In a September LIVE session webinar, Boxoffice Pro partnered with cinema advertising company Spotlight Cinema Networks—a leader in the dine-in, art house, and luxury cinema spaces—to launch a discussion on the current state of the dine-in market. Supporting sponsor of the panel was Proctor Companies, which for more than 50 years has shaped the design of cinema F&B spaces. A panel of experts from the dine-in space provided candid insights into this dynamic, fast-growing corner of the cinema industry. Below, we share a condensed version of that very important conversation.
Annelise Holyoak: Sr. Director of Marketing and Loyalty, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas, Moviehouse & Eatery
Chance Robertson: President/COO, Flix Brewhouse
Brian Schultz: CEO, Look Dine-In Cinemas
Amy Mader: Director of Event Management, Venue Valet, Dine In Cinema Summit
Running a dine-in cinema chain is a lot harder when you have supply chain issues, which is certainly a hot topic now. How do you deal with that challenge?
Annelise Holyoak, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas: We’re doing everything we can to pivot when we need stuff like new packaging or chicken fingers. Right now, we joke that chicken fingers hold more value than lobster, because it’s so hard to get them and they’re the most popular item. We’ve done everything we can, trying to make guests aware of supply chain issues. We’ve been waiting on new seating for a lot of our cinemas, because we can’t get the leather and the parts and all of that. Just like anyone else, we’re doing the best we can. From a consumer standpoint, I see [supply shortages] at other restaurants, so for the most part I think guests understand what’s going on. Now that we’re kind of out of the woods, people are like, ‘Well, where is everything?’ but we still can’t get glue for window clings and all sorts of stuff.
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: Adaptability is the name of the game right now. Something that we’ve talked about is the value of our partnerships, over-communication with your vendors, with your team, making sure that you are setting clear expectations about what may or may not happen. You might have a special or an LTO [limited-time offering], or a menu change, or—as Annelise said—a facilities project that you’re working on. You may find [out] a week or two weeks or a day before it’s supposed to go live that you’re going to not have what you need to get it done.
The second part of that is over-communication with your guests, with your team, and of course with your vendors, to make sure that you can stay ahead of it as much as possible. Last but not least, because we are in the business of hospitality, making sure you know how to apologize when you come up short. Even though it may not be your fault, just own it. Count on the goodwill of your guests and your team to see past your opportunity there. Know that this will all smooth out in time, and I think we’re already starting to see that.
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, because we were starting from zero in the middle of Covid. [Look Dine-In Cinemas began in summer 2021; as of press time, they are up to 10 locations.] I really think that this conscious capitalism philosophy of worrying about each stakeholder and building these partnerships over decades has played to our advantage, because we haven’t experienced the same level of supply chain [issues] that I’m hearing a lot of other companies deal with. We’ve been very blessed in that way. Same with staffing. Same with things like chairs, food products. The relationships have come through.
Amy, you’re with a vendor provider, Venue Valet, servicing call buttons to dine-in cinemas all over the country. You also help organize the Dine In Cinema Summit, which is set to take place in Dallas. As someone who speaks with dine-in exhibitors regularly, what are the major trends and topics you’re hearing about from that sector?
Amy Mader, Venue Valet: [Of] the trends that we’re seeing right now with our customers, the first one is that they’re starting to hire people that come from the restaurant industry to make the food experience much better. That’s really what I see them doing. The second thing that I see is, Flix Brewhouse is using robots to assist with their staffing issues.
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: We’ve all done a better job than maybe we thought we were going to in the beginning. One of the things we realized very quickly is that there’s been a huge shift over the last few years about what people look for in the value of a job. What we really tried to identify early in the year were some opportunities to reduce a little bit of stress, reduce a little bit of need, and ultimately make the experience for our team member a little bit smoother. We do have some robots. You may have seen them in other restaurants or hotels. They’re being used in room service. They’re very harmless [and] kind of cute. What they do is, you fill them up with food and/or beverage, and they run it to the auditorium for you. As any of us who operate in dine-in cinema knows, our team members will have step contests: “How many steps did you take today?” Sometimes we’re looking at 15, or 20,000 [steps]. These robots are now bringing that down a little bit [and] are assisting by getting the food hotter, faster, from the kitchen to the auditorium, so that our team can be more guest-facing.
