Burning Man Tickets

There's been a lot of upset about the current ticket situation for Burning Man. Major theme camps are reporting, on average, that they have about 1/4 to 1/3 the tickets they need. Many long time burners who have made huge and ongoing contributions to the event do not have a ticket.

Of the 40k tickets that were sold via lottery, reports are that about 40% went to people who have never been before. There were several factors that no doubt contributed to this unprecedented upswing in demand.  Some have pointed to "The Places You'll Go" video going viral shortly before ticket sales opened. Personally, I believe that the event selling out for the first time ever last year and the tales of tickets selling for $5k had a significant effect. Imagine you've never been, but you think you might like to go. You know that this year you'll need to buy a ticket in advance if you want to go. It also occurs to you that you could re-sell it at a profit if you decide not to go. So, there is a very strong incentive to finally get in line and buy that ticket. I expect that we will see a very large number of first timers at the burn this year. However, I think we'll also see a large aftermarket of ticket sales. And I would be very surprised to see these tickets being sold at face value.

I don't think I even need to go into the economics that would attract a scalper to this situation. I will be deeply surprised if we don't see a substantial number of tickets going for scalper rates once the physical tickets have been mailed out. There are already reports of tickets being sold on stub-hub, ebay and other venues at a significant markup over face value.

There are still 10k tickets which were originally slated for a First Come First Served style open sale. To address the issue of theme camps folding from lack of tickets, BMORG has decided to distribute at least some of these tickets through or directly to theme camps. I am not aware of the details of how they plan to do this, but I think it has largely been completed. I'm still waiting for news from my camp's lead about how this turned out for us.

For those who are still looking for a ticket after this distribution, there are a few options. BMORG has made a lot of noise about the STEP program. I have looked at the terms of service for this program and am left wondering why BMORG thinks that any significant number of people would use it to sell their ticket. As near as I can tell, there are only two reasons for someone selling a ticket to use this system. The first is that it's what BMORG has asked people to use. Burners who can't attend the event may decide to support the org by using this system. I think that this may lead to a very few tickets going through STEP. The second reason I can think of involves liquidity. Since nobody has a hard-copy ticket at this time, it is a difficult and complicated thing to sell a ticket. How do you collect the money if you don't have a physical ticket to deliver in return? If you have a "ticket", and you really need money, right now... well perhaps this is enough of an incentive to take a loss and sell through the STEP program. But the vast majority of people who have a ticket and want to sell it will not fall into these categories. Veteran burners will almost certainly sell their ticket directly to another member of the community. People who are in it for a scalper's profit will obviously use tools which work for them. STEP doesn't appear to offer them any benefits compared to, for example, stub-hub and other sites dedicated to the re-selling of tickets.

I think the real demand for tickets is not as high as the apparent demand from the ticket sales. I suspect that there will be a lively after-market in tickets at about the $500 to $600 mark, dipping lower in the weeks prior to the burn. But these are only my suspicions.

Others have said that it's a big desert, and it certainly is... but the road south from Gerlach isn't that big. I believe that is the real bottleneck right now towards growing the event and making more tickets available. Exodus lines were up to 10 hours last year. The drive after that was nothing short of harrowing. The event can't significantly grow without increasing the capacity of the roads.

So, how did we get in this mess? I've heard a lot of people blaming the lottery system. I think this is a classic case of correlation vs causation. I see no reason to believe that the old "First Come, First Served" system would have been "better" by any definition of the word. The lottery system as implemented offered two distinct advantages over FCFS. First of all, it gave BMORG an opportunity to screen out some known scalpers. I don't know how effective this was, but it is something that would be a lot harder to do in real-time with an FCFS system. Incidentally, that is my professional opinion as a fairly senior software developer who has worked on systems like this for going on 20 years. Secondly, the lottery system was technically feasible. Within the limited scope of it's design parameters, it actually worked: about 150k people wanted 40k tickets. These tickets were sold in an orderly fashion without server meltdowns or other screw ups. We can argue about the distribution, but in the face of overwhelming demand, we need to recognize that the solution is certainly not to go back to FCFS, a system which offers no advantages over the lottery.

How do we, as a community, avoid this mess next year? I can think of only one solution. We need to reduce the demand for tickets. But how do you reduce the demand for tickets to something as awesome as that thing of ours out in the desert?

The first idea that comes to mind is to increase the inconvenience. A large part of the filter effect that dissuades douce-bags from attending is the inconvenience. Let's keep it inconvenient! I think we should make it a lot less convenient to bring an RV or camper-shell. There are plenty of ways we could do this, but fundamentally, people are using them as a convenience and we need to reduce demand. Perhaps I'm just grumpy because I could never afford one. So, I'm not sure about this approach.

There are a number of reasons people want a ticket. I suggest that some reasons are more valid than others. I would love to absolutely destroy the demand from people who want a ticket so they can resell it at a profit. I think the entire burner community can agree on that one.

So, how can we destroy the opportunity to profit from a burning man ticket? Any scheme which allows someone to get a ticket and then transfer it to another person is innately vulnerable to arbitrage. Given that there is more demand than supply, there will always be people who are willing to pay more than the face value of the ticket. That means that any solution must make it impossible to transfer tickets. It is 2012. The technology for custom printing of tickets with a name, photo and ID number exists. As a community we still want to support the concept of anonymous entry and gift tickets. Let's allow people to buy as many tickets as they like. These tickets would be registered in the buyer's name and only assignable in person, at the gate. In other words, you can buy 4 tickets with your name, photo and ID on them. Arrive at gate with these tickets and 3 of your buddies, show only your ID and all 4 of you are admitted. For leaders with a strong history of service to the community, we can perhaps relax this rule and let them assign tickets for will-call distribution when they themselves arrive.

I'll make one other observation. The people who make the theme camps and make the art are committed. They don't decide to go at the last moment, they plan ahead. Camp dues are paid 4 or more months in advance. Materials are purchased, infrastructure is prepared and art is built. This is the kind of commitment that makes Burning Man the incredible, unbelievable experience for which it is famous. Nothing can demand this level of commitment, except love. I think that as a community, our ticketing policy should reflect the concept of commitment. I want non-refundable tickets.

Non-transferable, non-refundable tickets. With a reasonable compromise for those who want to gift and those who want anonymity. Destroy all profit opportunity and force all the financial risk onto people who are buying tickets. The burners I know won't hesitate. Newbies will may, and that's great. If they aren't willing to demonstrate that level of commitment to going, well, the playa has always been an excellent filter.

I love burning man. It upset my reality and changed my life when it desperately needed changing. The most upsetting thing about this ticket business has been how helpless I have felt. I want very much to protect this crazy thing in the desert that has meant so much to me. I hope my ideas can help.