Nathan Hunstable, the chief technology officer of Cinergy Entertainment, and Traci Hanlon, the vice president of marketing at Cinergy Entertainment, joined the Boxoffice podcast to discuss the benefits of a subscription program for cinema entertainment centers. Cinergy’s new subscription program ties the cinema experience together into one loyalty member program that incorporates all of Cinergy’s entertainment concepts.
Can you explain the Cinergy concept to our audience?
Traci Hanlon: We are very unique in the sense that we actually have three concepts. We have two locations that are traditional cinemas with some additional food and beverage options, including beer and wine. We also have two dine-in concepts that we acquired right after Covid. Then we have the cinema entertainment locations, which are Family Entertainment Centers (FEC): games and movies all in one. We have five of those locations, so nine in total. We combine everything from movies to escape rooms, axe throwing, VR gaming, and bowling. We’ve got a lot of attractions.
The membership programs we’ve seen other large exhibitors do, like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, are challenging to apply to a circuit like yours, which has so many different concepts and moving parts. It’s not really a plug and play solution. Nathan, on the tech side, what were some of the priorities you were looking for, in order to have this concept become a reality in the circuit?
Nathan Hunstable: That was certainly the struggle. Everything that we have had a different system, it was very disjointed. We realized pretty quickly that there’s not one system out there that can do all of it, or frankly, even do some of it. Things are very siloed in this industry, and rightfully so, because at that point, nobody was really doing this and certainly not doing it successfully. I had this vision where I wanted, from a guest perspective, everything to feel the same, to look the same, to have the same interface and the same wording.
Unfortunately, at that time, it was very disjointed. We had systems that didn’t integrate into our loyalty program–you didn’t get points, or you couldn’t sign-in. The idea was, let’s figure out a way where we can get all of this intertwined and working together. That’s a great plan, but even that was very difficult, because those systems just don’t talk, or there’s personalities involved that don’t want to do it, or it’s expensive, or it’s time [consuming]. We figured out, “Let’s create our own system or middleware”, and we call it Cinergy HQ. It’s the brain, the bridge, between all of these systems.
What that allows us to do is make the experience seamless to the guests. You may have four or five different touch points when you’re in the building, so let’s change the systems around, create our own, so that it feels natural and it’s very smooth. Let’s make it easy to spend money when you’re there. When you’re outside of the system, all the different logins and all the different places look the same and feel the same. It’s controlled from a backend that’s the same for us. Even from a management standpoint, that’s a huge issue when you’re having to log into five or six or more systems every night to close out. Getting all that together was a huge endeavor. It’s been a long road, and here we are five or six years into it.
Traci Hanlon: Between marketing and technology, we’ve been pushing for this for a while. We knew it was going to take a lot of work to get all the systems to talk, but we’ve been wanting this to happen for a long time now. We were really excited when it finally launched.
I’ve never seen a membership program applied to something as varied and diverse as a cinema entertainment center. I want to hear about how you cracked this. Where did this start? Did you look at other programs? How did you determine the tiered system that you rolled out?
Traci Hanlon: We started years ago and we actually hired a research company to do some of the workforce as well, serving our current elite members. We also looked at other programs and competitors outside of the industry. If you think about it, just about everything has a membership these days, whether it’s a car wash, nail salon, gym, med spa–everybody has a subscription. We really wanted to make it to where our guests would get the same benefits. They get access to things that non-members won’t get access to and they get rewarded for their spend and their loyalty. We wanted it to be easy for them to use and for them to be able to share with their family.
If I can’t make it into the movies this month, or this week to play games–I’m gonna let my kid do that, or my 20-year-old can come in and use my ticket. We don’t want to restrict people. That was the thing we learned with a lot of these programs; people didn’t want to sign-up because of the restrictions. [For example,] “I have to physically be there and show my ID in order to use this ticket.”
Nathan Hunstable: I think from a technology standpoint, if we said “Great, we have a membership program”, and maybe it’s tied in really well with the movie side, but if the gaming side and the food and beverage didn’t flow well, it wasn’t going to work. That makes the marketing side difficult, that makes retention difficult, and almost delegitimizes the whole system. Another thing that made this difficult, like Traci said, was making it work across all three concepts and work in-between systems. If I go to a traditional theater and then I go to an FEC, it still works and all the same benefits that you signed up for at your other center still work. Getting all that to tie together and making sure that all the offerings worked was key to us from the beginning.
