Francis Hellyer may have trained as an actor, but he was always destined to be a technologist. Fascinated by technology from an early age, his first job after drama school – eschewing the waitering roles that young actors typically go for between auditions – was a contract to help the BBC manage the millennium bug that, for a time, threatened to overwhelm global technology systems in the late 1990s. And before Hollywood had a chance to come calling, Hellyer launched London Theatre Direct, the UK’s first ever online ticketing agency.
The business was founded with his friend Emmanuel Ciolfi. “I was a jobbing actor, but I wasn’t getting roles and we were racking our brains to think of something we could start for ourselves,” Hellyer recalls. “We’d been talking about what we could do online and theatre tickets seemed like a perfect fit.”
The early days were primitive. Just as Netflix spent its formative years mailing rental CDs to customers, London Theatre Direct didn’t actually do much online ticket selling. Customers could use its website – written with Hellyer’s basic knowledge of coding – to book tickets, but they had to pay for them by sending the company a cheque. “Emmanual spent quite a bit of his time touring the theatres to pick up flyers so that we could scan them in and put them on the website,” Hellyer says.
More than two decades later, it is fair to say London Theatre Direct’s technology has evolved. The company’s mission is to make the booking process more straightforward. Through multiple API links, it provides a one-stop-shop for theatre goers with tickets to hundreds of shows and functionality such as interactive seating plans. Customers get tickets sent direct to their phones, so there is no more queuing to at the box office. And, of course, these days there is no need to put a cheque in the post; London Theatre Direct has taken payments online since the banking industry allowed them – and, more recently, it became the first ticket seller in the world to accept bitcoin payments.
“We pride ourselves on being the first,” says Hellyer. “I don’t imagine too many people are going to be paying for Phantom of the Opera tickets in bitcoin in the short term, but actually, the blockchain technology underpinning digital currency has the potential to solve a lot of problems in our industry.”
The immutable record-keeping of the blockchain could help in the battle against ticket fraud, Hellyer argues, and shake up the second-hand market. And he sees related advances such as NFTs – the non-fungible tokens that are increasingly popular in the arts – as paving the way for new business models in the theatre tickets industry.
Without its commitment to cutting-edge technologies, London Theatre Direct might have struggled to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. With theatres locked down and constantly rescheduling performances, the company has spent much of the past 18 months leveraging its platform to manage ticketing changes and refunds for thousands of customers. “The entertainment world has taken quite a beating, but it has forced us to consider technologies that could deliver real value in the future.”
Ticketless performances, for example, wouldn’t have come about without theatres’ desire to avoid crowds building up in the foyer – a digital ticket on your phone or watch provides much quicker entry. Looking forward, Hellyer believes he can help theatres increase their revenues and recover more quickly. “Why shouldn’t you be able to order a programme or your interval drinks when you’re booking online?”, he asks.
Technology can also drive London Theatre Group’s own revenue growth, Hellyer adds. “It is funny because in most industries, it is the middleman that gets squeezed by new technologies and disruption,” he says. “But in our industry, it is the middleman providing the innovation.” Businesses such as airlines and hotels are interested in linking to the company’s platform to offer their own customers theatre tickets, he says in one example of what might be possible.
For his own part, Hellyer concedes he is now looking beyond London Theatre Direct for the next stage of his career. He is already an active investor in a number of businesses and often mentors young entrepreneurs looking to scale their start-ups.
Not surprisingly, technology is the common theme in his portfolio. For example, he’s particularly interested in businesses with specialisms in the growing market of new proteins. “I’ve always been a vegetarian, but the pandemic has really underlined how our encroachment on habitats such as the rain forest, which are necessary for mass meat production, is so problematic,” he says.
New materials are another focus – plastics that dissolve on contact with water, for example, rather than polluting the environment for years to come. “The only way through the problems we face is with an embrace of technology,” he argues.
Another venture occupying Hellyer’s time is Metaverse, a podcast he has just launched focused on “where the physical and digital worlds become one”. Styled as a “podcast for the future-minded or anyone on the hunt for the next big thing”, Metaverse gives Hellyer an opportunity to speak to leading futurists about everything from cryptocurrency to climate change.
He is particularly excited about connecting with younger entrepreneurs and innovators. “As you get older, you get more focused on the blocks – younger people just don’t see the obstacles,” he says. “I’m hugely optimistic that are plenty of young people out there who are determined to be change makers.”
Hellyer’s own experience proves the point. Launched in a world where AltaVista and Lycos were the browsers of choice – and where cash was still king, London Theatre Direct was ahead of its time. And by the time other ticket sellers caught up, Hellyer had built a market leading position.