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 begin to open their doors again, new restrictions weigh heavily on organizations with a long history of welcoming public crowds nearly every day of the year. They are now faced with the task of formulating their operations to limit the number of individuals into their facility, and configure their experience to allow visitors to maintain social distancing standards. To scale their operation, institutions have been forced to think about implementing a timed departure structure, very familiar to the airline industry as well as shore excursion, walking, and motor coach tours that operate with limited availability time slots. After working in commercial sales, marketing, and distribution for a number of high volume reservation and free sale based attractions, I put together a listing of important elements to think about as your teams begin to lay the groundwork for your remobilization strategy. Hope some of these topics allow you to picture how your operation can optimize your new procedures.
Managing the Availability Bucket
For many museums and attractions, the distribution landscape has changed drastically over the decades. In addition to your direct bookings, organizations now sell through a variety of valuable third party distribution companies, from online travel agents to hotel concierges. I have always looked at commercial distribution as a bucket of availability, and each of these resellers is a hand that reaches in and pulls availability out of that bucket.
The bucket is your single source of truth. There are many hands reaching in and pulling from the same availability, however each hand has its own way of booking those time slots. Depending on your distribution channels, you could have call center agents booking reservations, direct website bookings, and online travel agents all pulling from the same availability at the same time. As a free sale activity, working with these resale partners is pretty seamless since availability is normally unlimited. When you are selling into limited availability time slots, a new system will need to be developed to manage all of the hands reaching into your bucket.
Close Outs & Stop Sale Notifications
Let’s walk through a situational example, shall we? You have 20 slots available for the 10:00am departure, you pre-book all of those slots 48 hours prior to departure. How do you let your resale partners and your internal sales staff know this availability is sold out? You may be able to close out the availability in your own ticketing system, but what about the other distributors? Depending on the reseller and the commercial tools you are using, managing this communication between the reseller is imperative to customer satisfaction. If availability has not been closed out, a guest could book a time slot that is already sold out, sending a ripple of additional variables to amend that issue. There are tools in the market that can be a key asset as you work to optimize your process which will be discussed later in this piece. But for those operating low tech, email notifications are the most common way of updating your resale partners of availability. Online travel agents normally have self-serve extranets for manual real time updates. Be sure to talk through the new booking process with each of your resale account managers before you implement new procedures for your team.
The “Cut-Off Time”, is the amount of time prior to the departure in which sales availability automatically closes out. Given the majority of activities are purchased within 24 hours of departure, the cut-off time can severely impact your operational logistics and overall sales. If a guest is on an OTA looking for activities the morning of a visit, and your cut off is 24 hours, it will show as unavailable. So, think about your own operation and each step along the way to a successful booking. Will a booked reservation need to be entered into a ticketing system before the client arrives? How will you be managing your source of truth? That is a big question when it comes to timed ticketing. For availability management, if a reservation must be in a ticketing system to pull the availability prior to the guest’s arrival, then depending on scale, the process for the insertion of these reservations is one of the most important elements of your commercial management strategy.
Yield Management 101
Staying with the same example, most distributors allow you to set limits for how many of the 20 available slots at 10:00am you would like to offer for each departure. So, if this is a high volume reseller you could set the limit at say 20. But remember all of your other resale partners are booking into those same 20 slots. So do you limit your allotment to that reseller and keep some availability for other booking channels? This is yield management at its best, and something the Airline and Hotel industries have been dealing with for decades. Understanding the volume of each reseller is important. If you limit the availability to a specific reseller this may hinder your sales if visitors are looking to book sold out availability. With this new reality, the changes in your operation may make you think long and hard about your distribution strategy and the channels you want to include.
With new social distancing requirements, many museums were forced to change from a normal free sale model, to a timed ticketed limited availability structure. Most facilities have not had to think about pre-booking reservations and neither have the visitors. If your facility requires reservations, what are your plans for the walk-ups that arrive? Will you turn them away at the door, or do you have a structured plan to accommodate these walk up customers into your reservation process? For commercial distribution, specifically online travel agents, will you be moving your listing to a timed ticked format, or will you leave your products as free sale and require additional customer communication to book a timed reservation? These are just some of the important questions many facilities are dealing with as they set a remobilization plan.
