Business Policies and the Wrath of Khan: Part 2
For the first few years I operated this theatre, I stayed with the standard wisdom of old-time Drive In owners (the ‘If-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ crowd): charge less for admission than indoor theatres and allow people to bring in their own food, drink, and alcohol. And soon I was filling the theatre with cars, but being an experienced businessman I began to notice a few interesting things. First, I was getting a lot of problems from people who had been drinking; by this I mean vandalism of theatre property, obnoxious behavior towards families and other reasonable people, fights breaking out, and the like. Of course, when this occurred I confronted these people, kicked them out, and got the sheriff’s deputies to help out in the more hard cases. But by the time I accomplished that, the damage had already been done; customers who didn’t care to be subjected to the boorish behavior of the drunken and inconsiderate said they would never come back to my theatre because of the experience they had. I clearly remember a young woman I tried to calm down (unsuccessfully), who had been verbally abused and threatened by a drunken fool in the parking space next to her who objected when she complained to him for loudly ranting and carrying on. I kicked this guy and his family out (he subsequently trashed me and my theatre on the internet), but I knew I had forever lost this woman as a customer.
The next thing I noticed was that there was a large amount of trash being left on the field and almost all of it were items that were brought in from outside the theatre (e.g McDonalds bags, watermelon rinds, and the like). Spending over an hour picking up trash on a hot, humid summer’s day can get to be real irritating.
Finally, although I was getting a lot of cars on the field, I wasn’t making any money. In fact, I was starting to lose money (note: my business model calls for adequate staffing, paying a good wage, properly reporting and paying all licensing fees and taxes, and putting money into maintenance and theatre upgrades). I could have made money if I had just milked this place and let it fall apart (unfortunately, like some Drive In theatres I have visited), but I don’t choose to run a business that way.
The answer was simple, to me at least: I had to stop letting people bring alcohol on the lot and, given the economics of the movie theatre business (markup on concession sales being greater than markup on ticket sales) I had to insist that customers buy their food and drink items at our concession stand. Indoor theatres figured this out long ago and have these policies in place, Drive In theatres have been slower to change. When I reopened this place in 2000, some Drive Ins had started to institute restrictive carryin policies, but not many.
So prior to the 2004 season, I announced my new No Carryin food/drink/alcohol policy in my newsletter, on my web site, on my phone recordings, and in my newspaper ads. The reaction was quite vehement and I received quite a few sarcastic, rude, and threatening emails. The first year, we tried being nice about it. When we saw someone bringing in their own food, drink, and even alcohol, we politely reminded them of our new policy and asked them to honor that policy in the future. These gentle reminders became very time consuming because just about everybody continued to bring in their own food and drink. As the season wore on, we were still dealing with alcohol-fueled problems and our field still looked like a trash dump on the weekends. I also started recognizing people we had reminded of this policy coming back in, still bringing their carryins. When I asked them why, they either denied I had ever said anything to them, or (the more honest ones) made statements along the lines of: if I wasn’t going to enforce the policy, then they were going to keep bringing in whatever they wanted; why should they honor the policy if others weren’t?
Good point. OK, so I learned that moral suasion wasn’t working. The next season, we confiscated coolers and alcohol, put them in the projection booth and let people pick them up at the end of the evening. People didn’t like this and my rampmen and I went through a considerable amount of verbal abuse. We were finding so many carryins, that the booth was becoming dangerously overfilled, so we shifted coolers out to the box office area, where people then insisted that we guarantee the safety of the items they brought in violation of our business policies (we refused to do so). And even then we were still catching repeat offenders and I was losing rampmen to burnout from the nasty treatment they were receiving.
Enough. I finally realized that the only way this was going to work was to strictly enforce the policies and institute some penalties for non-compliance. Anyone we caught with alcohol on the field, no matter how little, was ejected from the theatre grounds without a refund. Anyone caught with carryin food and/or drink was given an option to donate their items to the Jefferson Food Pantry or be ejected from the theatre without a refund. In either case we would accept no excuses and make no exceptions (because everyone we caught had an excuse and thought that we should make an exception for them). We further publicized these policies through very blunt signage near the box office and very specific language on our web site. For the next two seasons, we even verbally reminded every vehicle that entered theatre grounds of our policies and asked the driver point blank if they had any carry in food, drink or alcohol in their vehicle.
