San Diego County Arts Writer

Arts groups here have joined the age of high technology. They are interfacing, going on-line, as they say, in microchip circles, with the world of computerized ticketing. They're into software, hardware, modems, terminals and real time terminology. Those humanistic bastions of high art--the opera, theaters and museums--are discovering the flexibility and, more importantly, the financial rewards inherent in the high-tech computer wafer, specifically in the world of the electronic box office.

Computerized tickets, arts groups are finding, can make a big difference.

The day tickets went on sale for the Boston Pops concert last month, Chuck Love, the San Diego Symphony's marketing director, began monitoring the progress of countywide ticket sales from his own computer terminal. The tickets were being sold over the telephone by Teleseat and at such unlikely locations as Bill Gambles Men's Stores, Licorice Pizza record stores and the California Golden Money Exchange in San Ysidro.

Love had budgeted up to $14,000 to promote the concert, a benefit for the local orchestra. For the first three days, almost by the hour, he studied the constant computer readout. As the sales progressed briskly, he realized that the public needed little prodding because it had a voracious appetite for the Boston Pops. Quickly Love decided to halt ad placement. "I was able to get by with $4,000 (in advertising) and sell the Boston Pops out totally."

Starlight box office manager Patricia Stollard works with Ticketron. When the rights to the musical "Annie" were made available two year's ago--an event Starlight's management had been eagerly awaiting--they pounced at the opportunity. Starlight decided to stage "Annie" immediately, even though it meant dropping the previously announced and marketed musical "Carnival." For Stollard the prospect was a nightmare. But with computer tickets, hey, no problem--or at least not too much of a problem. "I don't know how we would have handled that without the computer," Stollard says.

At the La Jolla Playhouse, marketing director Robert Friend says that 24% to 30% of the non-subscription ticket buyers comes from Los Angeles. He chose to use Ticketmaster, a ticket agency with more than 90 outlets in Los Angeles, because of the L.A. exposure it offered the theater.

Long used for sports events and rock concerts, ticket agencies are seeking out and being sought by fine arts mongers. In San Diego, three agencies vie for the arts business. Ticketron, the nation's largest ticket agency, is being aggressively challenged here by locally owned and operated Teleseat and Ticketmaster, another upstart, a national agency that is ambitiously chipping away a Ticketron's business.

Teleseat, which sold its first ticket in March, 1983, was formed by the Padres baseball organization to market its own tickets after the Select-a-Seat agency ceased West Coast operations. Soon other former Select-a-Seat clients sought out Teleseat to handle their seating sales. Unlike the two other ticket agencies, Teleseat sells most of its tickets by telephone.

Recently, Teleseat struck a deal with San Diego Trust and Savings Bank in which it accepts the bank's 7/24 credit card along with major credit cards. More than 125,000 families in San Diego County have 7/24 cards, which amounts to 25% to 30% of all households, said Steve Sarviel, director of planning and development for Teleseat. Among Teleseat clients are the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Pops, Fahn & Silva concerts and Mark Berman concerts.

Ticketmaster has been in San Diego County only a year. In that time it has knocked off several former Ticketron accounts, including San Diego State University and UC San Diego. Tickets to the San Diego Museum of Art's Precious Legacy exhibit and the current Museum of Natural History's show on dinosaurs were sold throughout Southern California by Ticketmaster. According to Ticketmaster Corp. president Robert A. Leonard, the company has 65%-70% of the Southern California market.

That's a claim which Ticketron disputes. "Ticketmaster is brand new in San Diego. I think it's natural for people to try somebody new," said Gail Tart, Ticketron area manager. "But we've regained a lot in other areas around the country where we've lost (clients). Time will tell."

In choosing a computerized ticket agency, the bottom line for the arts organizations is cost, followed closely by service. "If you don't have a good system, you have to wait for reports," said Love who had tried Ticketron. "Downtime of the system is a dominant factor. There's nothing worse than having a line of six customers waiting because the printer is not working or the terminal won't show you what's available."

Perhaps the most automated of all local arts organizations is the Old Globe Theatre which began printing its own tickets this year, providing its season subscribers with tickets imprinted with their own names. Globe subscribers also get the name of their personal agent in the box office who handles their account, should they have problems.

To Derek Hurd, the Globe's computer wizard, the advent of the computer age offers efficiencies previously only dreamed. "There's nothing we can't do. Anybody who's bought a ticket here can get personalized correspondence. We can look up where our members are seated, whether they're involved, and when the last time was they came to something.

"Contrary to what people are saying about computers being depersonalizing, they allow you to be very personal."

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