Not the ticket
Media consultant Wendy Chiang was checking the website of the Urbtix ticketing service a few months ago when she came across a listing titled 'Pop Concert'. It had all the basic details - time, date, venue and ticket price - except the most important piece of information: the name of the singer.
No clues could be gleaned from the accompanying poster because it was the size of a postage stamp.
'I eventually found out from some friends that it was Taiwanese singer Fei Yu-ching, but it is ridiculous that they wouldn't have even the basic information on the English site. I thought we were supposed to be living in an international city,' says Chiang.
Like many Hongkongers who have spent a major part of their lives overseas, Chiang is more comfortable reading in English although she is fluent in Cantonese and Putonghua and enjoys Chinese entertainment.
'Now I rely on outdoor posters or flyers that I pick up from arts venues, which I don't do very often. They've lost a lot of my business,' she says.
Online ticketing has increased steadily in the city. The government-backed Urbtix (short for Urban Ticketing System) estimates that it sold about 300,000 tickets online last year - accounting for 8.6 per cent of total sales. It's a big jump for a company that didn't have a fully fledged online ticketing system until 2006, when only 2.7 per cent of total sales were made via the internet.
But some users find the bare-bones structure of the website and the lack of crucial information frustrating. 'I saw this guitar recital show in late October that seemed interesting, but the site didn't tell me who was actually performing nor were there any links to more information,' says Denver Lee Dan-wah, a guitarist for local indie band Muse.
Although not all events listings lack information to this degree, almost all give more details in Cantonese than English
Joyce Cheung Yuen-ping, senior marketing co-ordinator of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), says Urbtix encourages presenters to provide bilingual ticketing and programme information as well as eye-catching images on its website. She says promoters are responsible for any deficiency.
The paucity of English descriptions is due to marketing priorities, Cheung says. 'For a Canto-pop concert, all the promotional material, from flyers to posters to TV commercials, are in Chinese. They're simply not targeting English speakers.'
That's certainly the case for the Xiyao Educational and Cultural Foundation Fund, which will present a musical satire on contemporary society, The Heart of Heaven and Earth - Longlive Freedom, next month.
Xiyao representative Lee Ah-yin admits they did not provide English details to Urbtix. 'We may do it later, but we feel people who can't read Chinese wouldn't go to the event anyway,' she says.
Others say more can be done considering Urbtix receives a commission from promoters and a HK$6.50-per-ticket fee from consumers for online purchases.
A spokesperson for Yip's Children's Choral and Performing Arts Centre, who will only give her name as Wong, says that Urbtix doesn't really care about how much information it is given, if any.
Hong Kong entertainment industry veteran Anders Nelsson agrees. Although the LCSD portrays the Urbtix site as merely reflecting the quality of information received, 'that's no excuse, because LCSD's own presentations are often just as bad', Nelsson says.
The Urbtix website certainly seems primitive compared to online ticketing websites elsewhere.
Piao.com, the mainland's top online ticketing site, features a vibrant front page with scrolling headlines, colourful banners and the option to choose between Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean pages. Its ticketing page for a concert by US pop star Beyonce on Friday features flash video and full-page banners.
Singapore's Sistic.com offers detailed synopses of all shows, with colour-coded text dividing sections.
Urbtix's site also leaves much to be desired when purchasing tickets, with its server regularly seizing up during high-traffic periods. Four of the first five results from an internet search for 'Urbtix server' lead to local online forums where netizens vent their frustrations with ordering tickets due to server outage.
Joseph Lee Tin-lok, executive vice-president of ticketing provider CityLine, which provides IT services for Urbtix, says the server problems may have been due to bad timing. 'We do system maintenance when needed,' he says. 'On average that happens once every two months.'
Some promoters, however, see it as a much greater problem.
James Cundall, founder of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, which operates in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore, calls the Urbtix service 'appalling' and the 'single worst ticketing service in the world'.
'Urbtix doesn't offer a good experience for producers or customers,' he says. The Urbtix site simply cannot handle heavy traffic, resulting in frequent system crashes when tickets for popular shows go on sale, he says.
Nick Larkin, founder of Millennium Entertainment International, which presents family-oriented events in Asia and Australia, concurs.
'We did a show this April with Urbtix as our ticket provider, and its website crashed on the first day of sales,' says Larkin. 'We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and people couldn't buy tickets on the advertised date of sales. The system crashed three more times later that week.'
Yet he received neither compensation nor an apology from Urbtix for the system failure.
Cundall also says Urbtix staff brushed off his concerns about the service on many occasions. 'If you were to call Urbtix with a complaint, they'd just ignore it.'
Among his other complaints is that the system does not allow the purchase of tickets by credit card within seven days of the show.
'Imagine you're a tourist in Hong Kong and you want to see a show that's happening in a couple of days, how frustrating is it that you can't order with a credit card?' Cundall asks. 'Anywhere else in the world you could book online on the day of the show and print an e-ticket or pick them up at the venue.'
The presenters believe the problem lies with Urbtix being run by civil servants rather than businesspeople. 'The people who run Urbtix work for the LCSD, they don't care about marketing or promoting events because it's run as a bureaucracy, not as an entrepreneurial service,' says Cundall.
Still, not all promoters share such frustrations. Colleen Ironside, senior vice-president of Live Nation Asia, says her organisation has not experienced problems although it last worked with Urbtix in 2006.
There are other ticket-service providers in Hong Kong - most notably HKTicketing - but detractors say they often have little choice but to deal with Urbtix because it handles sales for all government venues such as City Hall and the Cultural Centre.
'There aren't enough non-government venues in the city, so we almost are forced to go through Urbtix,' says Larkin. 'The biggest problem isn't that Urbtix sucks, it's that we're being forced to use it.'
The government hopes to cultivate bigger audiences for cultural events at the planned West Kowloon Cultural District, but Larkin doesn't see that succeeding unless there's a change.
'They need to outsource Urbtix to a commercial enterprise and let them run it, because the current set-up isn't working. I don't know how they're going to handle the West Kowloon Cultural District,' he says.