AFTERBURN REPORT 2012
No two ways about it, 2012 was a challenging year for anyone who had any connection to Burning Man tickets. Whether you were trying to buy one, sell one, or like us, deciding how and when they would be bought and sold, 2012 presented some real challenges. While the Ticketing Department is accustomed to being on the frontlines, this year everyone in the organization got a taste of the not-so glamorous world of Ticketing.
There are so many aspects of 2012 ticketing to touch upon, so let's start at the beginning: why the lottery?
We restructured the process of selling tickets in response to feedback from the community requesting improvements to the system. We've long been fielding complaints that regular open sales are unfair to those without access to computers at the appointed date and time, hours to give up to the process, a solid internet connection, or those in a time zone for whom buying a ticket meant not just sitting in front of a computer screen all day, but all night.
In an effort to establish a more fair and equitable system for distributing tickets, we tried the 'lottery,' more accurately described as a random selection process. Unlike an open sale, a random selection process provides everybody who signs up during the registration period an equal opportunity to obtain a ticket. Several other large-scale events use random selection processes for distributing a limited number of tickets. In fact, some Burning Man Regional events have been using this system successfully for years (including Flipside, in Texas). Our intention was to improve the buying experience and create a more equitable way for our community to access tickets, particularly in light of the reality that people wanting to attend Burning Man now outnumbered available tickets.
Supply vs. Demand
There were 40,000 tickets available for the random selection process, or 'lottery'. Based on past sales patterns, we expected to receive approximately 50,000 requests for tickets. Coupled with our planned open sale of 10k additional tickets in March, this appeared to be a winning combination: no advantage for people based on access to an online sale, and 4 out of 5 requests for tickets would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, that isn't how it worked out. So what actually happened?We anticipated demand for tickets in 2012 would be high, and that tickets for the event would likely sell out early, based on the following: tickets sold out in 2011 (in July), growing exposure on social media outlets, Regional events reaching capacity, increased attention from mainstream media, perfect weather and playa conditions at the 2011 event, and a population cap set by the BLM. Add it all up, and demand for tickets would likely outpace availability. But there were some factors we simply didn't anticipate.
First of all, perceived scarcity and the fear of being left out drove demand even higher. From the beginning, the random selection process struck panic in the hearts of Burners far and wide, and as a result many did whatever they could to try to increase their odds at getting tickets. While we understood some would take this approach, we didn't anticipate just how many folks would attempt to pad their chances of getting a ticket by having their friends and family register for the sale on their behalf. Of course if many pad their odds, there's now a much larger pool of entrants overall competing for the same limited number of tickets, which ultimately lowers the chances of any one person being selected.
We also felt the impact of a truly beautiful participant-made video that went viral just days before the registration period for the random selection process closed. Many of you probably remember Oh the Places You'll Go at Burning Man – it got over a half million views in just a few days on YouTube, was posted on the Huffington Post and all sorts of social media outlets, and is a truly sweet homage to Burning Man. But, the timing couldn't have been worse, as the excitement around the video translated to an additional uptick in demand for tickets.
In the end, the equation looked something like this: 2011 PERFECT WEATHER + 2011 TICKET SELL OUT + FEAR-INDUCING NEW PROCESS + WONDERFUL VIRAL VIDEO = CRAZY DEMAND. Add to that three different price tiers, each resulting in different odds for the random selection process, and we had a complicated situation.
Direct Distributed Tickets (DDTs)
For all of the frustration and angst in the community, however, the random selection process technically worked ... people registered, we weeded out known scalpers, and people bought tickets to Burning Man. However -- once the dust settled -- it was clear that many key theme camps and art project teams were only able to purchase a fraction of the tickets they needed for their groups. Ours is a city that is necessarily built through large-scale collaborative efforts of well-established crews, and those crews needed to be made whole so that the core social infrastructure of Black Rock City can be created. Many projects were fractured and unsure if they could accomplish their playa projects.
