An ICON is born: 101-year-old Kerasotes unveils its new ShowPlaces
While celebrating its 100th anniversary last year (http://bit.ly/keras1), Kerasotes ShowPlace Theatres was also anticipating the debut of a brand-new concept. The Chicago-based circuit opened their first two ICON locations at The West End in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, on Nov. 20, 2009, and at Roosevelt Collection in Chicago’s South Loop on Dec. 18.
Both ShowPlaces have 14 screens, including two of VIP Premium proportions, Lobby Lounges and much more, with total capacities offering 2,700 Irwin seats and 59,000 square feet (5,500 sq. m.) at West End and 3,800 seats and 90,000 square feet (8,400 sq. m.) at the Collection.
“What we really wanted to do [at ShowPlace ICON] is to make the moviegoing experience special again,” states chief operating officer Dean Kerasotes. “Over the years, it has become somewhat less special. The story of our industry is going back to the future again before the days of the big multiplexes.”
On top of “creating a beautiful facility that has unique amenities, the most important factor remains customer service,” he elaborates. “We started a whole new training program with our managers and staff to elevate the level of customer service. By way of easy analogy, it’s more like going to a Four Seasons than, let’s say, your average Hamptons Inn.”
One of the first steps was to make every single seat in the facilities, whether VIP or in a regular auditorium, a reserved seat. “That takes the stress out of getting your ticket, waiting on hold-out lines and all that,” Kerasotes confirms. “It’s been received enthusiastically in both cities.” Given the apparent hesitancy across the U.S. to implement seat assignment policies, “the success of that acceptance is based on several things,” he opines. “During our launch campaign, we marketed the message really clear that you can select your personal seat online and print your barcoded ticket at home.”
On the software front, Kerasotes’ IT staff coordinated with Vista and Fandango (http://bit.ly/keras2) “to make sure that the customer interface is very user-friendly. That’s key. Fandango custom-created seating charts for us…that show you which ones are sold, which ones are available. The program suggests what it thinks is the best seat, but you can pick your own, of course.”
For the “final piece,” Kerasotes says, “my staff does a wonderful job with customers coming through the door, from our people at the box office to ushers inside the auditoriums that help them get seated. Putting all those elements together made reserved seating successful for us. If you don’t take all those steps, you could have trouble.”
“Once you sit in your seat and the lights go out,” Kerasotes promises, you won’t have any trouble “hearing or seeing anything better.” As all of the high-backs were manufactured by Irwin Seating, “we worked together on developing the VIP Premium model.” Kerasotes believes this to be “the first time this type of seating was installed in the country. They were custom-designed for us.” In fact, “we design our own auditoriums and have our own technical department that purchases and installs the equipment. ShowPlace ICON is 100% digital, with Barco projectors (http://bit.ly/kears3) and only a few 35mm projectors on standby but not installed. We love the Dolby servers and sound processors.” Again, Kerasotes was first to install “the new QSC Basis sound system. We ran CAT5 cables to amplified speakers to deliver all uncompressed information. It’s just fantastic and the overall experience is incredible when you watch a movie in those rooms.”
Further adding to the impact, “we utilize RealD XL technology in all 3D auditoriums,” which add up to seven each at the (non-ICON) ShowPlace 14 in Secaucus, New Jersey, and in St. Louis Park. “Both of our large auditoriums with VIP sections there have 3D. For these very large screens, we use a single Barco DP2000 with a 4K bulb and achieve six foot-lamberts of brightness with a new bulb, which is well above the industry standard. With the combination of the Barco and RealD XL light doubler, we are getting great light levels on our 63-foot-wide screens.” For the latter, Kerasotes deploys “a combination of Harkness and Severtson silver screens for 3D and all Harkness screens for our 2D auditoriums.”
As for the food offerings, only the best will do at ICON. “It’s not a huge menu, but it’s all terrific,” he assures. “Our dishes are made from scratch with only the best ingredients available.” The Neopolitan thin-crust pizzas, for instance, “use 00 flour, an extremely fine grade of flour, mozzarella cheese, and even water imported from Italy.” Sourdough ciabatta and artisan walnut panini breads “are baked exclusively for us” before they get stuffed with the likes of Coppa, Mortadella and Fontana cheeses; organic grilled chicken breast and lemon vinaigrette; and 18-month dry-aged prosciutto di Parma, arugula, quince jam and Gorgonzola cheese. “If we brought in food and stuck it in the microwave or deep-fried everything,” he asserts, “people would probably turn their noses up and would not buy it.”
