In its relatively short history, Majid Al Futtaim’s VOX Cinemas has become a reference point in the Middle East’s exhibition market. Following the inauguration of its first cinema in the United Arab Emirates’ Ajman City Center in 1999, the company has gone on to become the largest and highest-grossing circuit in the region. Known around the world for its investment in innovative and amenity-focused concepts, VOX is now a mainstay for moviegoers across the Middle East and Africa. Led by chief executive officer Cameron Mitchell, who joined Majid Al Futtaim cinemas in 2007, VOX is on pace to reach the 600-screen threshold by the end of the decade. Boxoffice spoke with Mitchell about the intricacies of the Middle Eastern market and its consumers.
How did you come to work at VOX? What was it about this challenge that caught your attention?
This year I celebrated 10 fantastic years working with Majid Al Futtaim, VOX Cinemas’ parent company, having joined the group in 2007. Before joining the Majid Al Futtaim family, I had worked in various operational roles across Australia, a mature but progressive cinema market. The competitive nature of the entertainment landscape in the Middle East and its constant hunger for innovation presented an opportunity that seemed like a natural next step in my career. I was excited by the challenge to develop ambitious strategic plans to spearhead VOX Cinemas’ business growth across new markets in the region, and equally excited to join Majid Al Futtaim, one of the world’s most forward-thinking property developers.
What is the circuit’s current presence? Is it mostly in emerging markets, or is it more of a mix between more mature markets and emerging ones?
VOX Cinemas opened its first cinema in Ajman in 1999 and since has grown to operate 281 screens across the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Egypt. We have a pipeline that will see VOX Cinemas operate 600 screens by 2020, developing across existing markets and opening in new markets including Bahrain, Kuwait, and Kenya. Like all markets, the Middle East is maturing, and we are seeing new locations cannibalize existing older cinemas. In all cinemas that we operate we have deployed a mix of brands and concepts tailored to the surrounding demographic, and with new developments we can draw from a variety of different branded concepts, which ensures that our new locations all enjoy above average footfalls and occupancy rates. We have a positive forecast of roughly 25 committed projects, given landlords appreciate that we invest in developing world-class assets that strongly complement their malls and drive incremental footfall to the benefit of the mall and surrounding retailers.
What factors differentiate exhibition in the Middle East and Africa from elsewhere?
The average Middle Eastern customer has an insatiable appetite for unique experiences, and given that Majid Al Futtaim is the region’s most pioneering developer and retailer, we pride ourselves on delivering the Middle East’s most innovative and cutting-edge entertainment experiences. In many mature markets, the experience of visiting the cinema has suffered. Guests walk through a tiered foyer, are met with average service, below-average generic F&B, and then regrettably see a film in a cinema that is basic to say the least. Worldwide there are countless examples of exhibitors who have collaborated with distributors, listened to their guests, and developed cool, innovative entertainment venues that are appealing to guests and encourage the habit of cinema. This is the ambition that drives us to deliver exceptional experiences to our guests at all of our locations, and over the years we have continually invested and innovated in new concepts. Introducing a wide range of brands and cinema concepts, we have allowed guests to enjoy Hollywood, Bollywood, Arabic, and independent films in any one of the myriad of different branded concepts.
Our big-screen concepts offer guests a large cinema experience with wide screens, crisp digital images, and unprecedented audio technology ensuring a realistic and fully immersive entertainment experience. Our MAX screen at City Centre Deira in Dubai is the largest screen in the Middle East at 30-plus meters equipped with Dolby Atmos and a Christie Laser projector. Our IMAX with laser cinema at our Mall of the Emirates in Dubai is regularly the highest-grossing IMAX screen worldwide. Since partnering with IMAX at Mall of the Emirates and seeing how passionate their team is for the entertainment experience, we have signed several new IMAX screens, which we are deploying regionally.
Providing premium offerings, we were the first to launch VIP cinemas in the region, with VOX GOLD, which boasts intimate settings, butler services, and a restaurant-style menu as well as the ThEATre by Rhodes luxury concept, where customers enjoy fine dining and a movie courtesy of Michelin-starred celebrity chef Gary Rhodes. For our adrenaline junkies, we offer a complete sensory experience that captures audiences via dynamic motion chairs and special environmental effects at 4DX, the first 4D cinemas to launch in the region. Not forgetting about our littlest movie fans and the future generation of movie enthusiasts, we also introduced the Middle East’s first dedicated kids’ cinema concept, complete with colorful interiors and a bespoke offering for birthday parties through our KIDS cinema concept. These brands continually evolve and improve with every new launch while a combination of these brands and traditional cinemas are designed into every new cinema that we develop. Our team is now working on a few new innovative branded concepts that we will launch in 2018 and beyond.
