This interview is part of our Moving Forward Blog Series, where we ask major brands how they’re adapting to changing consumer expectations from a loyalty perspective post-pandemic.
It’s amazing how so many brands prioritized their customer loyalty efforts, refined their programs, and focused on member satisfaction during the pandemic.
Just ask Cinemark, one of the largest movie theatre companies in the world. Cinemark operates 523 theatres (325 U.S., 198 South and Central America) with 5,872 screens (4,436 U.S., 1,436 South and Central America) in 42 states domestically and 15 countries throughout South and Central America.
Cinemark has a free (Movie Fan) loyalty program and a premium tier (Movie Club).
We caught up with Andrew Sonnichsen, Vice President, Loyalty Management, at Cinemark, and here’s what he had to say about:
- Prioritizing loyalty members’ satisfaction during the pandemic.
- The importance of surveying members regularly and making your loyalty program flexible.
- Nurturing relationships with members through special offers and incentives.
- Enhancing Cinemark’s loyalty program and growing membership even more.
Jim Tierney: Since the pandemic started in the U.S. 17 months ago, how has Cinemark viewed customer loyalty and how has that approach been impacted by consumer behavioral change across the board?
Andrew Sonnichsen: Cinemark has always taken a guest-centric viewpoint when building and managing our loyalty programs.
The onset of COVID-19 and the closure of our theatres did nothing to change that – in fact, it was during these challenging times that we made the strongest moves in prioritizing our loyalty members and their satisfaction with our program.
When our theatres closed we automatically paused billing for all our members in our paid monthly loyalty membership program Movie Club. When theatres began to re-open, we allowed members to enjoy the benefits of Movie Club, including waived online fees and 20% off concessions without being charged their monthly fee.
We knew that times were tough for our members and we wanted to let them know we supported them. Only now are we starting to resume billing for our members and, even so, we are allowing members the option to stay paused if they are just not quite comfortable yet coming back to the theatre.
Our approach to consumer behavior change is to be flexible and adapt to our members’ changing mindset as they have been dealing with the pandemic and are now figuring out what the new normal means for them. – Andrew Sonnichsen, Cinemark
Jim: What customer insights have you gleaned since the pandemic started?
Andrew: The pandemic has been a struggle for everyone and certainly our loyalty members.
We have been regularly polling our guests and moviegoers since the start of the pandemic and we have learned they really miss the movies.
Strong film content is extremely important and now that we are seeing blockbuster movies return to the theatre in numbers, we are happy to see our guests returning as well for that immersive, cinematic experience that they have missed so much.
We were able to maintain our high member satisfaction rate above 90% throughout the pandemic, and attribute this to the respectful way we listened to them and took measures such as putting their billing on pause.
Jim: What strategies do you execute on to increase engagement and customer lifetime value throughout the year?
Andrew: One of our main focuses for our paid membership program to increase lifetime value is staying guest-focused and managing retention.
As some of Cinemark’s most dedicated guests, we aim to nurture them through special offerings and other initiatives to increase engagement and retention. Our members love movies and we facilitate their connection with exciting new content as it comes out.
This can be via elements such as advanced screenings of films before non-members can see them, or bonus point rewards for purchasing tickets to specific films, to name a few examples.
This generates excitement for our members around these films and creates a buzz that extends to their friends and family even beyond our member base. There are many tactics that we take which fulfill the goal, but the overarching strategy is to connect with our members through the movies that they love which results in a win/win for everyone involved.
Jim: Listening to your customers is a top priority. What are your biggest challenges now and in the future regarding customer loyalty and retention?
Andrew: Following the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, one clear trend from our guests is the desire for maximum flexibility.
As a result, we have added numerous enhancements to our paid Movie Club membership program to adapt to this trend, including ability to use credits for concessions and easily re-pausing their membership.
Movie Club has an extremely high retention rate already, which is a testament to the program’s structure, but adding this additional flexibility will only serve to increase that retention and show our members that we are focused on their satisfaction above all else.
Jim: When did customers start coming back to your theatres and can you talk about the current state of your business?
Andrew: It’s been a journey, to say the least.
It has been over a year since we re-opened our first theatres in June 2020. The re-opening of theatres was very regional across the country and it was not until Q2 of 2021 that all our theatres were open.
During that time, the return of guests to our theatres was steady, but it was not until the vaccine rollout ramped up that attendance levels really picked up.
The key element is widespread guest comfort now with higher vaccination rates and the release of major film titles to draw audiences into our theatres. We are proud to have consistently received mid-to-high 90 percentile guest satisfaction with Cinemark, protecting their health and safety due to our Cinemark Standard protocol that was put into place as soon as theatres reopened.
One thing that we are seeing across the industry is that guests did miss going to the movies and, as a result, are splurging on popcorn, soda, candy, and other concessions to really enjoy the full immersive movie experience when they return.
It is great to see. We are optimistic that the second half of 2021 will continue to see a resurgence of our guest activity as the film lineup is very strong.
Jim: Do you think this behavioral change among consumers is permanent?
Andrew: What we have seen post-pandemic is not necessarily abrupt changes in consumer behavior, but rather an acceleration of trends which existed prior to the pandemic.
For example, the increase of purchasing tickets and selecting seats digitally. This was already a trend prior to the pandemic but has seen a jump over the past year.
So, I would not necessarily say we have seen a sudden or unexpected change, but moreso a continued advancement forward of consumer trends.
Jim: As Cinemark slowly emerges from the pandemic, what are your customer loyalty goals?
Andrew: We will need to make adjustments to align with the changing world we live in, but our overall goal for our loyalty program is to pick up where we left off prior to the pandemic.
We have experienced strong member growth since the launch of Movie Club in 2017 and Cinemark Movie Rewards in 2019 and we aim for that to continue.
We have a few exciting additions to our program coming soon that we think will aid in both acquisition and retention of our members. We need to keep advancing our program forward to make sure loyalty at Cinemark does not get stagnant.
The north star that we follow will continue to be our members. Throughout the pandemic and going forward we have continued consistent surveys with our members to understand their most current thoughts on our program and what additions they would like to see.
We also have run multiple qualitative guest research exercises to dig in on specific topics. We used the outputs of these guest exercises to roadmap our upcoming program updates.
As long as we keep in close touch with our members and use the insights gained to continue to evolve the program, we are confident loyalty will continue to grow at Cinemark and deliver incremental value to our members and our company.
Keeping the Focus on Guests
As Andrew emphasized, being guest-centric is a way of life at Cinemark.
Listening to customer needs and expectations and applying those insights to enhance Cinemark’s loyalty program is a top priority.
Cinemark officials talk about guest-centricity and staunchly support their mission.
They have shown their empathy and support to program members during the pandemic, which goes a long way toward building brand advocates.
Prioritizing its loyalty program members during challenging times lifted Cinemark above its competitors.