Air Show Ticketing and Ticket Management in the Digital Era

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On-line ticket sales are sweeping the air show industry, but is this service right for your show? The answer is a definite and unequivocal “maybe.” Some shows say yes and others say no and others are finding that a combination of on-line sales and traditional sales methods works best for them.

But no matter how you do it, managing ticket sales can be one of the most challenging aspects of putting on an air show. There are many ways to do it right and there is no magic formula that works for everybody, but one thing is certain: Successful air shows manage their ticket sales with a passion. They have found a system that works for them year after year, all the while incorporating lessons learned, refining their operations as they go.

Every successful air show producer will tell you that the first step to good ticket management is to find someone to serve on your committee who is detail-oriented and likes to do that sort of thing. The second step is to develop a system for ticket distribution and accounting so that you know where your tickets are, and how much money they represent, both before and after the show. The systems can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them. Some shows have successfully turned to on-line ticket sales to simplify all of their ticket management. Some shows use a blend of on-line and pre-printed tickets. Still others choose to stick with the tried-and-true system of printing tickets, distributing them to a series of outlets, then counting them when they come through the gates. All work.

What’s all the Fuss About?

To the uninitiated, the obsession that many event organizers have with issues related to ticketing might seem extreme or misdirected. With few exceptions, this kind of attitude about ticket management issues is limited to air show newcomers. Almost any experienced event organizer has heard countless horror stories about how casual treatment of ticketing issues has mushroomed into an embarrassing or expensive or financially devastating problem. If safety is our industry’s number one operations concern, then ticket management is the air show community’s top business issue.

At the very least, poor accounting of tickets and revenue generated by ticket sales can cause confusing and potentially embarrassing problems. At the other extreme, inattention to proper ticket management can encourage criminal creativity of a sort that every air show event organizer would prefer to avoid. So, if you think that ticket management is not an issue that you need to pay attention to, get a second opinion.

If It’s Not Broken, Don’t Fix It 

At the Amigo Air Sho in El Paso, Texas, they manage their tickets the old fashioned way. They design their tickets, sell sponsorships on the back of the tickets to cover the cost of production, and then distribute the tickets to a series of outlets. They print both pre-sale tickets and event-day tickets. And while they do use on-line ticket sales, it isn’t a big part of their effort.

“El Paso fans are last-minute purchasers,” says Executive Director Terri Todd.” We push pre-ticket sales, which have a lower price than paying at the gate, and we have tried on-line sales, but our fans prefer buying their tickets at a local outlet where they have purchased them in the past,” she says. Businesses in El Paso love to support four-color tickets and — for Todd’s team — this makes it easy to find sponsors. Four-color printing also makes the tickets harder to counterfeit, compared to one-color tickets.

No matter how the advance tickets are sold, they represent a significant advantage to a show. They help pay for the show before the gates open because — if people change their minds or if the show gets weathered out — there is no refund.

But managing the tickets is a big job for El Paso. Tickets are distributed in advance to sponsoring businesses, such as grocery store chains, banks, etc. The release of the tickets is timed to coincide with the beginning of pay periods, and a news announcement is made to let the community know when the tickets go on sale. Once distributed, ticket sales are monitored, and distribution points are re-supplied as needed.

“We use a chain of convenience stores and are able to deliver tickets to a master location. They buy the tickets and take care of distribution to their stores. But for other outlets, we still have to deliver to individual locations and collect our money only after the tickets are sold,” Todd said.

Todd and her team take ticket sales seriously. All tickets are kept in a locked room until they are distributed and only certain volunteers have access to them. Detailed inventory records are maintained, which reflect when tickets are delivered and cash is received. Inventory sheets are signed by both show volunteers and representatives of the ticket outlets when money and tickets are exchanged. When the tickets come through the gates, the stubs are collected and taken to the show’s revenue room for counting. They are then balanced against the cash received.

New Can Be Good 

At the California International Air Show in Salinas, they use a combination of on-line pre-sales for general admission and some of their upgrades, yet choose to sell higher-end upgrade tickets on the field. “We use on-line ticket sales for general admission because they are quick and easy to manage and pre-show sales help reduce our financial risk, but for some of the upgrades we rely on four-color pre-printed tickets because we want our guests to be impressed. And the stubs make a great souvenir,” said Executive Director Harry Wardwell.

