There's nothing more exciting around the West End than the launch of a new show: new stars, new sets, and new life in an industry built on long-running stalwarts.
What's never new, though, is the website, with the usual pages showcasing cast and creative, plus a slapdash ticketing section that quickly hands off the customer to either the venue's website or a white-labelled ticket agent.
It's easy to understand, of course, why producers take the quick and easy route when it comes to their show's website. The show itself is a full-time job, with about three thousand moving parts, and when you're already trying to keep all those plates spinning the idea of trying to manage a complicated website project at the same time seems like just one more hassle you can do without.
Besides, by their very nature most shows have a limited lifespan, and custom websites are expensive — so it makes no sense to invest in one upfront because you probably won't see any return before the final curtain falls.
Well, yes and no.
Playing the long game
It's true that if your show closes after six weeks — or even six months — it will be hard to make up the cost of a major web design project. (Though maybe not as hard as you think; see below.) But the chances are this isn't your first show and it won't be your last. It might not even be the last time this specific production appears on stage, if you can tour or transfer it elsewhere. And if you invest in your own ticketing website, the next time you're putting something on sale you'll already have your own data on your own audience, who you know like buying tickets to your productions — because they already have.
Some producers instinctively understand this, and open accounts with websites like Eventbrite where they can sell their own allocation for their events and build up a list of devoted fans, often to great success. Venues know this too: get someone to come back a second time, and the chances that they'll come back a third and a fourth and fifth dramatically increase. The more you can get potential buyers to connect with you as a brand, the more likely they are to buy for your shows in the future, whatever and wherever they are.
Selling your own tickets has other benefits too. For one thing, it's a new source of cashflow before your sales start maturing. For another, ticket income grows from better data, and even if whoever's selling your tickets is willing to share theirs, you're still limited to whatever reports they can provide and whatever data they can legally share. And while sites like Eventbrite talk a big game about how you can use their analytics to optimise your "marketing," without a bespoke website you can't fully optimise your most important marketing tool of all: your online ticketing process.
Do the maths
So let's talk about costs. Putting someone else in charge of your ticketing is much cheaper upfront, but whether you're sending customers to the theatre or Ingresso or Eventbrite, you lose as much as 7% of your ticket income in commissions — and at the average UK theatre ticket price of £27.10, that's nearly £2 a ticket. At that rate you only need to sell 60 tickets a day and after six months you've already given away £20,000.
Look at it that way, and you can see that letting someone else sell your tickets isn't really saving you any money, it's just hiding the true cost by spreading it out over each purchase. Bespoke websites require ongoing updates and support too, mind you, so development is not a one-off investment. But unlike fixed fees for a new website or specific upgrades, you can't budget for commission because it never stops and it always scales: the more successful you are, the more you pay.
Meanwhile, ticket agents like Encore or Ticketmaster are free to tap directly into your venue's API and sell tickets at 0% commission, making their money through large booking fees charged to the customer. To be sure, they have larger upfront costs too for developing those API links, but after decades they're still in business and doing better than ever. If it works for them, why not you?
Web development isn't the right solution for everyone, and it will bring its own challenges that you or your organisation might not be equipped to handle. But if you don't even consider the possibility of building your own ticketing function, you're essentially betting against your long-term success — when instead you could be declaring your intent to stick around for many more years to come.