Tuesday 10 November 2015

Staggering! Booking for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival

We all make mistakes. To err is, after all, human. The important thing is to recognise when you have done so, and to learn from them, and to try to not make the same mistakes again. Also, it never hurts to apologise.

In December 2014, the Edinburgh International Festival announced that they would open booking for concerts and recitals before announcing the rest of the programme. This infuriated us as we like to immerse ourselves in the full breadth of the programme. Doubly frustrating as it seemed a rash and ill thought out decision, with little consideration for the impact it had on many loyal supporters of the Festival. For example, it was interesting when, earlier this year we received a fundraising call. We mentioned our displeasure at the staggered booking proposal, to which the member of staff gave a hollow laugh and admitted they'd had a busy time dealing with the feedback.

Still, it seemed the lesson had been learnt. Festival Director Fergus Linehan wrote a letter to all those who complained. This was subsequently sent to supporters. The matter seemed to be concluded and, credit where credit is due, we thanked the Edinburgh International Festival for heeding feedback.  Unfortunately that decision came too late for them to reverse their decision to put the theatre production Antigone on sale early, and because of that they lost the opportunity to sell a ticket for it to us (we instead chose to see it in London).

Sadly it is now clear we were wrong.

Last week the Festival announced a headline opera for 2016: Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini's Norma. They also announced that booking for it would open from 11th November. It is worth mentioning that in a sensible move (in line with common practice at virtually every comparable organisation), the Festival has finally moved to stagger booking by level of supporter membership. However, once again, we are asked to put down our hard earned cash months before we know any of the rest of the Festival 2016 line-up for the opening weekend (when the Norma performances are scheduled). It is worth revisiting here some of what Linehan said in his letter announcing the abandonment of split booking (apart from Antigone) last year:

"…many [customers] were concerned that having to book one half of their Festival without knowledge of the full programme would complicate their Festival planning."

He then stated that it was specifically because of this that the decision to split booking was being abandoned. It is difficult therefore to know what to make of the decision over Norma since it does exactly what he acknowledged last December many customers were concerned about. The fact that it affects only a weekend instead of the full three weeks is a difference of degree, not kind.

We assume that Linehan and the Festival are thinking of the booking arrangements for Norma as a repeat of those for Antigone. We'll leave aside the fact that the objections to the concerts/rest of programme split applied just as much to the Antigone arrangement given that plenty of regulars like to attend performances across the theatre/opera/music spectrum. (In an interview with The List prior to the Norma announcement Linehan talked up the existence of an audience "intellectually curious" across a variety of genres – it is a pity he doesn't think more about them when deciding on the booking system). The fact that we frequently meet the same people in the audiences across genres bears this out. Making an opera the advance booking event in this way creates an obvious and much bigger set of problems than Antigone did. Firstly, as already noted, it does exactly what Linehan accepted was mistaken (and which many people had complained about) last December - it forces people to book for an opera date without knowing what concert may clash with it. What if we book one night and then find the Berlin Phil is performing the same evening? But secondly, the likelihood of clashes and the problems of resolving them are made much greater. Antigone ran for two weeks and included a number of matinees. There were far more tickets and it offered far greater flexibility for changing to a different performance if a clash occurred. Norma will run for only three nights.

Following criticism of the decision on Twitter we were informed that it would be possible to exchange tickets. We wrote to the Press Office about this (in addition to a number of other points which we'll come on to). Exchanges, at best, would be a band aid for an ill thought out policy. It is hard to understand why an organisation would deliberately instigate a system that adds complexity and uncertainty for the customer, while at the same time adding administrative work for themselves. Most sensibly run organisations seek to do the opposite.

To be meaningful, clear arrangements for exchanges would need to be provided before booking opened for Norma and every purchaser of a Norma ticket would need to be entitled to exchange with a guarantee that comparable seats would be retained in all areas, at all prices, for all performances. Given the absence of information on the website we rather suspect the Festival hoped nobody would ask this question. The Press Office response makes clear they just do not regard it as a serious issue (which once again suggests the Festival doesn't know enough about some of its most loyal audience members). They informed us that free exchanges will be offered but with no guarantee that alternative tickets will be available. Given the small number of performances of Norma, the general short supply of opera in Scotland, and the likely high demand this renders the offer of exchanges pretty meaningless. Our advice would be not to bank on an exchange being available.

That said, it will be interesting to see if Edinburgh audiences are prepared to pay prices nearly 100% higher than last year. A point oddly unremarked on in other media coverage. Doubtless the festival have conducted research on the price sensitivity of Edinburgh audiences and finds them willing to pay London prices. (Well, London prices at the top end, but at the bottom the minimum is £30, and the minimum without restricted view is £40, rather higher than in London). Doubtless also the gripes we previously have overheard in Edinburgh Festival audiences at cheaper prices than these are not representative.

