Why Do Festivals Persist With Drink Tickets?
With the festival season around the corner, MATT SHEA canvasses promoters from around the country about their attitude towards drink tickets – whether they use them, and if there’s a better system for the future. Photo by JENNY CLIFT.
Does a drink ticketing system actually work? This was the question on everyone’s lips as Harvest made its less-than-perfect debut at Melbourne’s Werribee Park earlier this month. The long snaking queues for tokens that greeted punters at the start of the day were eventually replaced by equally long lines for drinks by day’s end, causing some to question whether a two-stage transaction system was really the best option for a one-day event.
To his credit, promoter AJ Maddah offered to refund any unused tickets in the days following the event, and by the time Harvest rolled into Sydney the next day, a cash-bar system had ensured that the situation in Melbourne wasn’t repeated.
So, in light of Harvest Melbourne and with the festival season just around the corner, we wanted to find out why some festivals persist with a two-stage transaction scheme for drinks, and others not? Does it offer any benefits at all to punters, or is it just an easier way for promoters to control the float and, perhaps, cash in on unused tokens at the end of a long and boozy day? We posed these questions to promoters from around the country and the issues are perhaps a little more nuanced than you’d expect. It’s a touchy subject too, with promoters from Splendour, Homebake, Big Day Out and Meredith/Golden Plains declining to comment.
The Falls Music & Arts Festival
(Answered by Simon)
We switched The Falls Festival to drink tickets about 15 years ago. Honestly, the initial motivator was security. We’re an outdoor festival with temporary bar infrastructure and large volumes of casual personnel, which just isn’t conducive to cash control. However, having implemented it, a lot of other advantages of the system became apparent.
We can serve people at the bar so much faster. No one is fumbling through their wallet for the right money and bar staff aren’t having to calculate how much someone has ordered. It’s simple so it’s fast, which means less waiting around. It definitely did help with cash control and we pass that on through cheap bar prices. Running an efficient bar means we can afford to offer premium products and keep our bar prices down. Our system allows you to buy individual drink tickets but there are a couple of multi-ticket options and most people buy those – again making things faster and cheaper. The ticket options mean people pay only $5 for a full-strength beer and $7.50 for a premium spirit or wine, which is pretty cheap for a festival, concert, or even a local bar.
You do have to go to a ticket booth first, then the bar, but most people are familiar with this now that ticket systems are pretty common at festivals. If your queues move fast enough it isn’t really a problem. That doubling up is more of an issue at one-day events or where bars are in separate areas. We’re a multi-day festival and our days unfold at a pretty relaxed pace; no one is rushing about trying to do everything at once. Our bars and drink ticket booths are also located in the stage amphitheatres, so even if we had a queue, people are still watching a band.
Everything at a festival requires a lot of planning, but we have a lot of practice over the years of our operation, so it’s reasonably straight forward – and that includes the drink ticketing systems. I think it definitely results in a better overall outcome if done right. However, a drink ticket system does fail if the bar fails for whatever reason, so it is essential to have both well under control. Our bars have always run well so it hasn’t been an issue.
We don’t have a refund system for unused tickets. But because it’s fairly easy buying drink tickets, people tend to buy a bunch earlier in the day and then just buy them as they need them later. We have heaps of signage and our staff have briefs and scripts to verbally remind anyone buying tickets in the evening that they should only buy what they will definitely drink. Bridging that gap between when people buy and when people consume reduces the chance of any problems. Our ticket booths close earlier than the bar too. We do pretty much everything possible to ensure it isn’t a problem.
Every now and then you get a complaint, but you’ll never please everyone! Ultimately our system works pretty well and does deliver benefits to patrons over a cash bar. I think more than anything, most people appreciate that it’s pretty cheap and easy to buy a beer at Falls and that goes a long way towards keeping people happy. It’s not a system I can see being replaced anytime soon.
The Falls Music & Arts Festival takes place in Lorne, Victoria, from December 28 to January 1; and Marion Bay, Tasmania, from Dec 29 to January 1. Tickets and more details here.
(Answered by Matt)
We switched Peats Ridge to drink tickets in 2010. There are three main advantages to the system. Firstly, it allows you to centralise cash handling points at the festival, which makes it easier to offer EFTPOS and cash out services to your patrons at the same point, thus reducing the amount of cash that patrons have to carry. Secondly, by centralising the cash handling points you minimise risk of theft and it makes accounting much easier. Thirdly, and most importantly for a patron experience (if run well), it greatly speeds up service time at bars which reduces queuing time – something we've found that patrons dislike more than anything at a festival.
