Rec ’n’ Roll: Canada’s Cineplex ramps up entertainment at The Rec Room in Edmonton

By: Andreas Fuchs

We have been working on this concept for some time, and with everything we do at Cineplex, we always want to make sure that we do it right.” For Pat Marshall, VP, communications and investor relations, at Cineplex Entertainment that includes taking “that little bit of extra time…to ensure that we get either the right location, the right recipe or the right concept.”

With the Sept. 19, 2016 opening of Canada’s first location of a category-defining “Eats & Entertainment” venue at South Edmonton Common in Edmonton, Alberta, The Rec Room certainly scored on that trifecta.

The two-level, 60,000-square-foot (5,574 sq. m) facility combines “incredible dining experiences with exciting live entertainment and amusement gaming,” the media release noted about the half-splitting of space for double the pleasure. “From our perspective, we believe the wait to get the project to fruition was worth it,” Marshall reasons, “because the whole concept now has exceeded our expectations in terms of what it has done for us from a business perspective, and on the guests’ side as well, they are truly loving it.”

As one of those guests herself, Marshall cannot help but be blown away as well. “I have been involved with this project for over two years. It is one thing to identify concepts and work through them on paper, and then another to be able to see it come to fruition. Walking through the doors and to have guests in the space is completely different. It just wowed me—and I knew what to expect. The Rec Room is really wowing all our guests who were coming in and had no idea what to expect. That is all quite exciting for us.”

During the development process, “part of what we did was to conduct an extensive amount of consumer research as we were creating the concept initially.” Marshall assures us that Cineplex wanted to understand what Canadians are looking for. “What came back, really loud and clear, was they want great food, great entertainment, and they want live entertainment. The Rec Room, I think, handles all of that and then some…”

Getting a handle involved counting on both in-company and outside expertise. Cineplex worked with advertising agency Cundari on brand development, Marshall confirms. mackaywong worked on the interior design and Culinary Edge helped on menu development. The other key was having a blank slate—designing the entire building from scratch, with the help of Core Architects and Traugott Construction. “We had a green field that allowed us to create the concept right from the ground up. Moving forward, not all our locations will be green fields,” Marshall foresees. “With a second Rec Room announced for Toronto, for instance, we are going to be moving into a historic building called the Roundhouse. Every venue will be customized to the surrounding community and to its specific location.” Cineplex plans to operate 10 to 15 locations over the next few years across Canada, with Calgary already opening in 2017 as well.

South Edmonton Commons, as a case in point, “already is a destination for shopping and entertainment and, also in some instances, for food. Given the success that we have with our 16-screen theatre there, along with timing, availability and other parameters that we were looking for…all these elements came together in order for us to bring this location to fruition first. And the good news is, it has done very, very well and it exceeded our expectations.”

About the nearby Cineplex Odeon theatre, one needs to know that there is no direct connection to The Rec Room, although both are located on the same pad. “The goal has always been for these to be standalone buildings,” Marshall elaborates. “If there is a location with a theatre nearby, then that’s great, but that is not one of the key criteria for us in terms of selecting the site.” It could even be the cinema of another circuit to benefit from the recreational synergies.

When asked about the possibility of integrating The Rec Room into an existing theatre by scaling down current auditorium spaces, Marshall thinks bigger is better instead. “These buildings are really the size of our entire theatre complexes right now, ranging from 40,000 to 60,000 square feet… They are designed to stand on their own and to have that wow factor when you come in.”

Cineplex already operates Xscape Entertainment Centres in a number of their theatres, Marshall reminds us, but they are considerably smaller. “Who knows what we might decide to add to The Rec Room? The great news is we have complete flexibility in terms of what comprises the offerings. What we do know is that gaming is really designed to take about half of the space and then restaurant, food and beverage and live entertainment are intended to take the other half.”

That latter part comes first, in fact. “We look at this as a food-first concept.” Marshall says Cineplex is “really focused on ensuring that the quality of food is very, very good. The Rec Room offers several different areas with quite a variety of great food.” Taking us on the culinary tour, “Three10” is the sit-down option, “an upscale casual restaurant with a Canadian-inspired cuisine. The name stands for the three territories and the ten provinces that make up Canadian geography,” she explains. “‘The Loft’ features an assortment of pizzas as well as shareable plates and salads and sweets. We imported two ovens from Italy that can make a pizza in under 90 seconds. As you can imagine, they are super-hot and that’s super great.”