We addressed the situation by canceling the open sale of 10,000 tickets that was planned for March. Instead of releasing those tickets to the general public, they were used to close the gap through The Direct Distributed Tickets (DDTs) process. This was a hard decision to make, and the DDT process was far from ideal. DDTs necessitated a labor-intensive process of reviewing groups and distributing access to each ticket through a private sale gateway. Access to tickets was provided through unique computer-generated one-time-use codes. Each code was created, distributed to the teams responsible for allocating them, and then tracked (as to its usage).
While DDTs were arduous and tedious, we believe the process was necessary and worthwhile. Ultimately, thousands of tickets were sold directly to organizers of theme camps, mutant vehicles, art groups, and dedicated volunteers who normally buy their own tickets. Even though it was messy and hard, we believe it was the right thing to do for Black Rock City.
What about ticket speculators?
For those who believe the bloated demand was a result of ticket speculators ("scalpers") trying to gobble up our tickets and exploit the Burning Man community, that simply isn't the case. We utilized strict methodology to weed out their entries up front, and vigilantly monitored secondary sales to keep our fingers on the pulse of the aftermarket. We tracked the big scalper websites (eBay, StubHub, and others), and less than 1% of our ticket supply showed up on these sites. After August 8th (when the market was already flooded with tickets) did that number go up to 1.1%, an extraordinarily low percentage for any large-scale event. Scalpers turned out to be the bogeyman of the 2012 ticket sale.
Thanks to the community's vigilance and lack of willingness to engage in behaviors counter to our ethos, ticket scalping wound up not being much of a problem. In consulting with ticketing industry experts, the resounding response was that we didn't really have a scalping issue, just the perception of one.
We were careful to make sure that the terms and conditions agreed upon in the sales process included mention that Burning Man retained the right to cancel tickets that were being sold for above face value plus fees. We believe that behaviors involved in the resale of Burning Man tickets should be supportive of the 10 Principles and the community at large. So, whenever we could undeniably prove that someone was selling their tickets for a markup, we cancelled their tickets and notified them that they were no longer valid (since they had breached the terms of sale). We are committed to doing whatever we reasonably can to make sure that the ticket-buying community is not exploited by third-party resellers and speculators, while not needlessly restricting the behavior of legitimate ticket buyers. Our truest aim is to get tickets in the hands of the people who breathe life into Black Rock City each year and make it such a vibrant temporarily metropolis.
The Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP)
Ensuring that tickets were getting directly into the hands of Burners was one of the primary reasons we created the Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP). Other driving factors were the desire to establish a safe way for Burners to buy and sell their tickets without having to worry that they were selling them to people looking to mark them up and resell them. We also wanted to create a secure avenue for those concerned about their own personal safety while selling tickets to unknown people in person.
To address the concerns that scalpers would get a hold of these tickets, we restricted them to pick up at Will Call only and didn't allow any name changes. This meant that anyone buying a ticket through STEP had to genuinely plan on attending and since they couldn't perform a name change, they couldn't be resold for an inflated price.
Initially we restricted all STEP transactions to one per person. It quickly became clear that couples and families were negatively impacted by the policy and we upped the limit to two tickets per sale. While there are definitely aspects of STEP that we are eager to improve, overall it was a great success and helped to facilitate the safe redistribution of over 4,000 tickets among the community. In the end, every person who signed up for STEP received an opportunity to purchase a ticket. For the first year out of the gates for a new system, that's nothing to sneeze at!
Late in the summer another development affected ticketing: the BLM issued our 2012 permit and increased our maximum allowable population from 2011's 53,000 to 60,900 for 2012. We had already announced the public sale of 57,000 tickets (3k @ $420 in the pre-sale +10k $240 + 15K $320 + 15k $390 in the main sale + 10k $390 intended for the March open sale + 4k Low Income) and could not risk bumping up against that maximum. We decided to release an additional 2,000 $390 tickets: 1,000 to satisfy the remaining people waiting patiently in STEP and 1,000 via a registration required limited sale on August 1. Our aim was to square away those who had been waiting for legitimate, face-value tickets, while simultaneously taking the wind out of the sales of the over-inflated secondary market.
