Analysis of the Borg’s ticket fiasco solution

ImageBurning Man organizers faced at least two serious problems created by its flawed new ticketing system, and they chose to deal with just one of them yesterday in announcing that the open sale of the final 10,000 tickets would be canceled and those tickets would instead be sold through the theme camps, art collectives, and volunteer groups that make Black Rock City what it is.

But Black Rock City LLC has decided not to address – at least not yet – its other major problem, which was scalpers and ticket agencies gaming the new ticket lottery to snap up tickets and sell them for huge profits. I and many others have long suggested the LLC register tickets to individual buyers and regulate their exchange to prevent gouging, and after announcing the new system last night, the company got such fierce criticism from online commenters arguing that point that it felt compelled to amend the post a few hours later to address the issue.

“If we don’t fill the holes in the social fabric, who cares about the scalpers, because then we’ve got nothing,” Marian Goodell, the LLC board member who authored last night’s announcement, told me this morning, explaining the emphasis on theme camps.

Without ensuring the city’s art, entertainment, and infrastructure gets build, Burning Man could suffer a fatal blow to its reputation, she said, making the theme camp decision a tough but necessary one. But creating what she called “identity-based tickets” is a far more complicated issue, and she just doesn’t think the scalper problem is as big as many burners believe.

But she doesn’t know for sure. “Nobody knows, it’s all speculation,” Goodell said, and that’s part of the problem. All they really know is demand for tickets this year far exceeded anyone’s expectations – Goodell will only confirm that there were 80,000-120,000 requests for the 40,000 ticket allocated on Feb. 1 – and that tickets often sold for double face value last year after the event sold out a month early for the first time in its 25-year history.

“Is it 100 people or 1,000 people that are going to take advantage of the community, and can we just discourage that?” Goodell said of the number of multiple-ticket-buying profiteers, reiterating her hopes that burners will starve out the scalpers by refusing to pay more than face value for tickets, which is part of the culture’s ethos.

And if it’s just 100, or even 1,000, she said it might not be worth it for the LLC to require the 40,000 people whose tickets will be mailed in June to register by name and to try to bar entry to those whose tickets don’t match their names, particularly given the chance for human error and the remoteness of this temporary city. “How do you punish them? What do you do?” she said, noting that the LLC has delayed the decision on registration while it gathers more information.

But what if the profiteers have managed to wrangle 10,000 tickets? Some bloggers out there have demonstrated how easy it is to generate multiple credit card numbers and argued that scalpers must have done so, despite the LLC claims to have ferreted out the obvious scalper scams before tickets were awarded. “There’s no way it’s 10,000,” Goodell said confidently, although she was also confident that this system would work well, and then that there would be enough extra tickets circulating in the community to satisfy most of the demand, which so far doesn’t seem to be true, with most theme caps reporting that less than a one-third of their members have scored tickets, far less in some cases.

Goodell and the LLC are counting on the STEP ticket exchange system whose registration launches on Feb. 29, but the details of that also generated controversy last night and forced Goodell to say it may still tweak the system. It allows people to sell back their unwanted tickets, with the LLC covering the normal $12 restocking fee. They will then be resold to people who register on a first come, first served basis, but they’ve decided to limit purchases to one per person and only to people who registered and were denied tickets on Feb. 1. Couples were irked that it punishes people who tried to buy two tickets at the main sale using only a single entry, so Goodell said they’ll take another look.

“We are trying to make the STEP system be fluid, so if there’s only a limited number of tickets available then more people can get them,” Goodell said. “We want STEP to work.”

But many burners just don’t think it will. Burning Man tickets have suddenly become a hotter commodity than ever, and even community-minded burners who aren’t seeking to make a profit will probably prefer to sell any extra tickets to someone directly, or to hang onto them for awhile, rather than give them up now to some random people who will then be forced to wait at the gate in the long will-call line, which is a new anti-scalping precaution that Goodell announced.

And then there’s the major thrust of yesterday’s announcement: distributing tickets through theme camps. I and most of the online commenters generally support that decision – at least as the best of a bad set of options – even though it’s certainly a controversial one that values one type of citizen over another and seems to fly in the face of the event’s principle of “radical inclusion.”

