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ITY 2020: Ticketing experts gear up for recovery

For the past five years, IQ has published the standalone International Ticketing Yearbook (ITY), highlighting the ticketing business in more than 40 key markets around the world, as the live events business continued to grow.

Rather than skipping the 2020 edition (given the lack of concerts, festivals and shows, last year), we are paring back the yearbook to provide an overview of the past few months during the pandemic, and examining what ticketing experts have been working on while the industry plans to get back to business in 2021…

2020 event ticket sales
Despite international touring grinding to a halt in March 2020, the ingenuity of artists, event organisers and promoters has provided a limited number of shows and festivals around the world, while pay-per-view live-streaming concerts have also proved popular with fans internationally.

Every company IQ spoke to for ITY 2020 states that the sales slump has been unprecedented – mostly down by more than 90% – as physical events have all but disappeared over the past nine months. Reporting its fiscal results for the first nine months of 2020, Europe’s largest ticketing firm, CTS Eventim revealed a 79% decline in turnover, to €228.7 million, in financial quarters one to three.

For its part, Ticketmaster parent company Live Nation reported that festivals where fans can retain their tickets for next year’s show had seen approximately 63% of fans are keeping their tickets.

The company’s sales and survey data suggests that fan demand will be there when the time is right. “Our refund rate on rescheduled shows remains consistently low, with 83% of fans globally keeping their tickets,” says Live Nation in its latest financial results. “Our recent global survey indicates that 95% of fans are planning to return to live music events when restrictions are lifted, the highest point of confidence since the start of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has taken its toll on markets large and small.

In Dubai, Vassiliy Anatoli, managing director of events guide and ticketing platform Platinumlist, tells a similar tale. “Sales stopped mid-March with lots of refunds to follow. We resumed sales with comedy events in July, which sold out, with most post-Covid events being supported by the UAE government.”

Comedy proved successful elsewhere, too. Emil Ionescu, general managing partner of Romania’s leading ticket company, iaBilet, says local event organisers’ association Aroc has worked diligently on a reopening plan, with promoters able to put on open-air shows to a maximum of 500 people from the start of June.

“The thirst for live entertainment is enormous, and this thirst is intensifying the longer bans are in force” — Alexander Ruoff, COO, CTS Eventim

“Drive-ins worked like a charm for a few weeks, then they halted. People lost interest. But stand-up comedy took their place,” he states. “Concerts didn’t work so well, although some club venues did outdoor, all-standing events with 100–150, even 200, people, which sold out. But that was the best we had. It seems Romanians can’t replace that live music feeling with something that holds them at a two-metre distance with masks on their face.”

Also hit hard by the termination of mass gatherings, event discovery and ticketing platform Dices wiftly tweaked its model to exploit the demand for live-streamed shows. “We’ve worked on more than 4,000 livestream shows, broadcast from 30 countries, and sold tickets in 146 countries,” reveals its chief revenue officer, Russ Tannen. “From Laura Marling’s breathtaking performance at Union Chapel [London] to Kylie’s glittering disco performance, live-stream events on Dice are attracting bigger and bigger audiences.”

That experience is echoed by Zack Sabban, CEO of Event Genius and Festicket. “It’s been really interesting to see that during the height of the pandemic in Europe, our top performing events have been our FesticketLive livestreaming gigs, which sold more than 50,000 tickets.”

Despite that positivity, the results are, of course, a shadow of what Festicket had expected in 2020. “At the beginning of the year, sales were strong, especially for the summer festival season – we were beating all previous records,” says Sabban. But he is confident that fans’ pent-up demand can help the market make a strong comeback. “After the summer, our recovery began and as some of our festival partners launched on-sales for 2021, sales returned and we actually began to record improvements on last autumn’s numbers,” he claims.

Kenton Ward, CEO of Live It (formerly known as Bookitbee), says, “When lockdown was announced we hit a wall in the first month, with sales down by 97%. Since then we have seen this recover over time as we have worked with promoters and organisers to adjust their offerings. Currently, we are seeing about 45% of previous revenues for the corresponding time.”

