My wife really enjoys country music. Since I knew that before I married her, I’m not allowed to hold it against her (or so she tells me). One of her favorite events is the three-day Downtown Hoedown held in Detroit every June. Until this year, the event was held in Hart Plaza, required no ticket to attend, and was free. It was great for her because she could show up when she wanted, could easily get to an area where she could see, and she didn’t have to deal with ticket agents. These last two are particularly important to her because she has cerebral palsy and is physically unable to stand for any appreciable length of time and has a very difficult time – at best – with stairs. What this usually means at concerts is that when the main act comes onstage, she needs to give up any hope of being able to see anything. It turns out that when most venues put their accessible seating in a location with no stairs and that is easy for wheelchairs to get to and from, that means they’re putting the seats directly behind the stadium seating sold to those without accessibility needs, and when the people sitting in those seats stand up… Well, the people who need to sit down aren’t able to see anything. Furthermore, ordering accessible tickets can at times be something of an ordeal when compared to normal ticket purchase. First, you need to look at the event website to see if you can even order tickets online, then you need to either fill out a form and wait for a ticket agent to call you back or call the box office to get tickets. And that’s if everything goes smoothly. (Spoiler alert: Things did not go smoothly this time.)
This all contributes to why she was concerned about the change in venue for this year’s Hoedown. Due to increases in size of the event and security concerns, the decision was made to move the festival to the parking lot of Comerica Park. While this leads to many benefits for the event itself, it means that now the event is not free and requires dealing with the ticketing process. Even the choice of venue itself was worrying to us, as we routinely experience difficulty with parking accessibility at Comerica (the most significant incident of which involved, after being redirected to five different parking lots that said they had no available handicapped spaces, blocking an entrance to a parking structure and refusing to move until I spoke with a manager). But, as I said earlier, my wife really enjoys country music, so we steeled ourselves for the ticket ordering process and the inevitable parking difficulties.
Boy, did we underestimate the situation.
First of all, when Christine tried to get three-day passes to the event, Ticketmaster’s website gave her a web form to fill out. She filled it out, and got an automatic response saying that a ticket agent would be contacting her within an hour. Six hours later, she got an e-mail response saying the event was sold out. We thought it was unfortunate and quite the delay, but we did send in our request seven hours after sales opened, and it was a popular event. We thought it was reasonable that everything was sold out before she even filled out the form.
The next week, we learned that one-day passes would be going on sale on the 23rd. Because Christine’s employer is very conservative with web filters, she asked me to order the tickets. So I got online at 10:00 AM, determined to get my request for tickets in before they sold out again. I filled out their form, got the same automatic response she did, and prepared to get my “within an hour” response to order the tickets.
Pretend I left a large amount of blank space here to represent the passage of time.
A few hours later, I decided there had been enough waiting. We called Ticketmaster to follow up, and were informed that Ticketmaster wasn’t given any accessible seats to sell and that we should call the box office. When we did so, we learned that the box office closes early on Fridays; we reached a voicemail asking us to leave a message with our request and they’d return the call within 24 hours.
Since in this context “24 hours” did not include Saturday or Sunday, this left us in a position where, for two days, we were unaware as to whether or not we’d be able to get accessible tickets for this event. This seemed like an extraordinarily long wait to me, and it occurred to me that someone should say something about it. An Internet search later, I found myself reading the text of the 2005 ADA settlement between Ticketmaster and the United States Department of Justice. I started taking notes. Of particular interest were the following three details: Ticketmaster is required to state up front on their website if they are not selling accessible tickets to an event, Ticketmaster is required to respond to requests for accessible tickets within one hour (with occasional delays being acceptable in extenuating circumstances), and Ticketmaster is required to have a Disability Coordinator to handle concerns about acquiring accessible seating. More notes were made, but I held off on sending anything until we knew whether we’d be able to get tickets.
On Monday, I got a return call from Frances at the box office, who informed me that the were no accessible seating tickets at all for the event – all ticketing is general admission and “standing room”. This set off alarm bells for me – a parking lot Steel Magnolias concert last summer didn’t have chairs available, and we had to have staff members find them somewhere (I think they took them from the medical tent, but we never asked). I asked about getting chairs, which surprised the agent; after all, if we sat down, we wouldn’t be able to see anything past the people who were standing up. After I explained that I was hoping to get chairs for people who were unable to stand for more than a few minutes without either injuring themselves, going into spasms, or just collapsing, there was a brief pause, after which the agent told me that she’d have to call me back. Due to the setup of the parking lot, she was concerned that we’d be unable to access significant portions of the area and we might not want the tickets; she was going to call the promoter and confirm where we’d be able to go with a wheelchair or scooter. Since she seemed genuinely concerned with helping us, I didn’t think it would be helpful to remind her that what she had just described was a serious accessibility issue that was at least poor planning and probably against the law – I wanted to give them the chance to figure it out on their own.
