Every August, swathes of tourists head north of the border to check out the sights and sounds of Edinburgh, with some claiming the population of the Scottish capital doubles for the month. Visitors see numerous cultural activities taking place but, at the top of the pack, is the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).
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The EIF, which began in 1947, has grown to involve 10 venues, ranging from 300-seaters to 3,000 at the Edinburgh Playhouse, and host 109 shows over its three-week run.
Both running the festival in the summer and organising the next one throughout the year are complex tasks, and as such they need a dedicated team. It is not just the people, but also the technology involved that ensures the EIF runs smoothly for both organisers and visitors.
“Our focus has been to switch to more and more digital content, so our speed of access and ability to sell tickets online have been key,” said Rob Knight, IT and database manager at EIF. “We have also had to look at ensuring the best customer service and need the best hosted service to meet all our requirements.”
The company decided to work with Pulsant six years ago and has just signed another contract – it renews every three years – to use the company’s hosted services.
Our speed of access and ability to sell tickets online are key
Rob Knight, IT and database manager, Edinburgh International Festival
Aydin Kurt-Elli, chief operating officer (COO) at Pulsant, said it won the trust of EIF from its work on similar projects.
“Edinburgh International Festival knew of Pulsant from its work with other festivals in the area, and as Edinburgh is blessed with more culture per capita than anywhere I know, it makes sense for us to have a base here,” he said.
“It also meant the organisers understood the baseline support that we could offer, be it internet access or ticket sites, through to remote venues, back office systems and web presence.”
Website reliability is key
One of the major tasks it has had to take on is the website, which has become increasingly important to festival visitors.
“The website is a key aspect of the festival,” said Jackie Westbrook, director of marketing and communications for EIF. “It is database driven, allowing visitors to search by date, name, art form, etc, to find what they are looking for.
“There are great peaks and troughs in the traffic, although mostly peaks. Take the first day of public sales – our traffic rose to 3,000 unique visitors with 28,000 page views. On this day alone £177,000 was made from online ticket sales, so the e-commerce aspect of the site is very important.”
A significant 64% of purchases were made online on that first day and, over the course of the festival, online purchases averaged out as being responsible for between 52% and 54% of all sales.
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“This number has grown a lot in recent years,” said Westbrook. “When we introduced pick-your-own set capabilities, usage shot up from 20% to 40%. However, there are still those who aren’t regular theatre goers or don’t know venues, so they prefer to speak to someone and let them choose the seats for them.”
The website needs to be reliable, or ticket sales do not go through and shows will not have an audience.
“We are utterly reliant on our network as a business,” said Westbrook. “We have a number of no-fail dates, like the first day of public sales, as you can’t re-run a day like that.
“You can’t re-run the festival, and if we don’t have that connection to the digital world, it will create enormous issues for us and our visitors.”
Knight added it is about failover and failback: "We need the load balancing and multiple lines of connections so that we have a constant presence and are not threatened by one-off disasters.”
We are utterly reliant on our network
Jackie Westbrook, director of marketing and communications, Edinburgh International Festival
A single point of contact
Kurt-Elli claimed Pulsant’s approach to hosting the website alongside other office technologies for the EIF gives the organisation a more constant service and all the tools to tackle any problems it faces straight away.
“In the past, a number of different suppliers were involved, and getting different parties to join and work with one another was very difficult,” he said. “We offer a more coherent IT and telecoms set-up, giving EIF one place to refer to and one company to join up all the dots.
“As well as specifics for the festival, we offer core network services for the office all year round – not just one piece of wire – and, as Jackie said, we cannot re-run the festival, we have to get it right first time.”
Pulsant hosts EIF’s applications and data within a private cloud environment, but has the ability to pool more virtual resources if additional infrastructure is needed, meaning the organisation can cope with any sharp rises in traffic or need for access.
“The technology side of our business doesn’t stop at the website," said EIF's Westbrook. "Our office needs a network, and while our IT needs are growing, so are people’s expectations of what they can achieve in the office or what their experience is as a visitor.
“The great help with Pulsant isn’t just the systems for today, but it is the help with strategic thinking, future-proofing and picking our way forward.”
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Building a valuable partnership
One thing EIF is looking to do in the future is include more rich content for its users, something it has already started to build into its website.
“We have a lot of video content and rich media, and are creating more all the time,” said Westbrook. “Currently there are 40 videos on the website, along with several audios. Audioboo wrote to us saying we were one of the most listened to that week and needed to be pushed to the top of its customer list.
“That is great news, but it also brings us challenges, both in creating the content and ensuring we have the right platform.”
EIF is also considering revamping the website and perhaps upgrading its ticketing system, meaning plenty more work for Kurt-Elli and his team at Pulsant.
“EIF is such a specific product and brand that it makes it similar to our other mid-market customers which are trying to build their own brands for their own products,” he said. “Our job is to support and empathise with the company, help with the backbone, and ensure its business gets through the rough and tumble of daily life with a constructive relationship with us.”
He seems to have the support of EIF. “It is not much like a customer/supplier relationship between us, as it can’t be," said Westbrook. "Aydin needs to know our business much more than in other cases, so I think we have more of a partnership.
“Our next step – looking at a new ticketing system and deciding whether to put this out to tender, [as well as] debating what to do with the website and if these changes are made – will be major, so we will need the support of Pulsant.”