I was a journalism student at the University of Maine, then worked in student life and campus events after graduating. We became a UniversityTickets client, so I was on the other side of the table doing everything from ski trips and dinners to our big concerts. By the time I joined the company in 2008 as the founders’ very first hire, I already had a good client-side perspective. I’ve worn many hats since then and I built UGRAD, our commencement product.
I’ve been working with the company for approximately 11 years now. Seeing our growth and joining the AudienceView family have been incredibly exciting. With UGRAD, we are a solid player in the college-university space. In 2018, we issued 1.1 million commencement tickets. We ticket for 150 schools including Harvard University, which has almost 80,000 tickets to their commencement exercises and associated events to a school like Berea College in Kentucky with some 2,000 guests. So, we have a lot of ideas as to how schools adapt to scale and complexity. We can share those with clients and really help their operations grow.
Just as my own career has evolved, so has the way that colleges and universities are handling events, especially their commencement activities. It started off being an inventory issue. Class sizes were growing and venues were not. Instead of students being able to freely say, “Hey everybody come to commencement,” schools were faced with having to say, “Unfortunately, you can only bring four guests or 10 guests,” or whatever the case might be. In its infancy, UGRAD was built around that space issue as schools were having to provide tickets but really did not want to get into physical distribution. Since then, that continues to be a primary driver of the system's growth.
UGRAD helps colleges and universities by taking them out of the ticketing business. We're often dealing with folks who are in the registrar's office and focusing on things at the end of the year like degree audits, making sure a student really is qualified to graduate. They're not ticketing professionals, but they have the primary responsibility for commencement. They don't have time to deal with ticket allocation management, waitlist requests, lotteries and excess demand. It gets increasingly difficult for schools that have multiple ceremonies. Look at a school like Cal State LA. They have 15 commencement ceremonies. Having to get the right tickets to the right graduates and dealing with waitlisting and additional ticket requirements across 15 ceremonies would be an onerous full-time job. And so, by automating much of the process, we take that off their plate.
A lot of schools look to us for best practices, to understand how other schools ticket commencement ceremonies and to learn ways they can improve or build upon their operations, particularly schools that have never ticketed before. They're curious to see how their peers communicate with their graduates and then adapt to follow a similar process. It's a lot of anecdotal stuff and a lot of stories; knowing for example that something one school wants to do is very similar to what Columbia University, for example, already does and telling them about it.
One story that I like to share is that a lot of schools will say, “We're excited about the idea of electronic ticketing but a lot of our families want a hard ticket to put in their scrapbook.” That ticket, it’s foil embossed and it looks nice; that means a lot. I say, “Well, then give them a ticket!” Upon walking in, you're giving them a program anyway, why not tuck a souvenir ticket inside? Again, we're able to share these types of stories because a number of our clients have shared them with us.
From a set-up and deployment perspective, it’s really easy. Schools fill out a simple questionnaire, they talk through it with us to make sure we understand everything and we take it from there. We build out the site. We build out their ceremonies. We send them sample tickets to make sure things look good. From a client's perspective, we encourage them to be as involved or outside the process as they'd like.
Some schools like to be involved. Our system is designed to be super user friendly and our administrative training on the site takes less than an hour. Schools would then be familiar with how to add content and graduates, revoke eligibility, run reports, communicate with graduates through the site and more.
Other schools want nothing to do with ticketing and we're there for them. They want us to be totally full service, so they send us updates and we make the changes. We're happy to do that for them.
Not all athletics ticketing systems have the level of granularity that’s required to ticket commencement ceremonies. They can’t determine if you’re a student or a member of the general public. You, me, students, faculty, staff; we're all the same. We’re all the public. Commencement, even at a high level, is not that simple. We need to know not only that you're a student but we need to know that you're a commencement-eligible student. Further, we need to know what ceremony you are part of – are you an undergraduate student eligible for “ceremony A” or are you a graduate student eligible for “ceremony B”? Often, limits vary. It's often not as simple as all students get five tickets. There are many exceptions. For example, Johnny is the valedictorian – he gets 10 tickets. Mary is the class speaker – she gets 15 tickets or she gets VIP tickets. It's not as simple as saying everybody gets X number of tickets or relying on the honor system for Johnny to know which ceremony he is a part of.