For general admission tickets that are sold at the gate, however, Wardwell’s team relies on simple, old-fashioned roll tickets. They are fast, cheap, and easy to control. “Ticket rolls are controlled tightly by our finance director and admissions director. We keep track of the tickets that go to each gate and to each booth at each gate, and we reconcile the cash with the tickets throughout the day to be sure we have an accurate count,” Wardwell said.

At Salinas, only about 40 percent of their tickets are sold on-line. At the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, however, more than 65 percent of their tickets are sold on-line and the number has been growing every year. There is a strong effort to drive air show fans to the Internet. “We make it hurt to buy at the gate by offering a $5.00 discount for buying on line,” said Executive Director Judy Willey.

On-line ticket sales at the Hillsboro show have been so successful that Willey’s team has eliminated pre-sales outlets. “The only place to buy advance tickets, other than on-line, is at the air show office at the airport. We were leery about using on-line ticket sales exclusively, but people really like it,” Willey said.  In addition to the general admission tickets, a number of advantageous packages are also available on line that include:

  • Free admission to the Friday night show with a weekend ticket;
  • A free child’s ticket with a paying adult;
  • A $20 party pass which includes admission, $5 in food coupons and $5 in beverage coupons. This compares to $20 for a general admission ticket at the gate.

“We never offer our discount packages at the gate. They can only be bought on line, which is another way of driving people to the Internet,” she said. And every time a representative from the Hillsboro show does a media interview, they emphasize that no one should pay regular price for an air show ticket when on line purchasing saves so much money.

And even their sponsors like the on-line features. “Some of our sponsors like to include discount coupons on the back of their sales receipts. The coupons include a discount promo code, which the buyer can insert when ordering on line, saving the show and the sponsor the expense and management of separate discount coupons,” Willey said.

Another show using a combination of on-line and printed tickets is the Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda. “We use the internet to sell tickets in advance, but there is an historic precedent to sell through banks and other agencies in our community,” said the show’s Secretary, Gene Geronime. He said in the smaller communities that surround Punta Gorda, they are used to buying from local outlets and enough tickets are sold that way to continue to make it worth while.

All of their tickets have serialized numbers, which are recorded when they are distributed and the organization accepting the tickets signs for them. When the show is over, volunteers pick up any unused tickets and any money the distributor collected. “The tickets and money have to match,” Geronime said. Their tickets are tracked rigorously and — if there is a discrepancy — they work hard to figure out why. He noted most discrepancies are minor, but said one outlet came up significantly short of cash and they were immediately dropped from further participation.

And unlike some shows, Geronime said they have abandoned trying to sell sponsorships on the back of the tickets that they print. “We found that they didn’t do a lot for the businesses that sponsored the tickets and eventually there was no market for [this type of sponsorship],” he said.

At the Wings over Houston air show, it has taken them five years to make the switch to on-line sales. “We have traditionally distributed our tickets through local grocery stores which print the tickets right at the check stands. This saves printing costs and they provide us money and a report at the end of the show,” said Executive Assistant Janis Roach.

“We’ve seen a steady decrease in the number of people buying tickets through the grocery stores, however, and now we sell 90 percent of our tickets on line,” she said.  Besides the convenience and simplicity, she likes the instant reporting available with on-line sales “We are able to track our ticket sales immediately and at the end of the show we can prepare reports showing when people bought their tickets and when they showed up.  We can also show the busiest times at our gates so we know when to increase our staffing,” Roach said.

What if On-Line Ticket Sales Aren’t For You? 

The Cleveland National Air Show is another show that prefers to do things the old fashioned way.  They tried on-line ticket sales for two years and it didn’t work out for them so they have stayed with what they know best. Jenny Blue is Director of Finance for the show. “We print all of our ticket stock, use a major pharmacy chain with 56 outlets in the state to sell the tickets and they are allowed to keep $1.00 for every ticket they sell.”  She noted that like Punta Gorda, there is little market for ticket sponsorships, so they don’t even try any more.

