Marrying function and technology, modern cinema seating helps to shape the experience. Peter Knight discusses developments in the sector with Ferco’s CEO Tim Barr.
Words: Peter Knight
Venues are powerful spaces explains Tim Barr, straight off the bat, “People go to venues to be entertained. To be carried away. They come to learn. To collaborate. The right space can create immersive experiences. It can also generate world-changing ideas. It’s why we’re passionate about designing the seating that fills these spaces.”
With that ethos, it’s easy to see why Ferco Seating enjoys a strong position in the seating business. Experience gained from working across multiple sectors including sports and education allows Ferco’s team to learn from each separate area and put that knowledge into use across its range. That helps the company stay at the forefront — in April Ferco signed a seating distribution agreement with CinemaNext which, in Tim’s view, is a step forward in driving business growth based on shared goals of excellence and innovation.
A changing industry
The biggest technological changes in cinema in recent decades, such as the introduction of Dolby Atmos, IMAX and digital projection, have snaffled precious budgets over the years, but now the focus in many auditoria is on seating.
As is widely recognised, demand for luxury seating has increased significantly in the past decade. This changing demands can be seen directly in the Ferco showroom, as Tim explained. The company has seating from the 1930s right through to its contemporary products. In recent years the requirements of the exhibition business have changed. First came the introduction of food service — meaning tables and holders — and next has come the dominance of the recliner to the point that these now represent the majority of sales. With the introduction of the multiplex, requirements for seating changed, too. Now, to satisfy different price points, it is the norm to see more than one type of seating feature within the auditorium.
“Today’s cinemagoers are becoming more and more aware about luxury seating that cinemas provide,” says Tim, giving the example of Ferco’s Premium Verona model that can accommodate iPads and swivel tables in the armrests, “These allow patrons to order food and drinks conveniently and eat in comfort without the need for waiting staff to take orders. Initially, take-up of electric recliners, such as those we recently installed in Novo Cinemas in the UAE, was slow. Exhibitors were busy investing in digital equipment. Now they are turning their attention to increasing attendance and revenue by providing luxury recliners and dining served at seat. With this in mind we have developed a range of electric seats, which can be customised to suit the aspirations of individual exhibitors. Advanced seating not only reduces the cost of the exhibitor’s wage bill, but more importantly enhances the customers’ experience — and this can help drive them into the cinema time and again.”
Seating helps to differentiate
With most cinemas showing the same movies and selling similar beverages, seating is one of very few points of differentiation exhibitors can deploy. Customers will now select a location based on how comfortable the seating is and overlook other sites in the process. Though the trend is for more recliners, Tim still believes demand will remain for standard seating, not least because in a number of countries there persists a legal requirement to have different prices — but even the ‘standard’ seats are seeing upgrades with gliding options now added. Auditoria are being installed with a variety of seating including armchair and child-specific seating and, for some cinemas (notably in Australia), child-focused auditoria.
Innovation in seating
A seat’s just a seat, right? Wrong. Seating has come a long way since the mid-1980s and the dawn of the multiplex. Seating is as much about adding value to the cinema and the customer as anything else — you could say it has a real impact on the bottom line. Thoughtful technology is now commonplace, such as USB ports in the seating to allow customers to charge their phones while they watch a film.
As Tim pointed out, most customers watch films at the end of the day when batteries on their mobile are likely to be running low. It might only be a simple addition, but such touches helps to define and improve the customer experience. Beyond traditional seating and their new ranges of recliners, Ferco also provides seating for the 4DX and DBox systems, which then add their own electronic systems for installation into the auditorium, and, in the process bringing a whole new dimension to cinemagoing.
Regulations and safety
Understandably, furniture installed in public spaces must adhere to strict safety regulations, a point heightened by recent news headlines of a tragic accident in a cinema in the UK in March (see panel, overleaf). Aside from exceeding fire regulations, Ferco recliners incorporate an auto-return system that quickly returns to position together with a safety bar that stops the mechanism if it is obstructed.
Ferco has established a strong team of professional designers, craftsmen and quality control specialists to ensure its systems meet the highest standards for durability and quality, with an R&D department that continuously tests all materials used to ensure they meet internationally accepted British Standards.
Alongside this, Ferco conducts component testing for rough handling and tip-up mechanisms to name a few. With 200,000 cycles of testing the norm, it can take up to 6 weeks of 24/7 testing for each product to go through the process, including fire testing. Ferco does not just make seating for cinemas, but for a other venues too, including sports stadia. A notoriously tough environment for seating, learnings from the football terraces — and a solid testing regime — help ensure Ferco’s cinema lines are fit for purpose and the rigours of day-in-day out use.
Working with the customer
Visitors to CinemaCon, CineEurope and other exhibition-focused shows will appreciate that seating stands are often the most dominant on the trade floor. It’s a competitive market, so how does Ferco differentiate its offering?
For Tim, Ferco’s key proposition is an innate understanding of the way seating can define the cinema and be a revenue generator. Through innovation and using experience garnered from other sectors, they aim to deliver a quality product that is both flexible and customised to the client’s specific auditorium.
There is another aspect that’s vital in a seat, too — comfort. As Tim explains: “Cinemas aim to take audiences to a different world. Customers pay to relax and to be transported by a captivating storyline. Comfortable ergonomics play an important role — any discomfort draws attention from the screen. People will shift and fidget. With our study of human physiology, our chairs have been designed and formed specially to counter these issues.”
The maintenance challenge
As technical elements increase, so too does maintenance become more of a challenge. Newer product lines are no longer the simple mechanical devices they once were. Some of the more technically advanced seating requires specialist care and servicing. Fortunately, at Ferco, ease of maintenance is a fundamental consideration. It could be as simple as implementing improvements in the way seats can be cleaned using a leatherette/soft leather. Similarly material improvements make the seats easier to wipe down with just soap and water and also deliver a reduction in cracking over time. When it comes to cleaning, seating has been designed to be lifted simply using a gas lift in pairs, thus making it easier to clean beneath. In the future it will be possible to raise entire rows via a motorised system.
Tim highlighted how maintenance of seats will become more and more critical as their complexity increases. Unlike simple products of the past that could be easily repaired and maintained in-house over a long period of time, technically advanced recliners require regular inspection. More mechanical parts now require checking, servicing and replacing, not to mention the electronic elements, including motors, that have the potential to wear over time.
This technical development could see cinemas needing to enter into a maintenance contract, either an all-inclusive version, or a call-out service with items paid for on a per-visit cost. With chains installing thousands of recliners globally this is going to be a big issue in the next 10 years.
Ferco has deliberately designed its recliners so that control panels are easy to access in order to maintain the seats easily and efficiently, but does more complexity mean we might even see a need to have remote monitoring of seating performance? In much the same way as digital projection has a NOC, could seating demand one also? “The electronic side is easy to monitor but the mechanical would be harder,” says Tim, “In the past Ferco has looked at occupancy monitoring of seating, but it is difficult — but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the future.”
A comfortable future
With the opening up of cinemas in Saudi Arabia (a number of Ferco seats have already been shipped to Box Cinema) and with such developments as the Dine in Cinema in Dubai using celebrity chefs to cater for customers in a cinema environment, there is going to be a constant need for seating to evolve to meet the next set of requirements.
The ideal of the cinema has always been to deliver the most entertaining experience possible. It has firmly always been a seated medium and — as Ferco’s own marketing intimates — state of the art, luxury seating will always provide your audience with unrivalled comfort and aesthetics, and this, in turn, helps contribute to customer loyalty and an enhanced cinema-going experience.