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: I want to add a big call-out to Chance and the team. What’s been really different about the dine-in space is that we’ve really all worked together, shared best practices, and really put our heads together to thrive as an industry, which hasn’t always been the case. So call-out to Chance, definitely Cinépolis, and a lot of the other operators, because there’s a sense of family and togetherness as we’ve been through this shared experience.
On the subject of working together and sharing best practices: The Dine In Cinema Summit is actively involved in bringing this community together. Amy, can you tell me a little bit about that theme of togetherness and how that’s going to influence your 2023 event?
Amy Mader, Venue Valet: We’re going with the theme of unity this year. It is our fifth year, and we are so fortunate that we have Spotlight [Cinema Networks] as one of our key sponsors for the event. They helped make this happen. When we started [the Dine In Cinema Summit] four years ago, [our goal] was to gather people and have them collaborate and inspire them. We didn’t know what to expect. After that first year, when we sold out, we were like, “OK, let’s do this again!” We keep fostering the synergetic relationships that people form when they attend. Our summit is a little bit different. We don’t call it a conference, because we truly believe it’s an educational summit. Our goal is to have the decision makers there, so that the conversations that happen.
We truly sit down and go deep into the topics. We talk about relations from exhibitor to exhibitor and vendor to vendor. It shocked me that some vendors didn’t really speak to each other, and then at the end of the first summit, they were best friends, because we bus you around to different movie theaters. Flix Brewhouse, Moviehouse & Eatery [acquired by Cinépolis in 2019], Alamo Drafthouse, EVO Entertainment, just to name a few, have been such staunch supporters of this. They allow us to go in and tour their facilities. They show us what their kitchen looks like. They talk about mistakes that are made, but I truly believe that people learn when they hear other people’s mistakes.
The conversations are incredibly candid. [In 2023], what we’re going to be doing is continuing with our theme of unity by really digging deep into vendor relationships and having them collaboratively work together on panels. It’s a panel of like-minded people, with their goal being educating everybody about best practices. The most-cost effective things you can do, for example, with your kitchen. We’re not going to harp on Covid. We all know what happened. We all know that we survived. Most of us survived, some didn’t. But we want to say, “What is the best thing we can do moving forward to keep this industry going?”
The dine-in space has been changing so much over the last few years—its footprint is growing, and you’re seeing a lot of investment in new technologies. What are the improvements that you’re currently enacting to ensure that dine-in continues to be a luxury and cutting-edge experience?
Annelise Holyoak, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas: Globally, Cinépolis is going to be converting over to 100 percent laser projection, which we’re super excited about. Changes are already under way. Making sure that the experience from a theatrical [point of view] is always super important. We want to make sure that people get the best projection and sound. From a kitchen standpoint, we’re building bigger kitchens. We have one location in the pipeline in Hollywood Park near SoFi Stadium. That’s going to have a state-of-the-art kitchen. Upgrading our seats, making sure that when the guests come in, especially people that haven’t been to the cinema in a really long time, that they know that we have a great facility. From a food and beverage perspective, we are updating our menu several times a year. We have LTOs six times a year, which helps guests feel like [they’re at a] true restaurant with a chef-driven experience.
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: A lot of the focus is on the content, to make sure that we have the flexibility in every auditorium to literally play any kind of content at any time. Currently, throughout the entire chain you can go to any auditorium and do anything, from a Zoom [event] to streaming to playing your film or going on a microphone. [It’s] this idea of transitioning from saying ‘film’ to ‘content,’ so that we can deal with some of these lulls that have been so disruptive to dine-in, in particular with our staffing levels.
Most dine-in chains have been centered in Texas, though we’re increasingly seeing national expansion from several operators into markets that aren’t so saturated. How do you deal with that from a menu position, adjusting your offerings to fit regional tastes?
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: It’s definitely a challenge. We have two different lenses that we view it through: Obviously the food side, and then for us there’s the beer side. On the food side, you do have to learn how to—for example, we have a green chili queso. Do you up the spice a little bit more in New Mexico, the birthplace of green chili? Also where I was born, I like it spicy. I like it fiery. I’m a Texas guy now. For people like me, we really do like that spice. but when we get to Wisconsin or Iowa, where we have a couple of cinemas, people are not as keen to have that burn. It’s always interesting to hear that. I think you do have to have the flexibility in your operation to say, “We’re still going to serve that same green chili queso, but we’re going to back down the amount of spice in this market or that market.”
