City gives ovation for new ticket system

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After years of listening to customer grumbles about Ticketmaster, this year the City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs tried out a new system.

According to OCA Director Ellen Dressler Moryl, a trial collaboration with Ovationtix (part of TheaterMania.com) has been a roaring success. "We're ahead of last year 20 percent, and we're almost ahead of two years ago," she says. Her figures don't include the Jazz Series, which has seen strong attendance. Although it's impossible to tell how much of the uptick is due to the new system, Ovationtix has definitely enabled the OCA to keep prices down.

According to Dressler Moryl, their new service's cut is "less than half what Ticketmaster ever charged." For some shows, buyers were charged over $4 for a service charge and more than $3 for a processing fee. Add the cost of the actual show and a few friends, and your wallet would be $100 lighter. Now, instead of paying several dollars for the privilege of being able to order advance tickets, patrons pay $1.

Ticketmaster's darkest weekend came at the opening of Spoleto's 2007. Festivalgoers were told that shows were sold out when they weren't. "The snafu was, understandably, sending show producers across the festival program into apoplectic fits," said that year's City Paper overview critic Patrick Sharbaugh. "The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Piccolo's box office folks weren’t able to reach anyone at the online ticket seller... This company belongs in the same shameful category as Wal-Mart and Enron. The City of Charleston needs to consider killing Piccolo's contract with these West Hollywood hoodlums."

Ticketmaster was still being used in 2009, but the City sought an alternative for this year. It found out about Ovationtix through Charleston Stage director Julian Wiles. "He provided us with a bunch of research he'd done examining different systems," says Dressler Moryl. "We signed a one year contract with this company."

When the Piccolo dust has settled, the OCA will get input from arts and producing groups and find out whether the system needs to be changed again. But as far as Dressler Moryl and her team are concerned, Ovationtix has more pros than cons. "I'm not criticizing Ticketmaster, I'm praising the new system," Dressler-Moryl insists. "It's very intuitive. We're operating very good customer services. It's made a big difference for a lot of people to be able to sell tickets."

This year you can visit the Piccolo Spoleto website, set up an account, put your tickets in a virtual shopping cart, make a donation to the festival, or buy souvenirs with the click of a button. This correlates with a growth in internet ticket sales. "More people are comfortable with computers and buying online," says box office manager Enid Idelsohn. "Some elderly people are not able to do that, but most people are."

You don't have to be elderly to be confused if you want to buy tickets at the box office. Piccolo tickets are no longer available for purchase at the Gaillard Auditorium, where they've usually been sold. Instead they can be bought at the Visitor Center, 375 Meeting Street or the OCA's headquarters at 180 Meeting Street. "No one goes to the Visitor Center," one theater manager moaned to me. "They buy all their tickets at the door." That makes it hard to tell how busy a show's going to be.

"It's always hard for people to understand a new system at first," counters Dressler-Moryl. "Whatever you do it's not gonna hit everyone."

"We've done our best to make the box office locations known to people and make the system user friendly," adds Idelsohn. She is a fan of online buying because when attendees use that method, their name goes on a list that can be matched up at the door. "Everybody's getting tickets, nobody's missing any, and we can always find their name on the list if they've bought one for the wrong performance — we do everything we can to get them in a show if they're at the right venue."

Another complaint I've heard concerns the tickets that are handed out if you step right up to the door. Theater managers have described them as "circus tickets" or "carnival stubs" — hardly in keeping with a glamorous festival event. This is a matter that the OCA hopes to address in the future.

"We have one ticket printer in the box office," Idelsohn explains. "We would have to print out our own will-call tickets. If I print tickets for every performance, it would be a massive amount of work." On her wishlist for next year: more printers, another computer, and more helpers.

Apart from these minor matters, the OCA staff and volunteers are pleased with Ovationtix. "The Piccolo Fringe group has told us how great they think the system is, and that there aren't as many flaws in it as we used to have," says Dressler Moryl.

If they go with the same service next year, the staff plans to utilize more of the company's flexible services. "There are new possibilities for customers," says the director. 2010's system isn't perfect, but it's better than it used to be. It makes box office sales easier for venues to manage, which means they can concentrate on the quality of performances. Then everyone's a winner. Maybe the carnival stubs are appropriate after all.

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