Interview: Graham Burns On Secondary Ticketing

By London_Duncan Last edited 136 months ago
Interview: Graham Burns On Secondary Ticketing
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If you're eager to go to that sold out gig that you didn't hear about in time or get the best seats at sporting events like Wimbledon without queueing overnight, chances are you're going to be delving into the world of secondary ticketing. The traditional image of this market involves risky transactions secured with wads of cash within sight of the relevant venue, but increasingly deals take place online well before the day. Many individuals regard it as fair game to fund their own tickets by selling "extras" on auction sites. There are also plenty of full businesses with websites that operate along the lines of web shops and many of them are signing up to the code of ethics adopted by the eighteen-month old Association of Secondary Ticket Agents that aims to represent its members' interests at a national level while also providing a pledge of good practice towards their customers. Executive Director Graham Burns told us more in this interview via email:

What is the ASTA's definition of secondary ticketing?

Any ticket sold by someone who is not a primary distributor, the theatre box office for instance is a primary distributor. The person advertising a ticket for sale on eBay is quite likely not a primary distributor, though it has been known!

Which agents can join the ASTA?

Any agent in good standing, registered for VAT and operating from a geographically located address. This specifically excludes anyone operating from their back bedroom with a mobile telephone as the point of contact. We need to create an environment of transparency where the customer can see who it is they are dealing with and in case of any dispute have proper recourse to all of those consumer rights facilitated to say, someone shopping in the High Street.

"Touts", "scalpers", "rip-off merchants": agents involved in secondary ticketing attract some lurid language. How justified are the nicknames?

In some cases, very! There are some unscrupulous people out there and it is exactly this sort of person we, as an Association, work hard to try and combat. We are working closely with several official agencies trying to prevent the sort of activity alluded to by your question and it is not easy trying to combat operations working outside the law as well as outside what you would call legitimate trade practice.

Has the rise of eBay been a help or a hindrance to the secondary ticketing market?

I think that, without doubt, eBay has helped the secondary market. Online selling is a fact of life today and eBay work hard to ensure anyone buying or selling on that platform enjoys a satisfactory experience. I know the UK Operations Director quite well and he has allocated a great deal of resource towards the ticket selling category, attended many meetings with the various government departments and is very sincere in his desire to create a safe environment for both buyers and sellers. His department suffers from the backlash caused by the same problems of distribution and release by the primary sellers that my members suffer. One of the tactics used by the primary market to undermine the stability of the secondary market is the withholding of the supply of the actual ticket until the last possible moment. The UK is the only country in which this happens. Often tickets are not sent out until the last moment, even in the week before the event. On a couple of occasions this has backfired on the promoters, but what it generally results in is a very high level of calls from people wanting to know where their tickets are, which is only natural. This practice needs to be reviewed.

What do you think of event organisers and primary ticket agents auctioning off tickets?

Frankly, the best of luck to them. We operate in a capitalist free market, or at least that is the premise. I do however object strongly when my members are accused of profiteering. The primary market is becoming quite creative in its maximising of profit, adding extras like cruises to concert tickets. The latest wrinkle is selling you a special ticket which comes complete with a laminated pass that you can wear around your neck. This pass allows you passage to exactly nowhere! And if you send them an email you get a programme and a T shirt, all for an extra few hundred quid on top of the original ticket price!

If all secondary ticketing agencies shut-up shop tomorrow wouldn't both event organisers and their customers be much better off?

The event organisers would, certainly. They could then dictate the price and have exclusive control of the distribution. The general public however would not for those very reasons. What about the tourist, in this country for a week and wanting to attend an event that sold out within the first couple of hours six months earlier? Or attend Wimbledon where you had to enter the ballot months before the event?

That aside, this would create a market where the primary seller is operating from a position of dominance in the market and this is against the best interests of the general public.

Does the ASTA endorse an agent paying people specifically to acquire tickets for secondary agents as soon as they go on sale?

We are not here to dictate how people run the economics of their business model. However, I would suggest that if anyone believes that by having 200 people standing in a queue in order to obtain tickets, that that is how the secondary market obtains tickets, just consider the implications of that…. I would suggest that on many occasions the general public DO supply tickets to the secondary market. However, they are not supplying these tickets out of the goodness of their heart and indeed it is quite often this supply that determines the cost of that particular ticket.

