Scalping at the Festival

This summer, I and my wife Sarah relocated from Kula in upcountry Maui to Sandpoint. We’ve been here quite a bit, as we have family just across the Washington border, love the climate (I’m from Colorado, Sarah’s from Montana), the people, the vibe. We love the Festival at Sandpoint.

Going to see Emmylou Harris last weekend, we probably paid a bit more attention to the goings-on around us rather than simply reveling in a “We’re at a concert!” fog; New Resident Mode vs. Tourist Mode. Some of our group got up before dawn and made the pilgrimage to War Memorial Field to stand in line and get “morning numbers”, tickets that allow the holder to enter the event at the head of the line, in the order the morning numbers were issued. Most people do this so that they can reserve space for their extended group on the grass, as close to the stage as possible. The Festival rules state that each holder of a morning number can spread out an 8’ x 8’ blanket, sufficient for four people to sit and enjoy the show. The rules also state that only one morning number per person will be issued — there was, at least up through last week, no requirement that a person present a valid event ticket in order to get a morning number.

The rules also state that there is no camping allowed in the park or on the sidewalk, but our group found a veritable tent village, mostly kids, camped out at the head of the line to get the best morning numbers. And many of those people didn’t appear to have a ticket to the event — they were acquiring morning numbers to scalp them later, for $20 and up, depending on how low a number they had.

We discovered that this scalping of morning numbers, in addition to injecting a pretty seedy ambience while waiting in line, has been a bone of contention for event-goers for years. The sentiment seemed to be that the Festival organizers had avoided the issues of the tents and the scalpers, some of whom appeared to be mothers with their teenagers in tow, demonstrating how to scalp morning numbers. On the other hand, we heard often that nobody ever cut into the line of people waiting for the show because the organizers kept a good watch on such things.

So, people are pissed off, but is it really a bad thing to be doing? It’s not technically illegal, although that may be a fine point.

The answer, as it turns out, is probably “yes, it is bad”. Let’s do some math:

Using Google Maps, I can estimate that the prime real estate at the venue, the grassy center section in front of the stage, is about 100’ x 150’, or about 15,000 square feet. Since a blanket can be 8’ x 8’ or 64 square feet, that means that the most desirable section of the venue, the place worth getting up at 4:30 am for, can support roughly 200-225 blankets. Taking into account that people rarely set out blankets in a nice, orderly way, that means that if you get a morning number higher than 150, you’re probably out of luck for the most part.

This begs the question: should the Festival be issuing 300 morning numbers or only 150?

Some more math: there were probably 25-40 people camped out in line to get the best morning numbers. Let’s assume some of them actually want to get good seats at the event for themselves. So, say 30 of those people are there mainly to scalp the numbers they get (that’s consistent with what our group saw). If only numbers 1 through 150 are worth getting, and 30 are shaved off the best numbers by scalpers:

About 20% of morning numbers are effectively stolen. Which I’d argue is bad.

After pondering this for a while last weekend, I wrote to the Festival about the issue on Sunday, and proposed that if they enforced a requirement that a morning number would only be issued to a person holding a ticket for that event, a lot of the scalping would go away. I was pleasantly surprised when, two days later, I and all ticket owners for the Festival received an official email telling us that, starting the second week of the Festival, just such a rule would be added. Three possibilities come to mind:

  1. The Festival had been planning this new rule for a long time. But it’s unlikely that, after such planning, they’d implement the new process during the second week rather than from the start.
  2. The uproar over the scalping had been so great this year from just the first few shows that someone at the Festival office decided enough was enough. Also sort of unlikely that so much energy would build that quickly.
  3. My email got through to someone to cared, and my proposing a relatively simple solution was what just what they needed to take action. This, of course, being completely unbiased, is my favorite explanation.

In any case, huge kudos go to the Festival staff for getting the new rule in place.

But I don’t think we’re done yet — some more math:

If you scan a valid ticket, electronic or hardcopy, it will scan as valid. If you scan that ticket 20 times, it will scan as valid, 20 times. If you make 20 copies of a ticket, all 20 copies will scan as valid. That means a group of scalpers can purchase a single ticket and scam a bunchnumber of morning numbers.

