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Autumn Supporting Friends Booking 2014: An apology

We are working hard to ensure that the problems visitors experienced today will not be repeated.

By Alex Beard (Chief Executive)

6 June 2014 at 5.38pm | 39 Comments

Updated 13 June with comment from Rob Greig

At 10am this morning booking opened to Supporting Friends of Covent Garden for our Autumn Season, but the experience was a poor one. Pages were slow to load, seat maps jammed and even if people were able to add tickets to their baskets they were often unable to complete the transaction. Many contacted us to communicate their anger and frustration, and our digital development team have been working throughout the day to resolve the problems. The website should now be working smoothly.

Once we know what has caused today's difficulties we will give you an update and – more importantly – ensure that it does not happen again. We value all of our customers, but the Supporting Friends of Covent Garden do seem to have had more than their fair share of difficult booking days and for that I apologize unreservedly. We value your support hugely, and are saddened when a booking day is a cause of frustration rather than excitement.

An update from Rob Greig, our Chief Technology Officer about the reason for the problems experienced on 6 June:

'An automatic overnight maintenance job developed a fault which caused it to still be working when booking started at 10am, this job caused our databases to slow down and therefore the website became very slow and created errors.

'Some audience members have asked about our testing regime. Ahead of every booking, we perform a load test that is many times greater than the traffic we expect. In this instance the faulty maintenance job was not load tested because it is not normally part of the load on a booking day. The incident we experienced was the equivalent of a fault developing in the electrical supply to the ROH or the server room getting too hot.

When we release new code we carry out unit tests, regression tests, functional tests, user acceptance tests and load tests. We also have a peer review mechanism where the developers review each other’s code. The external development agency we work with, POP, has a similar testing regime and they have a dedicated quality assurance and testing team which test before every release. Dozens of bugs get captured and fixed before code gets released into the wild.'

By Alex Beard (Chief Executive)

6 June 2014 at 5.38pm

This article has been categorised Off stage and tagged booking, Booking Day, digital, website

This article has 39 comments

  1. Brian COLVIN responded on 6 June 2014 at 7:05pm Reply

    I have already sent my own disappointed email as a reply to your [BULK] reminder of the application date but I'm not sure if it wiil have got through to a "real" address.
    I am one of the "lucky" ones because I have the tickets I wanted but 2 hours battling with the website was wholly unacceptable and ruined my morning (although I did have a perverse sense of triumph on beating the "non-system"!) Please don't let it happen again.

  2. Alice Poulsen responded on 6 June 2014 at 10:26pm Reply

    Firstly thank you for taking the time to apologise, however as you acknowledge yourself, we, the Supporting Members have taken the brunt of the failings with the website. Time and time again we encounter endless problems on booking day, and the time has come where empty apologies and promises are simply not good enough. We are not ROH's private testing group! We pay hard earned cash for a priviledge , promised to us by ROH, but you are failing to deliver on that promise but clearly think that as long as you say sorry it is ok - it is NOT!

    Tangible compensation is long overdue to us as a way of apology for not delivering your end of the bargain, not just once but time and time again.

    We are at a point where "talk is cheap" (endless promises but no action) and if you want to gain our trust back and/or keep us onboard, action is the only way forward.

  3. Ian Slade responded on 6 June 2014 at 11:20pm Reply

    Ok, but what are you going to DO for people who found that when, eventually, they could access the site, the tickets they wanted had all sold out? Release all the tickets you hold back as priority for SF's who always (as you admit) bear the brunt of this. Also, you might need to dig deeper into what is going on: isn't it just a little odd that Premium are buying ALL the Stalls Circle Standing? If I could afford that level of support I would not be standing. Odd that this is always the case for Osipova; doubly odd that an allegedly sold out section was available to standard friend weeks later. Not good enough today ROH. World class? Hardly.