Tuesday, I got another call from Frances. It turned out that there was an area after all for wheelchairs, and it was by the stage so we’d even be able to see. I thanked her, purchased the tickets, and started drafting e-mails.
That night, Christine and I decided to send an e-mail to Ticketmaster detailing our difficulty at length, directly referencing the settlement and the previous e-mails, and asking for an explanation (okay, I was still mad, and the tone may have demanded one) directly from the Disability Coordinator, since the 2005 settlement required that the Disability Coordinator document all correspondence to be available for later Department of Justice review. Christine also sent an e-mail to the radio station sponsoring the event letting them know what was going on and suggesting that the access issues would reflect poorly on them.
In the early afternoon on Wednesday, I got a phone call from the Disability Coordinator at Ticketmaster. This in and of itself let me know she did her homework; my e-mail the previous night didn’t contain my phone number, and the only way she could have gotten it was to look at the form I’d sent in on Friday. She was very professional, and up front acknowledged that the concerns we had cited were incidents that should not have happened. Apparently, when entering the venue information, the data entry guy was looking at the information for “Comerica Park”, not “Comerica Park parking lot”, so most of the venue information, including accessibility information, was incorrect in Ticketmaster’s system. She asked me to check the website and make sure it had been fixed. She gave me a couple ways that they were trying to address the communication delay, including a live chat feature they’re trying to get venues to approve (much of what Ticketmaster does is limited by what the venues let them do, and I knew this and focused on Ticketmaster-specific concerns in my e-mail). She also noted that there appeared to be some sort of recent change to the venue setup itself, and that there appeared to be a recent addition of an area for dedicated accessible seating, although Ticketmaster still didn’t have any accessible tickets to sell us; she encouraged me to follow up with the box office. She went even further to let me know that due to some recent changes in the ADA, venues aren’t even allowed to hold accessible tickets back from Ticketmaster, as accessible seats must be sold in all the same methods that non-accessible seats are, and encouraged me to follow up regarding this as well.
Meanwhile, Christine was hearing back from her e-mail, and not just from the radio station. The radio station had forwarded her contact information to LiveNation, the promoter running the event, and she was being contacted by executives at LiveNation. As a result of the conversations, information about accessibility were added to the LiveNation site and the radio station website, and Christine was asked to confirm that these sites now met accessibility needs. Furthermore, she spoke with the executive about accessibility at modified venues in general (it turns out that LiveNation was also the promoter for the Steel Magnolias concert I mentioned earlier), and she was told that those concerns would be addressed for future events.
What I found especially interesting about these contacts is that the information we gained leads me to believe that there wasn’t an accessible area at the venue until after we started making phone calls – it’s fully possible that if we hadn’t raised the seating issue with the box office, that area might not have been there. If that’s the case, we got some pretty meaningful changes made – that would have been a nightmare if it was discovered onsite during the event.
So, in the end, we spoke with some people within organizations who had the authority to enact the needed change, and have at least some evidence that those people were listening when we asked for change. More importantly, we seem to have made some progress in enduring that people who don’t have the stamina, patience, or understanding to spend six days defending their own rights regarding acquisition of accessible seating don’t have to.
This post isn’t about me relating my experience having difficulty getting accessible tickets – it’s about the valuable use of complaint to affect change and hopefully reduce future challenges. This was a really positive experience that gave me the following insights about complaint:
1. Companies are big. The people responsible for taking care of something may not know there’s an issue if you don’t tell them.
2. Complaining, as long as it’s done in a measured manner and directed to the right people, yields significant and measurable results, and empowers you to take charge of your situation.
3. Always ask for specific corrective action – if someone knows what they need to do to make things right, it’s much easier.
Is this the end of our accessibility battle over the Downtown Hoedown? Doubtful – we still need to go to the event itself and deal with the wonderful parking situation of Comerica Park. But that’s a battle for two months in the future, and for now we can be content with our tickets and being agents of positive change in our community.
Finally, but no less importantly, I want to extend public thanks to Kimm Brunk at Ticketmaster, Frances at the Fox Theatre box office, and Dave Clark at LiveNation for handling our accessibility concerns quickly, effectively, and efficiently. Asking for corrective action and organizational change are only as effective as the individuals responsible for enacting the changes, and all three demonstrated remarkable desire and professionalism in making sure all our concerns were addressed, that we had no further questions, and that we knew how to reach them if we needed further assistance. They are magnificent assets to their organizations.