It works well. The only disadvantage we've found is if you do not have enough points for patrons to purchase tickets or not enough staff in the boxes, in which case patrons would end up queuing to purchase tickets. We always overstaff these points to avoid this. It requires some degree of planning to get it right – mainly around staffing and getting the ticket quantities spot on in relation to the different type of drinks on offer.
Criticism of tickets can normally be put down to poor implementation. If there is enough staffing and purchase points and therefore no queues it offers a positive experience to patrons as it avoids queues at bars and ATMs. But it is easier to run with ticketed drinks when you have a multi-day festival and we do offer refunds.
We don’t really get many complaints from festival goers about drink tickets. Occasionally you get a mishap, which no one can avoid, but generally things run smoothly. Overall, we are always overwhelmed by the support of our patrons and we get a lot of love back from our festival family. As for the future, it’s hard to say, although a lot of UK festivals are now moving towards a card system as opposed to tickets.
Peats Ridge Sustainable Arts & Music Festival takes place from December 29 to January 1 in Glenworth Valley, NSW. Tickets and details here.
(Answered by Paul)
We do cash bars. It can be a bit of an inconvenience with the drink coupons, I think. I’ve been to a couple of festivals myself where they use them and it becomes a bit inconvenient. You have people going to two different places.
I suppose drink tickets can be a lot cleaner from a bar perspective, because you can monitor the bars and judge the sales more accurately, rather than people skimming the tills and all that. We’ve definitely looked at it. Maybe when numbers get to that sort of stage – Future Music-levels – then possibly we’d do it. But our crowd’s an older demographic, and doing the coupons: I don’t think they’d be too happy about it.
It absolutely makes a difference how many days your event runs for. But a lot of these festivals that do coupons will do it in a way that you’ve always got a coupon left. You need two coupons, or three or whatever it is, so then you’ve got to buy another lot. It’s quite clever in terms of getting more sales. Then you’ll have all these coupons at the end that you can’t get refunded.
Criticism of tickets is in part the tickets themselves, and in part down to implementation. People like to organise their day, so any extra waiting and any extra thing they’ve got to do, they seem to moan about that. I suppose if the system’s put in place properly and managed well, it could work better. It just depends on the management and the type of festival that it is.
I’m not really sure if there’s a better system for the future. Unless you get a preloaded card – like a debit card that you swipe every time you buy a drink and it goes on the card. That could be another thing, and you’d buy the card when you arrive. I haven’t seen that before, but it’s something that could possibly happen.
Space Ibiza takes place on January 1 in Sydney, NSW. Tickets and more details here.
(Answered by Jerome)
We don’t use drink tickets. We did in either the first or second year – I can’t quite recall. Obviously we were only in the laneway [in Melbourne]. I believe at the time it was a liquor licensing issue. We had one of the shops in the laneway set up for tickets, but we also had roving people going around selling the tickets, which I haven’t ever seen anywhere else. So it wasn’t an inconvenience for the punter.
As the event got bigger we felt like it wasn’t appropriate having people wandering around, because that would just confuse things. And it’s not our preferred method of sale. It’s great for a promoter in the sense that if they do a good stock control, it’s perfect – it’s almost a foolproof system to verify where your stock is – but we have never really felt comfortable giving the punter that experience. We have done it in Perth, and it works in Perth. But the way it’s been set up there, the ticketing’s basically right next to the bars. So we have used it in some of the states, but we’ve also had a lot more room in some of the states, so there never was any congestion, whereas Melbourne’s always been a tight site.
People deal in cash or swipe card every single day. We feel that that’s just a natural way to purchase. It’s quicker, and people might want to change their minds. Having them purchase drink tickets, and then they’ve got to queue and hand over the tickets – the two-transaction system doesn’t seem right. The other thing is people being left over with drink tickets, and what happens if the festival runs out of product and you have tickets and no longer have a choice of what to drink? Of course, there are also disadvantages with cash bars. Money can go missing quite easily. Money gets wet from water or ice and then sticks together. Tills can get miscounted, and I guess the constant monitoring is another expense.
It wouldn’t change things for us if we ran Laneway over multiple days. It’s about the customer’s experience, and we just feel that handing over cash to a bar is normal – all the back-end stuff that we have to deal with like stock take and tills being out, so be it. Our focus is on the customer experience, and buying drink tickets is a little bit annoying.
In Melbourne, we expect a very high level of service. So if something’s not being done 100 per cent right, it just opens the doors: “That was a bad experience,” or, “That stopped me from going to see a band because I had to line-up here and then I had to go line up over there,” or, “Mate, are you telling me I have to hand over eight tickets for a bottle of water?!” When you don’t have the physical currency in your hand, you don’t get to make that choice. I’m 39 and every single festival I’ve been to over the years I always walk out with tickets in my pocket. Always.
