I was having one of those online conversations about Ryanair last week; the ones where you swap tales of how you were stung as a result of deliberately vague wording around baggage allowance or by car hire small print and you all agree that it’s the worst company in the world and you will never use it again (until the next time).
As it turns out, Ryanair has a way to go before it rivals secondary ticketing site Viagogo for customer disservice and sheer chutzpah; and the concert-goers who bought invalidated tickets for Ed Sheeran’s Hampden gigs faced a greater upset than a surcharge for an extra suitcase (even if the company does eventually refund their money).
What the two companies have in common, however, is that they prey on people at their most susceptible: when they are trying to make dreams come true. And they sully experiences that ought to provide a fleeting refuge from the travails of everyday life.
Ryanair and Viagogo are also equally inured to public opprobrium; they each take a perverse pride in their status as pantomime villains, safe in the knowledge that – so long as they get customers where they most want to be – the profits will keep on flowing.
Looking back at the recent history of Viagogo (and other secondary ticket sites such as StubHub, Get Me In! and Seatwave) it’s difficult to get your head round the impunity with which some of them appear to breach both the letter and the spirit of consumer protection regulations.
Viagogo’s behaviour and its attempts to avoid scrutiny have been the focus of consternation since 2012 when the C4 Dispatches programme exposed “hidden practices” at the secretive company founded by Harvard graduate Eric Baker and based in Switzerland.
Secondary ticket sites are supposed to act as intermediaries between individual fans who want to sell on tickets for concerts they can no longer attend, and those who want to buy them. But the documentary claimed the majority of tickets sold by Viagogo came from professional ticket resellers, who harvest them in bulk using multiple credit cards, or via deals signed with other promoters.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever logged on to an official site to buy tickets for a high-demand gig at precisely the time they were due to go on sale, only to find they have been snapped up within minutes. And then noticed they are already being advertised at vastly inflated prices elsewhere.
Shortly after Depeche Mode’s BBC Radio 6 music festival gig at the Barrowlands last year was officially sold out, tickets could be purchased on secondary sites, including Viagogo at a mark-up of up to 2233 per cent, prompting a Twitter meltdown. A similar outcry greeted the rapid appearance on secondary sites of overpriced tickets for the Arctic Monkeys UK tour in April.
To make matters worse, with Viagogo so-called drip-pricing means customers are not always aware of the amount they are expected to pay until near the end of the transaction when booking charges, delivery and VAT are added; a timer suggesting the customer is about to be cut off puts extra pressure on them to click the “Buy” button.
Other shady practices include a lack of transparency: a failure to state the face value of the ticket, to be specific about the row and seat number or to include a caveat that makes it clear the tickets may not be accepted.
Since the Dispatches documentary, consumer rights activists, legislators and high-profile figures in the music industry have all tried to prevent Viagogo and other sites exploiting music lovers, with limited success.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has tried to put a stop to drip-pricing and Google has brought in new rules forcing secondary ticket sites to make clear they deal in resales and – where applicable – that the tickets are being sold for above face value.
And yet, despite this, secondary ticket sites continue to appear at the top of Google searches, even where tickets are still available from primary sites. Take Kendrick Lamar’s forthcoming gig in Glasgow. Yesterday, I typed in “Lamar”, “Bellahouston” and “tickets”. The first option I was given was Viagogo and the second was StubHub (owened by eBay). Viagogo offered two tickets at £67 each (but added £54 in booking fees and VAT at the last minute) while StubHub offered tickets at £150 each (It added£58 in extra charges, but before I had input my credit card details). Only when I got to the third option, Ticketmaster, was it clear there were still tickets available from a primary seller.
Secondary ticket sites have proved equally resistant to efforts made by production companies and individual artists. The producers of the hit musical Hamilton, for example, introduced a paperless ticket system, with buyers told to take their email, the bank card with which they made the purchase and photo ID to the box office, when the show opened in London, but tickets nonetheless made their way on to resale sites where they sold for up to £3,000.
Last year, the Competition and Markets Authority raided the offices of StubHub and Viagogo as part of an investigation into suspected breaches of consumer law and introduced new rules of transparency. Three of the big sites, Stubhub, Get Me In! and Seatwave (the latter two are owned by Ticketmaster) agreed to comply, but Viagogo did not and now faces court action.
In recent days, it has begun to feel as if a war on Viagogo is being waged. The ASA has announced an ad campaign and referred the company to National Trading Standards and Digital Minister Margot James has urged music fans to steer clear.
Finally, Sheeran decided tickets bought through Viagogo would not be accepted at any of the gigs on his current tour; instead those involved would be given the chance to buy fresh tickets at face value (and encouraged to reclaim the original money from the company).
On the face of it, perhaps, this seems harsh; why should fans, already out of pocket, be further punished? But if more artists follow suit and word spreads that tickets bought on Viagogo are effectively worthless then it and other companies will be brought to heel. Listening to the testimony of some of those who were conned into spending obscene amounts of money to see Sheeran at Hampden gives an insight into how much is at stake. Such was 67-year-old Betty Harrison’s excitement at the thought of treating her daughter and two grand-daughters to a special Christmas present, she clicked on three tickets for £1,176 without realising what she had done.
That’s what gigs and holidays do: they dazzle us with their promise of heat and spectacle; they offer the prospect of a euphoric experience that will yield lasting memories and act as ballast against future storms. Taking advantage of such an emotional investment is an act of the utmost cynicism. Good on Sheeran for taking a stand.