks again for your time producing your rather illuminating response.

Ticketmaster: if you're reading, perhaps you can illuminate us as the to the £20 ticket + £2.50 fees.

Nick

12:16  

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