Confessions of a Box Office Manager: A box office system meltdown

What happens when your entire IT system collapses?

Box Office Manager
Box Office Manager

Oh no, here we go. The thing any box office bod dreads the most: a complete crash of the entire ticketing system an hour before a performance. There are agency bookings to pay in, cobo/will-call tickets to print out, there's show information to convey to the front-of-house team, and most importantly there's an ever growing queue of customers in the foyer waiting to purchase seats.

But we can't currently do any of that as we alternate between staring fixedly at our screens while repeatedly but fruitlessly pounding the Enter button, and grinning inanely at the potential patrons. They're all being rather lovely about it, so far, but I've seen mobs turn…

I am starting to bore myself with my inane smalltalk to the nice people at my window about how hot the weather is and how busy London is at present as I stall for time. At least my other colleagues know about the football (to the left) and the tennis (to my right) and are able to have informed discussions about that while we wait…and wait… I wonder if Joan and Mick from Swindon fancy a chat about Sondheim, or the Eurovision Song Contest results this year? If this damn computer system doesn't get moving shortly it may yet come to that ("which is your favourite? Company, Sweeney Todd or Follies")

In between the customer service-based floundering, I am repeatedly dialling the emergency mobile numbers of our two IT consultants who are supposed to be on stand-by. You'd think that, being a theatre, which means that Saturday is our busiest day, we'd actually have IT staff in the building at the weekend wouldn't you; yes well, you'd be wrong. Neither is picking up. I am not happy.

In an attempt to reduce the queue, I am periodically bellowing "if you're here to pick up tickets…JUST TO PICK UP TICKETS…please step forward and we can help you. For anything else I'm afraid you'll just have to WAIT!" sounding more and more manic with every pronouncement.

One of our clerks is French and I can only hope that none of the people in his section of the queue speak the language as he is repeatedly muttering "merde" as he gamely but pointlessly bashes away at his keyboard. I may have to ask him to stop actually, not because of the "merde" – it's all merde aujourd'hui – but because he might break it, and the sound is REALLY working my nerves.

After at least a dozen unanswered calls to each of the IT phones I make an executive decision. One of the clerks had the matinee plan for the Stalls on his screen when the system went down and we can still see it. Luckily, as it's a hot day and people would understandably rather be in the sun, it's only about two thirds full. We will sell from that, cash only (the credit card readers are directly linked to the computer system so are currently useless), handwrite the tickets, write down on a sheet of paper next to the screen which seats we are using, and hope for the best. We'll pay then through when (IF) the damn system ever works again. A couple of seats may end up doubling but the front of house staff will have to politely reallocate them: we are doing our best here.

I make an announcement to that affect to the assembled throng (the foyer is packed by now) trying not to sound like a man with a crushed windpipe. Many people yell back "where's the nearest cashpoint mate?" which is a fair question.

"Across the road a hundred yards up, or in the tube station!" I yell back, charmingly, "don't worry, we'll hold the curtain for you if we have to! Won't we?" I make eye contact with the house manager who gives me a cursory nod and then stares fixedly at his walkie talkie as though it might contain the answer to everything.

The next half hour goes fairly smoothly. The general public can be tricky but today they can see that we are struggling and they are all really kind. Well…MOST of them are. It's rather touching. The show starts only five minutes behind schedule (thank you team, there'll be wine later) and the cash drawers are overflowing. The computer system remains inert.

Twenty minutes later and my phone rings. It's one of our IT guys. He sounds like he's just woken up.

"Aw mate. I saw the missed calls. Haven't listened to the messages yet. Aw mate. I was on a right bender last night. Aw mate."

I feel the red mist descend but try to stay icily polite.

"Well, I hope you had a lovely time. We have just taken a matinee in with no computer system so…"

"Oh Christ."

"Yes, quite."

"I think I'd better come in."

"Come by tube, probably best not to drive." I hang up on him.

Within half an hour he turns up, looking like death, and goes sheepishly up to his office. I've no idea what he did next but within twenty minutes we have a system again and can begin the mammoth task of paying in all the cash. I do feel a bit sorry for him as, on top of the alcohol-induced paranoia, he's probably going to get a serious roasting from senior management on Monday. But at least he DID finally contact us…where the hell is his other "on stand-by" colleague?!

To the box office's credit, we kept it together, nobody got turned away, the show went up eventually, and some people got better seats than they might have done had we been working with a full seating plan. Not the most enjoyable way to spend a sunny Saturday though. But, hey, nobody died.