Promoters selling odd amounts of tickets for drinks listed in even amounts, or vice versa: I’ve experienced that quite a few times. But I can assure you that it corrects itself very quickly, because of the backlash from consumers. The ones that want to treat their punters like they’re not smart get found out pretty quickly. It’s quite obvious when that odds and evens situation happens: are you telling me that the promoter who was smart enough to secure a site and secure these amazing headline acts wasn’t smart enough to work out that was going to piss people off? It’s pretty shady. And that’s why we went that route with Laneway – just to take out that grey area.
Surely, there’s a better system for the future. I’m talking to any teleco who’ll listen about some sort of solution to swipe your phone over some sort of sensor, it will debit your card automatically, and we’ll just hand over the beer according to how much you want to debit off your card. [Laughs] No, I’m not actively working towards that solution but that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do. We’re not sure what kind of system might be around in five years, but I can assure you we’ll always be working to make sure it’s a positive experience for the punter. If we can eliminate any grey areas, we will.
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival takes place in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Auckland and Singapore, over January/February. Tickets and more details here.
(Answered by Andy)
We do use drink tickets, yes. We didn’t for the first three years, because I was a little against the idea of double queuing. But we can get away with it because we’re a camping festival, and we’re over multiple days. So one person can go buy a lump first thing in the morning and it will carry them through the weekend. The biggest advantage is not having to carry that much float. You’re an hour-and-a-half out in the middle of nowhere, and you can’t hardly tell people that you don’t have any 50 cent pieces left.
I’d have to say the one disadvantage is the double queuing. Apart from that there’s not a great deal. They help an operator in regards to having a far easier float; you have to have five times the float to do a cash bar than you would with drink tickets. So it does help a lot in that perspective. It’s supposed to help with theft, but I’ve never been convinced by that, because a bartender could still give away beers just as easily. For me, security’s never been a major aspect. With the drink tickets it also makes the exchange a bit easier and a bit quicker over the weekend, rather than people having to carry their wallets around.
It does require a lot of planning to get a ticketing system right, yes. Number one is the location of your ticketing booths and the location of your bars. You need to make sure you have enough of both, enough staff, and you try to avoid at all costs having queues there. Despite what people might think, festivals can’t survive on ticket sales alone, so the bars play an important part in making festivals financially stable. You need to make sure the queues are fast and quick. If you do it properly, it can lead to faster, quicker service areas, because there’s none of this fiddling around with change and that sort of thing. In the one-day situation people are a little more conscious about shelling out a large amount of money, because weather and other variables can affect their decision to stick around. When I did one-day festivals, we’d never use drink tickets.
I think the criticism of tickets is in part the tickets, and partly the implementation. There is the technology out there now to produce quite a decent ticket. Something that’s easy to carry, something that’s not affected by water, and something’s that quite easy to break so it can’t be used again. But you need that preparation to organise the high quality ticket, which is hard for the one-day events.
It’s definitely easier to implement a drink ticketing system at a multi-day festival like ours. I think personally that it’s inappropriate to be making people double queue for one-day events. You’re not there for long enough to be standing in queues for too long a time. I had the pleasure of being at Harvest in Sydney, and it was great. But it was great also because we got there at 5pm – I was there until 10.30pm – and there were cash bars and the service was quick and prompt. So yeah, the number of days makes a big difference, and it took me three years to be convinced that it would work for Playground Weekender. Generally our punters seem happy – I was really surprised we got a lot of positive responses – but I’ve rarely heard any positive feedback from a one-day event doing it.
We definitely offer to refund unused tickets. The main reason is to encourage people to buy as much as possible and minimise queues. If you don’t allow refunds, you start getting into that position where people are calculating how many beers they’re going to have and not end up walking home with a load of tickets in their pocket.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced festivals misaligning the number of tickets you can buy with the number of tickets you need to get a drink. The hardest thing to achieve is working out a ticketing system that works for a variety of products. I think there are a few, though, that use a ticketing system and not provide a refund system, and that can be a bit naughty sometimes. It was sold to me as an advantage of why we should do it at Playground, and I just thought that was wrong. It gets away from the purpose. The idea for us was running our bars with less cash, a little bit more security, and a little bit more cost control.
There’s definitely a better system for the future. With Playground we don’t yet have very good phone reception on site, but it will be a credit card thing around your neck where you can go to the bars. You can update it, put your credit card details in beforehand. All your food and alcohol goes onto this card around your neck that you swipe at the till. The best thing about that is when you leave the site at the end, the difference can be put back onto your credit card. That has to be the way of the future.