Monday 13 May 2013

The BBC Proms booking system

In fairness to the Albert Hall and the BBC Proms, setting up a system that can adequately cope with a flood of thousands of people trying to book more than a hundred thousand tickets in one day is not easy. And though the system is not ideal it is also not the sort of disgrace we had up here with the Edinburgh festival Fringe a couple of years ago.

Before I get on to criticising I will note some things they get right. It is great that booking is on a weekend (as with the Edinburgh International Festival, at least for main public booking, and the Berlin Philharmonic). Contrast this with the Royal Opera House who use a weekday, which is problematic for people who work. Yes, some people work weekends, but fewer so a weekend is fairer and fairness is, in my mind, along with robustness, one of the most important requirements of one of these booking systems.

The key challenge is one of server demand. In an ideal world this would be solved by providing more server capacity, but resources are finite and even in these days of virtual servers I accept that may not be a practical solution. The Proms is not alone in this sort of problem: companies like the Royal Opera House and National Theatre have similar issues, though while I am not privy to the numbers, I suspect that in terms of number of tickets going on sale in a single day, they may have the biggest. As with the Royal Opera House, the Proms attempt to solve this with a queuing system. Again, this is broadly a decision I agree with. In theory it means first come first served and provides an effective way of managing the demand on the servers. In theory, that is.

On Saturday morning practice proved rather different. Clicking onto the website provided an over capacity message that meant I couldn't even join the queue. I therefore had to spend the next half hour or more constantly refreshing to get onto it (thereby increasing the server load and surely undermining the point of having a queuing system). I was not alone in this and some people seem to have spent even longer just trying to get into the queue. (That said, for all those detailing their struggles on twitter there were also plenty who seemed to be having a smooth experience: some people were through it all before I'd even got into the queue. I'm happy for those who were so lucky.) This process is wasteful, frustrating, and would seem to fail the fairness test.

At least once you're in the queue it did move fairly swiftly and you can always go away and make a cup of tea while you wait. I was number 5986 to begin with and it took about ninety minutes to get through to booking. I must note that while for me (and from the look of twitter many others), the queue itself was very smooth, this was not universal. A number of people seemed to have been booted out and sent to the back of the line. In some cases this may have been user error - it's far too easy to make a wrong click, but in a well designed and yes (again) fair system, this shouldn't be an issue. Indeed, for a heart stopping moment around 700, I feared I was in this boat as a result of accidentally swiping my trackpad with three fingers instead of four.

Once through the queue, the process appeared to be continuing very nicely. I completed the items that I'd pre-added to my plan and put in an extra ticket as well, then proceded to the checkout. And then it all went wrong, refusing to take my payment. Despite my repeated attempts to enter payment, each time it took me back to the same screen and not on to the confirmation screen I was hoping for.

At the top of the screen the minutes ticked away - you only have half an hour until the tickets go back on sale (which in theory is perfectly fair and sensible). As desperation mounted, I tried to phone. Alas, as phone booking is also available, getting technical support within that short timeframe was impossible. As the 30 minutes expired, I was told the tickets were lost, but they remained in my basket and I got error messages when I tried to remove them, replace them or add anything else.

I tried another web browser, but of course that meant going back to square one, and by the time I was in, the tickets I wanted had gone.

Now, as it turns out, this isn't just a bitter rant as I actually did get what I wanted. I e-mailed Royal Albert Hall customer services and they responded within the hour (which is pretty impressive given the load they must be having). I was surprised to be informed that they were pleased my booking had been successful in the end, which was news to me. I replied expressing my puzzlement and they phoned me back and confirmed that I did indeed have all the tickets I wanted, even though the website had indicated otherwise and I received no confirmation. (I can't fault the person who I spoke to, who was excellent.) So while it is a happy ending for me, it is a slightly worrying one and it doesn't change my underlying assessment that system is insufficiently robust.

I would make the following recommendations. First, it is vital that there is sufficient capacity to ensure everyone gets smoothly and easily onto the queue. This should not be difficult and I would suspect that if done properly it should result in less load than they will have suffered today due to the problems people had getting onto the queue.

Secondly, all aspects of the website should be robust. The sort of problems I experienced, with a total disconnect between what was being displayed and the reality simply shouldn't happen.

Thirdly, they might consider exploring ways of reducing the demand on their servers. (Though this would also have drawbacks.) The Proms plan, wherein you go into their website at your leisure in the weeks before booking opens and mark the events you are interested in is an excellent idea. This saves you browsing to all those pages on the day, reducing server load, and allows you to make your order in just a few click (assuming tickets are left). However, you can still go in on the day and book manually. Perhaps on opening day booking should be restricted to those who have filled out a plan in advance, with full booking opening up later.

Another way to reduce load would be to stagger booking and not open everything at once. The Albert Hall has a capacity of 5,544 (according to wikipedia). Over 75 Proms, plus chamber proms, etc. this is in the ballpark of 400,000 tickets going on sale in one go, which is quite a lot (even if the actual number likely to be sold on the first day is going to be a fair bit less that that - 114,000, as it turns out). How about staggering it over a few weekends, breaking the season in two or more? The Royal Opera house, for example, staggers booking for the season into four periods. You could also consider doing Proms passes and the like separately.

Finally, I would suggest they consider forcing online booking, and keeping the phone free for troubleshooting problems. Certainly it would be good to be able to resolve problems, if you have them, within the 30 minute window. Whether or not the Albert Hall and the Proms are interested in our suggestions, I hope they will be analysing their system with a view to whether it can be improved. Even if you have a system which seems perfect you should be doing that (and this one certainly doesn't seem perfect).

And for those wondering what Where's Runnicles will be attending, the answer is we have a pair of arena passes for the opening weekend and Finn has another for the Ring Cycle week (clearly he doesn't agree with my assessment that they've overdone the Wagner). Personally I'm rather looking forward to promming properly for the first time.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I took a look at the Proms web site to see just how it's managed. I've never understood why orchestras and Proms-sized festivals don't just have a big page listing all the concerts and seating options for each. You check off everything you want and click BUY at the bottom and that's it.

Instead, you have to navigate to every damn program and make choices. Oh, well.

But to get to the capacity problem. Most of the year, the Proms site is fairly static. It's only for a couple of months that they more capacity, and at the beginning of that period, they need enough to cope with being swamped.

In the Proms' position, I'd have my ticketing servers on Amazon Web Services or some other provider that lets you manage your capacity fairly closely. So they could have X servers from October to May, kick up to a larger number during the Create a Proms Plan period, then go up to the largest number of servers the day they start selling tickets, with some kind of dynamic allocation as the number of requests varies.

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for the comment Lisa.

I rather like the checklist idea. It would make things much easier and it's what they do for things like orchestra subscription bookings up here (albiet by paper rather than online). It can be a real hassle when you're booking a number of things on these systems (I find that particularly with the Edinburgh International Festival).

Also agree about Amazon (or equivalent). I don't know enough about the practicalities, but it does seem surprising that in this day and age they can't buy a load of extra capacity for the one or two days that will be a problem.

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