Few people can match the global experience of Mariam El Bacha, currently Director of Operations at MBO Cinemas in Malaysia. Her career spans four continents, including working at Village Cinemas and Hoyts in her native Argentina, three years at Vue in the UK, then Gold Class General Manager at Village Cinemas in Australia, Director of Operations at CGV in Vietnam, where she helped launch both the loyalty programme and online payment portal, before ending up in Malaysia.
El Bacha’s responsibilities span widely, including cinema projects, staff training, F&B, programming team involvement and procurement. She ranked 17th in CJ’s Top 25 Women in the Cinema Business this year. Celluloid Junkie caught up with this exhibitor globetrotter to ask about cross-border learnings, team building in Asia, how MBO sets itself aside and how you can use Lionel Messi to connect to people.
Celluloid Junkie: What is your first memory of the cinema?
Mariam El Bacha: My father would take us out to watch Disney movies in a cinema in Buenos Aires, that would only show Disney movies, in Avenida Santa Fe. We would watch Cinderella, Snow White and all the Disney classics. It was a one screen hall, with 1400 seats approximately and I remember there was always a guy that would sell “concessions” in a tray inside the cinema. We still call him Cocacolero (meaning person that sells coca cola) But we would by Ice-cream and chocolate peanuts, not popcorn. That came later with the multiplex era in Argentina.
CJ: What qualities or skills do you feel helps you to be a good Director of Operations?
Mariam El Bacha: I’m trying to figure them out everyday!!!! I think that you need to know your business, if you are going to tell a staff to sell a ticket or popcorn in a certain way, you need to be able to walk the talk. Lead by example and never be afraid of get your hands dirty. I enjoy being in the cinema working side by side with the team, I use it as a moment to reflect on how we work and what systems we need to put in place to improve operations, service time, or customer flow. And it does works as a double win because the staff appreciate the help from someone in my position.
My biggest challenge is to be patient. Habits take time to change, so you need to ensure you are consistent in your message and your behaviour.
CJ: Your background involves working for major cinema operators in Argentina, UK, Australia and Vietnam. What are the most important learning you have picked up from such a varied geographical background? Any major similarities or differences?
Mariam El Bacha: People love movies, they are passionate about this magical world, and I love to watch that reaction, everywhere around the world is the same, but different too..
Even in a same country, different cinemas cater for a demographic that behaves totally different. And that is important to understand, because you can plan your team, product, movies accordingly.
With the team, always give them space to grow, and develop within the cinema business. I’m proud to have ex-colleagues, (now friends) from the cinema business, that I’ve recruited as part time staff, and today are in high management positions around the world.
CJ: What are the key challenges facing the Malaysian cinema market and how is MBO Cinemas responding to them?
Mariam El Bacha: Malaysia is a very competitive and established cinema market, so the challenge is how to be distinctive in a market where you have heavy competition in terms of price and quality. You need to offer differential value to stay ahead, get the right cinema location, offer service that makes people say.. yes, I choose MBO rather than others, and you also have to do all these considering price. Malaysian are sensitive to price. So you have to find the right balance, between service, value and price. And when you have tough competition, it is even more challenging.
CJ: With regards to retail and customer service, how do you approach challenges of staff training, team building and communicating excellence?
Mariam El Bacha: Customer service is always a challenge.
I found that in Malaysia, I needed to work with my team to enhance their Attitude. They knew cinema business, but they were a step behind on their approach to their role.
So we started a programmed called Visual Conscious Leadership Development Program, (VCLDP) Our management team at sites go through this program, developing certain skills like managing people, communication, Creativity and Innovation. In each course we make emphasis in the right attitude. We centre on the Being, rather than the Having. Because the “Have” is a action of your attitude (Being).
Each of them are coached, (and this is the first time they are ever coached in their lives!). Each manager has to work on achieving 2 goals through out the 6 month program. One personal, one professional.
With this training we aim at improving the lifestyle of our cinema teams. Working in cinemas, is always very time consuming and we always work until odd hours and that creates a few issues at home.
Coaching our teams to be able to balance both work and personal life, creates more focused managers. The goal of the program is to create leaders that are an example for their teams and constantly striving for improvement, understand their role and accountabilities and who are not shy of any challenge.
In Vietnam, it was different, people have the right attitude but didn’t know much of the business. So you have to adapt to each team according to their needs.
CJ: What activity takes up most of your time in your current position?
Mariam El Bacha: Currently, and since we are in an expansion phase, Building and Refurbishing locations is the area that takes most of my time, and quite frankly, I’m having the best time of my life. I get to design cinemas from inception phase, work with the different teams to develop locations that will have an impact in the community they will be built on. It is always exciting to build cinemas.
CJ: Which current cinema trends keep you the most excited?
Mariam El Bacha: I get excited about the customer behaviour trends. How people watch movies, how they interact with us, how we can implement retail concepts in cinemas to enhance that trend and make us move forward.