Yet it seems to be one that creates some difficult decisions ahead for the LLC. The criteria they laid out say the decisions will be made based on a camp’s history (both its longevity and record of leaving no traces of litter, which the LLC monitors in a very detailed way), what it offers to the city each year, and its adherence to the event’s 10 Principles.

Goodell confirmed my observation of how subjective that judgment will be – something that has spurred criticism that camps cozy with the LLC will get favorable treatment – but she said the large team of volunteers that work with theme camps and volunteer crews each year have already made many of those judgments and determined who will get tickets.

“We already did the math,” she told me. “Just because you’re a theme camp on the map doesn’t entitle you to x-number of tickets.”

While there may be about 700 registered theme camps in recent years, Goodell said the LLC is focused on getting tickets to camps that are truly interactive or offer entertainment, transportation, art, or volunteers to key functions such as the Lamplighters or Gate crew. “And we know who they are,” she said.

For everyone else, there are still a couple more chances to get tickets, beyond just the open market. There will be 4,000 low-income tickets (just $160) offered through a process that will likely be more competitive than ever, with registration beginning Feb. 29. And then there are the major art projects that receive grant funding and free tickets for crew members from the LLC, with the announcements of winners expected next month.

So now, burners and outside observers will just have to wait and see – first how the LLC’s solutions work, then this summer to see how the scalpers’ really did – as Burning Man muddles through what is proving to be a pivotal year.

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Last thoughts before the Borg reveals all

Burning Man participants are anxiously awaiting tomorrow’s (Wed/15) announcement by Black Rock City LLC about how it will solve this year’s ticket fiasco that left most veteran burners – those who work through theme camps and art collectives to create the event’s infrastructure, entertainment, and artistic offerings – without tickets.

As I reported last week, sources say all or most of the remaining 10,000 tickets will likely be distributed through these theme camps and collectives, and representatives from many of the major ones have been invited to a meeting at Burning Man’s mid-Market headquarters tomorrow to discuss the new system.

Sources say the LLC is also trying to implement a system of having those who were awarded tickets on Feb. 1 register those tickets to specific individuals before they are mailed out in June and to create a regulated aftermarket ticket exchange in order to prevent scalpers from charging more than face value. The LLC has resisted creating such a system, which many burners have suggested since the event sold out for the first time last year and scalpers gouged buyers.

LLC board member Marian Goodell still has not returned my repeated calls for comment, so we can’t say exactly what the new system will look like, or how the LLC will decide which of the hundreds of theme camps that have registered over the years get tickets. Or how the registration system will work, or to sort out many of the other tricky details associated with this mess.

Hopefully, much of that will become clear tomorrow, and I’m sure there will still be many issues to explore then. But for now, I’d like to do a bit of a notebook dump to air a few of the interesting bits from the voluminous input that has been coming my way since I started writing (and being interviewed by the Sacramento Bee and New York Times) about the snafu a few weeks ago:

 

CHICKEN THE SCALPER

The LLC has been urging burners to freeze out ticket scalpers and refuse to pay more than face value for a ticket, urging the community to stick together. “You’re really hurting your community if you’re treating this like a commodity,” Goodell told me in late January, a message that I helped to convey.

As hundreds of burners commented on my stories and others, I was a bit surprised by the silence of longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi, who has been a regular vocal critic of the LLC’s leadership since I first started reporting on Burning Man for the Guardian in late 2004 and who then became a major character in my book.

Chicken had predicted the new ticket lottery system would fail and be gamed by scalpers, so when I finally talked to him late last week, I asked about his relative recent silence. “I really don’t think I belong in this conversation because I’m the scalper,” he told me. “I got dozens of tickets and I’m planning to make tens of thousands of dollars.”

Chicken said he used confederates and multiple credit cards to game the system, just like the scalpers. And to justify his mercenary approach, he cited last year’s announcement by event founder Larry Harvey that he and the other five LLC board members are in the process of cashing out their ownership interest over the trademarks and logos for significant sums of money before turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit.

“They want capitalism. Larry wants to make millions of dollars off of this, so I’m going to make some money, too,” Chicken said. “I deserve that money.”

Now, I don’t know whether Chicken is telling the truth or just making a provocative point, but he does say that he’s only taking this tact because the LLC has commodified Burning Man and failed to heed community input and guard against scalpers. “If I ran Burning Man, I wouldn’t let people make tens of thousands of dollars off my members,” he said. “Our community needs some leadership.”