You also have to empower your team to make those good decisions for their market, for their team. It’s always a delicate balance. You’re never going to find the perfect one. It’s a lot of trial and error and a willingness to adapt and change.
For us, on the beer side, that’s where we get to have a lot more fun. We have a brewer in every unit. While we do have some mandated national beers, we have our core four beers that are award-winning. They’ve won over 20 medals this year in different beer competitions. We’re very proud of them and proud of our beer. In addition to those core beers, we allow [our brewers] the flexibility and creativity to make beers that work best in their market. You’ve got different levels of beer adventure. The level of intrigue and new styles is going to be different in Dallas than it is in Des Moines. It’s going to be different in San Antonio than it is in El Paso. You have to find ways within your brand to find your own version of that flexibility and that creativity that attaches you to the local market. Because at the end of the day, while Flix certainly has aspirations to be everywhere, we want to make sure that we keep intact that local, communal feel. Ultimately, we know that cinema is a communal experience. If we don’t make sure we’re tying it to where we are that day, then you’re just run-of-the-mill. You’ve got to find your identifier. I think for us, we do it through the beer, certainly through the spice in the food as well.
How does your food and beverage program integrate with customer communication, for example through loyalty programs? Do those regional differences and tastes influence your approach to marketing to each particular consumer?
Annelise Holyoak, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas: Our announcements of new menus and LTOs are some of the strongest performing messaging that we have. People are super excited to come in and taste the new items. I really do push the team to try to stay on trend. You’re seeing corn ribs at some of L.A.’s hottest restaurants, so I was pretty excited that we had them on our menus across the country. Our chefs do a really good job of partnerships, as well. We just had a great partnership with Boursin cheese to bring in something special for our guests. Our loyalty members really do appreciate those new items, because they’re our best customers. Most of them are with us pretty frequently, so they love when new menu items come online. Regionally, we do try to add different beers and different drinks, but it can be tough to make that happen when you’re trying to drive a national brand and national awareness.
Brian, you’ve always said that when you entered the dine-in space, the standard was warm beer and cold chicken fingers, and that it was part of your mission to improve the menu side of the dine-in experience. Can you talk about your approach to balancing regional and national food tastes?
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: The consistency issue that everyone’s talking about is pretty important, but one of the most important things in giving a great hospitality experience is to have the team engaged. The way that they get engaged is by coming up with a menu item. We try to give [them] that flexibility. The corporate philosophy is more of an 80/20. Eighty percent of the menus have set recipes that are very defined, and then we give flexibility to local teams.
From my personal perspective, if the guests like it, we give them a shot to really explore. We’ve had some of our biggest successes there. More importantly, it gets the team engaged. It’s fun seeing some of the staff members, parents, relatives, and guests come in. We’ll put the team member on-screen where they can talk about their menu item. There are all these little things that make us feel very neighborhood and local, which is really important as we get larger on a national scale.
Amy, at Venue Valet you work with dine-in cinemas all over the country, and you see folks from all over the country at the Dine In Summit as well. What can you tell us about dine-in’s national expansion? Because it’s not a Texas business anymore.
Amy Mader, Venue Valet: No, it’s not. People have asked us, “Why do you stay in Texas?” Our first two years, we were in Austin because of the offerings that were there. Then there was a pandemic event we did [virtually] in Austin. Then we went to Houston, and now we’re going to Dallas. [Dine-in theaters are in] Arizona, California, Florida, Chicago, New York, just to name a few. They’re becoming the norm now. That is something that people are excited about, whereas my children are used to going to a dine-in cinema, because there’s one right by our home. But yes, it’s exploding. It’s a fun experience for people who haven’t been. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. I don’t see too many dine-in theaters that are closing down at all.
Also on the rise is alcohol service in cinemas; how have you seen that affect dine-ins? It seems to be a central pillar of the dine-in sector.
