When refunding all tickets means going out of business, trust is the difference between sinking and swimming. Stuart Wood writes
How do you refund your event, if returning the money means going out of business?
Not an easy question, but one that I suspect many organisers and event promoters – both large and small – have had to ask themselves. The outdoor events industry is a seasonal one, and a lot of the people who work in it make their money in the summer. Those without money in the bank, who cannot afford to sit on their hands for a year, are in need of more creative answers.
Most of the major ticketing companies have opted for some form of roll-over scheme, letting ticket holders keep their tickets for 2021 if they want to. For smaller events, it’s a lifeline. “We’re working hard to try to look after the events themselves, as well as the consumers. It’s a fine balance,” says Mo Jones, Director at TheTicketSellers. Jones says that some of her company’s clients run smaller festivals, which are mostly funded by sales from the previous event. If they automatically refunded all ticket sales, they would have nothing left.
“We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for people to quickly log in, say “I want a refund”, and receive it.” But, says Jones, wherever possible they want to encourage people to roll their tickets over and support the event. “We try to make [rolling over] the default position, so customers don’t actually have to do anything. The announcement of an event cancelling is made, the new date is given – congratulations, you’re going in 2021!”
Jones says she thinks the ticketing industry will look quite different in a post-Covid world.
Jones says she thinks the ticketing industry will look quite different in a post-Covid world. “One big change we will see is the realisation of the risk that ticketing companies put themselves in. I don’t know if it will go so far as ticketing being regulated, but I certainly think there will be some strong questions asked by the underlying merchant banks,” she says.
The damage has been widespread and felt by everyone, but Jones adds that “audiences on the whole have been very understanding about the fact that many events aren’t happening this year, and have carried over their tickets. Our refund rate across the board has been quite low, which has saved a lot of events.”
Customers have been less understanding with some other ticket vendors. Resale site Viagogo has attracted criticism for its unclear policies on refunds, with money withheld from events that it says have not been officially cancelled.
Reader James Kindred contacted Access and explained how he had tried unsuccessfully to get refunds on tickets to Pearl Jam’s BST Hyde Park concert in July. Kindred says he had two tickets through Festicket, which he had no issues getting refunded. But a representative from Viagogo wouldn’t confirm to Kindred that the event was cancelled – despite the organisers releasing a statement cancelling the festival on 9 April.
Kindred says: “I’ve sent Viagogo emails from the event organisers [which state] that the event has been cancelled, and still nothing has happened. I’ve now logged a complaint through my credit card company which has opened an investigation. I’m also planning on lodging a complaint through the Consumer Protection Act.”
The difference between an event being “cancelled” versus “postponed to 2021” could be more sinister than just marketing spin. Access hopes no company would use this grey area to deny legitimate refunds to paying customers.
Viagogo continues to face legal challenges in the backdrop of this uncertainty. The company was recently ruled against in the Austrian supreme court, which ordered Viagogo to better inform buyers about the identity of ticket sellers before a purchase is made on viagogo.at. The platform will be held accountable if it doesn’t ensure sellers’ compliance with the registration and the disclosure of their identities.
In the end, it comes down to trust. Everybody is inevitably struggling right now, but consumers are more willing to roll their ticket over for a brand and a company they trust. Very few if any of the players in the ticketing industry can afford to refund all their cancelled events. Some would simply disappear overnight if all their customers demanded the refunds they are entitled to by law.
But by building trust through years of good customer service and transparent business, companies like TheTicketSellers have given themselves a fighting chance against the current drought of events. There is hope that the organisers of smaller festivals will still be kicking around come next summer, when they will be able to welcome those customers back with open arms in 2021.
A disastrously timed buyout
Viagogo acquired its main competitor StubHub from owner eBay back in February 2020, for USD$4.05bn. The buyout was disastrously timed – just weeks later almost all Viagogo’s ticketed events were cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19. To make matters worse, the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority is currently investigating whether or not the acquisition breaks competition law.
Ticketing watchdog FanFair Alliance warned that the deal would hand Viagogo a monopoly on ticket resale in the UK. Two other major ticket resale players, GetMeIn and SeatWave, recently closed in the face of negative publicity and poor financial performance. FanFair was supported in its claim by the managers of high-profile artists including PJ Harvey, Mumford & Sons and Little Mix.
A Viagogo spokesperson commented: “This is an unprecedented time for the live events industry, and we understand that customers might be left disappointed by the fact that thousands of events globally are being rescheduled or cancelled. In the case of Pearl Jam in Hyde Park, once we had received confirmation that the event was cancelled, Viagogo informed all buyers shortly afterwards that they could receive a voucher of 125% or a refund. For further information on this our customer services team is available.”