Similarly, Rob Casson, Skiddle’s head of new business for UK and Europe, reveals Covid hit ticket sales by 82% initially. But he notes “a positive outlook on 2021 sales, with a lot of promoters putting new events on.” He also says that Skiddle has worked on numerous alternative events, in line with changing government guidelines.

“With a lot of promoters moving tickets over to next year, we forecast a continued impact on sales for 2021,” he warns. “However, we are already beginning to notice promoters being agile around the types of events they’re hosting in 2021.”

“Once the pandemic is over, the entertainment sector will experience a real boom” — Moritz Schwenkow, CTO, DEAG

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Total Ticketing managing director Pete Gordon recognises the issues of his peers elsewhere, but he reports success with online events, where “music, literary talks and workshops [have sold] relatively well.” Gordon adds, “We see a strong future for these events and expect them to continue to thrive alongside the face-to-face events once these return.”

One remarkably strong market for livestreaming has been Russia, where the vast geography often leaves fans outside of the main cities starved of live events.

Vladimir Ageev, head of strategy for MTS Entertainment, underlines the nation’s enormous appetite for live-streaming. “The pandemic allowed us to launch a series of [VR-format] online concerts this summer that introduced viewers to our MTS Live brand. We delivered 21 online concerts, which reached a total audience of 60 million viewers.”

Determined to exploit that popularity, he adds, “Online concerts allowed us to continue promotion of other MTS products: the number of traced audience for further monetisation totals approximately 63 million new clients, so we are planning further development of this line of business in the near future.”

Refunds and voucher schemes
The world’s ticketing operations were faced with their own unprecedented problems when Covid took hold earlier this year, as the prospect of having to refund billions of euros, dollars, etc, quickly became all too real, and exposed the entire live entertainment industry to some worrying home truths over cashflow, in particular.

Thankfully, millions of fans around the world proved their loyalty by opting to keep tickets for postponed events, rather than demand refunds, while in a number of territories, voucher schemes were approved by governments and local authorities, to provide the industry with some breathing space.

“In terms of our arena events, particularly music events, we have had a much higher number of people holding on to tickets than we expected,” observes Richard Howle at the Ticket Factory in the UK. “If fans want to see an act, they are prepared to book tickets up to a year in advance. The pandemic hasn’t changed their desire to see their favourite artists, so at the moment they seem willing to hold on a bit longer.”

However, Howle warns, “As dates get rescheduled for a second or third time, or as people get more concerned about their finances, this may change and we may very well see more people requesting a refund.”

Total Ticketing’s Gordon also reports that the majority of fans in Hong Kong have held on to the tickets for postponed events. “We have had some events that have been subject to multiple rescheduled dates, and fans have, on the whole, kept their tickets despite the moving target,” he says.

“I think some actors in the segment have been amazing to their staff, suppliers and customers” — Rob Wilmshurst, CEO, See Tickets

Tannen says that 90% of tickets for live shows that have been rescheduled have not been returned to Dice. “Our flexible returns and waiting-list functionality mean that, on Dice, fans can often get a refund any time before the gig, so many fans will hold on to their ticket in the hope that they’ll be able to make the date of the new show. If they can’t, they’ll offer it to the waiting list.”

The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic put every government and economy in the world on alert, but in a number of territories, arts and culture industry associations have persuaded officials to allow voucher schemes.

Romania is one such country, thanks mainly to the patience of music fans. Ionescu reveals that live music trade body Aroc worked closely with government on a two-pronged solution for fans: either keeping a ticket that is valid for the rescheduled event, or requesting a voucher that can be used until September 2021 on future shows by that promoter.

“If people don’t use the voucher before September 2021, they can request a full cash refund,” Ionescu explains. “If the show gets cancelled, the fans receive a voucher, also valid until September 2021, for shows by the same promoter. So, most of the fans kept their tickets – less than 5% requested a voucher. What’s surprising and pretty awesome is that some people even bought tickets for the rescheduled events during the pandemic, just to help a little.”

Returns and refund requests vary depending on territory, culture, and even genre. Sophie Belova, former head of Europe and CIS for MyMusicTaste, has been specialising in taking K-pop acts around the world, and while she reveals, “K-pop fans are trying to keep their tickets for as long as needed,” she adds that 10–15% of tickets needed to be refunded.

