Rebecca Throne: “When I started it was still kind of the Wild West.” (John Curley)
Rebecca Throne got the job of a lifetime by accident. At the peak of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, she was working at a boutique consulting firm in San Francisco in the same building as Wired magazine when she began hearing about something called Burning Man. “Everything I heard about it sounded like my version of hell,” said Throne, an art history major. “Nobody mentioned the art … I don’t really like hot weather and I have a low tolerance for being around impaired people.”
By 1997, the event that began as a cozy bonfire ritual on Baker Beach in San Francisco before moving to the Black Rock Desert outside Reno, Nev. — where it quickly mushroomed to an arty blowout — was outgrowing its seat-of-the-pants operation and in desperate need of some organization.
Throne’s tireless work in crafting a professional, smoothly run box office operation for the event is just one reason her peers chose her as a 2019 Ticketing Star.
After attending her first Burning Man in 1999, where she was “gobsmacked by the sense of community” and the accessibility of the participants, Throne started volunteering in 2001 and by the next year became the manager of the event’s walk-in ticket outlets, which at that time numbered three.
“When I started it was still kind of the Wild West,” she said, noting that instead of the usual path of building a business by making a product and then creating a community around it, Burning Man had the community but no business plan. Her organizational skills and trustworthiness got her invited into the organization’s offices, where she was shown what then passed for the ticketing operation: a giant file cabinet drawer filled with unbundled, loose tickets with no clear chain of custody for what had by then grown to eight ticketing outlets.
A lover of processes, she secured the inventory, and because Burning Man encouraged staff and volunteers to chart their own path, she got the chance to make ticketing her own. After rising to a full-time position as ticketing manager in 2007, Throne reviewed the event’s ticketing agreement with then-startup agency InTicketing, which like Burning Man was scrappy but somewhat inexperienced.
Her first onsale as ticketing boss went “beautifully,” with more than 47,000 tickets for the event’s highest sales to date, even as she was noticing serious control problems with print quality that led to her rejecting half the tickets that year and insisting on reprints. “Printing tickets is like printing money: The more variance you have, the less reliable they are,” she said, which is why Throne took over ticket production that year, shining a “light on everything that needed improvement.”
The event first sold out (53,963) in 2011. Her mettle was tested the next year, though, when a switch to a lottery system that was “great on paper” turned into a “deeply traumatic, unfortunate … epic failure.”
Throne — whose alter ego on at Burning Man’s desert site is “The Ruiner” — said part of the problem was that Burning Man had overcomplicated things by having too many price points, which gave those who were able to pay the least the worst odds (15 percent) of obtaining tickets. That flub left many of the most avid Burners on the outs, a huge problem for the community-focused event, which is focused on different “camps” that set up elaborate art projects, often taking months to coordinate before being assembled on site at Black Rock.
“It was a classic instance where a really difficult experience revealed a ton of opportunity for growth,” she said. After distributing 10,000 tickets directly to the groups that had been “fractured” because of the lottery system — and who, therefore, could not fully commit to building their projects — Throne learned that she had to take a stronger hand in managing ticket disbursement.
“Rebecca always says that selling tickets is the easy part, building community through ticket sales is the hard bit,” reads Throne’s nomination statement from Lulu Lurline, Burning Man ticketing project manager. “Year after year she innovates new programs and sale structures to support this goal. This includes Burning Man’s Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP), the Low Income Ticket Program that supports 4,000 low income participants in purchasing reduced price tickets to the event, and the creation of our Directed Group Sale programs which ensure that art project groups, theme camps, and volunteer teams have enough core members to produce their projects at the Burning Man event.”
The Directed Sales Group helps members of established theme camps in good standing obtain tickets directly from Throne’s team, and STEP aims to thwart scalpers and prevent unscrupulous sales.
“By design, Burning Man is hard, and a lot of the value comes from that and forging those relationships with groups that inspires them to take on the impossible,” she said. “The goal has never been to make it easy for everybody.” One group that Throne has worked to make things a bit easier on is low-income Burners, through a Low Income Ticket Program. She continues to explore new ways that more economically stable Burners can directly support the expansion of the program.
One of her other innovations is the “sexiest shipping container” ever, an 18-window box office made up of three shipping containers that finally gave the on-site ticketing operation a functional home. Another formalization of what was previously a chaotic will-call program, the Playa box office became her “super geeked-out” pet project. “I got to go down the rabbit hole of queueing theory,” she said, noting that because the box office is in the brutally hot desert — and the opening time changed from midnight to noon in 2014 — she had to devise a clever way to make sure people didn’t pass out from heat exposure while waiting in line.
That involved medical teams handing out umbrellas and water, but also a clever method of measuring the efficiency of the queue that involved handing out time-stamped laminates that allowed her team —150 mostly volunteers — to measure the number of people passing through the system and plan accordingly.
“I’m most proud of being able to support the Burning Man organization in its growth and business needs while simultaneously nurturing the community,” said Throne of the event, which housed 80,000 attendees in 2018. “That and my box office teams kicks ass!”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said when Throne began working in ticketing at Burning Man. She moved there after volunteering her first year on a different team.
Ticketing department manager and box office operations manager
College: University of California at Santa Cruz (go, Banana Slugs!). Art history major.
First job ever: Copy shop.
First ticketing job: Managing walk-in ticket outlets for Burning Man.
Mentor: Dana Harrison. She built the foundation of all of Burning Man’s business infrastructure. She taught me that sound business practices don’t have to be at odds with compassion and integrity.
Thing you love to do at work: A tie between changing people’s lives for the better and wearing pajamas and red lipstick on sale days.
Pet peeve at work: People not being kind. We’re all busy, we all have needs, we’re all working on important things, but that doesn’t mean you can treat people poorly.
What’s the next event that you have tickets to? I actually don’t have any! Two I’ve got my eye on: the College Football Playoff Championship Game (if the Oklahoma Sooners make it), and the Solid Sound Festival, because I love Wilco.