Innovation: Cinemas dial box-office hit

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The Independent Online
A NIGHT out at the pictures used to mean queuing round the corner to get in. Then credit-card booking moved cinemagoers into a different kind of queue, to have their phone calls answered, writes Nuala Moran.

Now United Cinemas International (UCI) has banished phone queues by setting up the first national cinema ticket agency. The computer answering system, costing pounds 500,000, allows around 95 per cent of calls to be answered in under 20 seconds.

Sales for 28 cinemas across Britain, up to 23,000 calls a day, are handled by 120 operators in Manchester, via 0800 Freefone numbers.

The software in the answering system, made by Aspect Telecommunications, identifies the Freefone number, notifying the operator for which cinema a caller wants to book. This information is automatically displayed on a screen at the operator's workstation with details of what films are showing, performance times, ticket prices and availability of seats.

Once the booking is made, the information, including the credit card reference and seat allocation, is transferred to the local cinema so the tickets can be collected by the customer, and the database is updated.

Earlier credit-card bookings, accounting for up to 60 per cent of ticket sales at some cinemas in the South- east, were made by phoning one of four operators at the local UCI cinema.

'This provided only limited call-handling capability, which was especially apparent with major films such as Aladdin and Jurassic Park, which generated huge volumes of phone calls,' said Dayle Burton, UCI's national telesales manager. 'There was a very high rate of abandoned calls due to engaged signals or a long wait for an answer, meaning a potential loss of business for us.'

Ticket sales have gone up by 5-7 per cent since the first cinema was linked to the central box-office system in October 1993. Cinemas have gone on line in batches of two or three a month, allowing the system to bed down and demonstrating that the increase in business is due to better service rather than a series of blockbuster films.

The central office is open from 9am to 9.45pm Sunday to Thursday and 8am to midnight Friday and Saturday, but bookings can be made at other times using a touch- tone phone or by leaving a message. The operator calls back to confirm such bookings during opening hours.

(Photograph omitted)