Ticket sales for the 2004 Sidmouth festival degenerated into near farce early in May.

Season ticket sales were suspended in Sidmouth and at the main festival box office, yet for weeks afterwards the festival website still allowed people to download an application form and send it off. It takes a few minutes to alter a webpage, so why was this not done? Was Steve Heap so fed up with the residents of East Devon that he no longer cared about local support, having in effect received so little from Sidmouth over the years?

Season ticket sales exceed those of all previous years.
East Devon residents furious as cheap ticket sales are suspended.
Harassed staff at the festival box office reach breaking point.
Some residents get cheap tickets weeks after others are denied.
Ticket availability depended on who answered the phone!

2004 was always going to be a special year in the history of the Sidmouth Festival.

It was surely obvious at an early planning stage that more people might want tickets than in previous years. Attractions included the number of 'top' performers, memories of the splendid weather in 2003 and the lure of an anniversary event. However, early ticket sales exceeded expectations and by late April or early May sales of full week season tickets were suspended - but were they?

Certainly the local Sidmouth Tourist Information Centre were told by fax in early May to stop selling the 'cheap' residents full week tickets. These had been made available in past years to all residents of East Devon to help consolidate local support, to 'repay' in some small way the support given by EDDC, and to help mitigate the inconvenience caused to local people by festival week. The scheme worked well with about 250 residents tickets sold in 2003 (so I was told by the manager of the box office) - and maybe 300-400 could have been sold in 2004 out of a total of 2400 (see data here).

However, before the majority of local folkies had bought their tickets at 115 (which was the advertised price valid to 31 May) sales were suspended and a recorded message on the festival answerphone said that a few tickets were still available at 158. Some people obtained these by ringing the box office  - despite the manager having insisted minutes earlier to other enquirers that no further tickets were available. Rumour and counter-rumour spread fast and a lot of ill feeling was generated. Harassed box office staff had to endure such a torrent of complaint and (sometimes) abuse from irate would-be patrons that the manager went home ill - and who could blame her.

Incredibly,  while this was going on the website continued to offer full week season tickets. It was not updated for weeks during which time the box office staff reached breaking point. It takes about five minutes to update a website - I should know - and much bad feeling could have been avoided. So what were the motives in what appears to have been an orchestrated debacle? Steve Heap's assertion that festival staff were simply too busy answering phone calls to update the website hardly rings true - many of the phone calls would have been generated by people irate that the site had encouraged them to apply for tickets that had long since become unavailable.

The more serious question is why, with foresight, the organisers did not utilise the 50th anniversary year to help guarantee the festival's long term future. An increase in ticket applications was inevitable. If the long term problems of the festival had been spelt out in early promotional material it could have been explained that ticket prices this year included a 'surcharge' to help provide the necessary 'contingency fund'. Instead we had a tersely worded press release that took everyone in the folk world by surprise.

According to Derek Schofield's letter  the total costs are around 750,000 annually, an amount matched (in good years) by ticket sales. A 10% across the board increase would have yielded 75,000 - a good start towards the 200,000 figure.

In Sidmouth, there are now concerns about whether even season ticket holders will be able to get into many of the most popular events - such is the number of tickets that have apparently been sold. Workshops may also be packed out (as some were in 2003) and the prospects for a harmonious 2004 festival look uncertain. Many local folkies are still bitter about the sudden withdrawal of residents tickets. Amongst them are people who loyally and for many years have supported the festival against its many local detractors.

At least the festival did the right thing by some of its loyal supporters - a friend who was told by phone that if he was quick he could have one of the 'last remaining' 158 tickets was subsequently told that a 115 ticket had been 'put on one side' for him because of his long (25 year) history of attendance. Yet this all happened weeks after other long-term folkies had been told that full week season tickets were completely sold out - at whatever price.

Some local people simply do not believe that the 'shambles' of ticket sales was an innocent product of unforeseen extra demand. The festival requires detailed planning over a year or more - one reason why the 2005 event is now in doubt - and by increasing all prices and warning of possible shortages the organisers could have obtained more money with less aggravation.

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