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Q&A with new Chuck E. Cheese CEO David McKillips

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for restaurants and family entertainment centers, so you can expect a company that combines them to be in defensive mode right now. On the contrary, Chuck E. Cheese – the world-renowned arcade pizza chain – continues to roll out a radical redesign of all of its locations, with an emphasis on interactive video technology and original seasonal content. Recently, the redesign arrived at Orlando’s International Drive, where we got to interview Chuck E. Cheese CEO David McKillips, who recently took over after a career including SeaWorld, DC Comics and Six Flags.

Photos of Seth Kubersky

What brought you to Chuck E. Cheese in early 2020? It is a very difficult time to access a CEO position. How has it been for you over the past year and a half in this role?

Well, like everyone in the industry, it has certainly been a tough time, but I joined Chuck E. Cheese in January 2020. And in March, as you know, we were shutting down and then by the following, we went through a financial reorganization too. The capital structure simply was not designed to last during a pandemic. But we managed to navigate that. We emerged at the end of December, and then this year was all about managing the takeover, keeping our employees and guests safe. And now, reinvent the brand as you see it today.

How Chuck E. Cheese did. You’ve closed for a while; how many locations have you reopened now? What has been the trajectory for you during this last quarter?

All of our sites are now open in the United States and Canada, and virtually all of them are also open to the international market. So that’s a very good thing.

You know, during the pandemic, we had to think differently. We were one of the first national brands to launch a virtual kitchen, the namesake of which comes from Pasqually himself, so it’s “Pasqually’s Pizza and Wings”. It was one of the first virtual kitchens here that works from each of our locations. It was a way for us to continue to put our people to work and care for them as we reopen our doors and invite customers to come back to the experience now.

At Chuck E., we’re all about entertainment. We’re all about the games, and we top that off with some great food, but it’s all about the celebration. So the birthday business is starting to come back, and we are picking up in various areas on different trajectories. We opened in California much later than we opened here in Florida or Texas, and so on. So we just run a large fleet of over 450 stores here in the United States. We manage throughout the supply chain, we manage through work, and we delight our customers, and that is most important.

international training

Tell me a bit about the redesign. It’s the first to hit the Orlando market, but you’ve been rolling out this model since even before the pandemic. What was the design philosophy when you chose this renovation? What were the key features you wanted to deploy?

The company therefore carried out various tests before the pandemic. We looked at the performance of the venues, took a look at guest ideas with kids and moms, our primary target audience, and then made a post-pandemic decision on how we’re going to reinvent this brand.

We wanted to bring technology into the experience, […] but the intention was all about the entertainment. Anyone can build an arcade, but you just can’t build a Chuck E. Cheese. He is therefore the star of the series. When you come here we wanted to make sure we had the experience through the eyes of a five year old. We have the best games – we’re actually the biggest arcade in the world, we have two billion gameplays – so we want to make sure we have the best games here. We now have a digital dance floor, floor-to-ceiling monitors that stream all original Chuck E. Cheese content, as well as third-party music content.

And then we really embraced the technology. We launched a new app [where] you will be able to order in store, you can [now] delivery and fulfillment of orders. We have a brand new loyalty program. We also have cashless payment processing and have just upgraded to technological advancements across the space.

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Tell me more about entertainment content. I have noticed that the puppet segments are of very high quality, like the Henson quality work. Plus, you have an original video, and there’s a seasonal component as well. What are your plans to keep this type of content up to date throughout the year?

I’ll start with seasonal. One of the pillars of our new strategy was to celebrate the “four seasons of fun”. It’s just like the theme park industry, which I worked in for a few decades. We really want to give you a reason to come multiple times a year, and we do that by redecorating the whole concept from an entertainment perspective, as well as some of the sets you see.

We have “Springtastic;” “Chuck E. Cheese Summer of Fun; »Our” Halloween Spooktacular “, which we are building to be the number one family entertainment Halloween destination for young children and families – it will take time to build over the years – and we are getting ready to start what you see today, the Winter Wonderland, where every child is a winner. Each child receives a play piece and we are giving away thousands of prizes and millions of dollars. We are really excited about this.

Speaking of entertainment, we’ve really put an emphasis on the content and quality of entertainment here at Chuck E. Cheese. So you are 100% right, it is a high entertainment experience. You can see it from a technological point of view with the digital screens throughout the store as well as the interactive dance floor. We mix the best of entertainment, music, and of course the star of the show is Chuck E. Cheese. We also present this online, every Friday we do “Chuck E. Cheese Fun Break” and we are now on YouTube Kids with all of our content. During the pandemic, we released two albums which you can also find on iTunes and Spotify.

So it’s transmedia; find you at home and find you in store.

Absoutely. And for the first time, we brought the characters out of the four walls. We did a musical tour of five cities and it was spectacular. We started here in Florida in Clearwater, at the beach, and we’ve taken them all over the country and it’s been very well received by the guests.

Tell me about games. What are you looking for when deciding what type of arcade machines you want to use? How do you keep up with trends and give kids something they can’t just get from a video game console or smartphone they have at home?

We have a great relationship with all of the major manufacturers and in fact we are the biggest buyer of arcade games in the world. We all love to meet them and we are truly unique because […] we need games, rides and attractions for a younger audience, and we also have kids who enjoy traditional sports games and arcade games.

We’re looking for some great properties that we can look to develop and right now we’re thinking long term and actually meeting with some of the IP owners, so the toy companies, the studios, to start developing exclusive games for our audience. More precisely.

What is most important to Chuck E. Cheese is that we all celebrate families and good times together. So we really want to build on multiplayer games where parents and kids can play together, that’s really, really important to us and that’s what we’re going to buy this year.

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The Chuck E. Cheese I grew up with was the place with the animatronic characters, and based on pop culture “tributes” like “Five Nights at Freddy’s” or the Nicolas Cage movie “Willy’s Wonderland”, it There is obviously still an adult audience that has a connection to the Chuck E. Cheese of the 80s. Have you ever thought about doing something for this audience that maybe doesn’t come here with their kids, but still has a link with the brand?

Well, this brand has such a rich history and has been entertaining generation after generation now. Four generations have passed through Chuck E. Cheese. We understand that animatronics is an important part of the innovation that was once the original Chuck E. Cheese, and continues to be. We’re still going to be looking at the significance of the character, and there might be a place later where we can reimagine that, but for now, thanks to our ideas and the new generation of guests from Chuck E. Cheese, we’re looking to bring this in a digital format. But we certainly have over 300 restaurants right now that have animatronics. We have only renovated 100 of these locations.

But as the renovations go on, are these animatronics being removed?

They are retired.

Is there a warehouse somewhere with all the old animatronics?

Some secrets I can’t share.

It could be a movie!