    • Vicky Hurst responded on 19 June 2014 at 1:24pm

      Are the odds really stacked against those who want to purchase Stall Circle Standing? Those are the tickets I always go for as I like to go as often as I can. The reason I joined the Friends was because I thought it would make it easier to get the tickets I wanted but it looks as though it may have been a waste of money as I will have to try on the general booking day anyway as I couldn't get the tickets I wanted on the Friends bookling day.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 19 June 2014 at 6:09pm

      Dear Vicky

      Many many Friends are attempting to book Stalls Circle Standing tickets as they offer a good view for an excellent price (as long as you are willing to stand). If this is combined with intense demand for performances featuring certain artists then there is going to be strong competition for those places.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  4. catherine responded on 7 June 2014 at 6:41am Reply

    Thank you for the apology. This seems now to be a regular occurrence (both the trouble and the need for apology/explanation). I have not ever had trouble at all on Supporting Friends booking day (so not sure why you think we have had more than fair share of troubles) but over the last few years have seen regular posts and tweets from Friends and General patrons about similar meltdowns on what seem to be a majority of their booking days. It would be good if this could just be sorted out rather than becoming a recurring/escalating theme. Please forward thanks to frontline box office and Friends staff who dealt with things with great patience - must be dreadful for them too to have to deal with the problems so often.

  5. Alice Poulsen responded on 7 June 2014 at 2:55pm Reply

    Sorry, just do not believe you any more. No apology or empty promises make up for constant let down on booking day, at this stage - it is not exactly the first time, but still the same hollow apology and empty promises.

  6. John M. responded on 8 June 2014 at 12:31am Reply

    The above comments come as no surprise. The first few hours of Supporting Friends booking were a disgrace. it would seem that no matter how much or what you throw at the system, it regularly lets you down, especially on opening days and you just churn out the same old apologies. Please spare us the bland, patronising replies that we read so regularly in these pages. Many people lost valuable time on Friday and did not even manage to get the tickets they wanted. The range of tickets available was disappointing - strange bearing in mind that most people seemed to be unable to grab any at all. Is it not time that the ROH rethink its ticket sales policy? It has to try to avoid the assault upon its systems on opening day, as they clearly aren't up to it. I dread to think what the stampede will be like in the next period with Tristan, Ballo, Chenier and Hollaender all up for grabs as well as ballet which, I assume, must bring equal demands from the ballet audience. Previous comments I have read on other issues, particularly Netrebko's late cancellation for Faust, would indicate that most friends at whatever level are friends because they hope to have a better chance of getting reasonably priced tickets. Let's hope people don't decide to bring this friendship to a close.

  7. Margaret Midgley responded on 8 June 2014 at 12:57pm Reply

    Thank you for the apology over the on-line booking. On Friday 6th June I have to say that apart from a slight delay in logging in at 10 a.m. UK time I successfully purchased my tickets for the performance I wanted. It took about 20 minutes to get logged in and about another 10 minutes to complete the transaction. And I went back the next day and purchased two tickets for a different ballet with no problem at all. I am a new SF so have no experience of previous difficulties. However as I am currently living in Riyadh the online booking provides an essential lifeline. Many thanks ROH.

    • Miriam responded on 9 June 2014 at 10:34am

      20 minutes to log in is not what I would call a "slight" delay, logging in should be instantaneous. 20 minutes is nineteen minutes and fifty seconds longer than it should take. It is inexcusable.

      I was already logged in before 10am, but it then took me until after twenty past until I could get any of the event pages to load up. You only booked one performance, you should have been able to do this in five minutes altogether, not the half an hour it seems to have taken.

      I had a list of thirteen events to book, including opera, ballet and Insight events. I did not finish until after 1pm, having to do them in three separate orders because the system was working so slowly I was in danger of losing what was in my basket. This wasted my entire morning.

      At least I am retired and did not have anywhere special I needed to go that day, it would have been even more infuriating if I had been planning to go out after finishing the bookings, which I might reasonably have expected to be before 10.30. Some people are trying to do this in the office at work, they might be able to take 10-15 minutes out but not several hours.

  8. Richard IRVING responded on 8 June 2014 at 1:11pm Reply

    After several frustrating hours of not being able to BUY, (Seeing constantly NOT ON SALE) I telephoned the Friends office and was informed that my Supporting Friends membership had been cancelled even though I am paid up until November 30th 2014 ! A very helpful lady put this right and I was then able to book normally. Still baffled why this happened ...