The returns dilemma was less complicated for some. Platinumlist’s Anatoli says almost all shows were refunded, while in Hong Kong, Gordon says, “We’ve seen a higher rate of refunds where international travel would have been involved, presumably reflecting customers’ scepticism.” He notes, however, that customers have generally been happy to keep their tickets for domestic events.

That delicate act of persuading people to be patient has been an international effort. “We saw less than 10% of refunds across all our events. This was as a result of a PR plea to eventgoers,” comments Shai Evian, CEO of South African ticketer Howler.

“All signs point to a very busy summer season and a very busy 2021” — Maria O’Connor, chairman, Ticketmaster Australasia

Live It operates a slightly different model to many ticketing companies in that it is not the merchant of record for sales. “This means that the promoters and organisers get all of their funds in advance of their events, and we have worked closely with them to help manage cancellations, reschedules and refunds,” explains Ware. “As such, Live It do not have tickets outstanding but many of our clients have rescheduled, and ticket holders have agreed to move their attendance to a future event.”

In Russia, Ageev details how MTS tweaked its systems to help ticket buyers stay safe. “We introduced online mass ticket refund services for cancelled events, which was also made available to those who bought tickets at offline ticket offices. This made it possible to refund hundreds of thousands of tickets quickly and smoothly, without forcing people to leave their homes or lose money spent.”

Such attention to detail is admirable, but Festicket’s Sabban notes that different partners have different refund and exchange policies. “For events where keeping hold of tickets for rescheduled dates was an option, the majority of customers are choosing to do so. Not only because they want to attend the event next year but also because they actively want to support the event and make sure it will survive, go ahead next year, and continue to flourish.”

Advance sales for 2021
While uncertainty has undoubtedly been one of the keywords of 2020, optimism and, perhaps, a longing to return to normality, have resulted in healthy ticket sales for 2021 – a situation that news of vaccines is only helping to bolster as the new year approaches.

“Twenty twenty was definitely a tough year for the entire live shows and ticketing industry. Nevertheless, any crisis not only leads to problems but also provides new opportunities,” offers optimistic Ageev. As a result, MTS is planning a raft of new services to reinvigorate sales. Ageev lists these as, “Gift cards for events of certain organisers, the launch of a last-minute sale service (providing an extra discount a day before the event), and the launch of ticket sales for streaming events.”

While diehard music fans are happy to secure their access to concerts and festivals in 2021, the Ticket Factory’s Howle observes, “Fair-weather fans are still reluctant to book. So, when we have a new on-sale, we are seeing the usual sharp spike, but the drop off is much sharper than we would expect in normal times.”

In Asia, Total Ticketing’s Gordon believes vaccine news is helping confidence return. “We have seen a definite surge in interest and enquiries, although the outlook for the early part of the year is still far from certain. Once events are on sale, uptake has generally been good, and there is definitely a strong appetite for getting out and having experiences again.”

“Tcketing has been at the front line of dealing with the downside of the pandemic, and will play a crucial role as recovery begins” — Jonathan Brown, CEO, Star

Tannen also reports heartening results. “Next year’s Primavera Sound sold out on Dice in record-breaking time – just over a week – while our exclusive Communion Presents series of socially distanced live shows […] sold out in a couple of days.”

Underlining that growing confidence, Casson tells IQ, “We expect consumer demand to be pent up from 2020 and even more events to be put on by promoters in 2021, especially in light of the news about a potential vaccine.”

But the story isn’t the same everywhere. “It’s certainly not the case here,” says Ionescu. “Sales are still down by 95% for future events, so events that sold 100 tickets per day now sell around one or two.”

However, local knowledge means Romanian promoters have been holding back on confirmed shows for next year, even where A-list acts are concerned. “No big shows have been put on sale for 2021, so we don’t have any numbers,” confirms Ionescu. “Small shows that have gone on sale sold just a few tickets, so people are still very careful about what they spend their money on.”

Future sales are not a viable prospect in South Africa, as yet, either. But Howler has used the lockdown period to concentrate on international expansion, with at least one solid result, so far. “We have signed an exclusive long-term ticketing deal with Spanish promoters Elrow,” says Evian. “This is one of the largest and most sought-after contracts in the industry and something that we are very excited and proud to have won, over all the global major ticketing companies.”

