Timed Ticketing 101: Optimizing Your Visitor Experience for the New Normal
Alec Windle, Odyssey Tourism Consulting, United States
AbstractAttendees will walk away with a high level understanding of timed ticketing distribution, processes, and strategic planning initiatives to take back to their team. Situational examples will be used for attendees to visualize how their own operations would react to real life decisions. Key distribution terminology will be reviewed to provide valuable knowledge for optimizing your relationships with resale partners. We will also discuss consumer behavior in relation to new operational procedures, and the value of customer centric decision making. The session will wrap up with a review of tools available in the industry to assist you and your guests with navigating the new normal.
Keywords: sales, distribution, online travel agents, reservations, timed ticketing, commercial management
Timed Ticketing 101: Optimizing Your Visitor Experience for the New Normal
As museums, attractions, and cultural institutions opened their doors again, new restrictions weighed heavily on organizations with a long history of welcoming public crowds nearly every day of the year. They faced the task of formulating their operations to limit capacity and maintain social distancing standards. To scale their operation, many institutions worked with their existing ticketing provider to shift to a departure-based distribution structure. This approach is familiar to the airline industry as well as shore excursion and tour companies that operate with limited availability time slots. Due to the complexities in a reservation-based distribution format, many institutions have chosen to only receive direct bookings and pause or end resale partnerships across the board, from hotel concierges to powerful online travel agents. After managing commercial distribution for many high-volume departure-based attractions, the following report has been developed to provide strategy, situational examples, and action items to help scale your availability management and reservation process and resume your valuable resale partnerships.
Distribution Landscape Prior to Pandemic
The distribution landscape for most museums and attractions looked very different just over a year ago. For high-volume and small institutions alike, resale relationships were a valuable asset to maximize turnstile numbers. Large online travel agents like TripAdvisor and Expedia were powerful traffic drivers in the attractions space and even smaller online distributors such as GetYourGuide and Tiqets were continuing to build their share of the market. Traditional travel agent partnerships led to group reservations, often booked months in advance. In-market resale partnerships for many attractions were a major revenue stream, including hotel concierge contracts, timeshare programs, and other local ticket sales outlets.
A variety of factors drove the closure of outside sales availability. A commercial representative with the Metropolitan Museum of Art expressed “complications in the redemption process and the additional steps for entry into the museum (i.e., selecting timed reservation)” as the main reasons for their strategic decision. They also stated that “the reduction of staffing to handle the vouchers” associated with resale tickets was another major driver. With the MET currently only receiving reservations directly, their internal electronic tickets are now accepted at the gate, scannable with a device synced to their ticketing system. Many of the strategic decisions the MET made were in effort to limit their labor cost and their staff’s physical interaction with visitors.
Supply & Demand Analysis
When attractions opened back up, the demand for many experiences far exceeded their limited supply. As capacity constraints relax throughout the country the product demand is not yet growing at the same speed. Over time, to maximize their attendance facilities will once again need to look to their partnerships to fill up their departures. With the reinstatement of cross country and international travel, online marketplaces will be key to competing with other aggressive museums and attractions. Although the revenue opportunities exist, how do you establish a distribution strategy that fits with your team’s processing capabilities and operational goals?
One of the most important elements of working with a reseller within a timed departure format, is the management of real time availability. It is important to understand that even if a customer is not booking directly into your ticketing system availability, to the traveler, they are paying for a live ticket. If your facility is forced to cancel that reservation prior to arrival, or worse have guests arrive for departures they booked that you are unable to accommodate, your relationship with your reseller could be severely affected.
To get out front of this issue, The MET has extended the expiration date to one year following the purchase. This way, guests that are unable to fit into a specific time slot, are given the option to reschedule for another departure. Although attractions should expect a certain percentage of no shows, allowing the customer to reschedule will alleviate wide scale cancellation and refund issues.
Cut-Off Times & Stop Sale Notifications
Most reseller communication revolves around the opening and closing of availability for specific departures. The “cut-off time” is the amount of time prior to the departure in which sales availability automatically closes out. These pre-established parameters allow you to set the timeframe that fits with your teams processing ability. Setting these automatically allows you to close out sales without directly interacting with the reseller.
Stop sale notifications are real time updates on the status of given departures. This communication can come in different forms. Online travel agents (OTA) normally have self-serve extranets for manual real time updates. Channel management software tools can be a key asset for managing OTA availability, which we will discuss later in this piece. But for resale partners that operate low tech, including many large travel agents, email notifications are still the most common way of updating your availability. Be sure to talk through the new booking process in detail with each of your resale partners before you implement new procedures for your team.
Processing Timed Reservations
Depending on your resale partner, each may have different procedures to inform your ticketing office of a reservation. Of course, direct bookings on your website go into your ticketing system availability, how about your other resale partners? In my experience, most museums and attractions work with their resale partners in a variety of ways. Because of the complexities of each relationship, the most successful operations I have worked with implement an internal process using a combination of the facilities internal ticketing system, channel manager (internal or external), online travel agent extranets, and stop sale email notifications to non-connected resellers.
Channel Management Tools
With the ever-growing list of resale companies, there are a variety of channel management tools to give you more control of the hands reaching into the availability bucket. These software products simply manage multiple resale connections, either through an outside user interface or linked directly with your ticketing system. Many attraction-based ticketing systems currently include channel managers within their software offering. So, when a traveler books a reservation on Expedia for example, the reservation flows directly into your ticketing system, and removes the availability slot for those bookings. This alleviates the manual labor of placing a reservation within a ticketing system and makes for a much more automated process. The implementation of a channel manager will allow you to scale your reservations-based booking structure much quicker and will decrease your overall labor cost.
