Simon Ellacott, a Managing Consultant in our Marketing, Sales and Service practice asks: who were the real winners in the recent lottery for London 2012 tickets?

At the time of writing, millions of people across the world are waiting to find out for which London 2012 Olympic events they will be allocated tickets – if indeed they are allocated any tickets at all. The lottery system used by the London event organisers has received much attention in the British press of late, being branded opaque, unfair and farcical in turn. But is the system unfair, and have customers actually benefitted from the ticketing approach? Were the real winners in the ticketing lottery the customers or the organisers themselves?

Arguably the most popular sports event in the calendar, if not the most popular ticketed event on planet earth, the Olympics  never fail to dominate news headlines in summer every four years. Yes, I am well aware of the existence of the Winter Olympics but do not apologise – my rationale being that the Greeks who kicked off the original Olympics  competed in the nude and thus decided to shun snow or ice-based events. Of course, I am not churlishly overlooking the Winter Olympics because it isn’t really as big an event in Britain and our last stand-out achievement relates to Torvill and Dean competing so long ago that the hosting country no longer exists.

Certainly, with Britain’s plucky performance at the Beijing Games of 2008 and with London as the host city next year, media coverage of the Olympics in Britain is already reaching saturation point – a full year before the first starting pistol fires. I am of course now adding to this commentary but I am professionally and personally interested in the way in which tickets for the games have been made available. With tickets in high demand, stadium capacities limited and 25% of tickets ring-fenced for dignitaries, sponsors and corporate groups, we find ourselves with a classical supply-demand problem from the dismal science.

In fact, the problem really was one of processing excess demand in a fair way; simply letting prices rise to reflect demand would not be fair to the taxpayers of the UK who have paid billions of pounds to stage the games. The chosen solution, now well publicised, was a ticket application process, almost entirely digital, with a random ballot for any events where demand exceeded supply. The result has been a daily media stream of disappointed applicants  so one would think that this had never been tried before. In fact, this was precisely the same process used at the preceding Beijing 2008 Olympics.

How did this choice of process affect customer experience? My view is that whilst the experience has not been perfect, it has still been an improvement over the traditional ‘first come first served’ method. By providing a lengthy period for customers to choose and purchase tickets online, the stress of rushing to buy tickets in the first few seconds of launch has been avoided – and thus customers did not call to find ticket lines busy, or fail to log in to an overloaded and crashed website. If events were not oversubscribed then the controversial ballot does not come into play. For the most popular events where the ballot is used, I instinctively believe this is at least as fair as the lottery of getting through to a phone line or to an internet site during those crucial launch seconds – perhaps fairer, for the people who are at work during those times. Presumably the ballot also has the added benefit of preventing touts snapping up large quantities at launch , and all the associated grim consequences for the customer experience that touts bring.

Nevertheless, I suspect the real winners of this particular lottery are the organisers of the London Olympics themselves. By taking an almost entirely digital approach they managed to sell huge quantities of the hottest tickets this year without having to staff contact centres for an enormous peak demand at ticket launch. By spreading the application window they also managed to do this without significant website failure. They now face the challenge of the next wave of ticket sales. This is proposed to be a first come-first served selection, but lessons will need to be learned from the Beijing Olympics. Their second phase of tickets release after the initial ballot was also designed this way but led to an immediate crash of their website – and ultimately to a second ballot

As for the average man on the street, perhaps you have already guessed that I am one of the embittered many who failed to have any tickets allocated to them at all. At least I feel in good company with London’s own mayor also ticketless, and sharing my anticipation for the next round of sales.