Finland’s Finest: Veronica Lindholm oversees innovation at Odeon division

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As head of the northernmost corner of the global Wanda/AMC empire, Veronica Lindholm helped transition the Finnkino and Forum family of cinemas into the Odeon Group this past year. Finland had a stellar 2017, with The Unknown Soldier breaking every record. This helped smooth over a ticket price increase to help pay for Finnkino's investments in new services and theatre concepts, including the refurbishment and reopening of Finland's oldest cinema, Maxim, in February. Lindholm is also on the board of Palta, the representative association for service-sector businesses and organizations in Finland. In the following Q&A, Odeon’s managing director for Finland & Baltics shares her insights on the Finnish market.

Finland had one of its best cinema years ever in 2017 with the release of The UnknownSoldier. How can you keep that momentum going in 2018?

We did indeed have a great year, not only due to the amazing Unknown Soldier, which alone did one million attendance in a country with a population of just 5.5 million. The movies are of course the fuel that powers our business, but we also made a lot of investments in our business and in the development of our operations in 2017 to improve the experience for our guests, and we will see the results from this over the coming years. Last year we refurbished many of our self-service stores and launched our loyalty program, Finnkino Lab. This year we reopened the art-house cinema Maxim and at the end of the year we are opening a fantastic nine-auditoria multiplex with Finland’s first IMAX. We’ve also opened two new Scape auditoria this spring, and our guests love them.

Finnkino was accused of "extortion" by distributor Nordisk Film last year over film-rental terms, with Nordisk pulling its films. How are you going about smoothing things over with distributors? 

Finnkino is a big contributor to the Finnish movie industry and we have invested significantly over the years in driving the whole industry forward. We get a lot of positive feedback from distributors, producers and even competitors. Being the biggest exhibitor puts more focus on us and it’s important that we act in a sustainable manner. We take our responsibility seriously and try to be a good and fair partner.

How far has the integration of Finnkino with the rest of the Odeon Cinemas Group gone and what synergies and benefits are you seeing?

It’s been a year now since the merger with Odeon and we’re now fully up and running. We’ve figured out what to focus on at a Group level and what to do locally. Our central real estate and development team are delivering fantastic results, including the rollout of Luxe recliner cinemas into Europe, and our new central procurement team is successfully selecting new Group-wide partners. Best practice is shared between the countries in a formal process and, even better, it’s starting to happen informally throughout the organization as people get to know each other. At the same time, the customer is local and the level of local content varies quite a lot. Every Monday we have a trading call and compare our weekend results and it’s really fascinating to hear the similarities and differences across Europe.
Finland is already known for its high degree of equality, so what is Finnkino doing to promote further diversity and gender balance?

We have a focus on diversity in Odeon Cinemas Group called "Our Incredible Differences," and we’re very excited about our strategy and programs. At Finnkino we have some good examples of gender diversity—for example, 60 percent of our general managers are female. We still see a lot of opportunities here and also when it comes to, for example, ethnic diversity. We’ve previously required all employees to speak Finnish, but now we’re starting to question if that’s really necessary.

Is this something you feel other countries and companies could learn from?

The Nordic countries are really advanced and leading the way in the area of gender diversity. There is clearly some best practice here that many could benefit from.

What are your plans for new cinema openings and what technologies and trends do you believe in?

I already mentioned the two new cinemas opening this year and the two new Scape auditoria we’ve built. On top of that, we see continued need to invest in further digitization towards the customer. For example, Finnkino launched mobile tickets already seven years ago. However, when it comes to digital you’re never done—we need to keep innovating because our guests rightly demand more and more. We launched a chat function on our website a few months ago and it was a really big deal for us. Our guests started using it from the first hour. For them it was no big deal and they certainly seemed to expect us to provide them with this service.

As far as trends are concerned, we continue to believe in the fragmentation of customer preferences. Some customers prefer the massive screens and best sound, others prefer a more luxurious environment with an intimate setting. And in between these two are multiple other preferences, depending on demographics and tastes. Our strategy is quite simply to listen to our customers and our frontline colleagues and develop the concepts that have the highest appeal.

Can you tell us a bit about how the Scape cinemas are going and also how Finnkino pioneered the “halo” audio format?

We now have seven Scape auditoria throughout the Group and they’re doing really well. It’s been great to see the pride our employees take in maintaining these auditoria and taking customer service to a new level. We’ve just started offering preorder popcorn and drinks to Scape customers as an added service.

Our in-house developed audio sound system has worked really well for us, and as we go forward we need to decide whether to continue using it or whether there are benefits in switching to another system within the wider group.

Finnkino has also been active in rescuing and refurbishing older and historic cinemas. Does this make financial sense? 

The honest answer is that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Encouragingly, our newest refurbished art-house cinema Maxim has had a great start. We took it from 600 traditional seats to just 250 armchairs with small tables in between. We put in two bars and offer a full alcohol selection together with a narrow but high-quality tapas selection. The films are carefully selected and we have the Europa cinemas certification and support, meaning we play over 30 percent European content. The cinema only opened in February, but we’re already fully confident the concept works.

Estonia's Cinamon [led by Celluloid Junkie’s #50 “Top Woman” Tatiana Tolstaya] will become the third cinema chain in Finland when it launches in 2018. Will competition be good for the industry?

Yes, it will! Competition is a good thing—it encourages differentiation and innovation, so it’s a win-win for both consumers and suppliers. In this instance, it hopefully means that more people will be visiting the cinema instead of choosing others forms of entertainment. 

Can you give us details about the Premium Ticket and other innovations that Finnkino is exploring?

We sell a lot of vouchers to our customers, Finns are used to buying packets of up to eight tickets at the same time. The premium vouchers allow you access to all our auditoria, Scape, Maxim art-house, Lounge and the coming IMAX. Previously customers have had to pay an additional fee to use our standard voucher in our premium concepts; now they have a Premium Ticket that works everywhere.

We are innovating within every department and each team has a list of big and small innovations. All of these are based on customer insights, with the aim of making the best possible cinema experience for every guest. 

What aspect of your daily job do you think would surprise people the most? 

Perhaps people would be surprised to know how fast we are at making big decisions at Finnkino. We have an open landscape office and we’re very informal.  Many major decisions are made in short standing meetings with a handful of key participants. For example, we looked at an interactive game as part of our preshow. It required Wi-Fi access in all our auditoria. We ran the numbers, pitched the business case and three months later we had installed all the equipment and were up and running.
My colleagues would perhaps be surprised to learn how many of my calls I do from the gym. We have a 24/7 open gym in our office building and whenever I have a free slot I go there and often I end up talking on the phone during the session. Please don’t tell them!