May 27, 2011, 4:18 PM

Online bidding fills seats for the National Ballet of Canada

The ballet company is selling more tickets and expanding its customer base.

Lead Photo

With bidding service Price Whispers, consumers can bid online for discount tickets and sit next to the rich folks in prime orchestra-level seats at the National Ballet of Canada. “There’s a huge appetite for ballet—if we price it right,” says Julia Drake, director of communications and manager of the box office at the Toronto-based National Ballet.

Drake oversees the ongoing challenge of filling seats at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the ballet company’s several performances each year. But while the company has a strong base of subscribers who pay full price for season tickets, it also engages in a complicated mix of discounting to help meet the large share of its expenses not covered by fundraising and government support.

DanceBreak, a program for young people aged 16 to 29, lets ballet fans go online at the night before a performance and pay $30 for any seat still available. “Register with DanceBreak, and you can buy a ticket available the night before a performance for $30—you could be sitting in a seat next to someone who paid $170,” Drake says.

The DanceBreak program has worked well at persuading more young people to become repeat attendees, she says. The downside for DanceBreak users is that they never know if any seats will be available when they log on the night before a performance.

To make the offering more convenient, the National Ballet recently began offering another option through Price Whispers Inc., a provider of an online bidding technology. The new service lets consumers 16 to 29 bid online through DanceBreak days or weeks before a show for guaranteed tickets. The minimum bid is set much higher than $30, but buyers can still pay less than half of full price for prime orchestra-level seats, Drake says.

“They tell us how much they would pay, such as $60, $70 or $80, then they quickly receive an e-mail from us saying if we’ve accepted their bid,” she says. Winning bidders then click to the ballet company’s site to complete purchases.

The system has not only helped to fill seats at the highest possible price that otherwise would have gone unsold, but it also has encouraged young people’s interest in ballet by offering them another way to obtain a guaranteed but affordable ticket, Drake says. “They get to the point where they don’t want to risk not getting a seat, but still don’t want to pay full price,” she says. “And they know they’re still getting a great deal, but are getting used to paying more than $30.”

Drake says she’s also beginning to experiment with using Price Whispers for other customer segments. Subscribers who typically sit in upper mezzanine levels, for example, may receive e-mail offers to bid through Price Whispers for the chance to pay a little more for a seat in the orchestra level.

“But what works for one show, may not work for another,” she says, adding that the box office constantly monitors ticket selling to determine whether it needs to provide more discount offers to fill seats. “And our biggest challenge is not to undercut our full-price subscribers. They typically don’t object to sitting next to a young person who paid only $30, but it’s hard to keep them as full-price subscribers if they realize that other subscribers are paying much less to sit in the same high-priced section, especially if on the orchestra level. They talk among themselves about this.”

The online bidding process itself can occur on Price Whispers technology located on the client retailer's web site or hosted by Price Whispers at Toronto-based Price Whispers takes a 10% to 20% cut of sales completed through the bidding process, though it charges no other fees to its client ticket retailers, according to Price Whispers CEO Neil Fitzgerald. Participating consumers must enter their payment account information online before their bid will be considered, he adds.

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