VOX is on track to reach 600 screens in 50 locations by 2020. What factors do you believe have helped the success and expansion of the VOX circuit?
There is an increasing demand for a better, more engaging, more dynamic experience in the Middle East, and we are uniquely positioned as a Majid Al Futtaim company to offer guests an exceptional experience. We regularly run market research and encourage customer feedback through our NPS program to fully understand our customers’ evolving needs and wants, helping us improve our service on an ongoing basis and stay ahead of the curve. Irrespective of our growth and expanding market share, our endless pursuit is to meet the vision of our owner, which is to create great moments for everyone every day.
Competition for discretionary spend in the Middle East is fierce, and businesses can no longer afford to offer generic experiences. Our service must be exceptional, our F&B comparable to the best cafés and restaurants, and our in-cinema experience must be world class. Our attention to detail, the Majid Al Futtaim standards, and our passion for innovation mean that we never rest on our achievements; we also strive for a newer, better experience and offering. There is no greater buzz than standing in the foyer of a newly opened location and watching the joy and amazement on the faces of kids, families, and couples that are experiencing our cinemas for the first time. This focus on the customer and the guest experience is core to our success to date.
VOX has placed an emphasis on providing value-added benefits to the moviegoing experience with amenities such as enhanced concessions, immersive seating, 4K and laser projection, event cinema, and premium large format, to name a few. How have these innovations helped transform the cinema business in your regions?
The cinema business in the Middle East is already quite developed, and the focus now is to ensure cinema experiences and offerings continue to evolve in the face of new entertainment offerings that are being launched regionally. We were the first to introduce big-screen branded cinemas, VIP cinemas, Michelin-star-chef catered cinemas, 4D cinemas, kids’ branded concepts, 4K cinema, and laser cinema (to mention a few). These concepts are designed to ensure that our guests continually enjoy great moments in our cinemas and to guarantee that our venues are differentiated sufficiently so that we always enjoy majority market share in the markets that we operate in.
Can you share with us a bit more about your luxury cinema concept? When did you first enter this space and what has been your experience with it? Do you believe this concept can export to other regions and markets?
VOX Cinemas launched the first affordable luxury cinema offering, VOX GOLD, in 2000, in anticipation of customer demand for a premium experience. Set in private surroundings, our GOLD cinema changed the game with wall-to-wall screens, reclining armchairs, foot rests, tables, butler service, and a full restaurant-style menu. The evolution of the luxury offering, ThEATre by Rhodes was introduced in 2015 and is currently available in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar. Combining cinema with catering by an internationally renowned Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes is a world first and something our guests have embraced. Chef Gary is an exceptional chef with a genuine passion for food, and the menus that he has developed for our guests mix traditional cinema favorites with world-class cuisine. We regularly change and update our menus based on special occasions and our guests’ feedback. Among many celebrities to visit the Middle East, Will Smith, Shah Rukh Khan, and Jeff Goldblum have all enjoyed the ThEATre by Rhodes cuisine at one of our functions. Fine-dining menus across both GOLD and ThEATre by Rhodes were carefully crafted to ensure audiences could enjoy first-class F&B offerings that remained easy to eat in the cinema without taking away from the movie experience. Providing added comfort and privacy, both concepts also feature exclusive lounge areas guests can enjoy before and after the movie.
What are the immediate challenges and opportunities facing VOX in the coming years?
Competition for discretionary spending is increasing, and our challenge is to ensure we continually invest in the experience, be it bringing or developing a new experience to our guests, enhancing service, our F&B offering, or embracing technology to bring competitive advantage to the business. In our region we are showing over 400 films per annum currently, and our content team has been experimenting with live sports, wrestling events, gaming, and concerts. We need to invest heavily in the experience in the coming years, and we expect that we will reengineer how guests entertain themselves in the region, a challenging but incredibly rewarding pursuit.
How do you believe the moviegoing experience will change in the next 10 to 15 years?
The cinema experience has rapidly developed in the last decade, and similar advancements are anticipated for the next 10 to 15 years. Technological innovations are set to revolutionize the industry as screens continue to get bigger, paired with clearer digital pictures and sharper sound. The possibilities are endless, and we expect more and more cinema chains will combine entertainment with interactive experiences and gaming opportunities. Virtual reality technology for cinema is already a reality and will find its place in the cinema experience within the foreseeable future, one-to-watch as it builds on the already successful immersive technology of 4DX. I believe exhibitors and distributors will work closer together to find a pragmatic solution for windows and other industry challenges that may arise, and refocus attention on how we can collaborate to the benefit of the industry and ensure cinema remains the favorite destination for the latest movie releases. We are extremely excited to be at the forefront of the moviegoing experience in the region at a time when technology will play a central role in changing the face of entertainment. We are confident that VOX Cinemas will continue to deliver the world’s most innovative and exciting alternatives for our guests.
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