Odeon’s MD on making the cinema experience relevant for the Netflix generation

Carol Welch, Odeon’s managing director for the UK and Ireland and a former marketer, explains why the UK’s largest cinema chain is going back to its roots to rejuvenate the industry and accelerate growth.

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With the rise of Netflix and Amazon you’d be forgiven for thinking cinema was struggling. In fact, the industry is the healthiest it’s ever been. Carol Welch, managing director of UK and Ireland at Odeon, has been in her role a year but is still fascinated by how the “tiny screen” is helping her business.

She says: “You only need to take a journey into work to see that people view more and more content on the tiny screen – which is on an iPad or a mobile phone – but it doesn’t compare to cinema. What cinema can really capitalise on, and the reason it continues to grow regardless of all the digital world around it, is that it creates a completely immersive experience.”

The guest experience is something that Welch refers to constantly and the mantra fundamentally underpins her vision. She wants to rejuvenate not just the brand, but the entire UK and Irish cinema industry.

That’s not to say she is radically redesigning the model, in fact she’s simplifying the message and going back to purpose. “It’s very tempting to go into an organisation and change everything but that’s not always the best thing to do. You have to listen to the guests, listen to your people and really understand where you can release the value. Quite often the answer to what you should be doing better is right in front of you. It’s not always about things being broken it’s about how you can keep doing things better.”

We have started to develop a plan that will really accelerate our growth and reinvent cinema in the UK and Ireland.

Carol Welch, Odeon

Since Welch joined, she has organised a plan to renovate cinemas and simplify marketing, and has launched Odeon Luxe, the cinema’s premium experience – all of which she says is going back to the brand’s purpose.

“We have really focused on making sure that our purpose and our vision is right at the heart of what we do – which is to create inspiring entertainment for every one of our guests. We’ve really taken a step back and prioritised the guests’ journey and what they want from a cinema visit, and a lot of our time has been spent thinking about how we introduce and upgrade the guest experience, not just in our Luxe cinemas but also in our core estate,” she says.

Reinventing cinema

Luxe is only available across seven cinemas and two IMAX screens in Scotland, Leeds and London, all of which have more space, handmade seats and extra food and drink offers. It’s part of a concentrated effort to make going to the cinema more of an event and Welch is excited about the opportunity. “We’ve refurbished them to include fully-reclined seats – a first in the UK – a new bar and upgraded the service skills of our team members for our guests. It’s an exciting journey.”

Welch is also updating Odeon’s flagship cinema in Leicester Square which will relaunch this year.

She says: “It’s an icon across Europe for cinema. When it reopens it will become the jewel in the crown and allow us to talk a lot more about our brand, where the brand came from and why we believe our entertainment experiences are the best in the cinema industry.”

This kind of innovation is something that comes naturally to Welch who was global CMO at Costa for four years, having previously worked in marketing and innovation roles at Jordans Dorset Ryvita, PepsiCo and Cadbury.

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This is her first time working in the leisure industry but she says she uses the same principles to run the UK’s largest cinema chain: “The businesses are really similar. It’s making sure you’re balancing what the guests wants, how you’re inspiring your people and what commercial structure you’re delivering; and if those three things are in line it doesn’t matter if you’re in the food and beverage organisation or a leisure organisation, it is pretty much the same.”

She joined as US cinema giant AMC had just completed its £921m acquisition of Odeon, a move she feels has provided new opportunities for the brand. “We have started to develop a plan that will really accelerate our growth and reinvent cinema in the UK and Ireland and across cinema. It really has been an exciting journey so far,” she says.

READ MORE: Why cinema’s ‘captive audience’ is winning new advertisers

Marketing that matters

At 90-years-old, Odeon is a heritage brand, something which Welch takes seriously. “It’s an incredible sense of responsibility; starting in 1932 it was the first cinema brand. Odeon stands for Oscar Deutsch [the founder] Entertains Our Nation, which I think is a lovely place to come from,” she says.

Odeon’s history has also inspired her approach to marketing. “You have to go back to why the brand and product is so successful in the first place and I think the clue is in the name: it’s about entertaining the nation, and cinema in the early years was all about a fantastic night out.”