Another super Canadian offering, and decidedly French-Canadian at that, can be found within the amusement gaming area. “‘The Shed’ is what we call a ‘poutinerie’ in Canada. While you need to have poutine somewhere on the menu, The Shed is taking what generally comprises French fries with gravy and cheese curds to a whole other level. We have all of the traditional toppings, plus you can have porchetta added to it, smoked brisket, lobster, roasted wild mushrooms…all kinds of really fantastic fixings.”

While this sounds delicious and equally filling, in fact, there is still room for more at The Rec Room. “Our sweet delight is a custom donut bar,” where they are made fresh and topped with goodies in front of guests, Marshall says. True to the name, they can also use “The Pumps” to fill the center of the donut with shots of favorite fillings such as Canadian Club Maple Whiskey.

In the recreation area, axe-throwing—quite different from good old dart-throwing—has “taken off very well,” according to Marshall. The Rec Room also offers other classic ways to pass good times such as billiards, air hockey and ping-pong. A massive attractions area called “The Yard” features over 100 amusement games. Credits and points are conveniently tracked on RFID bracelets and many prizes are waiting at “The Trophy Case.” The aptly named redemption center has “everything from retro candy to drones, and whisky stones to portable speakers” sitting on its shelves.

For Marshall, an important amusements element is how The Rec Room’s Gameboard app tracks top earners and gives them bragging rights on the venue’s giant digital leaderboard. “You sign into the app, and while you are playing your name and your score will come up as people are competing against each other.” Of course, all spending and redemption ties in with SCENE, the loyalty program at Cineplex, which connects with 80 million Canadians every year. “You earn SCENE points, and you can also redeem them at The Rec Room,” Marshall explains.

Another key element is “The Featured Attraction,” as Marshall views the racecar simulator. “It’s the same simulator that Formula One drivers use to train on… It’s so much fun, very exciting and you really do feel like you are on a track.” On a personal note, “I love the racecar simulator, I really do. I have a bit of a lead foot,” Marshall chuckles, “and this enabled me to really feel what it is like being in a Formula One race car.” Furthermore, she loves “just being able to enjoy a variety of games in one spot, combined with having really good food and great beverages.” In addition to spirits and cocktails, multiple bars throughout The Rec Room serve six draught wines and over 20 draught beers, including several locally crafted ones.

“We also offer four lanes of ten-pin bowling upstairs and we will be adding a Virtual Reality element to the entertainment lineup.” Although not much detail could be disclosed during our conversation, “it is going to be an important piece.” Marshall promises “there are other features that we will be launching later on… There are many more great things to come.” After all, Cineplex owns the largest amusement-gaming business in Canada and the second-largest in the United States. “Obviously, we have complete flexibility and much greater opportunity in terms of adding new games and changing of the games that are in our locations.”

Another game-changer at The Rec Room is a stage for live entertainment, which is being programmed on a regular basis throughout the week, be it with a comedian, music act or showcasing a sporting event. While eSports competitions will remain at their movie theatres for now, Marshall says that “any kind of digital presentation that can be downloaded via satellite can be presented at The Rec Room on our huge cinema-sized screen in one of the staging areas [manufactured by Strong MDI and illuminated by a Christie projector]. And throughout the entire complex, we have literally hundreds of digital panels that we program with any sort of content.” Building on the technological backbone of Cineplex Digital Media, the on-site network comprises over 120 panels and a massive high-definition screen that can be viewed from all corners of the complex.

The results that Cineplex has seen so far “have far exceeded our expectations,” Marshall reiterates in closing. “And we are thrilled about that… I can say that all of the retailers and the other restaurants at South Edmonton Commons, as well as our theatre are doing better post-store opening than they were before The Rec Room joined the development.” Delivering thousands and thousands of guests has created a challenge, she admits. But it’s a good one to have. “Demand has been much stronger than our building can accommodate at the same time. During peak periods on Friday and Saturday nights, there are lineups outside and around the building.”

Speaking in general, “the first prototype of anything is about bringing all of your ideas and concepts to fruition. Then you see and sort out what plans survive the battlefield. And the good news is, far and away, the majority of our ideas and of our plans have more than survived. They thrived on the battlefield.”

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