This is the second piece in a research series focusing how digital ticket scalping is affecting the performing arts industry. To find out more about the history of scalping, read the first research update.
Ticket scalping is nothing new in the performing arts, but recently, scalpers have started using fraudulent websites to pose as real primary market places on which consumers can purchase tickets. However, these sites are actually managed by highly sophisticated scalping organizations that make a significant profit by tricking customers into purchasing tickets. While these websites prey on all kinds of events, their predatory practices are hitting non profit performing arts organizations particularly hard because of the unfortunate image they falsely project of the victim organizations. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theater (PBT) is one of many performing arts organizations that has gone head to head with these unscrupulous organizations. Recently, staff members from the PBT sat down with AMT Lab contributor Katie Grennan to relay a fascinating account about how their tickets have been targeted.
In recent years, an array of third parties have set up phony websites as market places for consumers to buy tickets to a whole gamut of events, including non-profit performing arts performances such as the ballet. These sites make it easy for individuals or scalping agencies to sell tickets they purchased specifically for to resell to consumers. The websites often charge two, three, or four times the original price, and in turn, make a profit.
Identifying the Problem
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theater first noticed this trend about three years ago when customers started showing up at the box office with tickets under a different name, which was usually the name of the scalper. Upon identifying this issue, the PBT soon realized how many of their tickets had passed through the hands of these unscrupulous scalpers before they made their way to the actual performance attendee. Most often, specific individuals or scalping organizations create bots, which generate fake names under real addresses so they don’t get automatically flagged in the system they are taking advantage of. In fact, the PBT identified most of these computer generated names by finding the exact same combination of letters used in each name that were just scrambled differently!
Unfortunately, the number of tickets that scalpers purchase each year is growing. In fact, the number of identified scalped tickets to the PBT’s Nutcracker more than doubled between the 2014 and 2015 holiday season.
The majority of the PBT’s scalpers sell their tickets on websites created to directly trick the customer into thinking they are purchasing through the ballet itself. These sites have thought of everything under the sun to look legitimate, going as far as replicating domain names, logos, messaging, and images of the organization they are copying. In fact, at one point, one of the websites actually used direct video from a PBT performance! Furthermore, the ballet laments that many of these websites have a nicer aesthetic than their own. Says the PBT’s Ticketing Manager Aimee DiAndrea, “Pittsburgh-Theater.com has a really slick website, and is designed to look like you are on the cultural district’s website. When you used to go onto the page, it had all of the Pittsburgh Cultural District’s logos and images, but luckily, our lawyers contacted them and issued a cease and desist. Eventually, they took it all down but they are still selling tickets on there, just without the imagery. So far, that has been our main victory over the scalpers!”
These sites that pose as one organization through a certain domain name are usually a small part of a larger organization that profits from selling tickets to all sorts of events, such as pop concerts and sports events. This business model has proved successful; scalpers are able to reinvest their profits in making their websites look attractive and legitimate. Not only do they have the funds to spend on the front-end, but they also cover the back-end channels as well. In order to draw the maximum number of customers to their fake sites, these scalpers work the Google advertising capabilities to their advantage. They purchase paid ads to ensure they are at the top of the listing on searches. Although the PBT benefits from a Google Grant because of their nonprofit status (which includes access to Google Adwords), the scalper’s digital marketing campaign poses a real challenge to the PBT who is limited by their marketing budget. In fact, for the past two Nutcracker seasons, the PBT had to spend over $5,000 on Adwords alone in order to get above the fake sites in the Google listing.
According to DiAndrea, “That’s a lot of money that could get us some great placements elsewhere in the city to help market our tickets. Instead, we have to spend valuable funds just to sell our own tickets online.” She explains further “Now that our website is so far down the page, when selecting which Google Adwords to spend our budget on, we have get very specific to even get on the radar of shopping customers.” Although the PBT still shows up on the top of organic Google searches, it almost doesn’t matter, because there are so many paid ads before the consumer gets to the organic listing. The PBT’s External Affairs Analyst Christine Sajewski adds, “It’s not easy to find our own website through a basic Google search. It’s heartbreaking”.
A Customer Service Nightmare
The PBT feels that the fact that their patron base is generally older and less web-savvy only compounds the Google search problem, as many do not realize that they are on a fake site when it is designed to look legitimate. They’ve received calls from many individuals who are angry that they just purchased tickets to a performance for such a high price and don’t understand why. DiAndrea explains, “We saw insane numbers for the Nutcracker this year. The scalpers would buy a $25 dollar ticket that is off to the side or in the back and then mark it up to four times the amount of the best seat. They do a great job of making it sound like a good seat by using meaningless descriptions, such as ‘Orchestra Seating’. Unfortunately, then people complain because they just spent $400 dollars to sit off in no man’s land. We then have to explain to these customers that it wasn’t us that sold them the ticket. This greatly detracts from the quality customer experience that we work so hard to give our patrons. What is so terrible about this is that they are not doing something that is illegal. So there is nothing we can do about them buying a lot of our tickets and then marking them up to extreme figures.”
Although general admission Nutcracker tickets are scalped to a much higher degree than other the PBT performances, the scalpers have even found a way to make a profit off of tickets designed to accommodate special needs children and their families. The PBT recently started offering a sensory friendly performance for 50% off all admissions, making the most expensive ticket available only $46. Unfortunately, scalpers got a hold of these as well, and ended up selling even the cheapest $15 dollar ticket for the astronomical price of over $250. DiAndrea adds “One of our patrons ended up calling the third party site that she bought the tickets through and yelled at them. I think they were somewhat apologetic but I don’t think they actually ended up doing anything about it. They didn’t even give her a refund, which was very upsetting.”
It is important to remember that behind this systemic problem are many individuals. For one individual in particular, scalping Nutcracker tickets are his bread and butter. In fact, he is known throughout the United States professional ballet community for his underhanded tactics of donating large sums of money to each organization he targets in order to justify scalping a significant portion of their tickets. In recent years, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater has tried working with such individuals, letting them buy tickets directly so the PBT can control who the tickets are going to and remove the stress of dealing with computer generated, nonsensical names. Although this strategy mostly worked, scalpers still created their own fake websites. During the next Nutcracker season, one individual even went a step further and created 48 separate accounts through which he purchased tickets with the intention of reselling, yet he still reached out to the PBT asking to buy even more tickets on top of that. This drove the ballet to put their foot down and terminate the relationship. DiAndrea notes “This year, we said enough is enough.”
Aimee and her team at the PBT look forward to a day when they can sell all their tickets to everyone that wants one through their own channels at a reasonable price. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theater prides itself on the customer service experience they offer to their patrons, and this is one area that at the moment, they have no control over. Aimee concludes, “To me, the decrease in perception of our customer service is worse than the financial implications. These people are trying to go to the ballet with their family and have a nice experience and they have just been taken for $3,000 [when the performance] should not cost anything close to that amount. This is where I see the issue. Then, people complain that the arts are too expensive, but that isn't the real price. The arts can be very affordable. The scalpers are really giving us a bad name. I would love to tackle the PR side of things, then the revenue would follow suit”.
Up next, find out about more about how other performing organizations have been effected by scalping agencies across the country, and what measures they are taking to protect patrons from falling victim to their controversial practices in the future.