The straightforward solution is to associate each morning number with a ticket (it’s just a database record), so that only one morning number can be issued for any single ticket.

Better, but:

Four people, each with a valid ticket, can go early and get morning numbers. A morning number’s worth of space is good for 4 people. This group can then scalp 3 of their morning numbers for, say, $20 each, and get a $15/person profit. Still not quite there…

Better: Make the morning number valid only when presented at the gate by the person holding the associated ticket. Better still, do away with the physical morning numbers completely: For example, if you fly, and are enrolled in TSA’s Pre program, you don’t get issued a separate Pre ticket to get you into the priority line. Your ticket gets the TSA Pre symbol added to it, whether it’s a mobile ticket or a printed ticket. Similarly, a person’s Festival ticket would magically show “morning number 23” or such when rendered on their phone or printed. Or the person scanning tickets at the gate would see it on their terminal.

But some people are really determined to beat the system:

That same group of 4 could get each morning numbers, then negotiate with 3 parties in the entry line to use a blanket’s worth of the space they’ll reserve. This sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

Like any padlock, the intent isn’t to totally prevent a thief. The intent is to make the theft so difficult that the thief will simply give up and look for an easier target.

Island Pet Movers: poor transition from small company

We first learned about Island Pet Movers about 3 years ago when we were moving to Maui. At the time, Kari, the owner, was very involved with operations personally, and the touch and feel of using her service were nothing short of wonderful. We felt fully prepared every step of the way — and moving a dog from the mainland to Maui is far more complicated than the other way around.

So, as we prepared to relocate back to the mainland, we contacted Island Pet Movers to get our two dogs from Kahului to Seattle. One of our dogs is snub-nosed, which presents some complications for flying, and we figured Kari’s company could get us past all the hurdles.

We initially contacted Island Pet Movers via email, and were bounced to the website (effectively, “don’t bother us —  go fill out the forms.”). So we filled out the contract on the website and, … nothing. After a day or so, we tried to get anyone from Island Pet Movers to respond to email or phone calls without any luck. My wife stumbled on Kari’s direct number and called it, at which point Kari made it excruciatingly clear to us that she is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, and that we were never, ever to call her number again. She said that upon completing the online contract we’d surely immediately received 3 documents (we heard that mantra, “3 documents” too many times), and that it was probably in our junk mail, the implication being that we were too stupid to check there. Those 3 documents arrived 3 days later, as it turned out, and covered a bunch of “this is how you pay us” details and links to a useless FAQ, but very little about what to expect, as we prepared, as we arrived at the airport, all those trivial things.

Then we had a date change for travel, and emailed Island Pet Movers about it. Crickets. Our online account on their site (labeled “2015 client login”, which tells you how well their site is maintained) still showed the original travel date. Two days later we finally talked to an actual person, who blew us off with “yeah, we know about the change. Our database doesn’t work so you won’t see any changes there”. Changes like a different flight date, or uploaded required documents, or photos of the carriers, things like that. Utterly useless – our “account” page never reflected any changes, ever. We never received a “received your change – got it” communication of any sort – we had to pester them for that information.

We set all this up about 6 weeks ahead of time, only to be told we wouldn’t get flight information until about 2 weeks before departure. No pressure, just our air travel, house sale, moving pod, all of that tied to the same day that “would probably be okay”. It turns out the “no flight confirmations until 2 weeks before travel date” is actually imposed by the airline. That would have been good information, but Island Pet Movers doesn’t really volunteer any details like that unless you demand explanations. When we did finally receive the flight info, all looked good — except we then discovered that, because we lived on a neighbor island, there would be no Island Pet Movers person meeting us at the airport unless we paid extra. We were on our own. That was another detail we had to painfully extract from them.

Then pretty much weeks of no contact, no information, no preparation, just waiting and hoping these people actually knew what they were doing, which ran contrary to the impression we’d developed by that point. The concept of putting the effort into “keeping the customer warm” doesn’t appear to exist for these people.

We received a call from the company the day before travel, were told to get to Air Cargo early, and that was about it. No information about what to expect for process, forms we’d have to fill out, things like that. Until the call that day, we didn’t even know what we’d need to supply along with our dogs, things like food, or stickers, or water, or leashes.