Also in growth mode, Festicket’s Sabban says, “We’ve experienced strong sales for those promoters who have been willing to go on sale over the past few months for 2021 events. Unsurprisingly, the appetite and demand amongst fans across the globe is huge at the moment – everyone is searching for something to look forward to.”

Live It’s Ward notes, “We are seeing stronger than expected sales for events planned for 2021, which we put down to pent-up demand and (currently) lowered competition for share of wallet in the sector.”

“2022 will likely be the best year the industry has ever seen” — Bryan Perez, CEO, AXS

He continues, “We are picking up a number of new clients who have found that their previous ticketing provider was no longer able to provide funds before the event – many of these are poised to go live as soon as they feel the time is right to launch.”

Hopes of the various vaccines may have injected a much-needed shot of optimism, but while those programmes will take months to roll out, international touring will remain unrealistic. But Dubai-based Anatoli believes that the demand for entertainment can still be met by a supply of local talent. “Our strength is the reach to the local audience,” he says. “Since traveling is currently restricted, we have seen a significant rise in sales for local attractions and we have become the leading OTA for most local attractions during this time, which is a welcome relief.”

And in Russia, there are signs that the market could come roaring back. “The easing of restrictions delivered sales figures above our expectations,” says Ageev. “The pace of market recovery in August–September exceeded our forecasts by 50%. Then there was a second wave [of the virus] and new restrictions followed. Overall, we expect the market to rebound next year as the restrictions again ease, with full recovery to pre-crisis volumes in 2022.”

As a result, Ageev and his colleagues are confidently making “big plans” for 2021 and beyond. “MTS aims to maintain a leading position in Moscow region and actively develop in other Russian regions. We are feeling optimistic about the future,” he says.

Industry co-operation
Across the live entertainment industry, Covid has proven a unifying force, with once-bitter rivals declaring a truce to work together to lobby governments. Whether such amnesties will continue post-pandemic remains to be seen, but in a number of territories, new associations have been set up that should ensure an element of co-operation going forward.

“The collective effort across the whole industry has been really heartwarming. And, although there’s always an element of rivalry between our companies, in ticketing we are a group of people that get on well as individuals,” says Howle.

“The virtual format helps grow the reach of quality content, bringing artists closer to their audiences” — Ashish Hemrajani, CEO, BookMyShow

“The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (Star) has played a really important role in uniting and representing the industry – the whole team there have been amazing. Star have facilitated regular online socials where ticketing companies can gather, crack open a beer and share war stories. These have been invaluable – there has been real comfort in knowing that you are not alone in the trials and tribulations of this pandemic.”

At Dice, Tannen says the pandemic has improved relationships with talent, as 80% of the livestreaming shows have been arranged directly with artists and their management. “We’re enabling artists to make the events happen,” he states.

Total Ticketing’s Gordon says promoters have rallied round to support each other during the pandemic. But he flags up one area where work is needed. “Venues, in general, remain a difficult area in Hong Kong with rental prices making the sustainability of small venues very challenging, whilst the larger venues are often exclusive with specific ticketing companies – a situation which sadly seems not to be changing.”

Sabban emphasises that the Covid crisis accelerated the need for greater co-operation, given the numerous festivals, concerts and shows that were hit by lockdown restrictions. “As ticketing companies, we all have a responsibility to the industry to offer fans a great level of service and make sure that a poor set of communications for a cancelled event or a delayed refund doesn’t put fans off buying tickets to their next event,” says Sabban.

That’s certainly the case at ground level, where K-pop specialist Belova reports agents have gone above and beyond, while, “Venues [have been] kind enough to propose mutually agreeable deals where penalties won’t be applied if acts wish to move dates again.”

Fighting Covid
One area of co-operation and collaboration that often goes under the radar has been the effort that companies have put in to help fight the coronavirus.

The Ticket Factory, for example, tasked its tech team with devising a way of selling socially distanced events and methods to collect and manage track-and-trace data. Similarly, Total Ticketing has been working on real-name ticketing and ID/contact data capture for track and trace. “[We’ve been collaborating on] how to use our seating algorithms to handle reduced capacity and seating layout restrictions, and how to handle electronic health declarations ahead of the event and on arrival,” says Gordon.

