The stars of the Olympics delivered highly anticipated jaw-dropping performances from Michael Phelps to Simone Biles to Usain Bolt to the Brazilian team topping it off by winning gold in Olympic soccer. There have been so many exciting experiences keeping fans and viewers around the world captive for the past three weeks that even serious concerns about Zika and security threats faded into the background as we watched historic and record-breaking sports moments.
By almost all measures, Rio 2016 was a resounding success with one glaring exception: Ticketing.
Mirroring the struggles of Beijing and London, Rio had rows and rows of empty seats at the biggest events while hundreds of fans stood outside with broken hearts. It doesn't have to be like this for fans of the games. It is actually possible for the Olympics to be legitimately profitable for cities and organizers while being rewarding for athletes, fulfilling for fans and marketable for corporate sponsors. Below are lessons learned from Rio 2016 that can make the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics better than ever.
1. Create a fan-friendly ticket process
Rio used the archaic practice of granting huge allocations of tickets to authorized resellers (ATRs), National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and sponsors well in advance of the games with the need to pay upfront. This effectively "stuffed the channel" which means there were tens of thousands of tickets in the wrong places leaving them little chance of selling. As the games went on, tens of thousands of tickets sat in safes unused while tens of thousands of potential customers were shut out by old and ineffective rules of resale. For Tokyo, a dynamic model with time-based milestones would enable the moving of tickets between channels and drive more use. Whether through a real-time online ticket allocation system or flexible agreements --- fans need a chance at filling these seats.
2. Remove fixed exchange rates from the equation
By requiring payment at time of allocation, authorized resellers were effectively locked into foreign exchange rates that went south quickly. This is a very risky practice. In Rio, the increase actually meant fans were "legally scalped" by paying 60 percent to 80 percent above the tickets' initial face value due to the plummeting value of the Brazilian Real. Tokyo would be best served with a model where money is exchanged at the time of purchase rather than the time of allocation. Even if the rate were to go up -- the host country still receives its budgeted revenue and fans pay actual cost.
3. Reduce the number of tickets locked up in hospitality packages
A large swath of great seats were effectively taken hostage by outrageously expensive hospitality packages typically bought by the wealthy. The packages for Rio went unsold, and the seats sat empty yet we were all led to believe events were sold out. When fans believe events are sold out and cannot get tickets, they don't come and the best seats stay empty. In Tokyo, capping the number of tickets allocated to hospitality packages at 5 percent will stem the plague of empty seats and give the organizing committee the ability to sell those tickets if still unsold 90 days before the event.
4. Sponsors and VIPs need RSVP system
It will always be necessary at every Olympics to provide tickets for VIPs, heads of state, dignitaries and all of their staffs – even world-renowned show-stopping celebrities – but we must have a way of knowing if they plan to attend. And, if not, the tickets need to have an expiration, like 60 minutes before an event begins, so it can be freed up for a give-way program or sold at the door to a fan. In Tokyo, we can do better by implementing a system to better track their usage with accountability along with a process to fill any unused seats on demand.
5. Know the local culture but maintain a global perspective
While tourists from all over the world travel to the Olympics, a large percentage of attendees will always be the people who live right there in town. In South America, patrons don't buy tickets in advance as they do elsewhere in the western world. Rio organizers believed last-minute ticket buying would be big. They were wrong. In Tokyo, regardless of what ticket-buying approach the locals will take, the Olympics is much too big with global importance to count on that. When it comes to ticket distribution and planning, Tokyo organizers will need to focus on early sales success with clear targets that allow for adjustments and allocation of tickets as things progress.
Ineffective Olympic ticketing processes will always leave fans frustrated, athletes disappointed, and corporate sponsors questioning their marketing spends. Tokyo has a terrific opportunity to make a change. Hollywood award shows use a "seat-filler" model as stars get up and move around. Wimbledon uses the "The Queue," which allows spectators to line up for same-day ticket sales for unused seats in an organized, orderly fashion. FIFA has a ticketing process where all general public sales globally go through a single site. Including these types of solutions combined with keen advance planning, flexibility and accountability, will improve the process for Tokyo so empty seats won't plague them in 2020.
Rio has given us a blueprint of what not to do. If Tokyo 2020 can modernize the process, we can get back to the electricity of jam-packed venues, which is good for the athletes, fans, corporate sponsors and the worldwide TV audience.
-- Ken Hanscom is Chief Product Officer at InviteManager, a leading mobile app and cloud-based platform that manages more than 30 million sports tickets for corporate programs annually. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @KenHanscom.