“We did a lot of work during the temporary closure of our facilities to reopen effectively and safely,” states Cameron Mitchell, CEO, Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas and Majid Al Futtaim Leisure & Entertainment.
From launching a drive-in experience at Mall of the Emirates for VOX Cinemas to redeploying people from the cinema to the Carrefour business, the cinemas and leisure & entertainment arm of Majid Al Futtaim has, indeed, maintained resilience through the COVID-19 related lockdown. All the while, the business ensured a three-way communication with the government agencies, its people and visitors to be able to return to business safely and confidently.
“We undertook several surveys with our customers to understand their comfort around returning to our facilities and what they would expect. On the other hand, we constantly interacted with the government agencies to be on the right track. It was heartening that even though we had to follow a different set of guidelines outlined by different governments in the region, we were always ahead of the requirements and well-prepared for reopening; we only had to add finesse in certain cases. Equally, I must admit that the regional governments have done an exceptional job of protecting us. The right precautionary measures put in place amidst a daunting situation have worked well,” says Mitchell.
As such, Majid Al Futtaim Leisure & Entertainment and Cinemas division implemented every possible precautionary measure before throwing its doors open to visitors again. “Along with social distancing messaging, frequent sanitisation and spreading the queue, we have also started laundering uniforms more frequently in facilities like Ski Dubai. We have staffed the changing room areas to ensure that the social distancing norms are followed. We have also cordoned off certain areas within our facilities – like ball pits and trampoline – to avoid physical contact among children,” Mitchell shares.
“Our customer survey indicates that 93% of our visitors are satisfied or highly satisfied with all the measures we have undertaken for reopening,” he cites. “Now that our facilities are reopening and age restrictions have eased, we are looking forward to new content and school holidays to drive back traffic.”
Internally, a huge focus area for the group was to ensure the wellbeing of people. “During a crisis of this scale, it is crucial to promote and ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of our people. We needed to ensure that our people felt safe returning to the facilities, and we have constantly sought their opinion on additional measures to make them feel more confident and comfortable,” Mitchell observes.
Alongside consumers being reluctant to spend too much on non-essential items and experiences, the cinema industry is facing the problem of lack of new movie content. It will change from July, Mitchell emphasises. “We decided to open the cinemas and other family entertainment centres (FECs) despite low traffic because it would allow us to put our safety measures to the test. At the same time, encourage visitors to return gradually. The worst thing would be to have a massive crowd come through the doors before testing our systems. Additionally, with regard to new content, further to our joint venture to develop Arabic films, the first Arabic film will release this year. We will introduce more Arabic content into our ecosystem, going forward.”
Since the entertainment venues were temporarily closed for almost three months, how badly did the crisis affect the leisure and entertainment business for the group?
“We were under pressure because there was zero revenue, yet we had to bear the costs – wages being one. We had to look at every aspect to be able to protect the business and our people,” Mitchell responds. “As such, we redeployed 1,000 people from VOX Cinemas to Carrefour since our grocery division was facing excessive demand during the lockdown. This decision helped our people to engage actively and not feel the stress due to the temporary closure of the entertainment facilities. We also worked with different landlords for restructuring deals as well with government agencies on different kinds of support. At the same time, we reviewed our future investments into the facilities over the next 12 months, to understand if anything new needs to be incorporated into the designs.”
Back to business
A VOX Cinemas survey – conducted in waves between April and May 2020 by Majid Al Futtaim’s Happiness Lab – indicates that the cinema industry in the MENA region will bounce back, as an overwhelming 98% of respondents intend to return to movie theatres soon after reopening.
Small wonder, that soon after businesses began reopening in the GCC, Mitchell and his team were ready to roll. VOX Cinemas, for instance, opened recently at Sahara Mall in Riyadh. In August, another new VOX Cinemas will open in Tabuk, in addition to one of the Yalla! Bowling venues in Riyadh’s Atyaf Mall.
“Currently, we see a significant week-on-week pick up in business. It has become progressively busier since we reopened our facilities,” Mitchell reveals. “In the next 12 months, we will open a dozen different entertainment locations in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. In 2021, City Centre Al Zahia will open with a new VOX Cinemas, Magic Planet and our Yalla! Bowling offer. Mall of Oman, under development, will include one of Majid Al Futtaim’s snow offerings, a large VOX Cinemas and our new Magic Planet. Our plans to roll out new leisure and entertainment assets regionally has not changed. We already have over 100 VOX Cinemas screens in Saudi Arabia, in line with our committed expansion plans in the Kingdom. We will probably have close to 300 screens in KSA by the end of next year. New cinemas would open almost every month throughout 2020, and into 2021, in Hail, Tabuk, Jeddah and Riyadh.”
“Even during the lockdown, we have evaluated the possibility of investing in newer kinds of entertainment as well as in our existing businesses,” he adds. “For instance, find the right locations to expand the virtual reality (VR) concept like Dreamscape that opened at Mall of the Emirates in December 2019. The goal is to continue to evolve our leisure offerings to reach the next level of excellence.”
When asked about the importance of rethinking pricing in a post-COVID environment, Mitchell says, “We always try to offer the best entertainment value to our guests, which is cheaper compared to several other parts of the world. After reopening our facilities, we invited kids to come in for free. We are offering three-month, as opposed to 12-month, membership packages at Ski Dubai. There are 50-60 million people in the region who are looking to have fun with their families, and we are confident that they will start returning to our facilities gradually as long as we are providing all kinds of safety and a great value.”