Amy Mader, Venue Valet: If people are pressing their [call] button, and if a staff member is getting to them very quickly, they’re going to keep pressing that button for more beer. Alcohol is a big thing, and when you have delicious drinks that are themed with a movie, people want to try them. When Top Gun: Maverick came out, there was a chain that was doing the “Goose” cocktail, which was Grey Goose vodka mixed with a bunch of pretty stuff. Those went down way too quickly! They were being creative with their alcohol menu to make it more appealing to the customer. Social media was blowing up with people saying, “I had the ‘Goose’ drink.” I think the quicker that a staff member can get to a seat, the quicker you will raise [the price of] that ticket for the guest sitting in that seat.
Forgive the food pun, but what are the ingredients for making sure that themed menu items, whether alcohol or food, work in tandem with promoting a new film?
Annelise Holyoak, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas: First and foremost, we have an amazing head of beverage [who talks] to different beverage agencies about what’s on trend. We’re already looking at next year’s movie schedule, talking about the drinks, going back and forth about what’s going to come out and making sure that we’ve got the different products available. [Cinépolis Cinemas USA National Beverage Manager Katie Livezey has] done some really fun drinks this year; we had adult Capri Suns, all sorts of different things. One of the big successes for us this year was kids’ lemonades. Not alcohol, just something fun that we could offer to children. That was easy to make. Those things do really well on social media. It’s a big part of our general content strategy. We obviously do promote the movies, but we know that our customers can go to lots of different theaters, and so we want to sway them to ours with these unique products.
Chance, alcohol is a big part of your chain’s brand; it’s even in the name. How do you leverage an alcohol strategy with your LTOs and social media strategy?
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: Beer is a really easy entry point for us, obviously. I say “easy,” but our brewers work harder than anyone and come up with these amazing ideas and talk about staying on trend, being aware. Tying into what Annelise said, [we] really get with our food and beverage department and our marketing department—collaborating is the key. As with anything you serve in your cinema, you’ve got to make sure it’s high quality. So it always starts with, “Is it good enough?” And then we go back to the film department to [ask]: “How big is this film going to be?” You have to be careful. Sometimes you might have something planned, and then the movie comes out, and it’s a bit of a dud. And you feel like it took the wind out of this great item that we created.
You also have to think about pairing the right food with the right movie; doing a nachos promotion for Downton Abbey probably wouldn’t work.
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: You’ve got to look at the genre, the background of the film, and really make sure that you’re speaking to the audience. A great example for us: A by-product of that terrible thing that’s been happening for the last few years is that, because we were turning back to some older content, we restarted the Harry Potter series. We did butterbeer for the kids, nonalcoholic. And then our adult guests were going, “But what about us?” And so we came up with a recipe for butterbeer with a little bit of booze in it. Every time we show a Harry Potter [movie], I’m just like, “Oh my God, this is insane. How many people are interested in this drink?” It ties to the film. It’s delicious. You’ve caught it when you can come up with something that gets to the family, gets to the adult. You make sure that it’s something really quality. If it reinforces the theme of the film, then you’ve got a home run. And it’s another outlet for the creativity of our team, which we really enjoy.
Brian, how do you approach that issue: Coming up with menu items that make sense regionally, tie into a movie event, and reflect Look’s brand?
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: The one thing I want to caution, because we get so excited about the food and beverage—obviously, we’re dine-in theater operators, and we love that—[when it comes to] the good of the whole, the content on-screen is the main feature. When I first started out, we literally had five touchpoints [between staff and moviegoers] during the film, and it was hard to understand why the service staff wasn’t the star of the show.
The movie really is the main thing, and that’s part of the huge success of dine-in, to be non-distracting as you’re doing this service and making these suggestions. Why a lot of dine-in cinemas have trouble is [that] there’s a small window to be able to execute in, to get this information across and drive that excitement. What’s really interesting is, we can see exactly what each guest eats and drinks. And when we do the analytics, if we have a guest that comes in and just gets a soft drink and popcorn, their frequency at our establishment is a couple times a year. But if they have an experience [the dine-in element], have an alcoholic beverage or an entree, we get into 10-plus times a year. There’s a huge multiplier effect in our data when we do the experience properly. And dine-in theaters are created for that purpose. How can we communicate to the guest and really focus on the guest, who wants that dine-in experience?