One of the most discouraging things I encountered in running a small business is the number of people who will shamelessly lie to you, often in front of their own children. I even had a woman we caught with a cooler rage at me because (in her viewpoint) I had forced her to lie in front of her children at the box office. I’m not really surprised by this, but it’s hard when you have to deal with these types of people on an almost nightly basis. Eventually I realized that verbally reminding people of our policies and directly asking them if they had carry-ins was a waste of time. The vast majority of people who were going to ignore our business policies were going to lie to us anyway. Now we only verbally remind people of our No Carryin policy if it’s obvious they are coming here for the first time (as an added courtesy; our signage is quite clear and blunt).
When we first announced our No Carryin policies, some predicted we would soon be out of business because, of course, no one would come to my theatre if they couldn’t bring in their own food/drink/alcohol. My response to these naysayers was: the current situation was unsustainable; if this theatre was going to be put on firm ground, these changes had to be made and; if customers weren’t going to support this theatre, I wanted to find that out now rather than after investing significant monies in digital cinema and other capital upgrades. So I bit the bullet and went ahead with the policy changes and what happened? Ticket sales decreased by only 3 percent that year (and continued growing in subsequent years), while our concession sales doubled (and have also continued to increase). Trash on the field went down to almost nothing, while vandalism and other drunken behavior almost completely disappeared. More importantly, the theatre was again profitable. This enabled me to convert to digital projection (an expensive proposition; see my essay on Crossing the Digital Rubicon) last year, as well as continue to invest in other important upgrades. Instituting and enforcing those policies kept this theatre open.
I mentioned earlier that other Drive Ins have begun to enact restrictive carryin rules, but from my experience with many of them, they don’t enforce their policies. This doesn’t surprise me because most restaurant and entertainment businesses, particularly chain and corporate owned operations, also don’t enforce their policies. They’re afraid of offending anyone because they know these opprobrious individuals will create a scene in front of other customers and trash their business on the internet. Giving in to these people is the path of least resistance. And believe me, if these abusive people don’t get their way, they often become extremely nasty and vindictive. Dealing with these types can wear on you; it’s easy to see why most business owners might elect to avoid confrontation.
But avoiding confrontation only further encourages abusive behavior. I still get people coming onto my lot who completely ignore my business policies and are then shocked that I actually enforce them: that I won’t accept their excuses or make an exception for them, like other places they’ve been to.
So why do I enforce my policies instead of ignoring violators as most businesses do? I certainly don’t enjoy getting yelled at and otherwise being treated like a jerk by these people. I strictly enforce my business polices for two reasons: (1). Most of my customers respect my policies, understand the rationale behind them, and honor them. These are my best customers; these are the people who are supporting my business. Unfortunately, they are also subsidizing those who sneak in their own food and drink. I don’t think this is right or fair. I don’t think that people who have no respect for my business and property should get a better deal than those who do. So I enforce my policies out of respect for my good customers. (2) This Drive In isn’t just another business to me. I’ve spent a considerable amount of money, time and effort to make this a special place. I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done with this theatre and when I see someone violating my business policies and verbally abusing my staff, I take it personally. Unlike chain and corporate owned operations, I don’t want to serve all customers. If someone doesn’t have any respect for my business and property, then I don’t want them as a customer; I don’t want them on the lot.
Isocrates once famously observed that “Democracy destroys itself because….it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.” Unfortunately, I see this truism played out almost every night on the field. But whereas this ancient Athenian orator’s comments might well apply to modern day Greece, I think it only applies to the minority of our society. And on that note, I want to close this essay by thanking all of the nice, honest, appreciative, and sane customers who come to my theatre every year. You are the ones I enjoy serving and I’m only sorry that I can’t spend more time talking with you. You know who you are.