The Dream Ticket
Ticketmaster is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this month. We spoke with Managing Director Keith English about the humble origins of the business, the men who turned a small idea into a big reality, how the company helped bring international artists flo
Seated across from me in his brightly lit office, Keith English jokes with Hot Press’ photographer that he’s not used to doing photoshoots. “I’m normally the person behind the scenes,” the Managing Director of Ticketmaster says, with a friendly smile.
That’s true. The average music fan is unlikely to be aware of who he is. But the reality is that Keith English has been involved in the vast majority of major music, sports and entertainment events in Ireland over the past 20 years. Since 1997, Ticketmaster has grown phenomenally – to the extent that almost an entire industry depends on the company.
As the longest-serving Irish employee of Ticketmaster, Keith has seen it transform from humble beginnings to become one of the entertainment industry’s most vital forces. Can he take us back to 1997, when Ticketmaster was formed?
“The story began in Ireland with a local Irish ticketing business, Ticketline,” says Keith. “Two men, Tommy Higgins and Eamonn O’Connor, were the driving force behind it. They were going round from shop to shop, effectively selling tickets out of the car boot. And these were smart men. They recognised that this way of business was only going to take them so far. They were ambitious and they had ideas as to how they might make the whole thing more effective. They knew there was a bigger audience out there, but they needed a partner capable of delivering the technology if they were going to realise the full potential of the business in Ireland. So they reached out to Ticketmaster.”
Which was already a very successful business…
“Ticketmaster, at that stage, was already 20 years old. It was operating in the UK and Australia and other places, as well as the States. They could easily have turned to Tommy and Eamonn and said, ‘We can set up on our own, thanks. We don’t need your help’. But when Tommy and Eamonn went over to America and pitched their ideas, Ticketmaster understood that they had this incredible entrepreneurial style.
“Tommy would’ve been the strategist, if you like. He had the vision. Eamonn, on the other hand, had this force-of-nature personality, which he used, to bring clients along with the vision. Eamonn had also lived and breathed all these events – he should’ve been on the stage himself! He was an amazing character. So it was clear that these men could be trusted to deliver. Ticketmaster trusted in them, and that was the genesis of it.”
Ticketmaster arrived in Ireland on the cusp of the digital revolution. It required a huge investment – but being geared up to sell cleanly and effectively online transformed the entertainment business here, and elsewhere. Events that would’ve taken weeks to sell out were now done and dusted in a couple of hours. The demand had always been there in Ireland. Now it was being met.
The effect was that performers, and their agents, increasingly realised that Ireland was a really attractive place to play. You can never take the risk out of promoting, but the speed of the transactions and the immediacy with which information is available also meant that they were in a far better position to respond – whether by adding shows or investing in marketing.
“It was a virtuous circle,” Keith says. “As event organisers became better able to sell events, it became easier for them to attract international artists to Ireland. Events became much more frequent. And as a result, you started to see more investment in venues.
Vicar St. was built; the SSE Arena in Belfast; the Bórd Gáis Energy Theatre. They also redeveloped Croke Park and the Aviva
Stadium and of course 3Arena. All of a sudden, promoters went from putting events on in green fields to having purpose-built facilities – with all the associated cultural importance and employment opportunities. At a very basic level, that meant providing fans with a much better consumer experience.”
Ticketmaster has continued to invest in infrastructure, ensuring that fans get the very best service possible.
“If you’re looking for a practical example of the benefits,” Keith recalls, “I remember very early on we put two shows up on sale for Westlife at the Point Theatre. They both sold out in half-an-hour. Then we put two more shows on. They were gone in another half-anhour. Then two more – and so on. By the time we’d finished there were 14 nights sold. This kind of thing had never been seen before. And it came down to the fact that, finally, there was a platform that enabled the promoter to meet the demand.
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“Suddenly extra dates were possible,” he adds. “Suddenly artists weren’t saying: ‘I’m only going to London because I know it’s reliable’. They were saying, ‘I have to play Dublin, I have to play Belfast, I have to play Cork, because the audience demand is there and there’s a strong set of promoters and a reputable ticket agent that can safely handle things’. The same applies to the sports teams as well. If there’s a greater appetite for people attending matches, clubs want to know that whoever is selling their tickets can deal with the demand. That’s what we do. That’s what we are exceptionally good at.”
Since taking over as MD in 2013, Keith has been extremely busy, with thousands of events to deal with all year ‘round. Does he have a vision for the future of Ticketmaster?
“The next big project for us is digitising the ticket,” he says. “At the moment, we’re using barcodes – so someone scans their barcode and goes into a venue. But our intention is to move to a stage where we eliminate the barcode altogether, so that you simply bring your mobile device, swipe it against a reader, and in you go.
“There are challenges. With the digitised ticket, we also want to make it easy for the person who’s buying maybe three or four tickets to be able to pass them on to their friends or family. That’s important for the fan. But it is also important for us, because we want to be in a position where we, and the event organisers, can easily communicate with the fans. So, for example, if there’s a change in door times for, say, a Billy Joel concert, or any other piece of information that we want people to know, we can send it directly to your digital ticket. It’s not just ‘there’s your ticket, see you at the gate’; we’re having a dialogue with customers.
“This has actually had very positive knock-on effects since it was rolled out in North America. In the sports industry, they were able to recognise fans who were attending football games regularly, but who hadn’t been acknowledged, because their friend was always the one buying the tickets. Now with the digitised ticket, they’re able to see these fans. They’re able to alert them to deals, they’re able to offer them season tickets. They’re tailoring the service directly to the fans. That’s what we want to do here, because we always want to understand our fans and to give them the best service possible.”
Make no mistake, it will happen. It’s clear that Ticketmaster has been hugely important in driving the entertainment industry forward, in Ireland, since 1997. Their reputation for excellence is well-established 20 years on. But for Keith, and for Ticketmaster, the need to continue providing consumers with the best service possible is always top of the agenda.
Roll on the future.