Premium Voyage: Flagship Cinemas enhances onboard amenities

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“We were approached about reopening a theatre in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, which under any other circumstances we would have walked away from as a traditional theatre,” recalls Paul Wenger, president of Massachusetts-based Flagship Cinemas. Though the Palmyra Cine Center’s prior operator had not transitioned to digital, Wenger decided that “this was going to be our entry point into the premium market. We knew that if we went in there with a premium concept, powered recliners, expanded amenities and an upscale-type environment, that we would have an opportunity to make that theatre work.”

The decision, made in 2014, to reopen the Palmyra Cine Center—now Flagship Cinemas Palmyra—after it had been closed for some five years was based on market observation. “Our company, like most of the industry, came off the heels of the 2008-‘09 market collapse,” Wenger notes. “As everyone was looking for ways to reinvent themselves, we too had been watching the transition from traditional to luxury seating.” Luxury seating and upscale dining options had been around for decades—Wenger gives credits to General Cinema’s early efforts—but at the same time, “society had just not accepted the concept before. But it was coming back. We were watching the numbers at some of the other exhibitors who had decided to go the route of luxury seating. We quickly realized that there was a positive reaction.”

Turning the Palmyra into a Flagship theatre involved opening eight of the 12 original auditoriums first. “Immediately, we were selling out,” Wenger recalls. “The numbers do not lie. With that, we took an option on two additional theatres. After we reseated and reopened with upscale amenities, we saw a 33% bump in our attendance.” Refurbishing Baltimore, Maryland’s Eastpoint Movies 10 into a Flagship Premium location resulted in “100% growth in our attendance,” Wenger says. The way forward was clear. “We made a conscious decision to not only renovate some of our existing inventory, but also that anything new that we engaged in going forward would be taken into the premium concept.”

Moving on to Falmouth, Maine, Wenger and the Flagship crew tried something new. “We took one of the smaller auditoriums there and created a concept called ‘The Red Carpet Suite.’ Guests can rent the entire auditorium, which offers tables in front of the powered recliners and a full kitchenette right under the screen… That, [like Palmyra], has become hugely popular.” Flagship added a 16-seat screening room with video projection to their VIP area to make parties possible year-round.

“And then, of course, we have taken all these concepts a step further by adding hot foods,” Wenger explains. “We decided to keep our expanded menu relatively straightforward.” More mainstream than gourmet, one might say, but still an expansion from the old popcorn-and-soda standby. “We looked at the dine-in concepts, particularly where servers approach your seat, take orders and then deliver, coming back again to see if you want a refill. Based on the markets that Flagship operates in, we did not feel that that approach was conducive to our way of doing business. It was a little too disruptive and ruined the continuity of watching a film.” Instead, hot foods are prepared in the concessions galley for guests to take inside, causing minimal to no disruption.

To ensure quality of execution, the stewards at Flagship use “highly efficient” TurboChef convection/microwave ovens. There still is a 60-second cook rate to contend with in serving moviegoers, but numbered recliners make the process more customer-friendly. “Rather than making guests wait several minutes for their food to be prepared, we enter their seat information into our POS system,” Wenger explains. Based on the prototype in Eastpoint, “the benefits of reserved seating have allowed us the efficiency of knowing where people are and delivering their food with minimal disruption.” He admits that there’s a “little bit of fine tuning” to be done—but they’re  “confident we will have it tackled.” Moviegoers can order angus burgers, chicken tenders, waffle fries, pizzas and premium hot dogs. Wenger clarifies that “the menu will change from location to location, depending on what the market demands.” He also notes that expanded concessions have “helped accentuate the whole premium concept even more.”

In Wareham, Massachusetts, the premium concept is taken even further. Originally built in 2004, this eight-plex received the premium treatment as Flagship decided to “graduate to beer and wine for the first time.” The addition of the Pig & Whistle lobby bar has “really positively affected our bottom line,” Wenger says. But why “Pig & Whistle”? “John Crowley, our chief executive officer, had an extensive background in steamship history. Realizing that we were going to be getting into the bar business in cinemas, the question came up as to what to have for a name. When John said, ‘Why don’t we call it Pig & Whistle?’ we were all sort of baffled. None of us knew that, back in the day, the concessions area on the old ships, where they also sold alcohol, was called the Pig & Whistle. We had no idea, but everybody liked the concept and we decided to make that our brand for the theatres.” Despite the fact that Flagship Cinemas are built around a nautical theme already, Wenger has found that the name is equally puzzling to guests. “I would say that 90% of the people that walk in to our building ask, ‘What is Pig & Whistle?’ The name does intrigue people enough to ask questions. It brings attention to our offering.”

On the subject of nautical design and themes, for their premium locations Flagship is moving away from the portholes and colorful flags that adorn its other cinemas. “In Palmyra, we decided that we wanted our premium concept to feel more like a luxury experience in a five-star hotel,” Wenger says. “From the minute you get out of your vehicle and step into our foyer and indoor lobby, we really want to give our guests a sense of elegance.” Thus, the Flagship Premium Cinema aesthetic was born. “We felt that name really hit the target on what it was we were trying to provide our customers. It seemed like the perfect marketing word,” he contends. “Frankly, I think the premium description works far better than ‘VIP,’ for instance. That said, we do have VIP lounges within our premium facilities. We did not abandon the idea of VIP, but we chose not to use it as our prime brand.”

First-class amenities aside, “we still maintain that cinematic feel,” Wenger assures. For one thing, “nostalgic” bus-shelter sized posters are recreated in-house for display across the lobby areas. “We receive positive comments about the décor and how it makes people feel. There is a certain warmth to our lobby designs, where people come in and feel very comfortable. The word we hear the most is ‘cozy.’ Hearing that makes us feel like we have achieved our goals.”

At the same time, there are no more paper one-sheets for current and coming attractions. “All of our systems have been digital for quite some time now. On average, there are some 40 monitors located throughout our lobbies and concession areas to keep people constantly entertained,” Wenger says. While utilizing integration from their RTS Solutions point-of-sale systems, “all of our signage is done internally. We call them ‘Feature Walls.’ They run trailers and posters and our own promotions.” Flagship also boasts its own printing facility, which can turn out oversized classic movie posters.

Wenger gives credit where credit is due: to the people who make Flagship Cinemas great. “We have been recruiting and hiring some really talented and dedicated individuals over the past 20-some years. We challenge every one of them to think outside the box.” That applies in steering the (Flag)ship, too. “As a company, we tend not to operate by universal law. We encourage all of our people to really try and understand what each market needs. In our opinion, there is no one-size-fits-all. Our team works very hard to understand the customers and the trends. And then we cater to those needs. We are an all-hands company.”

All hands on deck, indeed, at Flagship Cinemas.

The author dedicates this article to Pauline Mickle.