We decided to send tickets out later than in previous years because sending tickets out many months prior to the event created a needlessly large window for fraudulent schemes to be hatched, not the least of which being the replication of tickets and then selling fakes to unsuspecting Burners (sad to say we saw several of these schemes in 2011).
Another benefit of sending tickets later in the season was that we were able to include our Survival Guide with every mailed ticket order (for the first time ever!). At last we were able to marry this vital document with physical tickets. (We also created a fantastic adaptive online version of the guide for those collecting their tickets at Will Call and/or wanting to view it on mobile devices or tablets.)There were, however, definitely issues with the shipping of tickets. The ticket vendor's team in charge of executing fulfillment was not able to ship out orders at the rate we expected, and to make matters worse the initiation of the entire process got pushed back later than we'd originally agreed. Add to that the worst experience we've ever had with the US Postal Service, and we had an unfortunate situation on our hands.
At this point ticket buyers were already sensitive to all of the changes and challenges they'd experienced that they were justifiably frustrated at finding themselves in limbo with the shipping process, too. Some folks were so beside themselves that they were reading subliminal messages into which candy was included in their package (no message intended, the candy vendor just had a shortage of fireballs). If it weren't so upsetting it would be comical.
Ticketing Communications & Technical Challenges
Communication surrounding ticketing was certainly one of the biggest challenges we faced in 2012. We started off by letting folks know via the Jack Rabbit Speaks that change was afoot and providing a broad overview of what that would look like. Unfortunately, instead of serving as a "heads up!" as it was intended, the lack of concrete details ignited fear in the hearts of many stalwart Burners. Thus began the 2012 "you can't win for losing" game of ticketing communications.
We did our best to keep everyone abreast of ticketing developments in real time – we tried to carefully respond in the aftermath of the random selection process as a new landscape was rapidly being built under our feet. A couple of compelling blog posts were written to address the larger social issues at hand, namely Radical Inclusion, Meet the Other Nine.
Throughout all of this, there were technical challenges – both on the user side and on the system side. There were technical difficulties and less than stellar participant support from our vendor. These are issues we're actively examining, making changes to and improving for the future.
In 2012, the tiny little Ticketing office (a whopping two full-time regular employees and two seasonal staff) fielded over 10,000 unique support requests. Normally we see a small fraction of that. But to make matters even more difficult in an already tough year, our vendor's support staff wasn't handling our participant support in the way it needed to be handled, so we picked up a lot of the slack.
What About Identity-Based Ticketing?
Along the way we heard countless rallying cries for non-transferrable tickets, which is something we've considered at length. In addition to the enormous logistical challenge of checking IDs at the gate (and resistance in our community to doing so), the administrative cost of changing names on every ticket, the expected increase in wait times at the gate which would come as a result, one of our biggest concerns is how that would affect the beautiful acts of gifting that frequently happen with Burning Man tickets. It has been our experience that a great many tickets are purchased for giving away, sharing, or selling later to a friend in need. We know some events use non-transferrable tickets, but as Larry Harvey explains in his blog post on the subject, we're not convinced it is a good fit for our community.
So now what?
Well, we know that there is no perfect solution that will make everyone happy. Now that demand for Burning Man tickets has outgrown capacity on the playa (at least for the short term – we are, however, exploring safe, responsible ideas for expanding our population limits in the Black Rock Desert), there will likely always be folks left standing in the cold without a ticket. It may feel like a sad reality but the bottom line is that this is a sign of the relevancy of Burning Man; it has become something so many folks want to experience and be a part of that there's not enough room for everyone to come to the same event at the same time. But there is plenty of room in our community and in our culture. The doors are open wide and there are myriad ways for folks to be involved year-round and in all corners of the globe. So when frustration is high and everyone who wants one doesn't get a ticket to Black Rock City, try to remember that ultimately it's because more people want to be part of the community you helped to create.