Jeff Benson is the co-founder, along with his wife, Jamie, and CEO of Cinergy Entertainment Group. They founded Cinergy in 2009 after selling Movie Tavern, a 15-location, nationwide dine-in cinema chain that they started in 2001. Benson has been an entrepreneur in the movie theatre and family entertainment center businesses now for 25 years now. He originally started out as a CPA with Deloitte back in the early ‘90s. Said Benson, “It’s been a wild and crazy ride over the years, but we have always tried to be a leader utilizing new business models and technologies within established entertainment industries.” For me, something that sets Cinergy apart from its competitors is the fact that in 2019, the Cinergy Entertainment Group was named the Top Family Entertainment Center of the World by the International Association of Parks and Attractions. I recently spoke with Benson via email and our conversation started there.
Digital Cinema Report: To me the IAAPA award suggests that Cinergy doesn’t operate the same way as many other movie theatres. Would you agree with that and, if so, why?
Jeff Benson: I totally agree. We have always tried to innovate and do things differently to give the customer a better and more enjoyable experience. We really created the first cinema entertainment centers in the country. Now everyone wants to copy Cinergy. We really prioritize customer service, made-to-order quality food and beverages including large bars, boutique bowling, state of the art arcades, and unique attractions such as virtual reality and axe throwing. Of course, this sets the stage for lots of parties and corporate events. So, you are correct, we do not operate anything like a traditional cinema.
DCR: What does that award say to you about the current state of the motion picture exhibition business?
JB: Winning the Top Family Entertainment Center of the World award from IAAPA reflects Cinergy’s commitment to providing a unique and exceptional entertainment experience and top-notch customer service beyond traditional movie theatres. This recognition reaffirms that the motion picture exhibition business is shifting towards a more immersive and multi-faceted approach, where customer service, company culture, and a wide range of offerings are key drivers of success. It highlights the importance of embracing innovation and catering to the evolving demands of modern audiences to stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of the industry.
DCR: What steps did Cinergy Cinemas take to survive the pandemic?
JB: Cinergy implemented various measures to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic. These steps included prioritizing the health and safety of guests and staff, adjusting capacity limits, embracing technology for online ticketing and contactless experiences, and diversifying revenue streams through offerings like curbside concessions and private screenings.
DCR: While the rest of the industry finished 2022 at approximately 60 percent of the revenue generated in 2019, Cinergy finished at 82 percent. How do you account for that success?
JB: Overall, we feel that our locations are the theatre of choice in our given markets because of what all we offer and the level of service that we provide. Thus, Cinergy’s higher revenue retention can be attributed to several factors. These factors include our ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, offering a wide range of entertainment options beyond traditional movie screenings, effectively leveraging marketing and promotions to attract new audiences, fostering customer loyalty through our elite program and exceptional service, as well as having a more resilient local market that supported the business.
DCR: How does Cinergy Cinemas evaluate a potential location for a theatre?
JB: We are looking for markets that we deem underserved for the wide array of entertainment offerings that we provide, and Texas is a large focus due to its fantastic business climate and population explosion. Cinergy evaluates potential theatre locations based on factors such as population demographics, market demand, competition analysis, accessibility, visibility, local amenities, and available infrastructure. We also consider the growth potential of the area, the compatibility of the location with their entertainment offerings, and the overall feasibility and profitability of the center.
DCR: You have said that exhibition is an essential part of the overall motion picture business. What makes you say that?
JB: Exhibition is vital to the motion picture business as it provides a unique and immersive experience for audiences. The big screen, high-quality sound systems, and communal atmosphere create an unparalleled way to enjoy movies. The theatrical experience also contributes significantly to the overall revenue generation for the industry, allowing filmmakers and studios to recoup their investments and sustain the production of new films. The cinema portion of Cinergy’s overall entertainment mix cannot be understated either. The constant flow of new customers to see Hollywood’s latest offerings on a weekly basis is necessary for our success and we love what we see in terms of movie quantity and quality forthcoming for the rest of 2023 and into 2024. The movies are back, and moviegoers are loving it.
DCR: Cinergy Cinemas seems to exemplify the fact that the show business experience starts long before the movie starts. What do you look for when it comes to hiring and training the people who run your cinemas?
JB: When hiring and training cinema staff, Cinergy seeks individuals who possess a passion for delivering exceptional customer service, a friendly and welcoming demeanor, strong communication skills, and a genuine enthusiasm for the entertainment industry.
Training programs focus on customer service, safety protocols, operational & technical procedures, and creating a positive and engaging environment for guests and had most of all having fun while they do it. Culture is everything and we want to make sure to hire only the best. The aim is to create a company culture & team that can provide a memorable and enjoyable show business experience to customers from the moment they step into the building.
DCR: What is next for Cinergy Cinemas?
JB: More innovation is next. New and different attractions are being added to existing locations to keep them fresh. Starting at our Midland, Texas location, it is getting a 27,000 square foot, $14 million expansion onto the existing 53,000 square foot facility. We are adding 18 lanes of boutique bowling and two lanes of duck pin bowling including a luxury special events suite. We are taking our first step into the next iteration of design and adding an upscale, adult oriented, and technologically advance mini-golf course along with a self-serve craft beer and cocktail bar. Additionally, Midland will get gamified axe throwing bays, electronic darts, and two Top Golf Swing Suites along with a full remodel of the 10-year-old facility. It’s part of our 10-year celebration and we want to continue to be the place for entertainment in Midland, so it is getting all the latest innovations.
Next up is a renovation of our Odessa, Texas facility with the main centerpiece being the addition of a huge outdoor entertainment area. This will feature a large outdoor Amphitheatre for live music, events and outdoor movies including a huge LED screen, multiple Pickleball courts with reservable cabanas, fire pits with lots of seating, water features, plenty of green space for Jenga, shuffleboard, corn hole, lawn darts and other games, and a huge new bar with indoor/outdoor seating. The final design is still coming together, but it will truly be a space for the whole family to enjoy the outdoors and will be our first foray into the wildly popular Pickleball craze sweeping the nation.
Our Odessa facility was a top three finalist for Family Entertainment Center of the World in 2017, so we want to continue to innovate and offer the best in family entertainment. We are not constrained by any factors outside our existing structure as we own all our own land so it is going to be a big addition and will be the best outdoor space on the planet.
Finally, we are targeting a number of new developments in Texas. We can’t yet say where, but let’s just say there is still room in West Texas for several more Cinergy locations as well as other parts of our great state.