“Ticket protection is now genuinely a customer expectation” — Ben Bray, development director, TicketPlan

IaBilet used the time to create social distancing tools to help ticket buyers and promoters, while it also published regular newsletters for the 1,000+ promoters it works with to inform them of new laws, ordinances, and government measures, related to ongoing Covid restrictions. “But the most important thing I think we did was the Client Service,” states Ionescu. “Our team managed to keep the industry on track, and we kept the fans informed, the promoters informed, the authorities informed. We didn’t get much sleep for three months, but hard work is no stranger to us, especially during these times.”

Festicket’s focus on how to help organisers get back to business includes developments in track-and-trace ticketing; unmanned self-service scanning terminals that allow fans to scan themselves into events, thus “improving audience flow whilst reducing staff-to-fan contact points significantly”; and marketing cashless solutions that Sabban believes will be widely adopted in 2021.

“To make things even more Covid-secure, our egPay solution now offers mobile and self-service unmanned top-up stations in addition to a contactless system, allowing organisers who feel the move to a full RFID/NFC cashless system is not right for their event, to take offline contactless card and mobile payments. We’ve put a big emphasis on flexibility and ensuring we have solutions for all events and promoters,” adds Sabban.

Speaking on behalf of Live It, CEO Ward discloses that the company is launching an affiliate and promotion network. “We have developed an entirely new booking app and front end, and have support for socially distanced seating and dynamic planning for seated events in line with social distancing guidelines in different territories,” he says. “The Live It platform now has additional functionality allowing organisers to (optionally) require positive confirmation of vaccination or negative testing for attendees booking tickets and a process for managing the collection of proof of this.”

For its part, Platinumlist has developed an automatic seating-gap system, which Anatoly claims can maximise venue seating capacity while keeping groups of people safely separated. And 7,000 kilometres across the equator in South Africa, Evian says Howler created a Covid screening application that can pre-screen event goers for Covid-19 symptoms in line with government regulations. “This is helping event organisers successfully host events amidst the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Evian.

Lockdown lessons
Emil Ionescu at iaBilet believes empathy has been key over the last few months. “We learned you need a lot of empathy, understanding and patience in everything you do, especially in ticketing,” he says. “Empathy for the fan who spent his savings on a ticket and doesn’t know if his favourite band will play or where his money is; empathy for the promoter who needs information, a little pat on the back or a hug during hard times, and most importantly to know that his money – and future – are safe.

“Big-scale ticketing is about trust. So when we start rebuilding, ’empathy’ will be our keyword in everything we do.”

“We see great uptake for each and every event that manages to go ahead” — Pete Gordon, MD, Total Ticketing

Communication has been another key component during the pandemic, with a number of companies highlighting the importance of human contact. “We are proud that we managed to keep our phone lines open throughout lockdown, and that has been invaluable in providing comfort and support for our ticket-buying customers,” says Howle.

“All ticketing companies went into this pandemic not knowing how to deal with it, so we knew that having experienced staff on hand would be crucial,” says Casson. “Skiddle’s phone lines stayed open throughout the lockdown and we responded and solved thousands of enquiries each week. There were, and still are, regular government updates regarding events, and it is our job to make sense of these, and provide guidance to customers and promoters as best we can.”

“The pandemic made us stop and really think about what we could offer to the industry,” recalls Festicket’s Zack Sabban, who cites the importance of agility, communication and resilience. And he notes there are definite avenues of opportunity, as a number of clients have spoken of desires to “streamline their ticketing, travel, access, marketing and onsite payment processes with one provider.”

Dices Tannen contends that the advent of pay-per-view concert broadcasting has been the biggest takeaway from 2020. “We’d never had a conversation about live-streaming until March,” says Tannen. “Now it’s a huge part of ours and our partners businesses. But the real lesson was the emotional engagement that a live-streaming concert can create, fans love live-streams, and they’re here to stay.”

Agreeing that live-streams will provide new revenue streams to the industry from now on, Sophie Belova cites the ability of the pandemic to level the playing field, fuelling one of the reasons behind her faith in K-pop. “You are never at the very top forever and even the biggest names are vulnerable as well,” she says. “Younger audiences will return first, so [promoters should] consider hip hop, rap and K-pop as the top ticket sellers for 2021–22.”