We are now working in a project of multi concept cinema, with a big lobby, full of spaces for customers to interact, stay and eventually consume before and after they watched a movie.
CJ: As both a woman and a foreigner do you face more challenges when working in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, or are there benefits to being an outsider?
Mariam El Bacha: As a foreigner it is tough to be in a country where you don’t speak the national language. I’ve tried to learn Vietnamese, but my pronunciation was so bad, I would always ended up insulting people! In Malaysia, it is better because most of my team is fluent in english so I only need to learn a few words that are key… like makan makan? (street malay for “had food, eaten yet?”) or the famous OK LAH, And I’m good at both, bringing a smile in people faces every time I mentioned them.
I also find that being Argentinean helps a lot. As soon as I say I’m Argentinean people automatically liked me because of Messi or Maradona, and it is easier for me to connect with people through football. Believe it or not. You have to always find a way to connect, and if you try, and you have the right intention, people will see you and will be willing to engage.
CJ: My experience of working in different Asian territories is that junior staff tend to be very hard working, but often afraid to take initiative or think outside the box. Has that also been your experience too and how do you overcome that?
Mariam El Bacha: Yes, that is true. Mostly is because in Asian territories the voice of the “Boss” cannot be argued. The key is not to get angry when things go wrong, giving certainty that if we try something new, we will always learn from it. When my team comes with an idea, I always say: “Ok, Let’s try it out. Worst comes to worst, we get to know one more way on how NOT to do it”. It is important to give the space for this conversation to happen, then people eventually come forward, when they feel you will have their back no matter the result.
CJ: How then do you communicate best practices and recognise excellence within your organisation?
Mariam El Bacha: We recognise our team in different areas, with rewards and certificates. Concessions sales, group sales, vouchers sales, cinema service, Improvement of sales both in tickets and concessions year on year. We set targets for our team to achieve through a balance scorecard system that recognises achievements in sales, cost efficiency, quality and people and we reward accordingly with a bonus scheme based on those results.
We review also our cinemas and we share best practices and innovation from one cinema to the other. Encouraging people to develop the culture of sharing their successes as well as their failures to ensure everyone can learn from it.
CJ: MBO faces a very competitive market against the likes of TGV and Golden Screen. How does the cinema distinguish itself and does retail and service play a major role in this?
Mariam El Bacha: As I said, Malaysia is a very competitive market and both TGV and GSC are solid cinema operators. We have to be very creative, through our customer service, Loyalty Program, concession offers and session times. And whilst location is still the number one choice for people, price is also influential, so our offers are always pushing for a good deal for customers.
CJ: Are you a believer of social media and new online and mobile platforms, both internally and also externally? Can you give some examples?
Mariam El Bacha: We are pushing our social media platforms through different channels, like Facebook, YouTube, Line, Instagram and WeChat, and most importantly through the direct line of communication with have with our AllStar members (our loyalty membership program).
All our promotions are communicated online, consistently in all mentioned channels as well as with our partners.
CJ: How are you taking onboard feedback from customers and turning this into improvements of offerings at MBO?
Mariam El Bacha: Our team in Customer Service scan all customers queries, comments, complaints, suggestions from our different social media channels and then sends this to the relevant areas to be answered accordingly.
With our training team, we review both mystery shopper results and all customer queries and identify trends that need adjusting and we work on those areas to improve, developing training programs or changing steps or procedures.
CJ: Is there a value in trade shows like CineAsia and CinemaCom, if so, what’s been the greatest learnings there in the past year?
Mariam El Bacha: Yes, there is. You get to see what others cinema operators are doing around the world, thanks to the seminars that are part of the program for each convention. You also get to see the line up of each major studio up until 18 to 24 months ahead and that helps you to budget accordingly the coming years. And you get to meet with different suppliers, test equipment, see different products. So, if you cannot afford to go to all of them, at least attend the one that is closer to your country.
CJ: Who do you look up to, either inside the cinema industry or outside, as a business leader?
Mariam El Bacha: My mentor in cinema business is Kurt Rieder. He was my boss in Argentina and ever since then he has played a big role in my professional life. He helped me to start my international career.
EngHee Lim, my MBO CEO, is a great challenger and doesn’t miss a beat and mostly because he is my family in Malaysia. And I care about that more than anything.
And in my life, I’ve found that my mother Sarita, always gives me the best advice. She could have been an amazing CEO of any company.
CJ: Do you feel optimistic about the future of the cinema business?
Mariam El Bacha: The Cinema business is one of the most exciting in the world. Technologies are here to come, revolutionise and move on, but the cinema experience is still hard to copy or package in a smaller device. It is not the same to watch a movie over the phone than at a cinema, with a giant screen, a comfortable seat, pristine sound and fresh crunchy popcorn. It is a social experience that you want to share with your friends and family. When you are watching a movie, and you laugh at the same time as the other 400 people in the room, it is sort of magic. Movies have the chance to touch our hearts in a very special way, to the point we still remember the time when we watched a movie that made an impact in our lives.
CJ: Thank you for talking to us.