Odeon relies heavily on digital marketing but Welch is adamant that she is not someone who has been swept up in all the hype. She explains: “A lot of our marketing is digitally based and that’s not because digital is the latest fad but because you always start with what the guest wants, and when a guest looks for a cinema experience quite often the first thing they go to is their mobile phone or laptop to try to find out what’s on so that’s where we start.

“We do a lot of content marketing regarding our films but we also do a lot of online marketing regarding our offers and why we offer guests a much better experience.”

Welch has also increased localised marketing as part of Odeon’s strategy, working with local businesses for promotions and adapting the films shown in each area. “We adapt our proposition wherever we are. Whether that means a slightly different retail offer or a slightly different set of communication and targeting tools,” she says.

From localised marketing to Odeon Luxe, a lot of her innovation could be seen as combating the rise of independent cinemas, so is Welch worried? The opposite. She says: “I welcome a bit of healthy competition. These kinds of dynamics in the marketplace make sure you’re always on your toes and thinking about what guests want.”

She adds: “I’m very confident that all of the changes we’re making to improve the experience in our cinemas are in line with the trends that we see and what our guests are telling us.”

The trends that work for cinema

One trend Odeon is keeping a close eye on is virtual reality (VR), having launched the first IMAX VR experience centre in Europe at Odeon Trafford, last year. Visitors are able to play multiplayer games and experience entertainment content that ties in with films showing at the cinema.

It was a move to attract a younger generation. Welch says Odeon learnt a lot from the experience and to expect more tech innovation this year. “It’s given us insight into whose interested, what types of games work best and given us a small insight around what tech works and what doesn’t,” she says.

Odeon is also looking to capitalise on its growing its businesses-to-business market. Welch says she’s seen a rise in the use of cinemas for conferences and events, which provide the added bonus of filling a weekday gap in demand.

Why people are your best marketing tool

Welch clearly relishes being in her first general management role and says that “seeing the business in totality” is what attracted her to the job. A core part of that is inspiring her employees, which she feels is important from both a business and personal perspective.

She says: “Whether it’s food and beverage or leisure, we all have to market through our front-line team members as they are delivering our brand. You’ve got to really think about how you make sure those people have the business at its heart and have passion for what they’re doing.”

Welch urges all businesses that rely on front-line staff to make the most of them: “Team members are an additional channel that can be incredibly powerful for you as they can tell you way before any ad tracker if you’ve got the message wrong.

“Whereas a traditional FMCG marketer is waiting for the research or waiting for the feedback from the ad tracker, we have 41 million people walking through our cinemas every year and that is instant feedback from our team members because they have connection with them all the time.”

Odeon does use traditional tracking methods but the company “doesn’t just run research for the sake of it”. She says: “When we have dips in customer satisfaction, we will do research as well as talking to our team members. We run the research because we have a business challenge we need to understand and gain insight into.”

Prioritising her employees is clearly a long-term goal for Welch who has actively increased the number of opportunities her team members can engage, introducing monthly ‘town hall’ sessions with cinema supervisors and the senior team.

“They tell us what they want to be different and how we can help them give the guests a better experience. For example, we’re now introducing a work planning tool so they can plan their shifts better which means they spend less time spent in the back office and more time pleasing the guest.”

It’s not all about business though. Yes Welch talks constantly about inspiring her people to give the best possible experience but she also boasts about making the The Times top 25 best companies to work for list.

She concludes: “People are looking for somebody to surprise and delight them, to create something that creates memories. Our lives may well have changed fundamentally but the bottom line is cinema in 2018 is all about having a fantastic time and experience out.”

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Comments
  • Stephen Jenkins 18 Apr 2018 at 4:44 pm

    An interesting marketing challenge, but it seems Carol Welch has a pragmatic but positive approach. One of our clients, Location Sciences, recently published a blog that provided some footfall analysis and insight into cinema chains. It was incredibly to see how similar the consumer profiles were for the three major UK brands, which must make differentiation and the ability to drive loyalty so much harder for their respective marketing directors. Not sure if it’s appropriate to post links to other content here, but if you are interested in the work, it can be found here: http://bit.ly/2HvDuNb

  • David Whiting 22 Apr 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Nice story about Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation, but odeons were invented by the Romans 2,000 years ago – there’s a good example at Ephesus…

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