Last week, The Boxoffice Company hosted its latest LIVE Session on the topic of sanitation and how exhibitors can plan to operate upon reopening post-COVID 19 lockdowns.
Boxoffice PRO‘s Rebecca Pahle moderated the webinar, which included panelists Marianne Abiaad (executive vice president, Royal Corporation), Kory Wright (COO, Simply Right), and Guillermo Younger, Jr. (founder and CEO, CIELO).
Kicking off the session, Pahle asked where theaters should be at this stage with regard to sanitation plans upon reopening. Abiaad noted that talk has been ongoing for the last six weeks: “Preparation is key, especially with a disrupted supply chain on specific items like PPE. Different task forces have been created to look at reopening. If you haven’t looked at a plan to reopen, it’s a little bit late.”
Abiaad further addressed some of the major questions theaters will need to answer in their preparations. “What kind of disinfectant do you have? What type of surfaces and seats do you have? How are you going to handle cleaning with less staff on payroll? It’s new for everybody, and preparation is definitely key.”
Elaborating on the subject of supply chain issues, Abiaad noted that “there has been disruption in certain categories like masks. Pricing is trending down. High demand on gloves will continue to be a tough area going forward. Hand sanitizers will be in demand for awhile. Demand in the retail segment is heavily affecting the supply chain, but things are looking better in many areas.”
“There’s no one set timeline” when it comes to sanitation planning, added Wright. “We’re fortunate to service customers in over 50 countries, and each has a different target date. Even more than a month out, we have to make sure equipment is up and running, and we’re taking time before reopening to make sure everything’s in order.”
CIELO now offers a QR response mechanism as part of an initiative to support communication between staff and customers on issues of cleanliness and sanitation. Younger said, “Safety isn’t just a one-way street. We want to provide a very efficient and safe way for patrons to provide feedback back to the staff when they see something that isn’t clean or if someone isn’t wearing a mask. By simply placing these QR codes around the theater, you now empower the moviegoers to scan the QR code and provide feedback. Staff can read them in real time so they can respond immediately.”
When asked about specific tactics for communication with patrons, Wright added, “from my perspective, it’s not a one-and-done. There’s going to be multiple ways of communicating with patrons coming to the theater. They need to see you on a regular basis and see what you’re doing.”
Seating will naturally be affected as social distancing measures are implemented, forcing the question of what seats to offer and how that impacts the effectiveness of cleaning staff.
“Different chains are handling it differently, but you go back to the same basic steps. Use the right disinfecting product with the right EPA claims, something that is used at the right dilution ratio with the right dwell time. Also, not having to clean seats that were not occupied is key. Theaters have different technology platforms that can let them know which seats were used and which were not. Just keep in mind that we don’t have to go overboard. Simplify a cleaning system, make sure the staff avoids hiccups, and let patrons know it is the place to be,” said Abiaad.
Many companies are also looking to temperature-checking as they resume operations, a measure likely to be employed by theaters for their staff. “You definitely want to make sure staff coming in isn’t running a temperature, adds Abiaad. “It’s a simple step to make sure staff aren’t coming in infected, but you also don’t want to be investing in stuff that you regret spending money on that might be a moot topic a few months from now.” Still, she emphasizes that simple, FDA-approved thermometers “are a rational investment.”
Younger, Jr. also chimed in on the subject: “There’s no one-size-fits-all. What we want to do is support those partners in whatever policies they put in place because they know their business better than anyone. They’re the ones making the trade-off between risk mitigation and costs and taking the appropriate middle ground on that.”
Pahle later noted that, from a layman’s perspective, it can be challenging to decipher between which of the new technologies being developed are worthwhile. When asked what goes into the decision-making process for exhibitors to buy into those new products, Abiaad said “it’s hard for theaters to worry about what the right product is with everything going on right now. Be aware of some weird stuff going into the market. If anything looks very expensive, it’s not the right product to use. Don’t break the bank. We want to see the movie industry be profitable and not overspend.”
Exhibitors may also wonder about how far to take the visibility of sanitation upon reopening, such as making announcements about which auditoriums have been cleaned—and when.
“There is power in being able to convey [different degrees of compliance in cleaning policies], but some are hesitant to make that public, which is understandable because there is a learning curve,” said Younger, Jr. “What we’re working toward with exhibitors is to put a system in place and get their policies in place and adhered to by their staff. Once they have a great track record, they can make it visible through their website or digital signage. This essentially eliminates that clipboard that used to exist in the bathroom logging when cleaning actually happened, making that visible in a safe manner where no one has to touch any surfaces.”
When it comes to pre-show cleaning policies, Wright’s perspective from Simply Right’s work with non-theatrical businesses that have remained open during the shutdown could be applicable for exhibition. “In our commercial buildings that have stayed open through this, we’ve been asked for more day orders as opposed to night orders, when most cleaning used to take place. Theaters may want to take a page from them and move in that direction.”
With partial staffing in mind, Pahle asked the panel what measures can be taken to speed up the cleaning process.
“You cannot be focusing on every door knob,” said Abiaad. “You have to focus on high-touch, guest-facing areas that matter. Having somebody clean those periodically throughout the day and have it be visible to guests is important.”
Abiaad notes, however, that over-spending on potentially extraneous products isn’t advisable since their usage may not be worth the high costs in the long run. “We anticipate that focus will taper down a few months from now. You go back to common sense of not wanting to break the bank. You can’t have a full team focused on cleaning every single surface … but you can work to avoid cross-contamination.”
Toward the end of the session, Pahle referred to the realistic scenario of a theater employee getting sick after reopening and how that would be handled. “It will depend on municipalities and state regulations,” said Wright. “CDC guidelines are clear about how to deal with the situation and the process you follow. Plan for the risk and follow the guidelines that are out there.”
In an optimistic closing, Abiaad emphasized theaters’ natural ability to become high-demand venues for entertainment thanks to assigned seating and clean environments. “There are a lot of questions that have to be answered within each organization. We all deal with things differently. Focus on training and procedures, use common sense, and make sure guests see those efforts. It’s only a matter of time before everyone feels movie theaters are the place to be. I know it’s going to be a lot better than supermarkets!”