Guest Communication Vital to Customer Satisfaction
While there are a long list of variables for facilities, there is one key thing you can do that will improve the overall customer experience and your operational flow, and that is customer communication. The more visitors understand the expected protocol from booking, to arrival, and through the experience, the better you will be able to meet the visitor’s personal expectations. If guests are made aware to anticipate certain changes to their normal experience, they are much more understanding than if they are surprised in the moment.
Over communication during these unfamiliar times is encouraged. Take full advantage of your pre-visit messaging to your customer. Reminding visitors of important elements of pre-booking and arrival procedures, help to guide the customer and will decrease the level of in person service needed to control lines while keeping a social distance. Getting out front with the customer messaging is imperative. Making these new procedures easy to find on your main website is important, but also on the confirmation email, and on ticket fine print. Your website and OTA product listings are also valuable tools, making sure to update your listing content, post-purchase messaging, and voucher information will help to guide your visitors through your new protocols. Social media platforms are ideal tools for up to the moment customer messaging, be sure to use these accounts for operational updates as your protocols change over time.
Distribution 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 in 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.
Traffic Control Tools
For visitor attractions, the content within the facility is only one aspect of the customer criteria that makes for a quality visitor experience. From the ticket purchase through post-visit messaging, each variable the customer faces along the way can impact their overall judgement. With new social distancing restrictions, timed departures are one way to manage the volume of visitors, however it is more important than ever for facilities to examine the flow of guests through their space.
Key messages placed on easy to read signage seems like an obvious aspect of controlling visitor flow, however this may be one of the most overlooked yet impactful tools. With so many new protocols, strategically positioned instructions that find the visitor as they move through the space are ideal for real time crowd control. Although pre-visit customer messaging is also important, a good portion of these visitors will overlook this info and will need direction onsite. Understanding your specific facility design and flow of your guests is crucial in establishing signage to assist in moving visitors through the space and reminding them to keep their distance as they enjoy your attraction.
Device based multimedia tours are also great crowd control tools, strategically selecting tour stops and content timing to move guests through a space in a structured manner. Providing a web based, bring your own device option even further optimizes this visitor flow, as guests are able to access and load tour content prior to arriving or before they enter the gallery, no need to wait for a rental device. A well-developed tour can also highlight aspects of facilities that are often unnoticed, including elements that may be outside the building or hidden from normal guest flow.
The Future of Timed Ticketing
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 begin researching early in the purchasing experience, sometimes just after a recent trip. But the actual purchasing and booking of the activity most often happens last minute, even when they are already in the destination. For free sale attractions like museums, zoos, and aquariums, the majority of these products were purchased in market as walk up customers directly from the facility. The pre-bookings for many of these facilities came from a variety of channels, including direct website bookings, travel agents, and resale websites.
Although the pandemic has changed the requirements for travelers to enjoy attractions at this time, I don’t believe this has completely changed the purchasing behavior of travelers in the activities space. With that being said, I do think 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 they want to experience. However, there will still be a lot of room for in market purchases as there always has been.
So is time ticketing for museums here to stay? In some capacity, yes, but in general I believe free sale attractions including museums will work their way back to an unlimited capacity structure. A timed departure format is used to limit visitor volume at a given time, and I believe 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. What I do expect is that facilities will continue to increase their “availability bucket” for each time slot, slowly growing their capacity limits over time. However, I think 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.
What I do think the pandemic will do, will be to create more value in private and small group tours for those that are weary of experiencing the museum 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. In my experience, I have found specialty VIP experiences can quickly become major revenue drivers.
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.
During these uncertain times, focusing on the overall guest experience is essential. Customer centric organizations will lead the way, as visitors seek not just a fun and exciting experience, but a safe one. Providing your guests with choice on how they experience your facility is key to accommodating the breath of your customer base. Guests will each have their own comfort level as they begin to venture out into a world of new social etiquettes. As we all work to adjust to this new environment, communicating these expectations openly and honestly, and providing your visitors with tools to navigate these protocols will have an immense influence on customer satisfaction for the foreseeable future.
Odyssey Tourism Consulting
Windle, Alec. "Timed Ticketing 101: Optimizing Your Visitor Experience for the New Normal." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 15, 2021. Consulted .