Alternate Site for Conferences: Movie Theaters
Showcase Cinemas, with 29 cinemas in six states including the one in Connecticut, is not alone. AMC Cinemas, with its purchase of Carmike Cinemas in late 2016, offers meetings in 660 theaters. AMC and Regal Entertainment Group, with over 560 theaters in 43 states, have dedicated event-planning staffs. Regal said the number of events it hosted had increased to 11,000 in 2016 from about 5,000 in 2011. The theaters are used by nonprofit groups and for church services as well as business meetings.
By using technology, multiple locations can provide an identical experience. In February, Bruce Reid, while working at Mills James, a media production company in Columbus, Ohio, coordinated a meeting for a major retailer in 22 movie theaters across the country. Allowing for changes in time zones, half were used one day, the remainder the next.
Mr. Reid, who is now an independent consultant, said he saw social media as influencing where to hold an event. “How social media depicts travel is making travel less attractive and something we don’t want to go out of our way to do anymore,” he said.
And from the theaters’ perspective, the meetings and gatherings are providing additional revenue. “Because the theater owners are already paying rent, real estate taxes, utilities, payroll, etc., the incremental revenue from meetings is highly profitable because only the incremental costs are measured relative to the meeting revenue,” Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University, said in an email.
Smaller chains, like Alamo Drafthouse (29 theaters) and AFI Cinemas (two theaters), also court gatherings.
At Alamo Drafthouse, food is served directly to a theatergoer’s seat. Customers have a choice of craft cocktails and craft beers. Kimberly Sandel, manager of private and community events at the Austin Drafthouse Cinema, said companies use the theater as a recruiting tool. It sends a message, she said, “‘Look at how cool and fun we are.’”
AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., has made a virtue of the high-definition digital cinema projection in its Art Deco theater. Physicians and residents attending the American Institute for Radiologic Pathology, a program of the American College of Radiology, can use the projector to study slides of diseases. The physicians occupy the theater five times a year for four weeks at a time, according to Tiffany Graham-Golden, director of marketing and events for the theater.
LeeAnn Downey, the chief administrative officer at Bellco Credit Union in Denver, said the company used to hold its annual meeting for 300 to 400 employees after work at a local hotel. “The audiovisual was always a problem,” she said, and attendees had trouble seeing the presentation.
For the last two years, the company has gone to a local multiplex for a breakfast meeting on Columbus Day, when branches are closed. There is boxed catering; the theater provides coffee.
She said the big draw at the mandatory meeting is the technology and screen visibility. During presentations, quizzes appear on the screen. When a speaker from the National Credit Union Foundation in Madison, Wis., asked what percentage of Americans lived from paycheck to paycheck, participants could check answers they keyed in on their mobile devices with the actual answer on the screen. (The answer is nearly half.)
Ms. Downey said the theater rental is “probably a little cheaper than the hotel, but not a lot.” Conference room rental fees and audiovisual requirements cost a couple of thousand dollars at a hotel, she said. At a movie theater, those fees are included in the rental.
Christina Panos, chief marketing officer at the Corcoran Group, a real estate company with offices in New York, the Hamptons and Florida, said the company chose the Ziegfeld Theater (now closed) to present a website redesign in November 2012.
The 900 sales agents came “came to theater expecting entertainment,” she said, not to be focused on their BlackBerries, the prevailing technology at the time.
The theater setting provided additional motivation. “It’s been home to amazing entertainment,” she said.
While movie theaters are gaining acceptance among meeting planners, they probably will not replace traditional meeting spaces. Mark Cooper, the chief executive of the International Association of Conference Centers, said in an email: “The use of unusual venues for events is not new, but also often offers an environment that has a novelty appeal but lacking the ideal facilities (acoustics, lighting, furniture and technology) required for effective meetings and conferences. They are used more for evening corporate events rather than serious meetings and conferences in my experience.”
But Mr. Jouaneh, the Amex executive, said technology was transforming meetings, allowing planners to adjust content. And he said using theaters allows for a hybrid approach, with a combination of face-to-face meetings and extending meetings to a broader virtual audience.
For Ms. Downey, there may be another reason for popularity of a movie theaters among employees. She said she had received high praise both for the central location and the ease of parking. Parking downtown for the hotel meetings “was a bear and expensive,” she said.
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