Group Effort: How Marcus Theatres Revitalized its Group Sales Division
Interview with Clint Wisialowski, VP of Sales, Marcus Theatres
Increasing off-peak attendance has always been a compelling challenge for exhibitors. Marcus Theatres is no exception; in 2015 the circuit gave itself the task of instituting a comprehensive strategy for its group sales efforts. While by no means new or exclusive, group sales can often fall to the wayside as day-to-day operational duties stack up for theater managers across the country. Marcus Theatres Chairman, President, and CEO Rolando Rodriguez appointed Clint Wisialowski, a 28-year industry veteran, to head their new initiative. Since that time, Wisialowski and his team have helped grow the group sales division into one of Marcus Theatres’ most dynamic revenue drivers. BOXOFFICE spoke with Wisialowski to learn how the project took shape and about the growing pains that came along with it.
How did you get started in exhibition, and how did you get into your current role?
I started in 1988 when I had the opportunity to become the manager of the Union Cinema, through a student help position, while going to school at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The Union Cinema was our one-screen cinema house with a 35-millimeter reel-to-reel projector. That’s what I learned on. When you’re the manager there, it sounds more glorious than it is; I projected, sold tickets, and managed a staff of four people. We also booked our own films. I got a really good feel for all aspects of the business when I was pretty darn young.
Then I thought I could do more with it. I ended up picking up the phone, literally calling The Marcus Corporation corporate office. I spoke to the first person who answered the phone, whom I believe was working for the execs, and told them who I was, that I was interested in the position of assistant manager or better. I ended up working for Marcus Theatres, at the Westown Cinema in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as the associate manager. I bounced around to other locations from ’89 to 2004. I lived in Illinois for 11 years and had the opportunity to open a couple of buildings, including our Marcus Addison Cinema, and became a city manager for Illinois at that time, having completed my master’s degree in 2003.
I moved to the corporate office to become the director of sales. I did that all the way up until Rolando Rodriguez came to work with us [in 2013]. I remember having a sit-down with Rolando after he came in, explaining my role to him. He said, “I see bigger and better,” and in fact, it’s funny—I actually have on my desk to this day, the handwritten piece of paper that Rolando put together explaining what he thought my department should be. He liked what we were doing, but he really wanted more. He envisioned group sales as tying different elements together: our fund-raising program, VIP tickets, gift cards, as well as advertising partners and sponsors. Those all now are part of my department, and group sales has become a catalyst for our growth.
What was required in order to bring about this shift in strategy?
It took a big change philosophically in our company, because prior to this, we were under an extra-revenue program. As part of that, managers were incentivized to sponsor group sales—to bring and host these groups, open early and show them films, to work with them late in the day. It was a very, very small portion of our overall business.
We brought in a salesperson when we opened our Majestic Cinema of Brookfield [Wisconsin]. It was pretty revolutionary for the area at the time: it had in-theater dining, two different restaurant concepts—a pizza place and an ice cream parlor. It really changed how we were looking to run a theater.
The salesperson was doing what I’m doing for the entire circuit now, but only at that one location. We had modest success with it. We went through a couple of different people, and then we landed on Aimee Heineck. She’s been with this department since the very beginning; I would call her the founder of our group sales effort in the theaters. Rolando wanted me to replicate some of that success and then build upon it.
When we first came in, we had to change how the managers were compensated in that regard. Instead of being extra-rev, we wanted them to look at their complex as an entire business. Anything that could help that business do more business, they needed to embrace and execute on, without being tied into individual incentives for each activity.
That was critical to the early challenge of starting group sales. The managers needed to own the group sales once we handed it over, but allow us to build and develop and embrace the sales technique of bringing more groups to them. In our business, it’s difficult sometimes to get a hold of someone in the theater. The manager’s working the floor, half the time we’re tearing tickets or doing concessions. A company that wants to do business with us can find it very frustrating not to be able to find the person who can help them execute on the sale. We sat back as a group and built concessions menus with banquet pricing. Some are more involved than others, but we now have banquet menus that cover all our F&B concepts.
What growing pains did you experience as you began to expand the concept across the circuit?
We got really good at it when we did it at the Majestic, with a person there at all times. We didn’t have that person when we blew it up to our entire circuit. Our structure now includes five regional account managers across the division, each with an event coordinator that helps with the planning and handoff. Clients go from sales to service.
When it doesn’t work, we’re there to make it right. Clients have a number to call; the person who answers knows their event, what they’re trying to accomplish. That communication is critical to any group sales effort.
Do you see customers returning more often?
Renewals were key to our success. When a group comes in, has a great event and a really good experience, the chances of them coming back are very high. Sometimes they’ll skip a year, but they tend to come back as clients and moviegoers.
Did you look at any other group sales models when you began to implement this concept?
When Rolando first challenged me with this, I visited a couple of other circuits that were already doing this. We are definitely not the first; I don’t think we could have made this without them. I give a lot of credit to my fellow exhibitors out there, who really blazed an unbelievable trail.
What have been some of your most successful campaigns?
There are a couple that stand out. We did a cooperative deal with the Milwaukee Public School system for Hidden Figures last year. We teamed up with Pepsi to create a phenomenally priced package that included bottled water, popcorn, and the film for thousands of Milwaukee public school children. It was across multiple locations over several days. I think that was probably one of the first times when I realized just how impactful we could be. It drove a lot of people to the theater who hadn’t been there in a while. It drove a lot of kids to the theater who probably hadn’t visited in quite a bit.
We’re doing something similar with a business partner dedicated to scholastic reading in Racine, Wisconsin. They donated 9,000 books to local schools and (in partnership with us and Pepsi again) they’re sponsoring the film Wonder for 9,000 students.
In Minneapolis we’ve had full building buyouts at a number of our locations, where companies will come to meet with their employees and do a product launch. They bring all the folks into our auditoriums and simulcast a presentation. We’ve had product launches, we’ve had customer events, we’ve had recognition events. And those are just on the business side.
When do you usually see an uptick in business from these events?
There’s nothing better than getting to your building at seven in the morning and knowing that at seven thirty you’re going to have 12 busses coming in. There’s nothing better than hosting a group of 400 people on a Wednesday afternoon, when your building normally has been empty. More than 25 percent of our business is coming in on Thursdays. Thursdays are an incredibly popular day. The second-busiest day? Wednesdays. It doesn’t get much better than that, from a business standpoint: totally off-peak. Better yet, the clients who move their event from another venue to our theaters typically experience 100 percent turnout. I give a ton of credit to the circuits that started this concept; it’s really given us a great opportunity to expand on their ideas and hit the ground running the way we have.