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Entertainment and eats emporium the Rec Room opens in Toronto


Booze-infused doughnuts, British phone booths minus phones, Spam-branded lunch boxes — and not a movie theatre in sight.

It’s not your average trip to the Cineplex. Then again, it’s a very different venture for the Canadian movie giant called the Rec Room, a massive arcade and eatery which opened last Tuesday in Roundhouse Park on Bremner Ave.

Outside of Wonder Woman, it’s been a rocky summer so far at the box office, and plenty of flops preceded the key season for blockbusters (CHiPs, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the ironically titled Unforgettable ring a bell?)

So the timing of the Rec Room launch in Toronto (the first one opened in Edmonton last fall) couldn’t come at a better time for Canada’s largest cinema chain, which is beholden to movie studios’ content and release schedule.

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“I always say we set the table, we don’t serve the steak when it comes to the movie theatre,” says Cineplex Inc. CEO Ellis Jacob in an interview just before the Rec Room opened to the public.

He says the company is diversifying in response to a rapidly changing market amid competition from Netflix and other streaming services that make it just as easy to watch a flick at home on a big flat screen.

“There’s disruption taking place. People want different experiences and we feel it’s important to evolve our business,” Jacob explains.

At the Rec Room, “we kind of control what takes place within the box,” he says, as opposed to taking whatever Hollywood decides to churn out at any given time.

What’s inside the former Leon’s furniture showroom is a feast for the senses filled with cutting edge arcade games and “experiences” along with all sorts of Canadian-themed food and drink across nearly 45,000 square feet of industrial space, set off with colourful graffiti by local artist Quest.

The target market is millennials and given the downtown location, condo dwellers looking for a place to hang and play away from a small living space, Jacob says.

The area called the Yard features more than 90 high tech games that are played by loading credits on an RFID electronic bracelet “which beats walking around with a bucket of tokens” like in old school arcades, notes Rec Room vice president David Terry.

A huge virtual reality game called the Void immerses customers through a Ghostbusters-themed virtual world where they are outfitted with headsets and special rumbling vests to track and catch ghosts while experiencing all the sights, sounds and smells that go along with it.

There’s also a Formula One race car simulator along with classic games like air hockey, billiards and shuffleboard. The patio faces onto the Toronto Railway Museum, fits 400 people and has a ping-pong table. There are also plenty of cool meeting spaces aimed at corporate clients and a stage area for live musical and comedy acts.

“You can have a party for 10 people or 1,000 people here. It’s very flexible,” says Jacob.

Despite all the eye candy, Cineplex insists that the Rec Room is a “food first” destination that goes above and beyond the popcorn and Nibs offered at the movies. The Rec Room has an upscale casual restaurant with one of the largest wood-fired grills in Canada, and there’s also counter service including a pizzeria where the oven imported from Italy cooks pies in 90 seconds and plenty of poutine (the lobster version costs $ 18). A custom doughnut bar with Canadiana type ingredients like maple and bacon serves up decadent doughnuts at $ 4 a pop, and for an extra $ 2.75 they will infuse it with a quarter shot of liquor.

Multiple bars throughout the space serve six draft wines and 24 draft beers, including one from next-door neighbour Steam Whistle Brewing, of course. A few old-style British phone booths are parked in various spots but don’t actually have phones since most people have their own. They’re intended as a quiet space to make calls away from the arcade and bar noise.

Points are earned based on play and can be redeemed for kitschy merchandise from retro lunch boxes and Silly Putty to drones and fidget spinners plus all kinds of old-fashioned candy. All spending and redemption also ties in with SCENE, the loyalty program at Cineplex, which has 80 million members across Canada.

Cineplex plans to expand the concept with three more locations over the next two years, and eventually 15 across Canada. The next cities in line for the Rec Room’s expansion plans so far include Mississauga, London, Calgary, a second one in Edmonton at the West Edmonton Mall, and Vancouver.

York University professor Alan Middleton thinks the food and games emporium concept is a positive step for the Toronto company that gets about 75 million patrons annually at 164 theatres across the country. It has also branched out in recent years to everything from food service to digital menu boards at Tim Hortons and McDonalds.

“They’re playing catch up, but there’s no one in North America that’s had the lead in this area,” says Middleton.

“The question with the Rec Room is do they have enough to attract people on a regular basis. Like the movies, what’s important is the frequency in which they go,” he notes.

Cineplex estimates Toronto’s Rec Room will make about $ 10.8 million a year in revenue from both food and attractions — basically as much as it cost per square foot ($ 240) to build the place. The company also expects the average amount customers will spend to be higher than at the movies, where it was $ 15.49 per person in the last quarter.

“The cinemas are still a great business and they are still the largest portion of our business,” says Jacob.

“We just wanted to morph from a movie theatre business into an entertainment destination. When you think of a movie theatre, you’re entertaining people on different sized screens and you’re feeding them. This is at a different scale and with different options but it’s still about entertaining the guests and making sure they have an awesome experience when they’re with us,” he says.

As for the slow start to the year at the box office in North America, he points out that the chain has a big summer ahead full with a big blockbuster every week for the next six weeks, including sequels to Planet of the Apes and Spiderman. And the year will end with a bang with the next Star Wars instalment; the last one catapulted Cineplex to a record year in 2015.

TORONTO STAR | BUSINESS

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