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Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Learning the tricks of the trade

Our box office mole returns to spill the beans on one of the industry's oldest traditions – the Trade Night

Box Office Manager

I've just come into the foyer box office from upstairs to start prepping for tonight's show which starts in just over an hour, and one of the clerks is having some issues:

"But madam, I have looked under both of the names you gave me, and there's nothing under either of them. Are you sure now that there is no further information you might have? Seat numbers? A reference number perhaps?"

"NO! Can't you search again? It doesn't look as though you've got anything else to do."

That's a bit cheeky. I decide to step in, hopefully without belittling my colleague. Actually he looks pretty grateful when I appear at his side.

"Everything ok, James?"

"Well no, this lady says she has tickets for tonight and there's nothing here."

She is glaring at both of us now, so I ask her who arranged them for her, in lieu of any other information.

"My friend's nephew."

"Right, well what's his name? Would they be under his name?"

"I think it's Jason."

"OK. But what's his surname?"

"No idea."

It takes all of my human strength not to roll my eyes.

"So...does Jason work on the show or...?"

"He works on lots of shows."

I get a brainwave, I've just remembered that this evening is a Trade Night: "Does he work for a ticket agency?"

"Yes...?" She doesn't look too sure but I think she's getting as fed up with this as we are.

"Ah right, if that is the case then a representative from his company should be here soon. It might be worth checking outside. They'll probably have a clipboard or a sign or something."

And off she pops, returning a couple of minutes later to wave a pair of tickets at James and myself as though we have never seen such a thing before.

For people who don't work in the industry, a "Trade Night" is where huge swathes of seats are comped out to ticket agents, hotel concierges, tour operators, group bookers, and their ilk. They are a common occurrence when a new show, but especially a large scale new musical without massive advance ticket sales, is in preview: the hope is that all these seat sellers and influencers will be so dazzled by the production that they will tell, well, practically everybody, and, lo, unto us a hit is born. Trade Nights are very useful in terms of creating buzz about a show and generating positive word-of-mouth. Of course there is always a danger that they could have the opposite effect and when that happens and the show in question is a bit of a turkey (I've worked on a couple of these) then that is...unfortunate. In these cases, most people are classy enough to keep quiet (sometimes silence can speak volumes) but there will always be a couple of smart-arses who take to Twitter. Anyway...

These evenings are set up by the marketing department in conjunction with the box office; sometimes there will be a post-show drinks reception with the company which can be very entertaining, especially when you see a stone-cold sober cast member cornered by a hammered ticketing 'executive' with an axe to grind.

Productions that have been on a while also host a trade night or two when the business is dipping a bit, with the intention of reminding the ticketerati that the show is still on and still fabulous. Such is the case with our show this evening. All the tickets were printed out weeks ago and given to the marketing bods to distribute to their various associates.

Theoretically, it should be straightforward: a few of the tickets are left care of box office while the majority are handed out by representatives from the ticket agencies and group booking organisations. These reps are usually found front of house sporting a clipboard and an expression of clenched jollity, frequently trying to ignore their competitors stationed merely metres away. In practise however, what frequently happens is that people misread or ignore their ticket collection instructions emails (assuming they were sent one), fail to locate their relevant representative, queue for minutes at the box office then get shirty when they are sent (politely) away.

I nip out of the building to see exactly where the agency reps are stationed, so that I can direct people accordingly, and give them a quick thumbs-up. I can see two of them which is fine except that I'm pretty sure there were three lots of Trade Night tickets distributed. Hmmm....

At the half hour before the show starts, the box office queue is looking way longer than usual. As it's a cardinal sin (and rightly so) to mention the word "comps" in front of paying customers I can't, unfortunately, lean across the counter and bellow at the waiting throng that if they're here for their Trade Night tickets then they're in the wrong place. So we are just having to politely tell every other visitor that no, we don't have their tickets but a nice man or lady with a clipboard outside the theatre probably does.

Ten minutes before curtain up my phone rings. It's one of the ticket agents. This lady is a lot of fun, probably more adept at the partying than the ticketing to be honest, but we like her.

"Darling, I'm so sorry" she purrs. Oh dear.

"For...?"

"Well, I've just found a wad of tickets in my desk drawer while I was looking for a corkscrew..."

"And..."

"Well, they're for your show, for tonight. I forgot all about them."

Not very professional, but I actually groan. At least I don't screech "are you f***ing kidding me?" down the phone, which was my first reaction.

So that's why the queue is so long and there are only two clipboard-bearers outside.

"Right...so, do you have a list of names? I can print the tickets off as dupes this end. It's more important to get them all in at this point."

"You are wonderful. I'll email the list to you now. I am so sorry, babe."

I harrumph amiably and ring off. Sure enough, a number of the people we had sent away are now rejoining the box office queue with confused/worried expressions on their faces. I check my email, print out the list of names, reprint the tickets and hand them to the window clerks. Job done in less than five minutes, although it could all have been avoided entirely if only somebody else had been a little more efficient.

One of this agency's guests looks a little put out at being in row T of the Stalls. "Haven't you got anything further forward than that?" she trills. Yeah, so not in the mood for this.

"How much did you pay for your seat, madam?"

"Well, I didn't actually pay anything..."

"Exactly. So...have a lovely evening."

Grrrrr. It's amusing to us in the box office how a non-paying audience can often be trickier than one that has parted with their hard-earned money. Still, everybody got in, the show went up on time, and hopefully will get a bit of positive buzz as a result of this evening...and, hey, nobody died.

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