Leadership / 04.19.23
David Thomas on Zigzagging Through the Wonderful World of Ticketing
"While Keeping Sock Sellers and Sausage Stuffers Coming Back for More"
“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” “Miss Saigon,” “Cats.” Behind every industry-defining classic in London's West End, a team of talented individuals works tirelessly to bring the show to the widest possible audience, and for the longest feasible run. David Thomas is one such individual. For almost a quarter century, he worked for Sir Cameron Mackintosh, hailed as one of the world's most successful and influential theatrical producers, on shows that had successful multiple-year runs. For David, the opportunity to contribute to the longevity of these shows was one of the undoubted high points of his 42-year career.
David, left, with Billy Elliot, West End cast.
It certainly sounds wonderful, even glamorous, but it was not always so.
“My first job in the theater was [giving away] free coffee while you wait because it took 90 minutes to buy a ticket [for ‘Cats’],” David says. “So, tell them a joke, I was told, give them a coffee, wrestle them to the ground if you have to, but don't let them leave without buying a ticket. We can't afford that.”
Of course, that was back when people would line up to buy tickets to the world’s most popular musicals, concerts and more.
“It might sound terribly archaic now, but [I remember] putting a sign outside a theater … and standing behind it until I persuaded someone else to join the line,” he says. “And then a few more. And we would end up with over a hundred people queuing. Within a few weeks we would have dozens of theatregoers spending the night outside the theater in order to get tickets, always top-price tickets, to the next performance [of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’]. Building a line was vital back then … And to see all those people sleeping outside the show, week after week, was quite something. I still love to see a line outside a show. To my mind, it is the very best advertising.”
Because a few last-minute seats for popular shows can become available from time to time, some intrepid performing arts enthusiasts still do line up at theaters hoping for a ticket before the curtain goes up. There are rush seats and daily lotteries. But, as we all know, most theatergoers now buy their tickets online. The internet and mobile devices changed everything, and David was at the forefront of the technology-fueled ticketing revolution in London’s West End.
“I thought it was wonderful when we set up the first e-commerce ticketing for Delfont Mackintosh Theatres. We did it from scratch. We started with a sketchbook and colored pens and got it written into a programming language. Then we went home one night, the day the site went live, and when we came back in the morning there was all this money, from around the world, from ticket sales while we’d been sleeping. Wasn't that amazing! And they hadn’t had to queue at the windows for a split second. Well, maybe Microsoft Windows,” he jokes.
The rapid changes occurring in the ticketing industry fed into David’s passion for innovation and brought significant meaning to his professional life.
“Two things I really enjoy [are] problem-solving and innovation,” David says. “What is the problem? How can we break it down into smaller bits? And then how do we work through the separate components to come up with the solution? Problem solving is very satisfying. Especially across a team of gifted specialists, each bringing their own unique insights and ways of working. And innovating, coming up with something that was not there before, and as soon as it enters the world, people think, oh, it should have always been there … Innovations that make things work better for the company, the customers or the industry bring me incredible personal satisfaction.”
As he zigzagged his way through the shows and roles, eventually being named Sales Manager for Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. in 2003, David honed his leadership skills along the way with the help of some of the true greats of West End Theater. And a huge part of that, he says, was simply learning to be more himself.
David, far right, as Javert at the Cameron Mackintosh Sales and Marketing Les Mis barbecue.
“A legendary company manager once told me, after one particularly horrendous incoming (which is when the public is allowed into the building), ‘Managing a West End theater is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, young man. To do it as yourself, that is. But to try and do it and not be yourself, David, well that’s just impossible. Bring yourself into the building, and all the answers will be there for you,’” David says. “So, when trying to advise people on an approach to problems, roles or professions, I believe it is vital to stress the importance of them also bringing their own individual personalities, talents and creativity into the mix. While pointing out the near impossibility of achieving anything much without being able to do that. By the way, that much-loved company manager also gave me half a dozen of his dress shirts to get me through to my first salary check.”
David says, “[I admire] people who are able to bring their own unique [selves] into a situation irrespective of the pressures at hand … Someone who sets their own unique seal on something rather than follow the crowd.”
He adds that it is also essential to be willing to listen to others, especially when you are a leader.
“Unless you can listen, ideally in as non-judgmental of a way as possible, you are [only] leading yourself,” he says. “You won’t actually be able to engage with those who you need to lead if you can’t listen to them because most work relationships hinge on respect. And you have to give to get.”
After moving on from Cameron Mackintosh’s team in 2005, David became Head of Theatre and Events for Superbreak, a position he held for 13 years. He was then named General Manager at Vivaticket UK, before joining TicketSwap as Strategy Lead UK in January 2022.
“My career has taken me into many different areas of the business” he says. “And there has been so much to learn at each stage. I went from working for a theatre producer to working for a tour operator to running a ticketing software company, and now I am loving working with an ethical resale platform. The only common thread is that every night for the last 42 years, it has been all about people sitting in the dark, or in a field, and delivering that experience to them, irrespective of whether it was through the software, theatre management, sales and marketing, or ethical resale. The only common thread I've got is that end result, delivering the end result as best we can. I’ve just had to zigzag a bit between disciplines to do it.”