  9. Miriam responded on 8 June 2014 at 3:48pm Reply

    I already tried to comment on this thread yesterday and got some stupid message telling me I was commenting too quickly. This was my first attempt to post! How was I supposed to do it slower?

    I completely agree with what others have already written above. We have all had too many of these bad experiences before, we are fed up with all these excuses, we just want it to work properly. If the ROH thinks it is a world class opera house one of the things it should offer is a world class online booking system.

    I think this was the worst ROH booking experience I ever had, and definitely the worst since I upgraded to Supporting Friend. Having a stress-free booking experience was one of my reasons for upgrading in the first place.

    And posting an apology on the website is just not good enough either, it should have been sent to everyone by email. A lot of people never look at the site other than to book, and after spending all morning on it yesterday instead of the 15 minutes or so they might have expected most probably felt they did not want to look at it again any time soon.

    Thanks however to the box office for exchanging some Insight seats because I had been unable to select the row I wanted.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 8 June 2014 at 5:37pm

      Dear Miriam

      The message about posting too quickly was due to the number of people commenting at the same time - it was nothing to do with your specific post.

      Sorry, again about the experience - it is quite reasonable for you to want the system to work smoothly.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  10. David B responded on 8 June 2014 at 11:31pm Reply

    I too had an extremely frustrating morning trying to get onto the booking area and when eventually I did I was logged out. I emailed and received an apology but my subsequent emails are still unanswered. I was unable to book the seats I required and I do find it odd, as other posters have mentioned, that whole areas are not on sale for supporting friends on their first day of booking. The tickets I eventually booked were more expensive than the ones I have on most occasions booked on the first day of booking when there have been no problems with the log in. I will consider very carefully if it is worth paying the high difference in price between a friend and a supporting friend when my membership is up for renewal.

  11. Jeanette responded on 9 June 2014 at 11:11am Reply

    There was also a knock-on effect on those of us attempting to make a telephone booking.

  12. Ann responded on 10 June 2014 at 10:31am Reply

    Surely the reason why David B found some seats not available for purchase by SFs would be that there is (rightly) an allocation held back for general booking.

  13. I would like to point out that the comments are incorrect from Supporting Friends who think they are bearing the brunt of continued online booking problems. The huge problems encountered on Public Booking days over the past couple of years have been equally frequent and frustrating. If the ROH booking system is unable to cope with the enormous number of people trying to access the site at the same time for both ballet and opera then logic should tell you that the problem would be halved if you had separate days for each. At the moment this is only done for Friends' Booking days but, incomprehensibly, not for any of the other specified times for other categories. Regarding the policy of holding back a certain amount of good inexpensive seats or standing places for Public Booking days; it would be a retrograde step in your attempts to interest a wider public if you reduce that allocation even more. The availability of reasonably-priced tickets has already suffered greatly due to students now given the opportunity to book one day in advance of Public Booking.

  14. rosalind dimmock responded on 12 June 2014 at 11:53am Reply

    There were no reasonably priced restricted view stalls circle tickets on sale for most of the operas in the autumn season. Why was this? If this seats are all being held back for public booking then there is obviously no point in being a member of Friends at any level. So please confirm exactly which stalls circle seats are being held back for public booking.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 12 June 2014 at 4:14pm

      Dear Rosalind

      Many of the seats that we hold off in the Stalls Circle are to protect the wellbeing of orchestra members.

      Works such as Anna Nicole have a very high volume and a final decision is made during rehearsals when the level of the volume is measured. Some productions may only have a small orchestra but the use of these seats depends what else is either rehearsed or performed at the same time. We are looking at ways to manage this and to keep Friends informed about availability.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  15. KC responded on 13 June 2014 at 1:42pm Reply

    Susan Fisher persuaded me to upgrade my membership from a Friend to a Supporting Friend as Supporting Friends “were less than 10% of total Friends”. It costs me £365 to be a Supporting Friend, more than 4 times the price of a Friend.