Establishing a Departure-based Distribution Strategy
Gaining a detailed understanding of your sales channels, allows you to establish a formal strategy to optimize your departure schedules, sales revenue, and profit margin. Each reseller has their own value proposition and customer base, constructed by location, product offerings, price point, incentives and a number of other variables that make up the brand. Using this knowledge of the reseller and your own customer base, you can better select your valued resale partners and use the channels strategically to optimize not just your attendance, but your profit margins.
Groupon is a good reseller example as most facilities are familiar with this resale channel either personal or professional. Groupon is an extremely valuable channel for many facilities, however there are variables that don’t always work for some organizations. The pricing discount in addition to the OTA commission needed to have a successful listing, sometimes doesn’t make sense for an institution that is selling out most of their availability directly on their website, without any commission. On the other side, Groupon may be a great option for a facility that is looking to pull in a new market and gain new customers; it is also a great option for off peak departures, maybe in the afternoon during the week. This reseller relationship is a great example of using your external channels to build more demand for your off-peak departures, while keeping your high value departures for internal/direct sales.
Using internal data from your ticketing system to better understand your demand at given departures will help to better allocate your high value time slots to the most profitable distribution channels. For example, your weekend afternoon departures are always full under your current capacity limit and is often viewed with no availability. It would not make sense to extend these departures to resellers that require a hefty commission. If you are able to book these departures solid with just internal bookings, by all means continue to do so. Data from your system will help you to gain knowledge on how your customers are booking your facility, to better optimize the channels these departures are distributed through.
Threshold Based Availability Management
How are you going to accommodate the departure-based distribution strategy with multiple resellers while optimizing your revenue for direct bookings? One of the most successful, low tech strategies, is to use a specific threshold number for availability, to separate outside resellers of your product vs. keeping a block of availability for internal sales that does not have commission related to it.
A facility could keep all departures open to resellers up to 48 hours of the departure. They could set their reseller cut-off times to 48 hours, to automatically block out sales. This allows you to sell the remaining departure slots directly to customers without a commission 48 hours up to the departure.
Leaving availability blocks open also allows you to strategize on accommodating walk-up customers again. In speaking with the MET commercial team, they informed me that they “take them in on a case-by-case basis, with the consideration that there is a moderate percentage of no-shows for timed reservation holders.” Given the MET has extended the use of their tickets for a year following purchase, the no-shows on specific departures are then resold in-person. They anticipated their visitor’s buying behavior and made concessions in their fine print to get out front of expected issues, helping to optimize their in-market ticket sales.
Flexing Your Distribution Strategy with Traveler Behavior
To get a better idea of traveler purchasing behavior moving forward, I think it is important to understand the purchasing landscape prior to the pandemic. According to Arival, a leading in-destination research firm, in 2018 nearly 50% of all attractions were purchased within 1-2 days of the trip, with less than 15% booking 1-4 weeks out. Travelers often began researching early in the purchasing experience, sometimes just after a recent trip. But the actual booking of the activity happened last minute, often when the traveler was in-destination.
Respected travel media company Skift produced an ‘Online Travel & Distribution Summit” recently, in which they discussed the surge of spontaneous travel following the pandemic. They stated that this shift has taken the overall travel booking window to 2-3 days at this time. For airlines and hotels, this thought process is drastically different than prior to the pandemic. These two comparative studies show that the purchasing behavior for activities is still similar to before the pandemic.
Since travelers are aware of the limited capacity, there will be more of a tendency for travelers to book their primary activities prior to their arrival, to make sure that they lock in their space on the key attractions. However, looking at the purchasing patterns, there will still be a lot of room for in market purchases as there always has been. Being able to accommodate these last-minute bookings and walk-up traffic will be a way to separate your facility from others in your market.
The Future of Timed Ticketing
Is time ticketing here to stay? In some capacity, yes, but in general as capacity restrictions are lifted, museums will work their way back to a free sale model. A timed departure format is used to limit visitor volume at a given time, and institutions will strive to continue to be places where travelers and locals alike can experience the facility with only the ticket price as the barrier for entry. Facilities will continue to increase the size of their “availability bucket”, slowly growing their capacity limits over time. However, this all comes down to how each facility is regulating capacity vs. their demand. Using the timed ticketing format, may help you manage high volume days, and keep below a “safe” threshold. For example, the MET has instated a separate reservation process for their special temporary exhibits currently and anticipate continuing this format in the future.
The changes in customer behavior during the pandemic will create more value in private and small group tours for those that are weary of experiencing museums in big crowds. The ability to offer a “safer” option for this customer segment could be a key revenue driver, as white glove customer service will be even more valued on the other side of the pandemic. VIP tours and behind the scenes experiences are highly sought after and can be listed at higher retail prices. Sell these specialty experiences through your resale partners to get more visibility, and because of the increased price, you can work the commission into the retail price. Special experience products are valuable marketing tools for online travel agents that often prioritize them in placement, driving traffic to your general admission numbers as well.
Although it is easy to get bogged down with analyzing your own internal processes, remember that the customer experience is much more important than how things look behind the curtain. Formulate procedures that work for your team and set-up the smoothest route possible for your visitors. You can tinker with your processes over time, but negative customer sentiments are much more difficult to repair.
Windle, Alec. "Timed Ticketing 101: Optimizing Your Visitor Experience for the New Normal." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 15, 2021. Consulted .