Tickets for the Cleveland show are numbered and the numbers are never repeated. “Every ticket has a unique number and every number is in our data base. When the show is over, I can account for every ticket printed, whether it was used or not. The ticket data base is reconciled with the revenue data and the numbers are trended year after year,” she said. Blue also noted that their tickets and their revenue are audited by an independent auditing firm which helps ensure accuracy and credibility.

While Cleveland doesn’t use an on-line ticket service, it does have its own system whereby people can order tickets from their web site and pay with a credit card. People can also print out a ticket order form and mail it in with a check or provide their credit card information on the form. A shortcoming acknowledged by Blue is that tickets have to be mailed out well in advance or they will not arrive in time and there are too many gates for the Cleveland show to have will-call windows.

On show day, they like to use roll tickets at the gate. “They are already numbered, and they are easy to manage. On show days, tickets and money envelopes go out to each gate with the amount documented on a form and ticket numbers are recorded,” she said.  Periodically during the show, the ticket stubs and money are collected, put in an envelope which is sealed and initialed, and taken to the accounting office where they are counted and reconciled. But, she noted, they take it one extra step. “We have five experienced bank tellers on site during the show, and they record the cash, the tickets and any coupons that were used.  They count and sort, confirm the count, and package the money for deposit. The envelopes then go to volunteers who enter the data into a computer,” she said.

The Cleveland show also uses gate captains who are in charge of individual gates. It is their responsibility to make sure the gates run smoothly. The captains hold morning briefings with their team where they discuss ticket management:  i.e., what to look for, what to do and what not to do.  The captains are also given certain latitudes to resolve issues as they arise.

Blue’s husband, Chuck Newcomb, who is in charge of the show, insists on the detailed accounting and management process. “We take in a lot of money and have a lot of people handling it. Our rigid controls are an insurance policy for our show, but also for our managers and other volunteers. The more successful you are, the more you have to account for your money to avoid criticism,” Newcomb said. And because crowds always look bigger than they really are, Newcomb said the controls allow them to relate income to crowd size. “We are able to track our income on an hourly basis and we can spot problems quickly and correct them,” he said. By the end of the day, his team can tabulate the number of tickets sold in each category and produce a daily report on attendance and revenue.

But in spite of the successful systems they have in place, Blue says she believes on-line ticket sales are the wave of the future. “On-line ticket sales are a great idea and offer a great opportunity. For those who may be hesitant to take the plunge, my advice is to start small and test it out to make sure you are happy with the results,” Blue said.

The Wave of the Future 

There are major advantages to selling tickets on line. It’s convenient to the buyer. And even if the buyer doesn’t show up for the show, you still get the revenue. It also provides a data base that is extremely valuable when planning future shows. And when someone buys air show tickets on-line, they tend to tell their friends when discussing weekend plans. This invariably leads to additional on-line sales.

On-line ticket sales offer another advantage. Access to tickets is gained through the air show web site, so air shows are able to get their key information to fans right up front. When they hit the ticket purchase button, they can see a host of purchase options along with sponsor messages and air show information. They can also print their tickets with their own computer. This eliminates the need for a show to print its own tickets.

“If you have a complicated ticket menu at the gate, you shoot yourself in the foot because it slows the movement of fans through the gate as they decide what they want to buy.  But by putting these options on-line, buyers can sort through the options at their leisure,” says John Haak, the Motor Sports Division manager of ClicknPrint which is one of the most popular on-line ticket sales services in the business . This translates into fewer problems and gets paying customers through the gates faster.

But the trick to successful on-line sales is a starting price for general admissions tickets of at least $10.00 and a wide enough spread between on-line sales and the price at the gate. “To make our service worthwhile, air show tickets purchased on-line should be priced to offer a significant discount. The average is $2.00, but we recommend $5.00.  People won’t bother buying on-line if there isn’t a significant discount,” Haak said.

Each ticket is printed by the purchaser on their own paper and has a bar code which is scanned when it comes through the gate. The ticket is then returned to the purchaser as a souvenir and it usually has an ad on it and possibly a coupon that can be redeemed at an on-site vendor or at a sponsor’s store. Not only is it fast and easy, it cuts down on the problems of counterfeiting. “Once a ticket comes through, it can’t be used again, so if someone purchases a ticket, then makes photo copies for friends and family, the counterfeit tickets will be caught,” Haak said.  Further, coupons and vouchers printed on-line offer the same level of protection against fraud.