 

SERVING THE DISABLED

Many theme camp members have publicly said that their camps won’t be able to attend this year because so few of their campmates got tickets, making it impossible to pull off large scale projects, thus diminishing Black Rock City. But there was one story I found particularly poignant, and one that the LLC might be forced to help.

For the last six years, the Black Rock Department of Mobility (formerly known as Hotwheelz) has been providing shuttle services and electric wheelchairs to those with disabilities, helping them to get around a city where private cars aren’t allowed to drive during the week and where dusty, uneven terrain can to be problematic for the disabled.

But this year, camp founder Wayne Merchant told me, the Southern California-based camp scored just three tickets for its 27 active members. Already, he said they lined up almost 10 golf carts to do shuttles, nine electric wheelchairs for people to use, a few art cars with lifts, and at least 10 clients with disabilities have signed up for their services.

“I have the best core team that we’ve ever had on this camp,” he said, “but this is totally putting us out of business.”

He also raised the specter that without the voluntary services that this camp provides, the event itself might be out-of-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), possibly exposing the LLC to legal liability: “It will basically dump all the ADA compliance on Burning Man.”

“Depending on what happens tomorrow,” said Merchant, who plans to the attend the meeting at BM HQ, “I could be totally be done with Burning Man.”

 

WAITING ON THE FEDS

Many burners have suggested the LLC deal with this year’s ticket demand issues by simply increasing the city’s population, but organizers have said that’s not really within their power. Not only are there transportation and other logistical constraints, but determining the population cap is at the sole discretion of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Black Rock Desert.

More precisely, it is at the sole discretion of Rolando Mendez, the BLM field manager for the region, who I interviewed last week, along with assistant field manager Cory Roegner. And one of the things I learned that I found most interesting is that the population cap won’t even be set until this June, after all the tickets have been distributed.

“Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they’re inclined to,” Mendez said. “That’s a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”

Right now, both the LLC and BLM are awaiting completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) report on the LLC’s request for a five-year permit that seeks a population cap that would gradually increase from 58,000 to 70,000. A draft report is expected next month, after which there will be a public comment period, with the final report expected in June.

“I have not determined how to allocate that population cap over time,” Mendez said, expressing concerns over limited highway access to the site and other factors. “Too sudden of a change at too great a level could overwhelm the system.”

Both Mendez and Goodell say the two entities have a good working relationship. “We work together at problem solving and brainstorming,” Mendez said. “But right now, I’m depending on the EA.”

While he did indicate that Burning Man will probably be allowed to maintain at least its current size, as the LLC is relying on, even that isn’t guaranteed. It all depends on what the report says. So what happens if the LLC sells too many tickets now? Mendez said that’s not his call: “I don’t know the business strategy Black Rock City LLC is using or what their contingency plans are.”

 

CHANGING NUMBERS

When Goodell and Harvey called me on Jan. 27 to let me know that requests for tickets had far exceeded supply and to enlist my help in spreading the word that people should remain calm, rely on those in the community who had most of the extra tickets, and avoid buying from scalpers, I asked how many ticket requests there were.

They refused to tell me. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, so I’m used to corporations denying me financial information that I’ve sought. And it wasn’t even a surprise from this LLC, which claims financial transparency but which has refused to disclose lots of information that I’ve sought over the years.

But as it became clear that their initial beliefs about how many tickets would be available within the community proved overly optimistic, and as pressure grew from both the Burning Man community and other journalism organizations, the LLC went into damage control mode and started to be a little more forthcoming.

So, how many ticket requests did they actually have? Well, it depends on who you believe. Goodell told the New York Times and other outlets that it was about 80,000 requests. But longtime event spokesperson Andie Grace – in a post that was widely lauded for a frankness and contrition that had been lacking in earlier communications from the LLC – wrote “we had nearly three times the number of tickets requested than we had available tickets.”

So, was 80,000 or 120,000? That’s a pretty big difference, particularly given that all the official posts so far have claimed that scalpers gaming the new system wasn’t as big a factor as is widely believed, although few have offered convincing evidence for that self-serving belief (after all, if it was scalpers gaming the system, than its creators made a mistake).