    Not only has the booking continued to be constant aggravation but in 2011 the ROH changed the opening of booking times from 8am to 10am, effectively in the middle of the working day, making it impossible for any working members to book early. And they maintain they are trying to encourage younger people to attend performances! Sometimes as we know the booking can take 2 or more hours. The reason, I was told for change from the 8am start to 10am was because according to the Friends Office this suited their technical staff. The tail is wagging the dog.

    I wrote to the Chairman, Simon Robey in April 2013 regarding the booking and eventually received a letter from Sally O’Neill (Chief Operating Officer) in February 2014. “….The very large number of visitors to our site in such a short period will always be a challenge to handle efficiently…” she said. If their system can’t cope with the Supporting Friends which is a relatively small number what hope is there for the Friends?

    Ironically on the occasion of booking this time (I had to make 3 separate bookings), I have ended up with 2 tickets for the Il barbiere which I did not order and could not remove from my basket! I phoned the Friends Office on the day of this time’s fiasco and am still waiting for a response.

    Why are they promoting Insights when they are making no tickets available?

    We are paying a lot of money for a non-existent service and the ROH do not seem to care.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 17 June 2014 at 1:05pm

      Dear KC

      I'm sorry to hear that you had such a difficult booking day. Let me respond to a few of your points:

      1 Booking should not take up to two hours - we are very sorry that Supporting Friends found the last booking so laborious. We would aim for the booking to be accomplished in a matter of minutes

      2 The time of booking was not changed to suit the technical team, but no time will suit everyone. Many people are on their way to work at 8am

      3 Insights are often over-subscribed but we are doing our best to increase the numbers that can attend through bringing popular events into the Linbury where possible or filming the events to make available later

      4 I've passed your query about the Barbiere tickets on to the Friends office and they will be in touch with your directly to refund the unwanted tickets

      I'm sorry that you feel that the service is poor - I can assure you that we at the ROH take booking problems very seriously and are working hard to improve the service.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  16. Andrew Luff responded on 13 June 2014 at 5:13pm Reply

    The polite and restrained comments I have read so far do not, I suspect, reflect what many Supporting Friends (including myself) were thinking on the morning of 6 June. Having had a week to calm down, can I just add one comment: why is SF booking getting WORSE and WORSE? If Rob Greig is not receiving a good service from the good fellows at POP, perhaps the ROH could switch to a company staffed by IT professionals who have more experience in online booking.

  17. Edward Bell responded on 13 June 2014 at 6:57pm Reply

    A little humility would help. When I did eventually get through to the. Friend's office there wasn't even hint of an apology. It would been nice to have been emailed Alex Beard's message. I didn't even know he'd written one until today (one week after the event). Supporting Friends are treated as a cash cow. We pay because we're desperate to get good seats at reasonable prices. The ROH knows this which is why we continue to be treated poorly.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 17 June 2014 at 9:05pm

      Dear Edward

      I'm sorry to hear that there was no apology forthcoming when you phoned up - I can assure you that we take such booking problems very seriously. We did discuss sending Alex Beard's message to Supporting Friends but it was only the following week that we had an answer as to the nature of the technical problem and we didn't want to send an apology without any explanation. We therefore decided to include a link in the Friends E-News.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  18. Kevin Chamberlain responded on 13 June 2014 at 7:50pm Reply

    I share the frustration of those who tried to book tickets on 6 June. I was on holiday in Naples at the time and spent two hours on the hotel computer trying to book tickets. When I did eventually get through and selected the tickets I wanted I then found I was unable to pay as for some reason the system would not accept my credit card. I then had to start all over again only to find the screen frozen. Eventually I gave up and rang the box office on my mobile. I kept getting the engaged tone but after trying for half an hour got through only to be told I was being held in a queue and that I was number 43. After hanging on for some two hours I finally managed to speak to a human being and book the tickets I wanted. I have not yet received my mobile phone bill and I dread to think what it will be.

