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November 5, 2009

Admission granted - A view from the front-row seats of Tech's ticket office

By: Matt Kovatch

Stephen Medley

You probably don’t think twice when you walk up to the gates of Lane Stadium and hand the attendant your ticket to get into the game. But as associate ticket manager for Virginia Tech athletics, Stephen Medley knows there’s a lot more to it than tearing off the stub and passing through the turnstiles.

“Once I got hired [11 years ago], it was one of the most interesting things that I’d ever been a part of,” Medley said. “It’s one thing to sit out in the stadium and assume that all these things just happen, but it’s entirely different to see the puzzle that’s going on in the back and how the pieces fit together.”

As the nuts-and-bolts guy behind the electronic ticket scanners, the computer allocation systems and Internet sales, Medley has a lot to do with how smoothly things run on game days. Here’s what he had to share on the role of the ticket office:

We don’t get to watch much football on game days.

“Game days are interesting because, even if everything goes perfectly for everybody, we’re still dealing with hundreds of customers who have ticket questions or issues. We handle will call on game day, which includes press credentials, players’ guest passes and passes for visiting recruits. But where most problems come from is when a customer has a problem with a ticket at the gate, or if they need special assistance with handicap exchanges. Things have usually quieted down by halftime, but we still wait until the start of the fourth quarter before we wrap things up.”

Sometimes the ticket scanners have a mind of their own.

“The big thing within the past two years has been since we started scanning tickets instead of tearing them. It’s another technological jump for us, which is huge, but it brings along its own set of problems. We now have about 85 handheld electronic devices that are communicating wirelessly to a network. If one of those handhelds goes down, the person using it doesn’t have any idea how to get it back up and online, so someone from our office has to essentially be on call to switch them out with new ones or to figure out the problem. For any problem that arises – even something like a bad ticket scan – someone from our office has to get there to answer those questions.”

Some students don’t like the lottery process, but it’s better than it used to be.

“When I was a student, it was back in the days of camping out for a few days and hoping that you got a ticket. It was dangerous sleeping in the streets. We missed class – it was miserable – and it was still that way when I started working here. But gradually, the student body grew and the team was getting better, so there was more interest and we were running out of tickets more often. So, along with the student government and the division of student affairs, we devised a system that would be a true lottery. Our thought process was that all students were the same. They all pay the same athletics fee, they all have the potential to be the same kind of fan, and just because it’s your first semester on campus doesn’t necessarily mean you are any less of a Hokie fan than someone who has been here three or four years. It’s 100 percent random.”

Sometimes a little help is a good thing.

“For football, we are lucky to have a really nice contract with a ticket vendor in Arkansas. They print all of our tickets and they actually do fulfillment as well. We have roughly 12-13,000 season ticket accounts for football. That’s 12-13,000 envelopes and about 40,000 season tickets that go out from down there, plus the bookstore stuffers, the sports information pieces and the marketing pieces that we include in the mailings. That process takes them roughly three weeks and they’ve got an entire company working on it. It would be very difficult for our staff, which amounts to about eight full-time and part-time employees, to handle all of that stuff. But with basketball, we do it all in house. We print the tickets, stuff the envelopes and ship it all off. It’s still a weeklong process, but there are obviously much fewer accounts to deal with than football.

In addition to tickets, we also deal with the parking.

“For years, the Hokie Club doled out the parking spaces by itself. But once Tech started charging for parking, we were collecting money and people started sending us requests. Now, it’s a collaborative effort. Since we are printing the parking passes and inserting them in with the tickets, it all has to be added into our system. This way, if there are ticket issues or parking issues, we’re both looking in the same place.”

We’re closely tied with the Hokie Club.

“There are about 12,000 Hokie Club members, all of whom accumulate points based on years of purchase, contribution level, cumulative giving, etc. All of that gets added up, and the Hokie Club ranks everyone and that’s the order we work off of for that year.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions.

1. There are rules to follow when it comes to filling ticket requests.

“A lot of our customers have been supporting the program for a very long time. When they came aboard, things were different. They were able to sit in a particular place or get tickets to a particular game based on their contribution level. But as the program has changed and grown, not everybody has grown with it. Someone who was a $500 contributor back in 1988 is not the same as someone who’s a $500 contributor now. We treat everybody like they are the most important customer when we get to them. But based on the regulations and requirements that we get from the Hokie Club point priority system, in addition to the physical limitations of what we have, there’s only so much we can do. We do the best we can for people based on that system and where they fall within it.”

2. It doesn’t matter who you are.

“Customers think of themselves first – and rightfully so – but for us, we have to weigh what each person wants versus the good of the whole. We can’t usurp the system for one particular person. We start at the top of the list and work to the bottom. If we can take care of a customer’s request when we get to them on the list, we’ll absolutely do it. But to be quite honest, most of the time, we’re not even looking at names. We look at a customer number, the request, and what seats are available. It’s never personal. It’s about the system that’s in place to allocate the seats that we have available.”

3. Believe it or not, space is limited.

“We’re always sold out on football season tickets. The renewal rate is 97 or 98 percent, so we always have a new influx of people buying those vacated tickets. But if you only have 1 or 2 percent of tickets freeing up, that’s a very small percentage of open seats to start with. So if the first customer on the list is asking for tickets, there are only about 600 seats that we can put him or her in. As you get farther down the list, there just aren’t enough seats to take care of all the requests. So if you’ve asked to be moved somewhere going into the renewal process, know that the chance of that actually happening is rather small.”

4. It’s a learning process for us.

“We can’t possibly know what everybody wants all the time. We tell our customers to be as specific as they want when they come to us and ask for special handling of their season ticket requests. But they must know that what they think is possible, and what is actually possible, are probably going to be two vastly different things. The more specific a request is, the more limited it is.”