On the morning of travel, we arrived at Air Cargo early, only to find that the staff there had the travel date for our dogs as the following day (Kari subsequently blamed Air Cargo for that). Then there were 8 pages of forms to fill out, and nobody (us or Air Cargo)  was sure who should be filled in as the sender (us or Island Pet Movers?) or the consignee (same question), or if the forms should show Honolulu as the destination where Island Pet Movers would take charge of the dogs and forward them on, or if Seattle should be indicated. All these were questions the staff at Air Cargo had for us, questions for which we had no answer. Questions that should have been dealt with prior to that day by Island Pet Movers preparing the way. Our “flight sheet” had a number we were supposed to call if there were emergency problems on the day of travel — but that number led to voicemail tree.

We sent an urgent email to Island Pet movers, received no response. Finally, we and the Air Cargo decided we had it mostly figured out, and we left to return home, shut down the house and get back to the airport for our flights. Nearly home (upper Kula), we received a call from Air Cargo saying Kari had contacted them and told them what actually had to be on the forms, and that we had to return to get the correct paperwork. We turned around and headed back down the 22 miles to the airport. Nearly there, we received an email from Island Pet Movers telling us there was no need to return to the airport, basically telling us the Air Cargo people were clueless and it was all Air Cargo’s fault. We returned anyway, since those clueless Air Cargo people were the only ones who’d actually helped us get our dogs on the way. The Island Pet Movers email also told us we should’ve used the emergency number (the one on the flight sheet that got us nothing but voicemail).

That tone pretty much describes the experience with Island Pet Movers these days:

  • Don’t bother us with any live communication. Go to the website or email us and we’ll get back to you when we get around to it.
  • You don’t need to know any actual details, so don’t bother us. We’ll tell you things when/if we think you should know them.
  • The airline/Air Cargo people are at fault if they don’t understand our process.
  • You, our customer, are at fault if you don’t understand our process.

The thing is, when you pay someone like Island Pet Movers to get your pets to a location, you expect that they’ll take care of all the administrative details like magic, and your dogs will go through a seamless tunnel to their destination. But that doesn’t happen with this outfit:

  • Their contract forms are terrible and unclear to read.
  • Their customer account page is connected to a database that never updates because it’s been broken for some time. Their customer login prompt is nearly 2 years out of date.
  • Supposedly automated processes like the “3 documents” delivery don’t appear to work reliably.
  • Information is handed out sparingly, even grudgingly. Our entire fiasco at Air Cargo might have been avoided had Island Pet Movers supplied a simple page or two of useful guidance.
  • Contact numbers on day-of-travel paperwork like the flight sheet lead to voicemail.
  • Fixes like Kari calling Air Cargo come too late to be of much use.

I fully understand that transitioning a company from being run by the founder to other staff is hard. Someone who’s been performing that function has such knowledge and experience that a lot of it has become unconscious, which means it frequently doesn’t get translated to staff, or policy, or paperwork. That transition is where this company has failed pretty miserably:

  • The staff is inexperienced, curt, sometimes petulant, and rarely volunteers information beyond the basics. It’s not even clear the staff understands the process themselves.
  • The overall vibe when challenged by a customer is very defensive.
  • There is almost no preparation for arrival at the airport with one’s pets, probably one of the most stressful things many people will do in their lifetimes. We had flight info, an address for Air Cargo, and a time to get there. The rest was “you figure it out”.
  • Printed/emailed information provided is sadly lacking in any useful detail.
  • Their FAQ is a joke.

At no point in our engagement with Island Pet Movers were we offered a way to provide feedback. Now, weeks after our travel, we’ve received nothing from that company. Not a “Congrats you made it!” Not a “How did we do?” And truthfully, our impression at this point is that nobody at Island Pet Movers actually cares enough to know. And without that feedback, and paying attention to/acting on that feedback, I don’t see how Kari’s company will ever get any better, ever get to the point where she can truly extract herself from day-to-day operations and stop fire-fighting. Much less repair the reputation she’s building.

The bottom line

Our experience with Island Pet Movers is that they’re generally unresponsive, frequently petulant and sometimes even rude. They dropped the ball nearly every step of the way. They were, from our perspective, a waste of money, and were basically a nightmare to work with.