  19. 13.06.2014. I wrote a comment a 3 days ago but it hasn't been posted yet. Now, a further comment to the explanation posted today by Rob Grieg: .. The Public Booking day on 14th January was equally as disastrous as the 6th June event, and in January Mr Grieg tried to reassure us that a system failure of such proportions would be a one-off incident. Below, I am quoting the final paragraph of an explanation posted by him on 15th January at 1.45pm:
    "Well, we have a thorough process of testing both code and load ahead of every booking day, and often reveal issues which we fix before they are seen by the customer. The tests, however, are mechanical and although they test the load to many times the size of a booking day, it’s still a mechanical test. So we now need to work on a more organic test, which will work more like a simulation of what actually happens on a booking day. As you can imagine, simulating the real activity of 100,000 people coming to our website could be tricky. There are lots of tools and methods to help achieve this and we are committed to improving the quality of experience for those who use our website and making sure this is a one-off incident." Excuses, excuses. There have been other incidents as well and the frequency points more to a level of technical incompetence internally as well as externally. The external agency was described as having "a dedicated quality assurance and testing team" and the words "quality assurance" caused me to LOL. I don't want any more futile technical explanations, I want to know what is being done by your 'experts'. Even the most basic systems have a back up in place, so please set up an adequate system 'plan b' before the next heavy load booking day.

  20. Patricia Holroyd responded on 13 June 2014 at 8:46pm Reply

    Why run a 'maintenance job' during the night before opening of booking? is there nobody on the Technical Staff who could have avoided this happening? and who might have noticed that this programme was over-running? - and who might have stopped it from impacting on the booking process? why not run this programme at a time when there is a lower demand for tickets?

    I joined the Friends as a student in 1966 and have recently upgraded to Supporting Friends - this is very expensive on a Teachers' Pension!! - the booking process has therefore been very disappointing - please address this huge problem in your organisation!

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 17 June 2014 at 8:46pm

      Dear Patricia

      Thank you for your comment, and apologies again for the poor booking experience.

      The maintenance job is one that is essential to the functioning of the website and which had never taken more than 4 hours on previous occasions - this is why we were so surprised to find that this was the cause of the difficulties, and why nobody spotted the problem until it had caused disruption.

      We are addressing the problem and will do our utmost to ensure that your next booking experience is a positive one.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  21. WTF responded on 13 June 2014 at 9:34pm Reply

    Hello

    As I posted on the tweeface on the day; it was clunky but it did kind of work.

    What would have been better on the day would have been to offer a clear time to book.

    The 'frustration circle' doesn't help either you or your customers.

    It isn't clear from the post what you intend to do for 'SF' supporters; maybe you need to.

    Separately drop me an email and I am happy to introduce your CTO to my CTO about effective testing. Hey we don't all get it right all the time but I'm not sure that the answer your CTO has given is good enough, but in the spirit of trying to make it right for you and your customers (i.e. us) I'll do all that I can to help.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 17 June 2014 at 12:50pm

      Thanks for your comment. I have passed it on to our CTO.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  22. Dr Heather Parry responded on 13 June 2014 at 10:54pm Reply

    At least this time there was an apology so someone has been on a customer care course. Until recently packages could not be booked on line so it was necessary to telephone or go to the box office. On one occasion at the end of my conversation with the booking clerk I ventured that he must have been talking to a lot of disgruntled customers as I had had to redial continuously for 35 minutes and then wait in a queue for another 25. He told me he didn't know what I was complaining about as I had the tickets I wanted! I've never been spoken to like that by anyone at English National Opera or Glyndebourne.

  23. Chris Rocker responded on 17 June 2014 at 11:07am Reply

    Reading all of the negative comments about the web site booking process reminds my why I do not attempt to book through the web site any more. Following yet another of the booking fiascos I decided that, unlike all of the other arts activities in which I am involved, in the case of the Royal Opera I will just fill in the old fashioned form and mail it to the box office. It's not a very sophisticated approach but it is painless at least!

