Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Tale of Three Box Offices

"Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name/and they're always glad you came." - Gary Portnoy, Theme For Cheers (Everybody Knows Your Name)


"You're an office park without any trees/Corporate and cold, gushing for gold" -- Ludo, Love Me Dead.

When I started this post several weeks -- and even more drafts ago -- I had thought about obscuring the names of organizations to avoid offending and perhaps couching it as a broader assessment of box offices in general. But I'm afraid if I do that my thesis will be lost in the noise.

So if you read no further: The thing I, as a patron, am most fearful of with the Cleveland Play House's impending move to PlayhouseSquare is that the Play House will eliminate their own box office staff chasing the siren's call of reduced operating costs by outsourcing to PlayhouseSquare. If they make that mistake, I, for one can guarantee that both my attendance and engagement will drop following the move.

The box office is a patron's first -- and in some cases only -- meaningful contact with, and therefore, first impression of a performing arts organization. Before the curtain rises or the first note is struck, the box office is part of the experience that a patron is choosing to partake in. Unlike buying toilet paper or any other commodity, the patron of a performing arts program is purchasing an experience, an escape from reality--beginning at the box office, ending with the curtain call and encompassing everything in between.

This is a core tenant of the Disney^ theme park culture--Disney doesn't have employees, their cast members who are on stage. Things that aren't up to par are considered bad show, and bad show is to be avoided at nearly any cost. Everyone from the custodian sweeping the entry plaza to the Duty Manager running the park is expected to contribute to the guest's experience.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Before discussing those two organizations, any discussion on box offices is incomplete without mentioning the Cleveland Orchestra's Severance Hall box office. If you want a fantastic example of how to run a box office, look no further than University Circle's portion of Euclid Avenue. Policies that are fair (the ticket price at the start of an order is the ticket price at the end of the order) and a staff that is as individually unique and personable as they are unfailingly professional.

I'm on a first name basis with most of the individuals, and they know me. It's nice to see a familiar face week in and week out to exchange greetings and news of the day. If you spend any amount of time near the box office it's something you notice: Patrons greeting their "favorites" by name, offering birthday wishes or condolences; will-call tickets ready in some cases before the patron has fully approached the window. It's personal service that you have to see to believe still exists in 2010. Patrons are names and not numbers (though, frighteningly, I do know my patron number is off the top of my head).

When I'm on the fence between an Orchestra concert and anything else in Cleveland, 9 times out of 10 I'll default to Severance. Of course, great music is important is the service behind that. Would you continue to patronize a restaurant that has fantastic food but lousy waitstaff? The Cleveland Orchestra has mastered a perfect blend of both.

The Cleveland Play House's box office at 8500 Euclid isn't far behind... I'm not there that as often as I am their Eastward neighbor, but still the box office has a wonderful personality and I feel like I'm dealing person-to-person rather than person-to-robot-at-keyboard. The atmosphere is light and entertaining. The people obviously enjoy theatre and know about the programs they're selling tickets for. While I find the "order charge" that sneaks in at the last minute a bit irksome it's small enough not to cause me any bother.

At least one of the box-officers(?) knows me, others don't but regardless I'm treated with respect, humor, and it's the perfect way to get me into the right mood to enjoy a performance.

When I'm on the fence between the Cleveland Play House and anything except the Orchestra there's a pretty good chance I'll wind up at the Play House.

This leaves us with...
Corporate and cold, like an office park without any trees.
When I first started writing this post I was at a loss for an accurate description for the abysmal atmosphere of the PlayhouseSquare box office. Then I had to stop by CHPD's public service window to pick up a copy of a police report. I actually enjoyed that transaction more than any at PlayhouseSquare's box office.

The zest for add-on fees online has dissuaded me from attending more than one performance; just not wanting to deal with dispassionate people who could just as comfortably be selling gasoline and cigarettes behind the thick Plexiglas windows has turned me off from still more.

This box office demonstrates repeatedly that to them I am so obviously not a person, but at least 3 patron numbers--19049 the most common--I've taken to just giving that number rather than the blood-boiling routine of spelling my last name phonetically (Kilo-India-November-Golf-Hyphen,no,Hyphen-the-dash-Yeah-That-One-Charlie-Lima-India-Bravo-Yankee) six times to someone to whom I no doubt sound as muffled as they sound to me.

Online, I'm perpetually disappointed by the website's sense of "Best Available"* (usually the extreme end of one of the first 5 rows in the house--frequently with a vew obstructed by sound equipment) and not just irritated, but insulted, by the fees snuck in at the last minute ($7/per ticket "preservation" and $3.50 shipping and handling on a single will-call ticket).

The response may not be reational I wouldn't mind paying $140 for a ticket, but the prospect of having $10 snuck on to a $130 ticket at the last second has offended me to the point that I've abandoned a transaction at that point more times that I can count. The breakdown of fees is as galling as fees themselves: For example, $3.50 "shipping and handling" for something that will not be shipped and receives no more handling than if I had bought my ticket at the window. That fee, alone, has caused me to abandon more prospective ticket purchases at Playhouse Square than every other performing arts venue in the country combined.

The net result is that there are events I'm interested in that just aren't worth the hassle. I skipped Blue Man group because my level of interest didn't overcome my distate for PlayhouseSquare's box office (not PlayhouseSquare, just the box office). I haven't seen Billy Elliot yet--and may not see it--not because I lack interest, or because ticket prices are unreasonable, or any other excuse the pops up on a survey, but I just don't feel like dealing with their box office--either online or in person. Maybe I'll see it Friday, maybe I'll see it some other time -- it has good buzz.

So, if you're still reading thanks... if you have an differing view I'd love to hear from you. I hope that the Cleveland Play House realizes what an asset they have and doesn't misplace like an unused prop it during the move. Perhaps PlayhouseSquare can improve their box office -- every other PHSQ employee I've encountered have been passionate and enthusiastic.

And whatever you do don't get me wrong... I'm proud to live in a city with all three of these organizations.

^ - Disclosure: A step-relative works in management for Disney Parks & Resorts.
* - Particularly since the Cleveland Orchestra rolled out their new website with "select your own seating" powered by the Tessitura platform; it makes both PHSQ and CPH's Paciolan-powered look like something from the 80s.
**- Ok, so PlayhouseSquare sets the ultimate ticket price, PlayhouseSquare loads event data to the ticketing system, PlayhouseSquare sells the ticket to the customer. I really don't understand why these fees aren't or can't be included in the face value. I can point to airline fare advertising regulations, but this is seeming more than a bit rantish as it stands--though their policy of not refunding these exorbitant fees in the event of an event cancellation is one more reason why I don't generally buy too far in advance.

No comments:

Post a Comment