Our Director of Evidence and Insights recounts some of the provocations offered by a recent trip to Tixly's Client Conference in Iceland, where talks spanned from the evolution of ticketing over the millennia to the technology that is shaping its future.

May 19, 2023
Photo of the author - Oliver Mantell

Oliver Mantell

This letter in itself will have very little to do with Iceland, but will rather be a description of an effect of travelling in distant places which is to make one reflect on one’s past and culture from the outside.”

W H Auden, Letters from Iceland (1937, p. 148).

Oliver Mantell presenting.jpg

Oliver Mantell presenting a snapshot of ticketed audiences

At last! After years without overseas travel (for obvious reasons), I finally found myself leaving the country again: heading off to present at Tixly’s conference in Reykjavik.

The conference was fascinating, partly because of the system demos and provocative speakers - for example Rob Masterson on marketing to Gen Z and David Taylor on classical music marketing provided much food for thought. Though something else that struck me in particular was a theme about the past and future that kept recurring... Here are some top takeaways:

  1. From timeless sagas to ticketing systems
  2. The anthropology of ticketing through history
  3. Machines for managing relationships

1. From timeless sagas to ticketing systems

The description by the Icelandic Minister of Culture and Business Affairs (Lilja Alfreðsdóttir) of the sagas as the origin of the Icelandic cultural industry was one such moment. It felt like a bit of a rhetorical claim, and I couldn’t imagine a UK Culture & Business Secretary suggesting we should trace our creative industry policy back to Beowulf…

But however practically substantive this relationship was, it was clearly imbued with a great deal of value and significance. The recurrence of references to these thousand-year-old texts during the trip was striking (and inspiring to someone like myself with an enthusiasm for historical literature). It also prompted me to take the long view on the topics being discussed.

Talk of the sagas contrasted sharply with Tixly’s founder, Sindri Már Finnbogason, running a live demo of AI-powered ‘natural language’ analytics in their ticketing system (i.e. writing a question as a normal sentence and the data and visualisation appearing automatically after a few seconds). Of course, we’ve known about the potential for this sort of approach for years. Seeing it in action, though, made me feel a little like a mediaeval monk, looking up from his manuscript illumination to see a Viking longship on the horizon, loaded with printing presses (rather than fierce warriors).

Joking aside, this technology will clearly disrupt how we go about doing data analysis substantially, even if knowing what analysis to run, how to ‘snag’ it and what it really means are all unlikely to be as easy to produce as summary figures and charts. But it should broaden the range of people who can easily get information out of ticketing systems, in ways which are likely to have unanticipated consequences.

2. The anthropology of ticketing through history

In these and other cases, the golden thread between the past and future was about value. The mechanisms change dramatically, the basic human needs, less so. This is why Sindri Már Finnbogason’s other talk, an apparent digression on the history of ticketing, felt so relevant. Through a historical survey from the Greeks, through Romans, Elizabethans, Victorians, Deadheads and beyond, it described how particular challenges prompted technological responses. But in all cases, the essential needs (to get together, to be entertained, to mark significant events, to remember, to connect) recurred.

This also prompted me to think about the basic emotional and human needs that ticketing meets: such as avoiding conflict, providing peace of mind, allocation of scarce resources, providing mementos, safety from crowding, building anticipation and so on. It also encouraged me to think about analytics through the same lens. We’re used to thinking about the ultimate impact and purpose of analysis (focusing on the ‘vital’ and ‘useful’, not just ‘merely interesting’). But this isn’t usually couched in terms of these human needs.

And many of these needs chime with the needs met by ticketing. Strategic planning can be about ‘finding your place’ (or niche) and avoiding ‘crowding’ where there are more effective opportunities. It certainly involves the allocation of scarce resources. Ultimately, much of the value of analysis is in informing decisions about where to invest time, money, energy and attention, and where not to. In identifying those opportunities, it’s also allowing the same type of ‘commitment to the future’ as a ticket purchase, with — hopefully — some of the same sense of anticipation.

3. Machines for managing relationships

The integration of analytics within box offices, whether AI-driven or not, can also enhance their role as ‘machines for managing relationships’. But the intensive hand-processing of fan art envelopes by the Grateful Dead (and their use for prioritising scarce tickets, rather than relying on skim pricing) was also a reminder of the value for human care at the heart of these processes (something the Tixly team seems to well understand).

It also indicates that while AI can facilitate these relationships (whether through communications, ticketing delivery or analytics), they can’t completely substitute for them. The ability to run any analysis is perhaps less dissimilar to the inability to run any than it appears. The value is in knowing which to run and what to make of it: to achieve what Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr referred to as ‘the simplicity the other side of complexity’.

This will remain a scarce and much-needed skill: a clarity of understanding and storytelling that, yes, probably does date back to the sagas and beyond. This brief spell in Iceland, with the rich inspiration brought together by our hosts, was a reminder of some of these timeless truths. Or, as another poet put it when visiting Rekyjavik:

We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.

Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (1937, p.24).