Before taking on his current job, David zigzagged into the world of entrepreneurship, founding his own company.
“Every time I go to an airport and show my passport, they say, ‘Is it business or pleasure?’ I say, ‘Business is my pleasure. And pleasure is my business.’ There is not that sharp a line between spare time and work time, and there hasn't been for decades. There are parts of work which are not immediately as fun, but I have been very fortunate. I have always worked in the business of pleasure. That is my website, by the way, thebusinessofpleasure.com (podcast here). It sounds like porn, but it's not. Promise. I just dive into different areas of arts and entertainment and try to shed a little light into the corners.”
David has also been an industry leader, a long-time Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) member and, for eight years, was STAR’s Deputy Chair. STAR is the self-regulatory body for the U.K. live events and entertainment ticketing industry.
“Essentially, STAR exists to promote industry best practice and consumer confidence,” David says. “And to be part of the team at STAR, working together as an industry, and representing the interests of that industry to government and regulatory bodies, well, I took a lot of pride in that.”
When STAR rebranded, the organization felt that Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers lacked a safe ticket buying message for consumers. David, right, came up with “Secure Tickets from Authorised Retailers,” which STAR still uses today.
Despite his long-time interest in industry practices, David is a relative newcomer to INTIX. But he is as enthusiastic as they come and eager to get more involved.
“Being part of a body such as INTIX brings you into weekly contact with things that you should know about, things that are happening across the ticketing globe, [and] people who you should know. People are a huge part of this business to me. There are some really special people I met up with again at INTIX [and] some new people I did not know previously, but we all share this common language. Even though you may not have met them before, you understand their priorities, their challenges and headaches! INTIX brings it all together in a way that I find really valuable. It is both a common pool of knowledge, like a vast reservoir of experience to draw from, and a way to keep on learning. I have [just] signed up for the INTIX mentor program [too].”
David, center, with the Jersey Boys, West End Cast.
When it comes to people, David says he most admires those who “manage to create, or perhaps give the illusion of creating, a perfect work-life balance, because that's something that's always eluded me. Those people who manage to organize their lives so that they can go after what they want within their careers and balance that with their family lives as well; that to me is the absolute dream formula.”
He says, “I have never actually managed it myself. But I have always admired people who set boundaries and say, ‘No, I finish at this time; I’m not doing that.’ I remember one chap; he never worked Sundays. It didn’t matter what the call of duty was. [He would say,] ‘Never on Sunday. I need Sundays to myself.’ Wow!”
David is trying, however. He spends as much time as possible with his two children, saying, “They are wonderful people, both in their mid-20s, and both engaged in music in their different ways. There's a little Greek island [called Sifnos] that I go to as often as I can. It is the nearest place to heaven that I know, but it is kind of remote. That is the only drawback. I took the kids and their partners there last year. I would like to live there, but with some sort of teleporter to get me back to see shows and gigs. A Greek island with a half-an-hour journey to London, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York would be ideal.”
David has, of course, been to all those cities and many more. And yet, having lived and worked in London for most of his life, he says there are parts of his home city that are “just as magical to me as my Greek island.”
David on stage at Drury Lane for 42nd Street.
He says, “I am a very proud Londoner. You could never build London by design. You would never get a computer to build it. It is something that, like all great cities, is an amalgam of so many stories. And that is what I treasure most, its stories. Great stories keep me awake at night. Great stories just blow my head off, make me howl at the moon. London has an abundance of stories for me. It is built up of stories, and over the years I have taken the time to learn the stories of London.”
David is also a playwright and storyteller. “I love being able to create a world that I can draw other people into, to create characters out of the ether, or rather, out of my own questions or thoughts, and bring them to life in novels, plays or screenplays,” he says.
“You bang your head against a wall for weeks or months, and then something just clicks. That spark of creation. And seeing your works performed, by a bunch of fabulously talented actors, is one of the most addictive drugs out there … It is a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
It was, therefore, no surprise to learn what David would wish for most if given three wishes. “My first would be to get a street-fighting literary agent to help get my latest play into a theater p.d.q. (pretty darn quick).”
As for his favorite writers, David leans toward a genre one might not expect.
“I went to the Harrogate Crime Writers Festival last year and met two of my absolute heroes,” he says. “From the U.K. is Denise Mina, who is one of our greatest crime writers. I do not know how she manages to write so brilliantly and maintain such a high level of quality. And similarly, in that they are both great writers, who just choose to write about crime, Michael Connelly, the genius behind the Harry Bosch books and the Lincoln Lawyer. Again, every sentence, every paragraph is of the highest quality. There is no filler. It is just all real, hard-driven great literature. Comedy-wise, it would be Americans. Carl Hiaasen is a grand master of the genre, and Seattle's Tom Robbins is probably one of the finest wordsmiths since Shakespeare.”