Worse, this practice devalues Friends membership. At present, for around £60 a year, you can be more or less guaranteed tickets to all the shows you want. Given the amount we spend each year, this is a reasonable fee. However, if we book Norma now, we may later find that it clashes with a concert we want to hear over the opening weekend. And sales may well be such that there are no alternative tickets. Yes, we have our Norma ticket, but we cannot do the other event that clashes. True, there are often clashes with the normal booking system, but full information allows an informed decision. True, Friends and non-Friends are equally disadvantaged, and Friendship still confers priority and a better chance of securing tickets. However, since the lack of information leaves us less likely to get exactly what we may want, when we fully know the programme, one does have to question whether one still wants to pay up. That surely can't be the Festival's intent, but this is what happens when you don't think things through from the customer's point of view.

Alongside our question about exchange policy, we also addressed three additional questions to the Festival Press Office:

1. What research of booking arrangements at comparable Festivals did the EIF undertake before taking this decision, and can you provide us with any examples of comparable Festivals who organise their booking in this way?

2. What formal audience research did the Festival conduct with its existing audience before deciding to stagger booking again in this way (considering that the proposal last year to open concert booking before the opera programme was known was abandoned precisely because of serious unhappiness among regular patrons)?

3. What were the reasons given to justify the decision to stagger booking in this way?

The answers we received to these (in so far as they are answers) we found staggering.

On the question of comparable research, the Festival inform us that "it is common for festivals to put events on sale separately". However, they do not mention any actual specific festivals or example events, something that should be fairly easy if it is indeed common. Perhaps they use a different dictionary than we do. Similarly, if they'd done proper research into the matter, which one might expect they would do in making a change to long established booking arrangements, specific examples should be at their fingertips. We can immediately name to the EIF five other Festivals we have attended in recent years: Chichester, Aldeburgh, Glyndebourne, Bayreuth and the BBC Proms - none of which we have ever known to operate booking in this way. A cursory search on the web of other festivals (Salzburg, Bregenz, Avignon, Aix) does not indicate to us that any of them do this as a practice. We would still like to be informed of specific examples since, without them, it is impossible to determine whether they are comparable. The only example we can think of is the Fringe. But this non-curated event, while wonderful, is not really comparable to the EIF. Not least due to the length of the runs of most shows, which mean it's normally possible to see most things you want to. It must, though, be noted, that we're not fans of the staggered (or should that be chaotic way) in which Fringe shows have been released in the past few years.

The EIF press office also made the extraordinary claim that "The Festival has put on sale individual shows in advance often." It is always disturbing when an organisation seems to have a weaker grasp of its past than do its customers. We have attended the Festival for 18 years. In that time we know of only two occasions when an individual show was put on sale in advance: last year's Antigone and the 2003 Ring Cycle. Nor is the Ring Cycle comparable to the Antigone/Norma arrangements. In 2003, regular audience members complained about being asked to book for the Ring without knowing about the rest of the programme and a summary of artists appearing in each week was then provided before booking for the Ring opened. If we are misremembering, no doubt the Festival can give us other examples which allow them to claim they have done this often.  Maybe their errant dictionary is at work again. As an aside, it is also worth noting that the Festival seems to have abandoned the idea of clearer earlier information - the full programme is launching three weeks later than in 2015. This is particularly frustrating, as when attempting to justify the music programme split arrangements, they noted that customers, ourselves included, had asked for more information further in advance. The festival used to do this under Brian McMaster, around this time each year, with a flyer detailing main artists and events in each week. This was more helpful for advance planning than anything Linehan has done. Would that it was reintroduced.

With respect to the other questions posed the Festival claims that "no objections have ever been made to putting single productions on sale". Again this is untrue, we objected to the Antigone decision last year and, as we've already noted, patrons similarly objected to the original arrangements around sales for the Ring Cycle. As noted above, there was a deluge of negative feedback to the proposed music programme split. It's also worth mentioning that during the dozens of shows we attended last festival, we ran into many friends and acquaintances. The subject of staggered booking came up several times, and while this is far from a scientific sample, we found nobody who had a kind word to say about it.

Finally, the Press Office made the following claim:

"We expect demand for tickets to be extremely high for this production [Norma] and early booking offers a security of booking. We have had a number of very positive comments…from existing audience members who have welcomed the opportunity to book earlier in order to help guarantee that they secure tickets."

Let us be quite clear about this: the timing of booking makes absolutely no difference to the likelihood or otherwise of securing tickets. Earlier booking does mean you know sooner that you will be able to attend something. So, if the Festival's argument is  that they want more people to travel to Edinburgh just to see one show then there is an argument for this, though this is not what their public announcements have said or the Press Office has indicated in its reply to us. Further, a high proportion of the festival's audience is locally based, and this is therefore less of an issue for them. However, we question whether people who travel for single opera performances would be less likely to do so because of timing of booking if they know the dates of the performances in good time. In effect this is the same confusion between timeliness of information and timing of booking which the Festival demonstrated over the concert/rest of Festival booking debacle in 2014.