It's quite possible the student has no idea which ceremony they should actually be going to. With UGRAD, we can automate that determination for the student as well. When a student logs in with their familiar campus credentials tied directly to the campus information system, they don’t have to register for a new account or remember a new password. They’re finding out at that time which ceremony they're eligible for, how many tickets they're eligible for and that’s all the student will see when they log in. They don't need to self select anything. The system automatically shows them that information and it guides them through the process. No other ticketing solution can offer that type of automated eligibility determination.
Colleges and universities have a lot of control over branding when they use UGRAD. That's another really cool differentiator between our solution and what some schools are using to ticket athletics. Often commencement has this elegance to it, and they want to be separated from the look of their athletics portal. They want to bring that elegance to commencement. They want their university seal and their formal colors. So, their mobile-friendly portal can have that degree of branding and students can easily reserve their tickets from a mobile device. It can have their colors, their logos, their look and feel. We can emulate their existing commencement site as closely as possible so that when a student hits tickets, they're brought to a site that looks and feels exactly the same, down to the fonts, colors and the like. The tickets themselves can be custom designed from scratch. Their university marketing folks can start with a blank sheet of paper and with their own aesthetics, their own brand rules and design their own ticket from the ground up, reserving for us a handful of spots for barcodes, but they have complete control over where those are on the ticket.
UGRAD is payment capable and PCI compliant given our work in the traditional events space. A number of clients take this opportunity to collect payment for regalia rentals or purchase, creating a one-stop shop for their graduates. Other clients like Vanderbilt University sell tickets to a pre-graduation party, where graduates get free admission, but families can buy tickets or entire tables with catering packages during this reservation process. A couple of our clients have used payments to offset excess demand for venues where space is not an issue. They don't want to say students can get unlimited free tickets because someone may jokingly reserve 500 seats, so they charge a nominal fee beyond the first 10 tickets.
There are already some revenue generating opportunities with UGRAD and we are looking into other possibilities. We’ve had a few clients explore the idea of sponsorships on their tickets, having a local hotel, restaurant or other business that would be interested in capturing the eyes and attention of a school’s commencement traffic. We’ve seen a couple of clients do that. Most that have success right now are working with other campus users. The campus bookstore for example might have an ad promoting the availability of “Class of 2020” t-shirts or the alumni association might want to say now's a great time to join the alumni association.
We’ve also seen a great deal of schools expressing interest in better security awareness and we’re able to address this concern as well. Commencements have historically been very open. Folks can just wander on campus and join in. Year after year, we hear about schools who find people that have no affiliation with the college participating in commencement, literally buying a cap and gown on Amazon and walking across the stage. When you ticket commencement ceremonies using UGRAD, the only way to get tickets is through a participant; students getting their tickets and assigning them to their guests. So, at a high level, you know that some person off the street is not just wandering in.
We've ticketed events that have included several U.S. Presidents including George Bush, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Clinton and other high-profile guests. For ceremonies where the Secret Service or diplomatic security or the like might be involved, our clients are able to feed them data through our reporting suite, so they're aware of advance registrations, the names of people who will be coming, and later, when they actually arrive. You can tag tickets as requiring an arrival alert, enter an administrative user's mobile telephone number and/or email address so that unbeknownst to the guest, when their tickets are scanned, you get an automated alert telling you, “Hey, Johnny just arrived through gate number four.” For some clients, it's as simple as going to greet them because they’re special guests, they're the family of your valedictorian or they’re the family of a posthumous degree awardee.
UGRAD has also helped schools automate ceremony emergencies. Florida Atlantic University once had a threat of violence discovered in a bathroom at the venue. They had to evacuate and grant folks re-entry to commencement later in the day. Our system was able to automate that. They used mass exit functionality to grant all the tickets an exit so that they could be rescanned upon re-entry. Another client had a measles outbreak on campus and had to move their winter commencements to the spring. They were able to communicate with those ticketed guests, transfer their tickets to a later ceremony so that everyone, in a very seamless way and using the tickets they already had, was able to come to commencement at a later point. Our ability to mass manage a ceremony and better communicate with attendees is a huge asset.
Accessibility plays a role in creating a great overall experience. Most clients will allow students to select a portion of their tickets from a special accessible seating area so they don’t have to subsequently go back to the registrar's office saying, “Oh, my grandmother is in a wheelchair” or whatever the case might be. They can indicate that during the reservation process and get special accessibility tickets. Schools also want to know if guests need Spanish language translation headsets or need to be in the vicinity of an ASL interpreter, for example. Students have the opportunity to indicate these types of accessibility requirements during the reservation process so that the school can adequately prepare for those needs and demand.
Want to learn more? Here are 10 reasons to ticket your commencement ceremonies.
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