David with Elton John on the Billy Elliot thank you trip to Las Vegas.
David also has an ear for exceptional musical talent. He naturally puts his daughter, a Brighton-based “Spanglish” singer-songwriter, at joint top of the list with his son, a London-based rap-artist. David says his daughter is heavily influenced by Leonard Cohen, and he will never forget taking her to Cohen’s last performance in London. Watching Eminem and Dr. Dre at Wembley with his son was also up there as an all-time high. When it comes to live events, these were two of the best he has ever experienced. But David has others on his favorites list as well.
“As a performer, David Bowie is a very hard act to follow,” he says. “His engagement with the audience was such a joy to behold. On the one hand, it was a serious persona; on the other hand, he would wink at the audience, and you knew it was all showmanship. So, David Bowie, in his majestic pomp, and also for the way that he didn't believe in playing safe and just kept moving to his own inner music. He never stopped. He never stayed where he was comfortable and kept moving the game. Zigzagging, I guess you could call it. Similarly, now, I think Pink is wonderful. I know it is slightly different, but I have never seen anyone use the venue, an arena, quite so well as Pink. I think she is a great performer. As you can see, I’ve got quite diverse tastes.”
As for his own musical talents, and given his diverse tastes, we were not entirely surprised when David revealed that he used to rap once a year to an invited audience in the West End.
“Rapping is fun,” he says. “I think the world owes a debt of gratitude to rap artists and hip-hop for basically bringing poetry back to life. Kids growing up now get enthused about poetry because of what they hear with rap. They get a taste for the words. They get a taste for the rhyme … Up until quite recently, poetry was probably regarded as a chore in the schools. I think rap [has changed that].”
David, left, with Chris Harper (of Elliot and Harper) and the Olivier Award for Elliott and Harper’s landmark production of Sondheim’s “Company.”
David’s diverse tastes extend to venues as well, both big and small, depending on the event.
“I am a big fan of the O2, but I'm also a big fan of the Green Note in Camden, which holds just 38 people,” he says. “So, it depends on the event. Metallica broke the record at the O2, and we had to lock all the cabinets so the drinks didn't fall out because of the vibrations. [That] wouldn't work very well in the Green Note. It depends on the band and the night and the company of course.”
He continues, “I go to lots of small venues and have had so many magical times listening to up-and-coming performers in the company of totally appreciative audiences. One of my daughter’s first gigs was at a pub in Brixton. It is called the Hootenanny, and she played there again quite recently. Ten years on, and the audience was just as engaged, or engrossed, as ever. But then again, the OVO in Glasgow is simply wonderful too!”
David adds, “Having spent so much of my life in theaters, for sheer charm and stories of course, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane [is my favorite]. I spent years working there. For absolute perfect sightlines and the absolute optimal shape and size for a musical theatre venue, I would say the Prince Edward Theatre in London. [It has] 1,600 seats. There is not a bad seat in the house.”
David, center, with showbiz legend Chris Biggins, presenting the Ted Motchman Cup, named after an inspirational West End ticket agent and awarded by Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., to Stephen McGill. The award honors the best newcomer in Box Office and Marketing. The picture was taken in April 2014, and Stephen is now a successful producer in his own right.
When David was asked if there was anything he would like to say in wrapping up our interview for this article, he focused on his current work with TicketSwap and what the live entertainment industry means to him.
“The idea of ethical resale is quite new to a lot of people; the ability to sell tickets that you can’t use, for whatever reason, but in a way that doesn't gouge the next person who buys them. I believe an effective and ethical secondary resale sector is extremely valuable for all areas of the live entertainment industry, given the percentage of inventory and therefore revenue it can account for. Especially in times of rising costs and shrinking leisure budgets, and marketing budgets. TicketSwap celebrated its 10th birthday last Nov. 5 — what a night to remember that was — but it is still run by fans, for fans, and that suits me down to the ground, or up onto the podium at a gig we’ve sponsored come to that!”
David adds, “Because that’s the thing about our business, the business of live entertainment. We are so fortunate to be working in such a great industry, with such great people, but of course, sometimes we forget that. In the past, when colleagues have got a bit dispirited from time to time, I have a little saying that I bring out, which is, ‘We don't sell socks or stuff sausages. We are the people who the sock sellers and the sausage stuffers come to when they want to dream.’ And they hand over their hard-earned money to us for the privilege! Isn't that a nice place to be? And, in return, we supply life’s one true imperishable good. A pair of shoes will wear out. Even a granite kitchen worktop will probably get chipped or dented eventually. But the night you saw Leonard Cohen, or Bowie, in concert, or ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Hamilton,’ praise be to rap, or whatever your taste, that will stay with you to the day you die. It will be part of the stock you carry into eternity. Isn't that wonderful?”
Indeed, David, it is wonderful. As are all the contributions you have made — and continue to make — to live entertainment ticketing.
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Tags: Leadership , GTKY