One must also hope that few of the Festival's regular patrons are on holiday at this time as no advance warning has been given of the special booking arrangements for Norma. Doubtless they've thought of this too, and it's true November isn't prime holiday season, but allowing just a week between announcement and booking leaves them potentially open to very angry donors.

We have no illusions that the Festival will reverse course on this, not least because the way in which the decision has been taken, and the Press Office response to us, suggests a contempt for the views of loyal audience members like ourselves who objected so strongly on precisely the same grounds to the proposed concert/opera booking split last year.All we can say is that this policy is a serious annoyance to us as loyal International Festival regulars of nearly two decades - surely not an outcome a sensible organisation would seek to achieve. In many other ways Fergus Linehan is showing himself a canny and inventive Artistic Director. But on this one, as he himself effectively acknowledged in December 2014, he is just plain wrong and, worse, is now making the same mistake twice. The Festival still has time to do the sensible thing and reverse course. We sincerely hope they will do so.

Finn Pollard & Tam Pollard


Vecchio John said...

While I am prepared, and have done so, to come for a single opera performance, I would prefer to combine this with other events and not knowing what they are makes choosing a date difficult.
Regarding the high price just look at the current Salzburg programme and you will see that the top price for opera is Euro 430 which puts the EIF price level into perspective.

Finn Pollard said...

@Vecchio John - I'd be interested to know if the lower price tiers are comparable with Salzburg (particularly in terms of variety of different price tiers at the lower end).

Kate Calder said...

I agree with much of what you have said. I didn't complain about the early sale of the Antigone tickets early as I booked a matinee, but I did comment when phoned re fund-raising that it was a silly idea to book different parts of the Festival separately.

I was briefly excited to hear about the Norma performances, but felt differently when I saw the prices. I attend opera at Covent Garden, (and other UK venues) regularly. Top prices at Covent Garden are sometimes higher than the top price for Norma at the Festival Theatre. But a large number of tickets priced at £50 and less is available at the ROH when booking in advance, or queueing on the day. Some are limited view but many are not, and standing places and "slips" seats cost as little as £6. Scottish Opera has day tickets in Edinburgh and Glasgow for £10.

The top price for Norma is almost twice
as expensive as the previous top price charged at the Festival in recent years. Fergus Linehan has stated his belief that opera is an expensive art-form. He seems determined to prove that is the case, even though the experience of those of us who regularly attend opera is that it need not be.

Two general points about opera - and song - at EIF. Concert performances are cheaper to produce than staged performances. Some of the most memorable events of the last 25 years have been concert performances of opera, both well-known (eg the Mozart series conducted by Charles Mackerras in the 90s) and rare (eg the Rossini performances which Brian Mcmaster programmed) Those in last year's programme were excellent.

EIF directors in that period have often enjoyed spotting and nurturing talent, rather than pay a great deal for a starry name. Jonas Kauffman, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, Joyce Didonato are among those who made appearances in Edinburgh in recitals and operas earlier in their careers. The young soprano in The Rake's Progress - who I assume had worked with the conductor Andrew Davies in the States - was a fine example of an emerging talent given an opportunity last year.

I imagine that many festival goers would like these practices to continue, hopefully at similar price-bands!

Two points about this production of Norma. Like last year's Antigone, we seem to be promised an experience unique to Edinburgh. As we all discovered after rushing to buy tickets, Antigone had a long run at the Barbican, and was on television before arriving here. Norma, having been premiered a few years ago in Salzburg, was on in Salzburg again this year, in Geneva last month, and is in Monte Carlo in February. The promoters are still advertising online looking for other opera houses to stage it.

Finally, I am a fan of Cecilia Bartoli. I very much enjoyed hearing her in Glasgow a few years ago. BUT her voice is not huge. In the Glasgow Concert Hall, I moved my seat to hear her better. This production of Norma has so far been seen in venues with capacities of between 1000 and 1500. The Festival Theatre seats nearly 2000.

I live in Edinburgh, and appreciate the range and quality that the Festival provides over a number of genres. Like many Festival goers I can currently afford to see a lot of events - and do so! There are other Festivals where ticket prices are higher, but patrons go to see only a few performances. Edinburgh has never been like that, and it would concern me if it became a different type of Festival with a different - richer - audience.

Finn Pollard said...

@Kate - thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I completely agree about concert opera (thought the Festival had a good year in that regard in 2015). I have some sympathy about higher top prices for opera (though will local EIF audience accept such a leap in one go?) but I agree contrast with range of ROH cheaper options is striking - ROH is I think a model in this regard.

Post a Comment