Let the events begin!
Business View interviews Alex Linebrink, CEO & Co-founder of Passage, for our focus on Innovations in Event Management
The events industry may have had a rocky few years but some industry players are trying to turn recent disruption into new opportunities. Certainly, that’s the case with Passage, a full-service event platform based in Detroit, Michigan.
“Before I started Passage, I ran a payment technology company by the name of Core Merchant, which allowed me to learn a lot about the payments industry,” Alex Linebrink, CEO and co-founder of Passage, explains. “I sold that company in 2014 and got together with my friend Patrick Misch – an incredible software developer. Patrick ended up being my co-founder at Passage.”
Linebrink identified the world of ticketing and payments around events as being an interesting industry to explore. While there were already event platforms in the market that were doing an adequate job of managing events using generic feature sets, there wasn’t the same functionality for specialty, niche events. He notes, “I came at the task from a pretty unique angle… I grew up around a lot of haunted houses. My father was born on Halloween, so every year for his birthday we would build a haunted yard instead of having cake and ice cream. We’d build fun displays and get the neighborhood involved. So, I understood that market a little. It is different from a normal event.”
Building on this initial approach of working with haunted house events, Linebrink began offering more niche features for other specialty events, helping them to generate more revenue, reach more fans, and sell more tickets.
“To this day, we actually have a brand for haunted houses called ‘HauntPay’ that is the largest provider of ticketing and payments in the world of haunted houses,” Linebrink says. “We work with over 1,000 haunted attractions and events every year with that brand alone. We have another one for escape rooms and another for food and drink festivals. Our fastest-growing market is in the world of semi-pro and professional sports. Our overall approach is to reach out to specialty event categories of all types with the features and custom branding they need.”
Although customization is an essential part of the service offered by Passage, there remains a structure to Passage’s offering. “We have certain features that might apply to some event categories and not to others, so we can repackage those,” Linebrink notes. “We don’t always have to build completely new functionality – many features can be repackaged and rebranded.”
What’s more, some things that Passage does better than its competitors are solutions that were available all along. For instance, Linebrink was always frustrated when using existing event payment platforms because they didn’t think of customer transactions as payments. They thought of them as tickets. Many platforms allow events to sell tickets online but nothing else. But most events need more payments to drive revenue. Some event tools also make organizers wait until after an event is concluded before they can access their sales revenue – even if they are selling tickets months in advance.
“Existing event platforms weren’t actually very friendly to event organizers,” Linebrink acknowledges. “So we came in with an aim of facilitating omnichannel payments. We set out to become an event’s single source of revenue. We are committed to getting organizers their money within one to two business days of every sale, regardless of whether these sales took place on the day of the event or six months in advance. We let organizers create their own payment accounts, which we set up for them in the background. It’s a lot less hassle for the event organizer than if they had to create a new merchant account from scratch, and will let them handle payments for everything.”
Passage honors this commitment by handling sales around the entire event experience. This includes ticket sales, merchandise sales, and concession sales – both online and at the door. “We’re working in the small to midsize market where even organizers are often doing this for perhaps one week a year,” Linebrink adds. “They may have a day job the rest of the time but are hosting a big beer festival or running a haunted house for, say, one month of the year. They don’t have a lot of time to manage the event, so they really appreciate the full-scale service we offer; being able to access everything they need from a single vendor.”
Passage generates its revenue from a service fee attached to every ticket sale, which can be passed onto the ticket purchaser. Unlike some event service providers, however, Passage is keen not to take advantage of the end-user by surprising them with unexpectedly high fees at check-out. “Our average fees are less than half of most of our direct competitors,” Linebrink says.
Passage provides a welcoming, supportive environment for existing customers and potential new ones. There are many tips on the company website that can be applied to any event ticketing platform or any type of event. It’s free to sign up to the Passage platform and individuals can arrange a demo to gain a better understanding of how everything works. There’s no monthly or set-up fees, so anyone can create an event and sell themselves free test tickets to get started.
“We’re always available by email, chat, or phone,” Linebrink says. “We get a lot of repeat business. Last year, we kept almost every client, and they actually made more money with us year-over-year. And that holds true over multiple years. On average, when event organizers stick with us for two-plus years, they end up doubling their revenue.”
Despite the positive atmosphere around Passage, there is no escaping the fact that the events industry has had a difficult couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a staggeringly high number of event cancellations, and a high number of events that simply never got to the organization stage. “During the pandemic, we absorbed all the payment processing costs around canceled events so our customers weren’t negatively affected financially,” Linebrink says. “Thankfully, we were in a decent position financially and I was able to convince our investors to let us bet big that this was an opportunity to help our clients generate revenue when they otherwise might be out in the cold.”
These bets included virtual events, with Passage building a virtual event platform in just two weeks. This was up and running by April of 2020 and helped the company (as well as its clients) significantly – allowing for revenue generation at a time when in-person events were not possible.
“Many of these virtual events have now turned into hybrid events,” Linebrink explains. “For example, if you can only fit 100 people in your venue but you want to share your event with 1,000 more, you can do that through livestream tools. We also bet heavily on socially distance event technology. We created a way to assign seating in stadiums and venues, and leave gaps in between groups. We created a virtual queue system that would text you when it was your group’s turn to go into an event instead of making you wait in line. These features made people feel safer, and we were actually up 80% across 2020, despite everything that happened.”
Passage offers these innovative solutions from its Detroit headquarters, where 16 employees provide a full-service solution. Linebrink acknowledges, “We are a very flat organization, mainly remote, with team members that span both coasts, and even internationally as well.”
The company’s great culture means that it boasts some impressive employee retention figures, but its success cannot solely be attributed to its own workers. Passage’s partners have also proved hugely helpful. “We work with some incredible vendors,” Linebrink says. “Including Varnum LLP – an amazing law firm that has not only helped us navigate fundraising and the start-up ecosystem but also to figure out some unique approaches with our clients. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without their expertise.”
Working alongside such impressive partners, Passage has a number of exciting plans ahead. The company has recently launched its Passage Digital NFT Collectibles platform, as well as a new way to manage memberships. It also has plans to potentially expand into Europe next year and has longer-term ambitions too.
“The internet is a great tool for personalization and there are going to be a range of events with customizable features,” Linebrink says. “Three to five years down the road, I see an easier way to make sales and interact with tons of event organizers in a variety of different ways – online and at the door. I think it’s going to be a much smoother and more valuable experience. And we’re well-positioned to be one of the leaders when the industry offers a more direct connection between organizers and fans.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: A leading provider of event ticketing, payment, and management
Where: Detroit, Michigan