Ticketing Lessons From Southwest

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Last weekend I arrived at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter at 9:30am for a flight at 11. As I hoisted my luggage onto the scale, the ticketing agent said, “We’ve got a flight departing at 9:50; do you want to get on that instead?” I hesitated, thinking it would be a huge hassle to change the flight, but practically before I could say, “Wow, is that really possible?” he handed me a new boarding pass. This interaction got me thinking about how differently Southwest operates from other airlines, and what we might learn from it.

I’m a bit of a student of the airline industry because I believe that, more than any other industry, it offers a useful analogue to the arts and live entertainment field: The value of their product drops to zero the moment the flight takes off, customers are obsessed with where they will sit, and pricing is incredibly complicated by deals and discounts. Those familiar qualities suggest we ought to notice and analyze every innovation that the airlines try out… and Southwest is one of the most innovative.

If you know anything about how Southwest handles reserved seating, you know that basically they just don’t. They line you up at the gate in number order based on when you check in for your flight, and then when you get on the plane, it’s entirely open seating. There are definitely trade-offs for the consumer because you don’t get to know where you’re sitting in advance — however, the upside of this approach revealed itself to me last week. How long and how much effort does it take to switch your seat on another airline? A lot! Typically five or more minutes while the representative looks for seats, confers with you about what’s available and then selects your seats. And how long did this take on Southwest? Maybe 10 seconds.

Think about how much aggregate time must be saved every day in terms of keystrokes and conversations. Multiply that by the millions of times this happens every year, and I’m sure the time savings translate into substantial cost savings as employees can simply work more efficiently.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all move to open seating in the arts — but maybe there are some innovations to be considered. We all know that between 7:30pm and curtain is the craziest time at the box office. Maybe we shouldn’t sell reserved seats anymore after 7:30. Maybe what happens is that those patrons simply buy a ticket and wait in a line, and are let in at 7:55 to take any seat that’s available. And we sell all our advance tickets with the proviso that if you don’t arrive by 7:55, you might lose your spot when all seat locations are released. You still can get in the theatre if you come late, but not to your reserved seat. How much would this relieve the stress at the box office window? How about with ushers rushing down the row, or latecomers scrambling in the dark?

I’m not advocating for this particular approach, necessarily — I’ve never tried it, and maybe some theatres do it already. What I am advocating for is all of us to think about innovation, and think of possible ways to run more efficiently by questioning the way things have been done for years and years.

Everyone knows the staff of a non-profit isn’t as big as it should be. You can’t staff your whole venue with trained greeters the way Disney can. So why not rethink your operations to make things more efficient for your staff? If you could eliminate time in increments, as Southwest has done, what else could your staff be doing? How could you be welcoming donors, or how could you improve the experience of the patrons who come early?

My experience with Southwest reminded me that sometimes innovative change can be incremental, and with a small change can come a significant payoff.

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