Finessing the Fringe — Ticketing

So the Fringe is well underway, and according to several sources, opening weekend was beating all records for sales despite some rather lousy weather. It remains to be seen if #StormTO is going to seriously impact sales through the rest of the week, but let’s hope for everyone that it doesn’t. In the meantime, the inclement weather is a good lead-in for a discussion about something that’s always bothered me about the Toronto Fringe: the ticket sales mechanisms and pricing.

You can currently buy tickets three ways: cash at the door, online, and by phone. Toronto Fringe was rather late at building up an online ticketing capacity, and when it did, it seems to have rushed the delivery and not developed it over the years since it was introduced. This is unfortunate, because increasingly, people are moving to online and credit purchases. In fact, it’s been the experience of several festivals that introducing online sales led to a great increase in overall sales.

When you want to make an online purchase, you go the Fringetoronto.com web site, where you’re directed to a single page that lists every single performance happening during the entire festival and asks you to select all the tickets you want. This is not ideal for several reasons:

  • It forces patrons to scroll through the entire series of plays before finding the show they want
  • The above makes it even more difficult to use on a mobile device
  • The page itself is graphically ugly; lime green background, no pictures
  • Show producers can’t give fans a direct link to ticket purchases for their own shows
  • It doesn’t update in real time, striking off performances as they pass

One other facet of the advance purchase system is that only 50% of the tickets are available for advance purchase. The original reason behind this was to encourage people who couldn’t get advance tickets to come down to the Fringe to buy them in person – under the belief that those who were disappointed when the show sold out would decide to see something else since they’d already come down to the festival.

All of these facets of the current design make it a little more difficult for a patron to negotiate a ticket purchase online. But for me, the single biggest problem with the site is a long-standing practice of charging service fees that make advance tickets more expensive than door tickets.

Door tickets are generally an artist-set maximum of $10; Advance tickets are technically $9, but the Fringe adds a service fee of $2 per ticket – hidden from patrons – for a total of $11. In addition, there’s a per-order fee of $2, that can bring the cost of a single ticket to $13 – that’s a 30% premium vs. door tickets. (From the artist perspective, the Fringe charges 22-44% on top of the ticket price for an advance ticket).

Fringeticket

There are a couple of reasons for this – the Fringe has to cover its credit card charges and pay for the advance ticketing system somehow (although why the ticketing system comes off of ticket sales instead of other revenues, I don’t understand). In addition, there’s an old rule set by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals requires there to be a no-fee ticket purchase option, in order to prevent festivals from having a financial interest in ticket sales. While this is a noble goal (because it avoids the perception that the Fringe programs the festival to maximize sales), it’s one that almost every other festival has done away with in one form or another. Besides, beyond direct revenue, everyone already knows the Fringe has other, indirect motivations to increase ticket sales anyway (to maximize prestige, sponsors, grant revenue).

As a producer, I can’t think of any good reason why I’d want advance tickets to be more expensive than door tickets. If anything, I want them cheaper, to encourage early bookings and full houses. Tying it back to the #StormTO theme, another reason is so that a prospective patron doesn’t change his/her mind about seeing the show just because it’s started raining out, or because they’re just not in the mood that day – they’ve already spent the money, so they’ll just suck it up and go. Or they’ll stay home, but hey, we’ve already got their cash. This is one of the reasons why several big theatres run discount offers online. So, a financial penalty for early bookings is not a good strategy.

One of the nice things about having dozens of Fringes around North America, is they all experiment with solutions to these problems (this is one of the reasons why federalism is so great!). The lessons aren’t always transferable, but sometimes they find things that really ought to be shared. The upstart Calgary Fringe – only seven years old and in the shadow of the big daddy in Edmonton – has found some great strategies to increase and simplify ticket sales in its young life.

Calgary’s ED, Michele Gallant, correctly rationed that the key was making online sales the same price as door sales, so as not to discourage early purchases. The way it works is that the Fringe estimated what the total cost of credit card charges would be, then divided it among their estimate for the total ticket sales – so the advance purchase costs were not covered by their own fees, but the difference was recovered by charging fees on cash purchases as well. So, in practice, Calgary’s top ticket price is $13.50, there’s a universal $1.50 service charge, meaning that advance and door tickets are both $15. Edmonton now does the same thing with its tickets.

Edmonton was the first (as far as I know) to experiment with making 100% of tickets available in advance. They correctly reasoned that people who were waiting 2-3 hours in line to purchase tickets for “hot” shows (yes, this used to happen in Edmonton) were not spending those 2-3 hours watching other shows. By selling 100% of tickets in advance, patrons could better plan their show viewing schedules, and pick alternatives for shows that had sold out. In fact, the experiment led to a massive increase in ticket sales – and with few exceptions, artists found the system to be hugely helpful in moving their own tickets and planning their marketing strategies.