Every single one of your locations is meant to be a destination that is an entire night out. That’s the entire concept of going to Cinergy. How did you break down these different membership tiers?
Nathan Hunstable: We have three different tiers for the Family Entertainment Centers. From a movie perspective, there’s gold and platinum. It’s a combination of several things, one is how many free movie tickets that you get, which I think is the common denominator to other systems. There’s a flat rate ticket–you get so many every month. Then if you’ve used up your free ones, any other ticket that you buy is a couple dollars off. Then there’s the loyalty piece to it, you get double the points or triple the points depending on what tier you’re on. That’s where the similarities end with some of those other systems. Obviously we have waived online ticket fees, but when you start getting into the food and beverage discounts, there’s 10% off any food and beverage purchase, as long as you utilize your membership.
On the FEC side, you get a dollar amount onto a card every single week. For instance, with the Platinum tier, every week we will deliver a $10 game card to you via the app. You also get an attraction pass you can utilize as a free pass with some of our attractions. You’ll get two of those every month. It delivers and automatically renews into your system. Then there’s a Gold package, which is the same thing, but a little bit different in the dollar amounts. At three of our locations, we have bowling as well, so we have a third tier at those locations for bowling. It takes out the movie base and adds in bowling. You get so many free games of bowling and shoes every month. We’re trying to cater it to each guest profile by identifying what those features would be.
You’ve priced the membership very competitively and it seems to pay for itself. Even if you just want to go to an arcade and have a drink, this might be a good deal for those that are not convinced about the film slate in any given quarter.
Traci Hanlon: Or even for a family that’s like, “I know my daughter might use that movie ticket and I’m going to use the game card or the discounts.”
Nathan Hunstable: The discounts alone can pay for it.
Traci Hanlon: For sure. Just in the first month of launch, we have exceeded our signup expectations. We have a combination of over 300,000 elite and elite plus members.
Have you seen any trends in terms of your users taking advantage of different parts of the entertainment centers? That maybe didn’t have as many people utilizing them before?
Nathan Hunstable: I think that’s certainly the trend and certainly was the design behind it. Traci mentioned the studies that we did at the beginning. If we can get people, from a business standpoint, to come in one or two more times a year, the revenue upside is exponential. It gives us that ability, to your point, even on those slower days. People might come in and burn an hour and a half at the bowling lanes, when they may not have done it before. Or laser tag, or VR, or the escape rooms. It’s hard to go there and see a movie and then stay another two hours, because then you’re talking about a four or five hour experience. If I can split that up and it’s actually beneficial–I’ll save money, and it’s fun–that certainly is the goal behind it from our perspective.
To the guest, it makes all the sense in the world. In those markets, especially the ones with the FECs, we kind of own the entertainment space. This time of year it’s cold outside and school’s back in session, but over the summer, why wouldn’t you go mid-week with some of these other features that you’ve already paid for, that are essentially free in a lot of ways. It’s not going to cost you anything to go play some games and do a couple of VR games. That is certainly the objective and we’re absolutely seeing that; the redemption so far has been pretty awesome in the first month.
Traci Hanlon: I think too, as we roll out new attractions, new games, new escape rooms–these are going to be the members we’re going to invite to come try them for the first time. They get to see them before everybody else. We want their opinions on them too.
Right now we’re building up to the Super Bowl. How has your business been, because I know a lot of exhibitors are suffering with that competition. Do those programming events work towards your advantage in these other aspects of your centers?
Traci Hanlon: What benefits Cinergy is that we do have a really nice size bar area. When you bowl, we play sporting events up there too. We also offer UFC fights. We have a partnership with them and screen UFC fights for free in our bar area. We’ve seen tremendous attendance for some of these events. I think that helps us when there are slow times, or when there’s not a big movie coming out, we have other things that we can promote.
Nathan Hunstable: I think that’s the key. There’s no secret that the cinema entertainment side is the wave of the future. Through Covid, when everything was down, we still had people coming in for those reasons. We still had something to offer. The next several months are a great example. There may not be a new movie that’s decent, or there may not be a movie at all, but our numbers are still pretty good, because people are still coming in; they’re still looking for things to do in these markets. If it’s not a movie, it’s something else that we can offer.
Traci Hanlon: The nice thing is that we do have the membership program. We can talk to our guests and let them know what we do have going on if there’s not a movie.
