Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Theatre token hell

Sometimes alternative methods of payment can be a bit of a nightmare

Box Office Manager
Box Office Manager

Aaaaaaaargh! I'm in gift token HELL.

OK, I'm being a bit dramatic…but it's a new decade, I work in theatre, so I reckon I'm allowed.

Just recently I feel as though I have been repeatedly bitch-slapped by the Theatre Token Fairy, if such an entity exists. Seriously, the weeks following Christmas have been like an extended episode of You've Been Framed…sponsored by the tokens department of Society of London Theatre. Loads of enthusiastic punters have received tokens as festive gifts and are understandably keen to redeem them. Without looking at them properly.

Don't get me wrong, I think Theatre Tokens are a wonderful idea. Unsurprisingly, so do several of the major ticket agencies, which is why some of them now issue their own versions, redeemable only with their own company and not at the venue box offices. This last fact doesn't stop some of the more cantankerous recipients misunderstanding the validity of their gifts and raising merry hell when this is politely pointed out to them.

We had a classic case earlier. An extremely rude lady, for whom the words "please" and "thank you" are clearly not in her vocabulary, imperiously got Paul, one of our most patient clerks, to check at least a dozen dates to find the seats she wanted. That's not a problem in itself, it's what we are here for, but at least try and be nice, we are doing our best. She then reverted back to the first performance and opted for the seats that had been initially suggested to her. Never mind, a sale's a sale. Oh wait…

Next thing, Paul's at my desk: "I'm really sorry but would you mind coming out to the front. This lady wants to pay with a voucher but I've never seen one like this before."

"Sure, no worries" I follow him out and the customer is glaring intently at both of us and holding a piece of paper aloft as though it's a winning lottery ticket, albeit with a look on her face that suggests that what she's won is definitely not something she wanted.

"Right. You're the box office manager are you? Your colleague" (she makes little ‘air quotes' with her forefingers around that last word, I hate it when they do that) "seems to be in a state of confusion about this voucher. It was a gift from my son."

"Right. May I see it?"

She offers it to me while still keeping a firm grip on it, presumably lest I rip it out of her hand and rush off to treat myself to a night at the theatre. I can see however that this piece of paper isn't a SOLT token but a voucher from one of the ticket agents operating around town.

"Ah you see, I'm afraid this token can only be used with these people" I point at the web address on the voucher, which she barely glances at.

"But I want to use it HERE!"

"I'm sorry, that's not possible. This agency already has your son's money. If you like I could put these seats on hold and you can nip to their nearest branch, get them to call us and you can pay there, although there would be a booking fee I imagine."

"I never pay booking fees. NEVER!"

"Unfortunately…" (Paul has retreated into the back office by now, incidentally).

"Do you enjoy being so unhelpful?"

"Pardon me?"

"I thought you people were here to sell tickets…"

"And indeed we are, madam, but so are…"

"Disgraceful. I shall tell my son that he has wasted his money!" (Eh? How?!)

I genuinely don't know what to say, but SHE has plenty: "…and I shall go and purchase tickets from a theatre where they WANT my business!" (Good luck with that). She turns on her heel and flounces out.

I call to Paul "you can come out now". He emerges, sheepishly.

"Sorry boss."

"No worries, not your fault. She's gone off to make someone else's day."

Fast forward a couple of hours to the incoming of that evening's performance. If we have lots of tickets to collect and/or sell, we sometimes suspend advance bookings at this point. However, this performance is nearly sold out and the cobo box isn't massively full so I decide we can carry on selling for future dates.

An elderly gentleman at my window is after six good seats for a few weeks hence. He's very pleasant, I find him what he wants and we get to the payment stage.

"I've got Theatre Tokens."

"Excellent. Let's see them."

He fumbles about in his briefcase and hits the counter top with what looks like a small, shiny brick. Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a thick wad of tokens, each one of them to the value of £1. A little piece of me dies as I realise that this nice gent is going to pay for £450-worth of tickets entirely with £1 tokens, all of which will have to be manually redeemed on the Tokens website before we can complete the transaction. I'm supposed to be doing Dry January but I'm definitely having gin later.

"Ok. Um. Wow. Right, I'd better crack on with putting these through."

"I've been saving them up" he beams.

"Ha! Yes, so I see…"

Twenty five minutes it takes. Twenty five long long minutes. Some of these tokens are so old they were probably issued before Andrew Lloyd Webber was born.

It doesn't help that some of them had already been redeemed, which further holds up the process….

"Ah yes, I couldn't remember which ones I'd used so I just brought them all with me" says my new friend as I grimace amiably through the plexiglass, aware that the queue is building up nicely behind him.

Finally we are all done, and my desk looks as though I've been playing a particularly unruly game of theatrical Monopoly, with £1 Theatre Tokens strewn all over it.

"You've been really helpful" says the gent and saunters off. Well, at least it's nice to be appreciated.

I am about to unplug the scanner we use to ‘read' the barcodes on the back of the more recently issued tokens when the next customer from the queue arrives at my window, and she isn't messing about:

"Right. I want one for tonight, within the first six rows of the stalls, and I'm paying with vouchers."

I attempt to override my sudden feeling of joyless nihilism by being ferociously cheerful: "well madam, your timing is impeccable as I've still got my zapper out!"

Oh god, why did I say that? She's looking at me in horror…

"Your WHAT?!"

"My, er, my zapper…my scanner" I wave the small plastic object at her, taking care that the red beam doesn't get her in the eyes; that really would be the last straw, temporarily blinding the patrons… "for the tokens. Anyway, let's see what I've still got available…"

I find her an appropriate seat and, thankfully, the voucher she has is one we can accept. She still looks at me with suspicion though as I hand over her ticket and wish her a pleasant evening. I must learn to keep my zapper to myself.

Due to all the £1 tokens, the final accounting for the day takes longer than usual but eventually everything balances and we can go home for the night. It's all good revenue, it's just a shame that some customers don't read their tokens more carefully; we may have weeks of this ahead of us but at least it means people are coming to the theatre and, hey, nobody died.