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.