Also concentrating on the paying public, Total Ticketing MD Gordon comments, “It’s been a challenging year for everyone in the industry, and remaining positive and supporting each other is critical. Customers have had a disappointing year too, so making sure they are looked after and know that they can buy from us with confidence is a key focus.”

Green shoots of optimism
As 2020 clicks through its final days, unfortunately there is still no green light for mass gatherings to resume. However, with vaccines already being given to patients in a number of territories, there is at least a shaft of light rumoured to be in the vicinity of the end of a tunnel.

“Any crisis not only leads to problems, but provides new opportunities” — Vladimir Ageev, head of strategy, MTS Entertainment

Indeed, some glass-half-full proponents are predicting that festivals may return to the northern hemisphere when the summer months roll around, although under questioning, uncertainty looms large when the subject of international artists is raised. The ticketing community is similarly cautious.

“My personal view is that rapid mass testing is going to be key to the recovery of our sector,” states Howle. “Once that happens, then this industry will be back with a vengeance.

“The diaries are already packed for the second part of 2021 and for 2022, and I truly believe that after this year of lockdown and misery, the public are going to be craving the excitement and joy of live entertainment and will pack our arenas, theatres and stadia once more.”

Live It’s Ward observes, “The events sector is traditionally not as impacted by economic recession as many other sectors, and whilst the global economy as a whole will recover slowly, events will see a V-shaped recovery as vaccination programmes allow the roll-back of measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.

“Twenty twenty-one is not going to see everything back to normal, but the pent-up demand from people wishing to get back to a level of normal and the ingenuity of the sector is already providing opportunities for growth and expansion into new sectors. There will be casualties within the industry from organisations that are over extended or were performing poorly prior to the pandemic, but there will equally be businesses that thrive.”

In the southern hemisphere, Shia Evian at Howler tells IQ that 500-cap, events are already reopening in South Africa. “We expect regulations on the large-scale events to be in place for another 6–9 months, and hopefully we’ll be back to full force this time next year [December 2021],” he predicts.

Anatoli forecasts a long road to recovery in the Gulf states, but says Platinumlist believes that autumn next year will start to hit 2019 sales levels.“We are selling a lot of events in December with even bigger plans in January and February, and I believe that by Q3 2021 the local market will recover back to its usual volumes.”

Some glass-half-full proponents are predicting that festivals may return to the northern hemisphere when the summer months roll around

Sabban agrees. “From the event partners we work with who have launched 2021 onsales over the past couple of months, it is clear that the demand from fans is huge,” he says. “We have no doubt that our industry will rebound and it’s highly likely that lots of new events will spring up once a return to some form of normality has arrived.”

Ahead of ‘normality,’ however, Sabban reveals that Festicket is working with event organisers to evaluate methods to introduce Covid-19 testing kits pre-event as a possible additional entry requirement.

Internationally, positive vaccine trial results are undoubtedly buoying both fans and organisers, and from an Asian point of view, Pete Gordon says, “It’s clear that there’s huge demand from customers to continue to go out and have meaningful in-person experiences with their friends and other people. We see great uptake for each and every event that manages to go ahead, so as the world starts to recover and reopen, we believe that it will be a particularly fruitful period for the industry.”

And with a nod to the continued development of livestreaming, Gordon says, “If the parallel income streams being generated by remote events continue alongside that too, then we think the future is bright indeed.”

That’s music to the ears of Dice. “We’re now seeing how successfully live-streams and live events can work in tandem with hybrid events – where you have socially distant live events with the opportunity to live-stream to fans at home,” says Tannen. “We’re at the forefront of something genuinely innovative. We’ve only scratched the surface, but there’s so much the medium can offer artists, fans, venues and the industry.”

Ionescu concludes that the need for culture and human contact will ensure a healthy future for the ticketing sector. “The comeback will be atomic,” he proclaims. “I am an optimistic guy, I have faith in people and in this business, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it for more than half my life.

“Fans will realise after this big break how important culture, music and entertainment is for the soul and their mental development.”


Read this feature in its original format, with additional insight from further international ticketing leaders, in the digital edition of IQ 95.