BY ALLISON POND
Ardis Bataiff stood frozen, staring at the conference usher who came to the front of the standby line to give her tickets to the Saturday morning session.
“Do I get a hug?” she asked the usher.
“You bet,” he said, embracing the almost-giddy traveler from Los Angeles.
Bataiff and her sister, Clarice Stout, had been standing in line since 6:00 a.m. that morning.
“This has been my dream,” Stout said as the usher bent down to give her a hug.
Just after celebrating her 80th birthday, Stout, a life-long church member, embarked with her sister on her first trip to Salt Lake City, crossing her fingers that somehow she would get into the Conference Center despite discouraging tales of long lines and the high demand for tickets.
Conference hopefuls started lining up at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning to get into a conference session that ended up having empty seats.
“We have no idea why people didn’t show up,” said Pam Bassett, assistant to LDS Church Media Relations Director.
Bassett said ushers went into overflow seating in the tabernacle as the Saturday morning session started and announced that there were still seats in the Conference Center.
But a few days ago, tickets to the first general conference in the new Conference Center were a hot commodity. In fact, conference tickets even showed up on eBay, an Internet auction site.
“Do not miss this once in a lifetime experience of being there for the first time ever in the new conference center!” the ad read.
“Any serious Mormon expecting entrance into the celestial kingdom must have these. So as I am not cast down to outer darkness, 100% of the proceeds will go to the LDS missionary fund,” it continued.
The highest bidder, Jim Bailey, a Salt Lake City area architect, said he heard about the auction while driving to work Monday morning, March 27.
Though not a member of the LDS Church, Bailey said he is fascinated with LDS theology and beliefs and has pioneer ancestry.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity to see the completed building, listen to the prophet, and hear the choir,” Bailey said.
He was prepared to go up to perhaps $20 on the tickets, but the auction abruptly ended with Bailey as high bidder at $8, he said.
“The fellow said in his ad that the money would go to the missionaries, so he wasn’t auctioning the tickets to profit personally. I had no qualms about paying for the tickets as, not being LDS, I had no other means that I knew of to get the tickets,” Bailey said.
“When I won, I was ecstatic and made plans with my wife to attend,” he said.
However, the news reported that night that the seller had responded to pressure and returned the tickets to his bishop, Bailey said.
“I felt extreme disappointment,” he said.
The next day, Bailey was contacted by the seller, who said the news was all wrong, and offered Bailey the tickets without charge.
“I’ve listened to, read about, and watched portions of many conferences, but never thought of attending one because of the large crowds and limited seating. This is a golden opportunity and I feel fortunate to be able to attend the very first conference in the new building,” Bailey said.
The ticket seller, a Utah man named John, said he put the tickets up for auction on eBay as a joke.
“My brother tells me all the time about all the wacky items on eBay that Mormons try to sell. We have a good laugh all the time about the way people try to make money selling Mormon things,” he said.
After learning that his parents would not be able to make the trip from California for conference weekend, John put the tickets up for auction on eBay, he said.
“I didn’t care if it cost me a few dollars to put it up for auction — it would be fun to see what would happen,” John said.
The media were all over it immediately, John said, wanting to interview him on TV and radio shows. He pulled the tickets not because of outside pressure, but because his wife was worried he would be disciplined by his bishop, he said.
“I have gotten hate mail from people calling me to repentance,” John said.
The letters are from LDS members and inform him of what an evil person he is and how God will punish him, John said. One person will not stop sending several messages a day and has threatened John with prosecution, he said.
John also said Bailey had received similar e-mail messages.
John said he would never have asked the person to go through with the donation to the missionary department.
“It was just a way I felt to let people know I was in no way trying to make any kind of profit off these,” he said.
Two more tickets showed up on eBay on Friday night, but the buyer and seller were unavailable for comment.
The Internet wasn’t the only place people tried to make a profit on conference tickets.
Sydney Owen, a visitor from Lake Isabella, Idaho, said two boys tried to sell tickets to her outside Temple Square on Saturday morning.
“I told them, ‘I don’t think I should pay this to go to church,'” she said.
“Their motivation was to get some money, but I didn’t go along with it,” she said.
Owen said she talked to the boys for over an hour, and they gave her the tickets free.
Owen came to Utah without any conference tickets, but was able to attend two sessions, she said. Her son David, a BYU student, attended three sessions, she said.
“I thought it was going to be a big mess all around Temple Square, so I didn’t go up,” said Mark Bergstrom, 22, from Sugar City, Idaho, majoring in statistics.
After learning there were empty seats in both general sessions, on Saturday, Bergstrom said, “I should have gone up. I wish I would have.”
The Conference Center looked full on Sunday morning, Bassett said.
Church officials planned on using some seats to accommodate standby hopefuls when they originally allocated tickets for the conference, said Marsha Lems, a conference usher manning the standby line on Temple Square.
Lems said the first people in line got off a train from Oakland, Calif., and came straight to Temple Square at 4:30 a.m. There was also a tour bus of visitors from Tahiti that showed up early, she said.