Consuming Issues: Booking fees - a sly top-up to prices

OK, I admit it, when I wrote last week that I would boycott the Odeon because of its booking fee, I was being hasty. There are plenty of films I want to see in the next few weeks and I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face.

But there's no doubt that large credit card charges and booking/ service fees – or whatever euphemism venues insist on calling them – are irritating.

Anyone wanting to rock to the Arctic Monkeys at Wembley Arena in London next week, for instance, would have to shell out £29.50 and £2.95 for the "service charge". Tickets to the Barbarians vs New Zealand next month cost £65 – and £5.20 for the "service charge".

Frankly, the idea that these charges cover the cost of paying the banks for processing credit or debit card payments is bogus. According to the UK Payments Administration, the body which oversees "plastic" transactions, credit card charges to sellers range between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent. Debit card charges are typically "a few pence," the UKPA says.

Yet the booking fees for music tickets or theatre shows routinely amount to 10 per cent of a ticket's cover price. How can that be?

Jemma Smith, for the UK Payments Administration, says: "Undoubtedly it's an added revenue spinner. By the time you are paying for the ticket it could be considerably more, and it's not down to the amount that the business is really having to pay for the transaction."

Amusingly, venues even levy the booking fee to a member of the public collecting a ticket in person and paying by cash – exposing their bogus nature.

So, in essence, these charges are really just a sly top-up to the cover price.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a venue charging whatever fee it deems appropriate for an event. After all, it's for the public to decide whether £65 or £70.20 (including the booking fee) is worth paying to watch the Barbarians play the All Blacks.

But there are two issues here: honesty and transparency. Ticket sellers give the impression that the extra fee is additional to the ticket price when clearly only a small part is represented by the cost of making a credit card booking rather than, say, handing the ticket to a personal caller.

Even more importantly, the fees are often hidden in the small-print or added at a late stage in the online booking process. In other words, consumers are invited to buy tickets on the basis of advertising which has, ultimately, understated the true cost.

As well as irking fans, these charges have come to the attention of politicians. Last year 40 MPs signed a Commons motion tabled by the Labour MP Ben Chapman complaining that prices advertised by a leading agency, Ticketmaster, did not include two extra charges levied on booking and collection. The motion called on Ticketmaster to "advertise clearly the additional prices they charge ... so that consumers are not misled."

Naturally, Ticketmaster defended its policies, saying its fees were in line with others and that customers knew how much they were paying. Or, as Ticketmaster UK's managing director Chris Edmonds put it: "Any fees associated with the purchase of a ticket from Ticketmaster are clearly visible to the consumer prior to their acceptance."

The Office of Fair Trading is conducting a general inquiry into pricing across the economy, and is wondering whether there should be clearer safeguards for consumers. The OFT may or may not address booking fees, but the regulator warned a number of airlines this year that they should make their fees more transparent.

"In general we say as long as it's clear and upfront then a company can charge what it wants as long as it tells the consumer about those charges," an OFT spokesman said.

Failing any legislative or regulatory action, consumers can do little more than hope that companies behave reasonably, and make a mental note of those that don't.

At which point, I should point out that some venues act with integrity, such as the Ambassador Group of Theatres, which charges a flat fee of £3 no matter how many tickets are booked.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: Melinda Messenger

The former Page Three model is extending her services to the hard-pressed menfolk of Britain by launching a national pub token scheme. With 52 pubs closing every week, Pub Tokens are a smart way of propping up our pub heritage. Male (and female) drinkers can spend denominations of £10 and £20 on food, drinks and accommodation at thousands of hostelries run by Greene King, JW Lees, Shepherd Neame, Young's, and others. The scheme's managing director Dominic Lavan said: "Pub Tokens are a great gift for all occasions such as Christmas and birthdays and also provide a great incentive for employees." Someone tell the Editor ...

Villains: Maclaren

First, let's start with the buggy manufacturer's defence. The reason it didn't initially offer the same safety kits given to Americans to British parents, it said, was because fewer British children had caught their fingertips in the hinges of its strollers. Now it has done a U-turn and will offer fabric patches to British parents after all. I don't know who advised Maclaren on the management of its reputation, but it sounds like they need to go back to PR school.

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