A new BBC Three documentary puts the spotlight on the collapse last year of ticketing and events company Pollen. Among other things, it looks into allegations that the company instigated unauthorised transactions worth $3.2 million in the months before its collapse and that it misled suppliers about payments.
Pollen grew out of ‘peer-to-peer marketing’ companies The Physical Network and We Represent, ultimately specialising in putting together and selling premium travel packages and experiences around shows and festivals, while also working with various partners on specially curated events.
Despite having bigged up $150 million in new investment earlier in the year, the Pollen parent company fell into administration last August. The subsequent administrator’s report revealed that the business owed more than £78.6 million at the point it collapsed, including £4.5 million to recruiters and management consultants and £150,000 to a private jet charter firm.
Expanding on some of the allegations that were made about Pollen around the time of the administration, a BBC article about the new documentary states that the events company “took unauthorised transactions worth $3.2 million months before the company went into administration, affecting 15,800 customers”.
Basically, extra charges were made to customers who had set up monthly payment plans for tickets to Pollen-managed events or experiences.
The programme’s makers, the BBC says, have “seen a report into the incident written by former Pollen staff, which has never been shared with other employees”.
“It suggests that the piece of code that was responsible for taking the double or triple payments from customers was written and manually triggered by a Pollen employee. The code for taking the payments was tested on 20 May 2022, and then triggered on 21 May 2022 without the customers’ authorisation”.
Reps for Pollen have told the BBC that the code that caused the unauthorised payments to be taken was implemented to fix a bug on the company’s platform. The overcharge caused by the code then happened by mistake “due to an error made by a single employee who took responsibility at the time”.
The BBC article goes on: “The BBC has seen an internal message sent by a senior Pollen team member to only three colleagues in the company two days after the incident in May. In the message, a member of staff says that he was asked by co-founder and CEO Callum [Negus-Fancey] to change the code in order to alter customers’ payment plans and take payment for a single event”.
“The member of staff says that, by mistake, they altered the payment plans for multiple events at once, taking payments worth $3.2 million”.
The Pollen rep says that “no person or company benefited from the mistake” and “all affected customers, other than those who chose to accept a $100 voucher, had their refunds initiated within fourteen days”.
Though the BBC claims that it contacted 18,000 customers and “of the 259 who responded, only ten said they had been partially or fully refunded for the incident”.
Elsewhere in the BBC Three documentary, the programme claims that, as it dealt with mounting financial challenges, the company sent some suppliers ‘proof of payment’ screenshots from its online banking portal to reassure them outstanding payments were on their way, when those payments had not actually gone through.
The documentary quotes a former employee who says: “In order to get a vendor to do what was needed to be done, Pollen was communicating that a wire had been sent and a screenshot would be sent to the vendor”.
“What was happening is on the accounting team, they were inserting all the information necessary to initiate a wire through the banking site, getting to the final confirmation page, taking a snapshot of that page and sending it to the vendor as a confirmation that the wire had been sent, but in reality, final confirmation button had never been pressed. And that money was never sent to the vendor”.
On those allegations, the Pollen rep explains: “Proof of payments were processed in the genuinely held belief that there would be sufficient monies in the company account on the date that the payment was due to go out. There was no intention to represent the payment had actually been sent. Although, unfortunately, there were occasions when there were insufficient funds and the payment was not executed”.
The documentary – called ‘Crashed: $800m Festival Fail’ – will air on BBC Three tonight at 9pm and is already available on the BBC iPlayer.
UPDATE 20 Jun 2023, 11.00am: A spokesperson for Pollen has issued a statement to CMU in response to the BBC documentary and in particular its claims about the refunds made to customers affected by the technical error in May 2022. You can read more about that statement here.