'The Upstairs Bar Is Empty': Ticketfly Acquires Forward-Thinking App WillCall
Deal heralds expanded mobile offerings and the evolution of the in-venue experience -- like settling bar tabs in the app -- for fans and promoters.
San Francisco-based digital ticketing firm Ticketfly has acquired WillCall, a concert discovery, ticketing, and in-venue commerce application for iOS and Android. The acquisition adds another layer to Ticketfly’s music discovery assets and, perhaps more importantly, gives Ticketfly an entre into the live music entre toward cashless events and all the valuable data that entails.
Founded in 2008, Ticketfly has been a pioneer in mobile ticketing and integrating ticketing, marketing, and analytics, and now boasts over 1,300 clients in venues, promoters, and festivals in North America, including 9:30 Club, Pitchfork Music Festival, and Brooklyn Bowl. Founder/co-CEO Andrew Dreskin says the WillCall acquisition will be a key asset in Ticketfly’s goal to enhance the live music experience for both fans and clients.
Early on, the sleek look and overall functionality of the WillCall app appealed to the “tech geek” in Dreskin. “Universally, when you talk to people about WillCall, one of the first things that comes up is how striking the app is, both the aesthetics and the underlying architecture,” he tells Billboard. “This [acquisition] is really about re-imagining the live event experience. I’ve been espousing this notion for awhile: the way people experience live events going forward is going to be very different from how it was in the very recent past. We tell people we’re not a ticketing company, our goal is to build or buy interesting technologies to layer in around the ticketing transaction. We see the WillCall asset as another step on that continuum; it’s about being at the forefront of changing how people experience live events.”
WillCall, also based in San Francisco, was founded in 2010 with the goal of helping people discover and attend more live events by way of social-driven app featuring a curated list of events in San Francisco, and later New York and Los Angeles. “We’ve spent a lot of time working and innovating on the consumer side of things,” says WillCall founder Donnie Dinch, “and, in talking with Andrew, we figured out that to accelerate what we wanted to build, and get it into as many hands as possible, we thought this could be a great fit with Ticketfly and their 1,300 venues, and that’s where we are today.”
The original goal of WillCall was “to get more people to see live music, to make it easier for people to casually see a show,” says Dinch, who will join Ticketfly as general manager of consumer experience, and lead the company’s consumer-facing and in-venue technology development. “In the first version of the app that we launched in San Francisco, the goal was to curate a short list of high-quality events and then pair that with a pretty seamless purchase experience. We tell you a handful of things coming up in the next week or so, and then allow you to buy tickets to those with a couple of taps.”
WillCall negotiated deals with the individual venues and promoters and, “we kind of went outside of the ticketing companies for a while to decide if it was going to work,” Dinch says. “We were able to negotiate a deal with Ticketfly early on and, for the past year-and-a-half, we’ve had access to Ticketfly inventory, as well.”
As Dreskin points out, “It’s very hard for third parties like WillCall to access ticket inventory in these facilities, because guys like us have the contracts, and therein lies the opportunity. Now there’s just a ton of potential around the fact that we have 1,300 of the hippest venues and promoters, and these guys [at WillCall] have just amazing mobile technology and other technologies, in addition to ticket purchasing.”
Dreskin believes WillCall’s “curated, semi-last-minute ticket channel,” will be very attractive to Ticketfly clients. “Now we’ll have this tool in our tool belt to be able to roll out to the sphere of Ticketfly clients throughout North America,” he says.
After nailing down a portfolio of venues in San Francisco, WillCall launched in New York, then L.A., “and then in May we looked beyond just the ticketing aspect,” Dinch says. “We wanted to see how we could make the entire live music experience more frictionless, making it easier for people to enjoy the show. We created a venue point-of-sale (POS) iPad app, so that anybody who had bought a ticket on WillCall could walk in, and we give them a push notification, ‘welcome to the Regency Ballroom, slide to open a tab.’”
WillCall's “frictionless” payment functionality not only lets fans easily open tabs from their phones, but also to close out at the end of the night by simply walking out the door. The feature leverages beacon technology and interfaces with a simple and intuitive iPad-based POA system developed specifically for live events. The technology is now in about a half dozen venues, combined with the “seamless ticketing experience,” Dinch says.
The WillCall business model has been based on revenue from a small fee, paid by the fan as part of net ticket price, for each transaction, “and, not having exclusivity to these tickets… there wasn’t a lot of leverage with that information,” Dinch admits. “As we moved toward the in-venue transaction, we were able to take a small percentage of every transaction, and the total volume of what we’ve done in our seven pilot venues over the last two-and-a-half months has already trumped all the volume we did in ticket sales in three years, so we see a lot of potential in the in-venue.”
And, while the revenue from concessions transactions, ultimately small per-transaction fees paid by the venue, can be significant, “what we’re really excited about is the data,” Dinch points out. “The ways you can use that data can be very interesting, and we think there’s potential monetization around that, as well.”
Clearly, more sophisticated marketing by the live business at large around music discovery is beginning to move the needle on ticket sales, attacking an industry-wide challenge of unsold inventory that most believe remains in the 50% range. In the case of both Ticketfly and WillCall (and most other industry stakeholders), social and push notifications have been a key element of that marketing.
For WillCall, targeted marketing by way of scraping iPods was not the most direct path toward influencing fans to buy tickets. “We decided that the music you listen to isn’t as closely matched to the type of music you want to go see live,” Dinch says. “We think a bigger indicator is what your friends are doing. We put a lot of time into the social aspect at WillCall. Any time you purchase tickets to a show, we send a ‘friends purchase’ notification to any of your friends that are in the same city of you, and that’s really what drives most of the discovery and purchases on WillCall.”
For his part, Dreskin is stoked about the potential of building out the “bar tab functionality” of WillCall. “This is our entree into the frictionless payment environment,” he says. “At Ticketfly we’ve been very interested in the notion of melding the in-venue transaction with the ticketing transaction to give promoters a truer understanding of the profitability of their events, a better understanding of the lifetime value of the fan, and we see concessions data as foundational to loyalty and any development of a great loyalty program.”
In the short term, the WillCall revenue model will stay the same, and much of how WillCall will be integrated into Ticketfly remains “TBD,” as Dreskin puts it. But, big picture, Dreskin sees huge potential in this technology to improve the overall fan experience and maximize revenue at venues. “There’s a ton of stuff you can do within the app on your phone in-venue,” he says. “If one bar is crowded the promoter can send a push communication that the other bar is empty. You can offer VIP upgrades, and other stuff we’re being a little quiet on, because we don’t want to tip off our competitors. For us at the forefront of this it’s really about re-imagining the live experience and bringing on to the Ticketfly team what we believe is one of the best technology and mobile teams anywhere out there.”
No financial details of the acquisition were disclosed, and the future of the WillCall brand is undetermined at this point, according to Dreskin. “WillCall has a very passionate base of consumers and we want to do nothing to tamp that down,” he says. “If anything, there will be more services and features, and we’re going to be very cognizant of not taking away the things that people love about WillCall. I think you’ll see a melding of Ticketfly and WillCall in terms of the technology assets over time. We’ll probably have an announcement down the line as to whether the brand will survive, but we’re very conscious not to dampen the enthusiasm of current WillCall users.”