Expanding upon traditional theatre concessions is part of the ICON concept as well. “We wanted to offer something different, but we also know that a lot of people who go to the movies want their candy, popcorn and a Coke. We started with a base of classic movie offerings that includes every candy favorite imaginable… People always loved our popcorn anyway. But when we added real butter to boot in addition to the regular toppings people can get, that became more popular than I would have ever thought.”
Along with Icees, hot dogs and Freschetta pizzeria-quality thin crust pizza fresh from the oven, “we added a few gourmet-type candies like Ghirardelli chocolate bars.” For Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified specialty coffees and teas, ShowPlace ICON is “the test location for ‘Far Coast,’ a new product from The Coca-Cola Company. That’s been very popular,” he confirms.
Most important, however, Kerasotes established “an attractive special section at the end of the concession counter” for another fresh treat. “I was really looking for an item that was a little healthier and that people would find appealing. We looked into ice cream and gelato, but they have their pitfalls when it comes to movie theatres.” Frozen yogurt, however, “is non-fat with protein, has pro-biotic cultures in it that are good for you. We created our own Starlite brand that offers fresh fruit and dry toppings,” among others. “It’s been very popular and we were selling a lot in the dead of winter in Chicago, which surprised me, of course, because it’s a cold treat. Now that we have summer, it’s selling like hotcakes.”
After having sold all of their other theatres to AMC Entertainment (http://bit.ly/keras4)—the Justice Department subsequently mandated divestiture of certain locations (http://bit.ly/keras5) that were picked up by Regal Entertainment Group (http://bit.ly/keras6)—it should come as no surprise that Kerasotes considers this concept to be the way of the future. “We plan on moving forward,” he confirms. “We were just out at the convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. Our own ICON booth featured the headline ‘A New Era of Moviegoing.’” And, after one hundred years in the exhibition business, “this is going to be our new era.”
While Kerasotes will “still do some conventional theatres, we really think we’d like to concentrate on ICON. We’re actively looking at major metropolitan markets,” he says. “For the ICON concept, you have to select your locations very carefully. These theatres aren’t really meant to work everywhere. If you get into more of a suburban market where most of your audience is families and kids, the less of a demand there is for the ICON concept. So we want to concentrate on larger urban markets, whose demographics include younger professionals in their 20s to mid-30s and a lot of empty-nesters with disposable income, and where people like to go out every night of the week.”
Wouldn’t the competition for wining and dining be particularly strong in those types of markets, given the abundance of such options there? “That’s why I took a little different route than most people in creating the experience for dining and movie theatres,” Kerasotes concurs. “If you look across the concepts that are out there in the industry, they’re just…okay. They can be a little generic and not have a tremendous amount of style. The menus may use a lot of premade heat-and-eat type foods.” In Chicago, Kerasotes knew that “unless I did something a little more special, people would gravitate towards the bars and restaurants in the area. So I worked with Jerry Kleiner, a good friend of mine and very successful restaurateur really known for his unique environments and experiences. I took the track that I wanted to design a lounge with food that would stand on its own. People would want to go there regardless of whether they’d watch a movie or not. It’s not just an ancillary to going to the movie theatre, but a cool, fun place to go to in its own right.”
Confirming that the Lobby Lounge has demonstrated its own drawing power indeed, Kerasotes invites our readers to take a look at the pictures. “We did it up with quite a bit of style. Everything is original design and custom-built furniture, fit-outs and interior elements. It’s unique and creates an atmosphere [which] in our industry probably hasn’t happened to the level that I took it. Consequently, the place has been a huge success so far.”
In closing, we wanted to know how the name ICON came about. “I always knew I wanted to create a unique brand,” Kerasotes says. That’s why he worked with Upshot, a Chicago marketing agency. “Literally, we went through hundreds of names,” he laughs. “We kept working at it. I wanted to connect it to our existing ShowPlace brand and I kept rejecting many, many suggestions until ICON came by. That resonated, obviously, because it carries a lot of good meaning for people. Movie stars are their icons. And we wanted to communicate that we were a movie theatre where you could get an iconic experience. One that is at the top of our industry. Frankly, I think that is exactly we’ve actually created with ShowPlace ICON.”