Lessons from a Festival Ticket Booth: Ask for the Money

I spent my weekend volunteering at the ticket booth for Elderberry Festival in Hartsburg, Missouri.  Festivals aren’t really my thing–but this is a family business, and family is definitely my thing.  On Thursday morning I dutifully rose and descended the hill to set up my home for the next four days: The Ticket Booth.  I needed signs.  Inventory counts.  Lights.  A cash till.  Systems for managing sales.  Elderberry Life products, tickets, and t-shirts.  Though I would rather be at home in my PJs studying for my GMAT (hey! I learned how to factor trinomials on my flight here), I figured this could be a good opportunity to learn something by running a mini-store.  Sure, it reminded me of the stupid assignments on that show The Apprentice (whoever sells the most ice cream in 6 hours wins!)–but I rolled up my sleeves and waited for my lesson to arrive.  And arrive it did–it’s important to negotiate. Especially when you’re a woman.


I’ve heard that festivals have a poor return on investment.  It bothered me when my parents told me how much money they had spent to throw this massive party, and I took it on as my personal duty to help minimize their losses.  I was amazed by the number of freeloaders who showed up saying things like: I’m on a list.  I’m friends with so-and-so.  I know someone.  I think I’m an artist?  Or a volunteer!?  $25!?  That’s too much money! Can’t I come in for free?!  I’m a neighbor.

No!  I’ve been in sales for long enough to know that objections aren’t personal.  I also know that product in should equal cash out, and if it doesn’t, you need to know what happened.  I also understand that discounting is usually inappropriate unless you’re trying to achieve penetration into a new market and don’t mind a little tarnish on your brand.  Discounting really bothers me.  The price is the price, people!  (Concession: price should always be proportional to value, but that’s another post.)

The two ladies I was working the ticket booth with didn’t see things my way.  They caved.  By 6pm on Saturday they were selling tickets for half price before anyone asked them the cost.  They were giving away bottles of water and apologizing for the inconvenience.  What gives?


Harvard Business Review recently treated this topic.  There’s a saying in business that you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate–and women generally don’t like to negotiate.  In their article “Nice Girls Don’t Ask,” HBR observes that male MBAs from Carnegie Mellon made 7.6% more in their first jobs than their female counterparts–simply because they asked for more rather than accept their starting salaries.  Another study cited found that men are nine times more likely to ask for more money than women are; and another found that men put themselves in a situation to negotiate two to four times more often than women do.  The article proposes that these differences are social and cultural–that women have been brought up to believe that their hard work will be recognized and rewarded, whereas men have been conditioned to negotiate for their rewards; and that we have all been socialized to believe the same.  I don’t know what it is about myself that I’ve somehow managed to dodge that bullet and find myself among the 7% of women willing and excited to negotiate–but I hope that it will serve me well in business as in life.


My willingness to ask for the money–and negotiate if necessary–may not have been enough to make a difference at Elderberry Festival.  It’s now one day after the festival’s end and I’m sitting here next to my mother as she’s calculating the week’s gains and losses.  She still needs to know the cost of goods sold so that she can figure the profits, but it’s not looking good.  A whopping 35% of all tickets “sold” were free passes because someone was “on a list.”  Let’s pretend that we made back 50% of the total festival cost–and that the other 50% went to generating soft returns like awareness.  Indeed, the festival was written up in most of the local newspapers (like The Missourian and The Boone County Journal) and featured on local radio (like Mid-Missouri Public Radio and KOPN) as well as on a few TV channels (KRCG-Ch 13and KOMU-Ch 8 and even Fox-8).  We had had visitors not only from nearby Columbia and Jefferson City but even from Illinois.  Most weren’t familiar with Elderberry products and may now be future Elderberry Life customers. But it remains to be seen: was this just a big, expensive party?  Or was it an investment back into the business?

A few things are sure:  Ask for the money.  Hold your prices.  Know your costs.  And don’t give away a third of the business in free tickets.

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