Transforming Ticketing
By Michael Mattis, Mon Jul 31 00:00:00 GMT 2000

(July 31, 2000) Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch Vice President of Mobile Services, Paul LaFontaine, talks up his company's strategy for taking on mobility.


Call it the 5-hour rule. If you've got time plan your entertainment - say 5 hours or more - you will likely do it by perusing the daily paper, the your local weekly magazine, by talking with friends, cruising the Web, or by some combination of these. When there's time to kill, you explore your options through a variety of media and other sources.

Got less time? Your options are limited.

But for mobile content and transactions providers, your time limitations present an opportunity.

"Five hours in, or from zero to five hours," says Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch Vice President of Mobile Services, Paul LaFontaine, "that's where we think the richest area for consumer mobile applications is."

"Say you and I are out to dinner, and we say 'Hey, let's catch a show'," continues LaFontaine "We don't have time to scramble around and do research. That's where the mobile application works best."

Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, or TMCS, as insiders call it, exemplifies the transformation of an essentially brick-and-mortar company into a successful e-business, one that is now aggressively positioning itself to take advantage of the opportunities promised by the mobility revolution.

"We're excited about these new technologies," LaFontaine says.

Creating a Crossover Hit


Ticketmaster Corp., the largest distributor of tickets in the U.S., began moving into the online space back in 1996, when, says the West Point graduate and former U.S. Army captain, "the Web began to get popular." Prior to that time, the company sold tickets through record stores and other land-based businesses, and directly through a toll free "800" number. In 1996 the company formed a dedicated team whose mission was to add the Web as a third channel for ticket sales. Ticketmaster.com was born, spun out of Ticketmaster Corp. in 1996 into a separate company, and now operates as the exclusive online distributor for Ticketmaster's tickets. Today fully a quarter of Ticketmaster's tickets are sold online through Ticketmaster.com.

Ticketmaster.com merged with Citysearch.com in 1998, and later absorbed Match.com, the online dating service. Thus combined, TMCS claims to be the number-two ecommerce site. (TMCS ranks 27th out of all U.S. online properties, according to Media Metrix, with 7.5 million unique visitors per month.) The company serves 3,500 entertainment venues, and is projecting revenues of some USD 200 million. It went public in December 1998.

Content is Context


Citysearch offers content in more for 70 cities across the U.S., and Canada, as well as Japan, Korea and Australia providing information online about local and regional entertainment, dining, shopping, and so forth - essentially an online guidebook. The idea behind the merger, says LaFontaine, was that the information provided by Citysearch would give users - potential customers - a context for deciding what shows they'd like to see, where, and when.

"If I like 'N Sync, I can go and buy an 'N Sync ticket." says LaFontaine. "But say all I know is that I want to see jazz, tonight, somewhere nearby? The Citysearch property works really well in terms of categorizing and finding interesting things, for which Ticketmaster.com is then able to fulfill the request." And take a slice of the revenue that that fulfillment generates.

Channel Four


"Ticketmaster Inc. is a distribution company," continues LaFontaine. "It helps venues and artists distribute tickets. Its core competency is the ability to bring services to venues and artists that allow them to distribute tickets in the most efficient fashion. One platform is the local outlet. Another platform is the 800 number. The Internet is another. TMCS mobile is about growing our ability to sell tickets to folks upon different platforms."

Harder Than It Looks


Migrating ticket sales to the Web was one thing. Ticketmaster.com had only two browsers - Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer - to contend with. Migrating ticket sales to a plethora of different devices and platforms promises to be a whole new ballgame. Ticketmaster.com is putting its services not only on WAP-enabled mobile phones, but also on PDAs, Motorola RIM pagers and other two-way SMS (short messaging service)-enabled pagers, and even on Web-connected automatic teller machines (ATMs). In moving into the mobile space, with its myriad of different devices and interfaces, TMCS faces a significant challenge.

A Mobile Roadmap


The company is not without a plan, however. It has a dedicated team of 8, called TMCS Mobile, to tackle the challenge. TMCS's core offering for wireless applications is called Local Intelligence (www.localintelligence.com). The product is essentially a recommendation engine for events and shows. TMCS offers Local Intelligence to carriers and service providers to augment their existing services. The company launched a WAP version of the product (at wap.citysearch.com, and wap.ticketmaster.com respectively) last May, and has relationships that will put Local Intelligence on AT&T, Verizon (formerly GTE Wireless) later this quarter.

"We see phones as the largest application in terms of the estimates," notes LaFontaine, "They are going to have the largest installed base over the next three years."

TMCS Mobile is also working with PDAs. It has already launched a service on AvantGo - which delivers custom Web channels to PDAs -- and is a premium partner on Palm Computing's Palm.net. Next, TMCS plans to take Local Intelligence to the next level, as a voice-enabled Web application available through both wireline and mobile phones. The company is currently seeking a technology partner for the project.

Scaling Up for 3G


"The only way to make sense of the wireless world now," says LaFontaine, "is to point yourself on a vector toward when 3G makes the wireless world behave more like the Web." 3G, or 3rd generation wireless, promises over the next 3 to 5 years to speed data transmission rates to mobile devices at up to a blinding 2 megabits per second (compared to today's pokey rates between 9.6 and 14.4 kilobits per second). While many critics consider this little more than a pipe dream given current network capacities - at least in the near future - bringing up data transmission rates is the linchpin for delivering the kind of media-rich applications and content we are used to seeing on the wireline Web. Developing a forward-looking strategy that anticipates such advances, says LaFontaine, is key to ongoing success in the mobile realm. He says TMCS Mobile is developing such a strategy, but for the moment he's not sharing.

But the goal, says LaFontaine, is to build Local Intelligence on the mobile device into a fully interactive "virtual concierge," that, like their wireline Web counterparts, responds to the users' behavior patterns and preferences to create experiences unique to each. "If you keep that mind," he continues, "then when you build something like a WAP product - which is very, very limited - you can start to actually do it in a way that makes sense. Our WAP product is the very, very first baby step to getting toward that virtual concierge, bringing recommendation and availability together."

"If you keep that mind," he continues, "then when you build something like a WAP product - which is very, very limited - you can start to actually do it in a way that makes sense. Our WAP product is the very, very first baby step to getting toward that virtual concierge, bringing recommendation and availability together."

Covering the Bases


Another key point LaFontaine stresses to anyone trying to dive into the mobile space is making sure the bases are covered. That means building a corresponding, mutually branded Web site along with the mobile property, or making sure that your existing Web experience mirrors the mobile experience as much as possible in terms of navigation and ease of use, while expanding the Web property's capabilities and content offerings.

"We're not attempting to put the entire Citysearch site onto a mobile phone," he says. "We're saying in the next five hours here's some very directed searches you can do to find things. And that's why mobile actually augments the Web and the Web augments mobile. If you don't have a Web site and you're only a mobile site, you're really not catching that 5-hour-plus. If you have a Web site and no mobile application, then you're not catching that 5 hours in."

Which brings us back to the 5-hour rule and our last question, why 5 hours?

"I came up with it just because I can't think past five hours," LaFontaine laughs.

Michael Mattis is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He has written previously for Business 2.0 and Upside.