Nathan Hunstable: With the launch of our app last year, fully tied into this program, it gives us the ability to have that constant communication, to send them some of these offerings and give them an opportunity on a Wednesday afternoon or a Tuesday night. I can send them a push notification for half-price bowling on a night that normally would be pretty dead. We have that reach now because of the systems that we’ve put in place and it’s obviously paid dividends.
Traci Hanlon: Or if the kids are out of school for a holiday, bring them in and here’s a $10 game card.
Nathan Hunstable: Yeah and once they’re in, we have all these things that can keep them there. That’s obviously the goal and that’s why it’s working.
If you’re not into one aspect of the experience, you might be into something else. Maybe it’s a customer that really likes bowling, maybe it’s a customer that doesn’t like bowling at all, you kind of need to know that in order to tailor your messages week over week.
Traci Hanlon: Exactly.
Nathan Hunstable: Traditionally I wouldn’t have that much data to link all those things together. I would have my built-in loyalty system. I know what movies you like and I know that you like cheeseburgers. Well that’s great, but what I don’t know, that we’re now learning, is that you also bowl a little bit, you really like specific video games, you love VR. You already know what movies are coming out. We say this all the time, Hollywood does a phenomenal job of marketing their movies. We don’t have to necessarily spend a ton of time marketing what movies are coming up, they’re fully aware, but we can push them to VR, we can push them to bowling, or when we get a new XD ride. Those are the things that might add to that one other ancillary visit. Now I’m just building up all this information about you that I can utilize to try to get you in more times a year.
Traci Hanlon: One great example I like is, with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire coming out, we have a new VR Hologate game that’s Ghostbusters themed. So we can target all of those people that come to see Ghostbusters. “Hey, come play this game. You liked the movie, come play the VR game.”
Nathan Hunstable: There’s an entire marketing campaign around that. We already know they know about the movie, so let’s try to tap into some of that other information.
I love that because you’re looking at out of home entertainment, not as competition, but as a driver to help complement your attendance. You mentioned that you get a great marketing support from the studios, but when the studio’s don’t have enough product to back that up, you can go to any other part of your entertainment center. Like we were saying earlier, you could say, “Hey, you can watch these football games at our locations.”
Traci Hanlon: We did partner for some of the bowl games and offer that at a few locations in the auditorium and at the bar area. The auditorium events went really well. You can watch the game anywhere, so we had to make it more of an event. You got food specials, drink specials, and other things that went along with that game.
Nathan Hunstable: As we go forward, that secondary content, I think will become huge. It obviously has had a market in the past. I think going forward, you’ve seen this with Taylor Swift, with concerts, and in everything that you can do with alternative content. That’s only going to grow. To Traci’s point, we have the ability to bundle stuff. Even if it’s just from a marketing standpoint, people might say, “Well, we could go do this, this, and this all under one roof in the course of two hours.” That makes all the sense in the world, especially if I get 10% off food and beverage or whatever the scenario is from our membership benefits.
Traci Hanlon: I think one thing that also makes us unique is the app and how you can order food and beverage and have it delivered pretty much anywhere in the building.
Nathan Hunstable: I don’t know that there’s another system like it out there in the industry, and maybe I’m wrong, but it’s certainly not tied in to this degree. We have the ability to purchase a movie ticket, pre-order your food, and we have our QR system that’s also fully integrated on the same platform. You can text to order, so you can actually confirm your order and it’ll just get delivered to wherever you end up in the building. Whether you’re sitting at a table, at the bowling alley, or you’re in an auditorium. That’s been an unbelievable experience to watch guests fall in love with that ability.
It’s a game changer for families. Going back to just getting families in through the door, can you imagine going to see one of these sporting events at a sports bar with a 12-year-old? You’re not going to be very comfortable at a sports bar with your kids, but having the same content in a comfortable place where maybe your kids can do something else and you have something there for everyone in the family.
Nathan Hunstable: You’re exactly right. Even in our building during non-sporting times, I could be sitting at the bar while my kids are playing video games. Versus just sitting in the corner at one of these other trampoline parks or something, bored to tears. There’s stuff for me to do as well, and our video games obviously are incredible. You can get the full family experience under one roof. We have families that go to see a movie while the kids are in the game room playing games or vice-versa. That helps keep guests entertained, but it also helps us from a revenue standpoint. You’re always spending money. You’re always in the building.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Visit Cinergy.com for more details.