Personally, I’ve long believed that the LLC should be more transparent. As I discuss in my book, the LLC reveals general expenditure data (sometimes belatedly), but no information on revenues or current balances. The most recent report, for 2010, shows total expenses of $17.5 million, which includes a payroll of $7.3 million and fees to BLM and other agencies of more than $1.5 million.

Harvey has said that everything will be opened up once control is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project in two to five years, but Chicken and others have complained that the board members will already have made off their their payouts by then and that those have contributed their sweat equity for decades have a right to know how much that is.

Maybe a bit more consistency in numbers and transparency now would help quell some of this restive community’s concerns, but clearly we’re not the ones making those kinds of decisions.Image

Burning Man ticket fiasco creates uncertain future

Is it the end of Burning Man as we know it? That’s certainly the way things are looking to thousands of longtime burners who didn’t get tickets when the results of a controversial new ticket lottery system were announced on Tuesday evening, particularly as big picture information emerged in online discussions yesterday.

Personally, I was awarded the maximum two tickets I requested at the $320 level (my sister already claimed the other, so don’t even ask), but I’m feeling a little survivor’s guilt as I hear from the vast majority of my burner friends who didn’t get tickets. And if it wasn’t already clear that scalpers have effectively gamed the new system, that became apparent yesterday when batches of up to eight tickets were listed for as much as $1,500 each on eBay and other online outlets.

As I’ve attended Burning Man since 2001 and covered it for the Guardian and my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, I’ve become involved with many camps and collectives over the years. So over the last couple days, I’ve been privy to lots of online discussions and surveys, and it appears that only about a third of burners who registered for tickets actually received them (organizers have refused to say how many people registered for the 40,000 tickets sold this week, so it’s tough to assess whether scalpers were more effective than burners at buying them).

The huge number of burners without tickets is a big problem for theme camps and art collectives that rely heavily their members to pay dues and work long hours to prepare often elaborate camps, art cars, or installations, some of which are now in doubt. Many people are so frustrated that they’ve pledged not to attend this year, and even those of us that did get tickets are questioning whether we want to go if some of our favorite people aren’t – particularly if they’re replaced by rich newbies willing to spend a grand on a ticket.

Theme camps are the basic building blocks of Black Rock City – a central tenet of my book and regular claim of event organizers – and the work they do to build their camps and plan fundraisers to pay for them has already begun, only with far more uncertainty than usual this year. And that will also exacerbate a tension that already exists between grant-funded art projects (which usually get free tickets for their volunteer builders) and big camps that don’t qualify for tickets, such as sound camps or independently funded art projects.

For now, most burners seem to be willing to wait a beat or two – as Black Rock City LLC is urging, a message that I willingly helped disseminate – to see whether enough extra tickets purchased by community-minded burners are offered for sale at face value using an aftermarket ticket exchange the LLC is hurriedly setting up right now. Some camps and projects have created internal ticket exchanges to try to take care of their own first. And there’s still the secondary ticket sale with the last 10,000 tickets coming on March 28.

But the frustrations are palpable, and there is widespread concern that Burning Man has jumped the shark and will be changed by the series of official missteps in the last year. Dozens of people have independently asked why, after the event sold out last year and scalpers made a killing, the LLC didn’t require each ticket to be registered to an individual and transferred only through a regulated aftermarket system, which would prevent gouging by scalpers. I’ve asked organizers that same question each of the last two years, and was only told that it seemed like too much trouble and that things would work out.

Well, most burners don’t think things are working out very well. Many are still willing to wait and see, and this certainly is a resourceful community, so perhaps things seem more bleak now than they will in a month or two when playa preparations really kick into gear. But if not, the LLC could be facing a real crisis of confidence in its leadership of an event that we all help create, and perhaps even an open rebellion of its core members.

Many longtime burners are already making other vacation plans for this year, some are even pondering plans to create alternative events, and there are a significant number of them who have tapped the spirit of these political times and suggested it’s time to “Occupy Burning Man” or “Occupy Black Rock City.”

Whatever happens, the Year of the Dragon seems to have brought with it the old Chinese proverb: may you live in interesting times. I’ll continue covering new development in this most interesting of years, so stay in touch.