Tickets PLUS Writing A Comeback Story

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Fifteen million is how many tickets Tickets PLUS has sold since opening its first ticket window in 1994.

That’s an amazing achievement, what comeback stories are made of, considering that many thought the locally owned ticket-seller had its final ticket punched three years ago, when worldwide ticket giant TicketMaster took the town’s most lucrative ticket-selling contract away from a native son.

In March 1998, the Downtown Development Authority, which at that time owned the Van Andel Arena and Grand Center, awarded TicketMaster a three-year contract as the exclusive ticketing agent for the arena. Tickets PLUS held that contract when the building opened in October 1996, and it was the backbone agreement for the young firm.

Tickets PLUS sold two million tickets in less than two years at the arena. In its pre-arena days, the company sold about 200,000 tickets a year. In its first Van Andel year, however, Tickets PLUS sold more than 1.2 million. That’s how vital the arena agreement was to the company.

But on July 1, 1998, Tickets PLUS was ushered out of the arena box office, and many felt its future went out the door, too.

President Bob Struyk remembers that day.

“I recall two different emotions,” he said. “One emotion was more reflective of my shareholders who had really gone to the wall in terms of ramping this company up with millions of dollars in investment money. And then to see us fail at our attempt to keep the contract was devastating.

“On the other hand, I’m probably the eternal optimist and philosophically I’ve always had a bent of looking at life in its broad perspective. So I thought to myself, well, it’s a setback, but sometimes good can come out of bad things,” said Struyk.

“Personally, I took it as a challenge to somehow turn what appeared to be a really bad situation into something that — looking back now, sounds weird — was really one of the best things that ever happened to our company.”

How so?

“It forced us to deal with some issues that I’m not sure we would have dealt with, if we had just kept on rolling at that point in our infancy.”

Having the arena contract crash down around him forced Struyk to diversify the firm’s income base. He signed other agreements with other venues and also went east to find new business. So nearly three years to the date of that unforgettable July day, Tickets PLUS now has 94 outlets and has rebounded financially.

But if Tickets PLUS qualifies as a spirited choice for being the city’s mythical comeback company champ, Struyk isn’t taking all the credit for that honor. Instead, he gives much of that recognition to Meijer Inc. and DP Fox Ventures LLC. Both, he said, played key roles in keeping the Tickets PLUS ticket-wagon rolling.

“Meijer has been absolutely fantastic to work with. They have given us access to their fiber-optic network, which has enabled us to be in every one of their stores in Michigan,” said Struyk. “That was huge.”

Maybe getting that access was even bigger than huge, as it deleted a major expense for Struyk. By hooking into the Meijer network, his company didn’t need to build point-to-point data connections to sales outlets. Today, these virtual links would cost Tickets PLUS up to $400 in real money each month for each one, or up to $450,000 a year. But that’s not all.

When Tickets PLUS had the arena contract, Struyk had outlets in 11 Meijer stores. A condition of that agreement was that he had to supply the employees for the kiosks. But in a short time, Struyk realized it was too expensive to do that, costing about $500,000 annually, and he needed Meijer to man the outlets. The discount retailer agreed to do that, and Struyk had nearly a million reasons to like a single store.

“Instead of paying our people, we pay Meijer a royalty on each ticket that Meijer sells through their customer service desks for us,” said Struyk. “So they get a little piece of the convenience fee, just like D&W would with TicketMaster.”

A big helping hand also came from DP Fox, a diversified company owned by Dan and Pamella DeVos. Tickets PLUS was the ticketing agent for the Grand Rapids Griffins and Rampage, two sports franchises operated by DP Fox, when it had the arena contract. After Tickets PLUS lost the arena contract, it remained the ticketing agent for both franchises and that contract was recently renewed for three more years.

“I have the utmost respect for Dan. He is an entrepreneur at heart, I believe, because of what he did to establish the Griffins, the Griffins Foundation and the Rampage. He really took major personal risks in doing that. So I think he could relate to what we were trying to do, and he has been one of our most ardent supporters,” said Struyk.

“I appreciate him so much because without people like him, it is really difficult to get established.”

Another key chapter in the Tickets PLUS comeback tale has to do with the high-tech upgrades the company made to the computer system, which gives it a strong presence on the Internet. The firm now has the redundancy, the depth, it needs to compete and stay online — a priceless ingredient if you have to sell 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The Internet is one of the fastest-growing distribution channels of our business,” said Struyk.

The final chapter in the Tickets PLUS comeback story is yet to be written. One draft of a happy ending would be for the firm to regain the arena contract. That would be just the ticket for Struyk and his local investors, as then they will have come full-circle.

But recapturing that agreement has the storyline of a fairy tale, as Tickets PLUS hasn’t even been asked to bid on the contract — one that appears to be going to TicketMaster for five more years.

“I just try to focus on one thing, and that’s ticketing. Long ago when we went through that first contract deal, I realized that I could probably lose sleep every night if I just worried about that,” said Struyk.

“So, probably out of a survival mode, I just decided that if I keep on ticketing here and if the Convention Arena Authority wants us to submit a bid, something tells me that the conditions will come around and someone will ask us to do that.”

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