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 17 June 2014 at 12:05pm

      Dear Chris

      I hope that you'll come back to the website when we've shown that online booking is trouble-free.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  24. Dr Heather Parry responded on 17 June 2014 at 11:11am Reply

    But Anna Nicole is a revival! Don't you have the information about the volume from previous performances? However at least this time we got an apology and some sort of explanation. On a previous occasion when packages were only bookable in person or by telephone I had to redial continuously for 35 minutes and then wait in a queue for 25 minutes before I was able to speak to someone in the box office. At the end of our conversation I suggested to him that he must have been speaking to a lot of disgruntled people who had struggled to get through. He told me had no right to be irritated as I had the tickets I wanted! No-one at ENO or Glyndebourne has ever been rude like that to me.

  25. Ann responded on 18 June 2014 at 3:42pm Reply

    I am sure I am going to make myself very unpopular by saying this but surely it is not always going to be possible to get the specific seat that one would like. If it is not available then another, equally eligible, friend has got it! For example, there are only so many aisle, front row, standing places or Insight seats available.
    This week, as a lowest level friend, there did however seem to be a reasonable number of seats in most parts of the house left for us after the higher levels had had their pick. So in spite of the delays no-one need have actually gone without a ticket. As I understand it, only the very highest levels of Friendship guarantee specific seats. The rest of us are offered varying degrees of priority. Many other booking systems have issues at popular times and there will always be the possibility of glitches or delays but overall I think the ROH probably now performs better than most!

  26. Ian Slade responded on 19 June 2014 at 2:37pm Reply

    I fear this one will run and run! A long queue time online might be acceptable if one could see why it was happening; the Royal Albert Hall website is transparent and easy, selling tickets for the Proms without fuss. That's a 6,000 seat venue and 70+ concerts. Yes, it can be slow, but it doesn't collapse under the strain. It helps there that booking is spread (Season tickets the day before). No booking time will ever suit anyone, but, even at the most drearily utilitarian level it must be evident that any time during a standard working day is quite simply impossible for anyone working. Being a teacher, do you suggest that I simply ignore my class while booking? - even if it only took 15 minutes, this would be unthinkable. On this occasion, I happened to have a free period, so thought I might sneak 15 minutes; what a mistake that was. Surely a Saturday inconveniences the fewest? On previous booking day debacles, I have been airily told on the phone that it is my fault for trying to book at 10.00 (!!!!). Obviously, if I don't then none of the budget seats will be left when I do log on.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 19 June 2014 at 6:03pm

      Thanks for the feedback Ian. We are hoping to finally arrive at a point with the booking system where there is no need for a queue or waiting room and that the website is robust. Neither was the case with the old website and we have come a long way since that. Our technical team are working hard to ensure that the poor experience on Supporting Friends booking does not recur.

      A change in when booking takes place has not been ruled out.

      You certainly should be able to book as soon as tickets are released.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

  27. Mr Mukherjee responded on 11 July 2014 at 4:01am Reply

    Funny this online booking issue happened only a month ago. When I telephoned the Box Office yesterday to ask in advance of the general booking opening next week whether the online system looked like it would be functional, I was met with the unbelievably rude answer, "Hmm, let me just see into the future." If you are not equipped to know whether the computer system will work any better than it has in the past, just say that without the flippant treatment of my inquiry as a stupid one. It would be quite a different story if the website had never caused problems. Just last year, I seemingly completed the purchase of a seat online for La donna del lago, but I was suspicious when I did not get the usual emails that follow, and so I telephoned only to learn that I had not got the seat, which had meanwhile been sold to someone else. At least that time the Box Office was polite. Who knows? Maybe their policy is only to be helpful or courteous once a customer has forked over his credit card details and not a moment sooner.

    • Ellen West (Head of Online Content) responded on 11 July 2014 at 8:12pm

      Dear Mr Mukherjee

      I am very sorry to hear that you felt that your question was not taken seriously and that the reply was dismissive. We take the issues that we have experienced with the website seriously and very much hope that booking next week will be trouble-free (we currently believe that things will go smoothly).

      I have passed your feedback onto the Box Office team.

      Best wishes

      Ellen

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