What's the difference between the market for tickets online and on the street outside an event?

A world really. It is a requirement of membership that you do not engage in this practice. However, if you are outside a concert and someone is selling a ticket and you want to see it, it affords you the opportunity of doing so. For the less popular events, you are quite likely able to purchase a ticket at less than face value. If however you purchase a ticket online from a ticket website I would expect the purchaser to be afforded all of the benefits of all of the relevant legislation pertaining to retail sales. Anyone transgressing the law should receive the punishment that the relevant legislation allows.

What got you started in this business?

A genuine concern that the secondary ticket industry would be brought to its knees by the unscrupulous activities of a handful of people. As with anything, only the horror stories ever make the press and the millions of successful transactions and satisfied customers are unreported. It does not make good press! If you are referring to the business of ticket selling, I am not. Nor have I ever been. I do know that Patrick Barkham in his article in the Guardian recently said that I was an “online ticket seller”. He quite kindly offered to publish a retraction of that comment but I declined his offer as it was unnecessary trouble in my view. I have been called worse!

Aren't there easier ways to make a living?

Than what? Now that we have established that I am not a ticket seller of any kind I would suggest that there are ALWAYS easier ways to make a living. But I did not set out to make a living at this, I set out to make a difference! I much prefer achieving something, it is fun. I know, it is also an outmoded concept. Seriously though, my members are hard working people who have usually been in this business a long time. It is a very difficult business to get into because you can find yourself in trouble very quickly. You need to be of good character generally and you need to make a consistent profit. The banks need to have confidence in you as you are going to ask them to support what is considered to be one of the riskiest transactions in the financial world, that of “cardholder not present”. In other words you are going to take money from someone and they are not going to be there to enter the PIN number of the card they are using. You are generally going to accept that it is their card. Make no mistake, people do try to use stolen credit and debit cards for these purchases and it is the ticket seller that gets burned if it goes wrong.

If someone has had a bad experience with a member of ASTA what assistance or redress can you offer them?

In the second instance, contact us because I would assume that in the first instance you contacted the member, No, I am not being facetious, people sometimes come to us without first calling the person they are going to complain about. It is not just ASTA members that I receive complaints about either. But putting that aside, if you do not receive a satisfactory reply to your complaint, contact us. We WILL sort it out and we are even prepared, in some cases, to get involved even if the company concerned is not a member of the association. Losing the ASTA logo from your website is not to be taken lightly and in extreme cases this will happen. People are beginning to associate the logo with a trusted supplier and no matter what, people – the general public – like to know they have someone they can call if it all goes wrong. If our members fail to supply a ticket (which has not happened as far as I recall, ever) there is the 150% guarantee. This guarantee has now been adopted by the bigger online ticket markets, too, which just proves that we are leading the way with our customer policies. We are working with the OFT to try and receive official adoption of our Code of Practice. This is still a way off at the moment but we are heading in the right direction I am sure.

Can you explain to our readers the situation regarding the re-sale of Wimbledon debenture tickets?

In a nutshell, if you have a debenture ticket, you can resell it. If however you have a ballot ticket you cannot. Strange I know but at the time that was the solution which was proposed and then implemented in order to allow people to resell Wimbledon tickets.

What's the approximate secondary market rate for Wimbledon seats this year?

I have no idea so I have asked people I represent and at the moment they range in price from £200 to £2000 with a variation day by day. Expensive? Well not really when you consider that those people who hold debenture books, those tickets that can be resold, want £30,000 for the book of tickets (two tickets per book per day) for the fortnight. What this means in real terms is that since the advent of debentures the ticket price has quadrupled. Yes, I know what you are thinking and frankly I too struggle to see the benefit to the public.

Do you have any advice for the Mayor of London?

Lots. But he probably would not take it and none centres around the resale of tickets. I would like to hear him justify some of his views of the secondary market though. The secondary market provides something of the order of £500m, or more, in ticket sales, much of this in London and a good quantity of those sales are to tourists supplementing the much needed revenue from other tourist/visitor industries. We need to safeguard this.

Last Updated 29 June 2007