(Edmonton also has a crazy awesome ticketing system that allows artists to track their own ticket sales through the festival in real time, so we know if a show is selling well or needs more of a push).

Could these changes work in Toronto? I think so. And I would pair it with a slight rise in total door ticket prices, which is long overdue given that the door price has been $10 at least since my first Toronto Fringe in 2008. Ultimately, I’d make door and advance tickets $11 or $12, ditch the $2-per-order charge, with a $1-1.50 charge on all tickets (the remainder going to artists). After all, we already know lots of people are willing to pay $11-13/ticket for the convenience even when there’s a disincentive to do so – how many more would do so when the disincentive disappears?

I also think it would be especially wise to make 100% of tickets available in advance in Toronto’s context. Toronto is unlike Edmonton or Winnipeg in that its venues are typically quite far apart. When I arrive to a hot show at St. Vlad’s that’s sold out, I can’t very quickly get to the Factory to see my second choice show. Moreover, despite the new success of the Fringe Club at Honest Ed’s, there still isn’t a real daytime hub for the festival were disappointed patrons will gather and quickly move on to the next show.

Moreover, it’s well known how certain shows in Toronto sell out very fast – the new play contest winner, whatever is the NOW cover story, whatever shows get 5 N’s, shows in the tiny venues. Clearing these away from the sales board quicker might make room for other shows to start generating buzz (people might move on to the 4-N and 3-N shows more quickly, or check out more random things). It seems like a win-win for everyone.

In any event, it’s something that I think would be worth experimenting with and assessing the results after a single year. I’d really like to see the 2014 Toronto Fringe revamp its sales web site – perhaps taking a look at some of the designs other Fringes have used.

It would also be great if the Toronto Fringe could create a mobile app like Calgary and Edmonton have done (last year they shared an app, this year it appears Edmonton has gone it alone). Edmonton’s app lets you browse the program, plan a schedule, purchase your tickets, sends you show reminders, warns you of conflicts. It’s everything you’d want in an app, really.

Here’s hoping next year’s festival can continue to build on the success of the last 25 years.

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7 thoughts on “Finessing the Fringe — Ticketing

  1. I would love to see them accept DEBIT. We’re in 2013. It’s the 25th anniversary. I went to pay in person to buy tickets at the start of the Festival only to be told they accept credit card or cash. In 2013. Time to factor that in too.

  2. If the ticket surcharge is not to come from tickets – then which other revenue? As we know from the Tip the Fringe speech, the Fringe returns all box office to the artists and the Festival itself runs on grants and donations. Figure ticket sales of 50000+ each festival at $2 per order – that;s a pretty hefty budget line item for one festival to bear.

  3. Gordon — agreed. Debit charges are usually smaller than credit charges too, AFAIK.
    Sue — the existence of a surcharge is the obvious untruth in the tip the fringe speech. I meant that the cost of running/maintaining the ticketing system (not the credit card charges) should be considered a cost of running the festival, and covered by the Fringe’s grant and fundraising revenue. After all, there’s no surcharge at the door to cover the cost of printing tickets are staffing the FOH. (Also, the surcharge only applies to advance sales right now; I don’t know what proportion of the 50,000 tickets are advance purchases, but that affects the math.)

    • The 100% thing isn’t quite true anyway. All companies have to pay a hefty entrance fee to the Fringe. So their take is the ticket sales less the entrance fee — which is at least $500 or 50 tickets.
      What I’d like to see is what Montreal allowed in 2004, and hopefully since — that the multi ticket packages can be used against advance tickets. For the budget minded fans, who can’t afford to see more than $45 or $82 worth of shows, we’re stuck standing in line to get tickets at the venue. It would probably help ticket sales go up if the ticket package holders could also use them online for advanced tickets. There must be a way of doing this online.

      Sadly though, with the news David Mirvish is selling Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village, one wonders if he’ll also end his sponsorship of the Fringe. Certainly they’ll have to find a new site for the Fringe club at the very least. I see a large jump in prices coming as a result.

      • The Fringe fee is over $700 now, but your point is valid.
        The only reason not to allow passes on advance tickets is that unless the tickets were still purchased in person, the festival would have to set up accounts and passwords to track each individual account, which is would probably be a big amount of extra work. (Alternatively, they could require you to purchase all five tickets at once, triggering the discount). I suspect another reason the Fringe likes the advance passes is that unused portions of those passes are not allocated back to the artists — the Fringe keeps this (but I can’t imagine this is a big enough revenue source to be worth their time).
        I’m not sure the loss of Honest Ed’s will impact Mirvish’s desire to sponsor the Fringe, at least not directly. Mirvish’s interest has — especially lately — been in scouting new material at the Fringe. The loss of the Fringe Club space is sad, but I’m confident the festival can find another good location.

  4. Pingback: Fringe Town Hall | Exit Upstage

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