If you had unlimited funds to make a big change in the dine-in sector, what would be the first change you’d make?
Brian Schultz, Look Dine-In Cinemas: Well, it’s not really even finances. [My first change would be] using the combination of technology and predictions of film to make sure that our guests can get what they want and have control of the experience without distraction. There are many ways to accomplish that. But dine-in gets hurried, especially when we’re dropping checks right at the climax of the film, which just happens to be when most of our process is. There are all these little pieces. I’m really positive dine-in is the way to go. I’m the biggest advocate for dine-in. I absolutely love it. The dark side is making sure that you can have a service model that’s non-distracting. And that gets all the way down to the plateware, drinkware, silverware, the entire process. And the checkout. Luckily, at [the last] Dine In Cinema Summit, there was a lot of discussion [about that], a lot of great ideas going back and forth.
Chance Robertson, Flix Brewhouse: I would certainly echo Brian’s point. I think we’re getting really close to finding that magic balance between the restaurant experience and the movie experience in terms of being able to facilitate the guest experience without interrupting it as much. The holy grail for me personally [would be] the ability to have an open check inside our POS that you, as a guest, can interact with, and then you can pay and go without the need for [a theater employee] to drop off that check and interrupt you one more time. There are some companies that are working really hard to get there. We’ve got all the little pieces; we just have to figure out how to smash them together. Right now, one of the limitations we’re seeing is, I can order a beer in the app, and then I have to close the tab. Then, if I want another beer [I have to start the process all over again]. For a consumer, that’s disruptive. Yeah, sure, it’s Apple Pay or whatever. But do I want to wake up tomorrow and see how many cookies and beers and popcorn I had on separate transactions? I think we’re really close to the bridge that allows that to happen. We’re just not quite there.
Annelise Holyoak, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas: If money were no object, I would invent my own point of sale, and I would connect to these great loyalty programs like Punchh [the multi-industry loyalty and engagement platform]. There are so many great options out there that unfortunately we’re not able to utilize. To Brian’s point, making everything more personalized. We do have some great partners on the loyalty side, but I do think that there’s a long way to go, especially from a restaurant perspective. Some restaurants—rewards programs like Chipotle—they’re light-years ahead of our industry. It would be great if we could get to that point, because there’s so much opportunity with predictive selling and making transactions easier. Just make things easier on the guest. Because they see it at other companies, and they don’t understand that we have hindrances, just being in the industry that we’re in. It doesn’t matter to a customer. They think, “If Chipotle can do it, why can’t you do it?” We all need to push the vendors to make those changes. If we’re seeing it at other chains and other businesses, [we should bring] those things to them and push them to make those improvements.
Amy, I want to get your perspective as a vendor in the dine-in space. First, if you could change something from the industry, what would you change? And second, addressing this question of payment methods and the guest experience, what evolutions have you seen in terms of options available today?
Amy Mader, Venue Valet: To answer your first question, I would say [having an] unlimited, knowledgeable, and happy staff. That would be my perfect world, where any place you go, there’s somebody who knows how to do their job and do it well and show up on time. What I would like to see is to have more offerings. They can have a movie theater, in addition to a brewery and axe-throwing and bowling. They can have things that allow someone to come and spend an afternoon there. “Hey, let’s go throw some axes!” Then, “Let’s go have dinner!” And then, “Let’s go watch a movie!” All of that keeps bringing revenue into the venue itself. And [if our theater] customers are profitable, then we’re profitable.
And then, about point of sale. This is a conversation that goes around and around and around. I love that Annelise talks about creating your own point of sale. We’ve talked about that on many different occasions. And then it comes down to, “We don’t want to open up that beast, even though we’re a technology company.” We’ve seen companies, as well as ourselves, go to Q.R. code ordering, to having stickers, people ordering off iPads. I don’t know right now if there is a perfect fit to any of it, because every theater has different wants, needs, and desires. The size of their theaters and [number of] screens make a difference when it comes to point of sale. What they offer makes a difference. But it could be achieved if there was an unlimited amount of money. It’s just that those purse strings tend to be a little bit compromised, and people are unable to pay for it.