SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Back in 2021, Sistic chief executive Joe Ow had to personally issue a public apology when JJ Lin’s Sanctuary Finale online concert hosted on the ticketing sales company’s Sistic Live live-stream platform on July 10 was marred by technical issues.
“First and foremost, (we had) to really take accountability to say that, yes, this is a problem on our end, we take (the blame) for it,” the 46-year-old recalls in a recent interview at the Sistic office at Changi Business Park.
“We wanted to address this immediately, so that statement was actually rolled out very quickly after the incident, just to make sure that we can account to the fans, the event organiser and JJ Lin himself.”
The Mandopop star “wasn’t feeling good”, Ow remembers, adding that the technical issues were “an anomaly”.
Sistic offered refunds and rescheduled broadcasts for the fans who were unhappy that they had to put up with severe lagging after paying for tickets ranging from $38 to $188 for the online performance.
Teething issues are inevitable, but for the head honcho, what is more important is the recovery process to set things right, especially as the company, a major player in the ticketing industry here, moves with the times.
“One thing that we were working on was to pivot ourselves to be more of a technology company, rather than just a ticketing service provider,” says Ow, who worked in the tech industry before joining Sistic in 2018.
That year, the company that has been in Singapore for over three decades also made headlines after it closed a quarter of its physical counters islandwide, reasoning that more patrons went online to buy tickets.
The decision to see itself as a tech company was a big move, says Ow. “We started to rethink what our technology could do. It’s really putting the clients or event organisers and the patron at the centre of it and what kind of problems we can solve for them.”
But getting tickets online is not always a smooth process.
Whenever tickets to popular events go on sale, or when demand outstrips supply, there will inevitably be complaints by disgruntled customers who either had to wait a long time in an online queue system to secure tickets or failed to get them at all due to technical issues.
In the United States, fans of American pop star Taylor Swift sued ticketing company Ticketmaster after they faced difficulties trying to purchase tickets to her massively popular 2023 tour when they went on sale online in November 2022.
Sistic works with event organisers to ensure that their online buying processes are designed to promote fairness, Ow says in response.
These include mechanisms such as virtual waiting rooms so that when numerous patrons try to buy tickets at the exact same time, they get assigned a random queue number. Another feature available is automated seat selection, so that patrons spend less time mulling over decisions on where to sit.
Sistic also sends out advisories to help patrons be well-prepared before tickets go on sale. For example, they can register their interest for events and receive e-mails and SMSes to remind them to set up their accounts, download the Sistic app and study the seating maps before sales begin.
Then, there is the perennial issue of scalpers re-selling tickets.
When events sell out, there will often be posts on platforms such as online marketplace Carousell hawking tickets at overblown prices. Worse still are the scams, where ticket buyers end up losing money to unscrupulous sellers.
Ow notes that in Singapore, secondary sales are not illegal. Still, under the terms and conditions, a ticket buyer is not allowed to transfer or sell his or her tickets.
“That doesn’t stop consumers from trying to either get rid of tickets to events that they cannot attend or (engage in) profiteering. What we are trying to do right now is work with folks like Carousell or the Ministry of Home Affairs to try to reduce the occurrence of scams. Our primary concern is to protect the interest of patrons.”
For instance, Sistic implements technology such as dynamic barcodes, a feature in which the barcodes on e-tickets change every 10 to 15 minutes.
Ow says the company had to pivot quickly when the pandemic upended the live events industry in 2020. It accelerated the launch of its live-streaming platform, Sistic Live, which it started working on in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
Because of Sistic Live, which hosted a variety of online events ranging from concerts and talks to book readings and fund-raisers, the annual number of events that Sistic handled became even more than before the pandemic.
In 2021, it took on 1,800 to 2,000 events, including both physical and virtual, compared with 1,600 pre-pandemic, like the Singapore Writers Festival and the Esplanade’s Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts.
The number of events in 2022 continued to be the same, but because of further easing of restrictions, audience numbers grew and ticket sales were 2.6 times more than in 2021.
The return of physical events without restrictions also meant that Sistic Live events dropped significantly – there were 150 in 2022, compared with 300 in 2021.
From pop concerts and theatre productions to major sports events and conferences, the live events industry looks set to grow even bigger in 2023.
Both supply and demand will remain strong, Ow says, but the ability to sell tickets will also be tough due to stiff competition for the consumer dollar. Rising inflation and a possible recession will also make it harder.
“Despite that, people will still need to find respite from life through the arts and entertainment, so I think the demand will continue to be there,” he says. “Inbound travel, hopefully, will improve with China opening up, so there are some bright spots there that we can potentially look out for.”
While Sistic used to hold the lion’s share of the ticketing market here, the past few years have seen more players enter the industry, from smaller companies such as Peatix to multinational giants like Ticketmaster.
The latter, in particular, is selling tickets for major events such as the National Stadium gigs by English pop star Harry Styles in March and K-pop girl group Blackpink in May.
Meanwhile, Sistic’s 2023 roster includes Malaysian singer Eric Moo’s concert, HSBC Women’s World Championship and Disney’s Frozen The Hit Broadway Musical.
“I think the race is not so much about what the competitors are doing, but about ourselves,” Ow says.
“If we put the patrons in the centre, (we ask) ‘What do they need? What kind of problems do they have that we as a service and solution provider can help to address? I think that should be our North Star as to where we want to go next.”