And what about the data that is collected?  First, email addresses of everyone who purchased tickets for the show are captured and these addresses can be used to solicit ticket sales the following year, something very important to the Oregon International Air Show, among others. “By having email addresses, we are able to send news letters out to our ticket buyers three times a year to let them know what we are planning. We also include ticket information which brings people back year after year,” Willey said.  She added that on-line sales have lifted a big load from the shoulders of their gate volunteers. “It has eliminated any confusion over sales and reduced the need for training sessions for our volunteers,” she said.

The Salinas show is another event that takes advantage of the data base that is generated through on-line sales. “We’ve been building a data base for 20 years and have used it to do a lot of advance marketing. Now, our advance marketing is much more cost-effective and we can design everything to send people to our web site for tickets as well as information about the show. People are used to buying merchandise on line, so buying air show tickets isn’t much of a stretch for them,” Wardwell said.  Internet sales also mean your site is open 24/7, adding to the convenience.

And what if a ticket purchased on-line is lost?  Internet records can be checked at the gate to confirm whether a ticket was purchased or not and whether it has already been used. If a ticket must be reissued, it will have a new bar code and the code for the original ticket is immediately cancelled, preventing it from being used by someone else.

Whether it is money or tickets, counterfeiting has been around for a long, long time. And, so far, no one has developed a way to prevent it. On-line sales, however, go a long way toward reducing the problem. Problems can come from unscrupulous employees at the print shop or it could be someone making a photocopy of a ticket they purchased. At the Cleveland show, a police officer brought in a man who was scalping air show tickets that were traced back to a radio station that was helping to promote the show. When they called to talk to the station manager, they discovered the manager was the man the police had in custody for scalping the tickets. “We’ve been around long enough to experience most of the fraudulent practices, but can still be surprised,” Newcomb said. Cleveland has gone to the expense of adding a foil stripe to some of their tickets, as well as to their credentials, to prevent fraudulent duplication.

Who Deserves a Free Ticket? 

Another bane of the air show industry is “comp” or free tickets.  “Comp tickets are a headache and require constant vigilance. My advice is to learn how to say ‘no,’” says Newcomb.  His show distributes nearly 6,000 comp tickets which is down from 15,000 in years gone by. “Two thirds of our comp tickets are now for the military that support our show. The tickets are used mostly for recruiting, but some go to military pilots who bring airplanes to our show so they can invite friends and family,” Newcomb said.  But even those tickets are tightly monitored so they don’t get abused.

Like the Cleveland show, the Wings over Houston show gets many requests for free tickets, usually from local non-profit organizations. “We don’t have a set number that we give out, but we entertain all requests and determine which are worthy,” said Roach.  This creates a dilemma that many shows acknowledge. The shows are, in most cases, non-profit events and requests for free tickets often come from other non-profit organizations. Some shows are willing to donate and others aren’t.

At the Florida International Air Show, they document every comp ticket that is issued and each director is responsible for controlling the tickets they have to give away. “It’s easy to lose control of comp tickets and that can have an adverse impact on income,” Geronime said. He acknowledged that some people get free tickets who probably don’t deserve them. Geronime says that they have not yet found a way to eliminate this problem, but having a full accounting of the tickets helps reduce it.

For the Amigo show, the biggest headache is the service vehicles. Drivers tend to bring in friends and family without paying for them, knowing people at the gate are busy and want to keep things moving. “Most people will do the responsible thing, but others do take advantage of us,” Todd said. Like most shows, Todd does a de-brief with her team after the show where the abuse of free tickets is one of the discussion topics. “If we don’t stay on top of the problem, it will get worse,” she said.

Wardwell has similar thoughts. “If one of our directors feels someone deserves a free ticket, he can fill out a request form and we will do it. We already give away a lot of tickets to children with special needs and they are usually kids who wouldn’t be able to come to the show otherwise.  We always try to weigh the benefit of giving tickets away,” he said.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.