CEC Entertainment, the parent company of iconic US FEC chain Chuck E. Cheese, appointed David McKillips as its new chief executive officer in January.
In the run-up to Halloween, David McKillips spoke to blooloop about the brand’s seasonal plans and the pivot necessitated by COVID-19. He also talked about the exciting future that is ahead for Chuck E. Cheese and its much-loved mascot.
McKillips has over 25 years of experience in the family entertainment, media and theme park sector.
Before joining CEC he was president of the International Development Company for Six Flags Entertainment. Here, he was responsible for the operational management of all properties outside the US. He also served as Six Flags senior vice president of in-park services, leading the food and beverage, retail, games and procurement functions across theUS parks.
Previously, after achieving a BA degree in communication studies from the University of Georgia and post-graduate certificates in marketing and finance from New York University, he served as vice president of advertising and custom publishing sales for DC Comics. McKillips has also held multiple leadership roles within Sea World Entertainment and Sesame Place.
Chuck E. Cheese
On his new role at Chuck E. Cheese, David McKillips says:
“This role is a great opportunity. I joined the company in January, and it really is the perfect culmination of everything I have ever done throughout my career right here in one building. CEC Entertainment operates more than 700 restaurants throughout the world. We have two brands: Peter Piper Pizza, and – of course – Chuck E. Cheese, our flagship brand.”
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Chuck E. Cheese is firmly established as a bright star in the firmament of the US FEC sector.
“Chuck E. Cheese is, in the US, an absolute staple. It has been operating for 43 years and is the largest Family Entertainment Centre in the world. We have 2 billion gameplays every single year and see more than 50 million people annually. It’s unbelievable.
“We have over 500 corporately owned stores, and 78 locations outside the United States, with stores in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There are also multiple locations in South America: we are in Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico. We’ll have some announcements on that topic to share with you a little bit later this year,” he teases.
One famous mouse
Chuck E. Cheese is the world’s number one birthday destination for children in the world. However, at present, the parties have to be enjoyed at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. What is it about the Chuck E. Cheese formula that makes it so compelling to children and families?
“We are, of course, known for our arcades,” says McKillips. “Each location has anywhere between 90 and 100 games. And then we’ve got a great menu of really terrific food. We’re well known for our pizza, of course, but we’ve got a great menu of additional items. And then we’ve got entertainment value for the whole family that is really directed towards kids.”
The mouse mascot, Chuck E. Cheese is the star of the show.
“In pre-COVID times, he would come out every single hour. He’s the rockstar, and that’s the differentiating point: the brand awareness for Chuck E. Cheese.”
“We have the four elements of entertainment: our dining, our arcade, our dance show, and our entertainment show. Lastly, we have our gift shop. This has a lot of exclusive items that are branded for Chuck E. Cheese and his friends.”
Chuck E. Cheese & COVID-19
The pandemic, and the necessary pivot to a less hands-on model, was a formidable challenge to the brand.
“It was incredibly difficult, there is no doubt,” says David Mckillips. “This has been the most challenging time ever in the four decades of CEC Entertainment. We closed down all of our FECs worldwide in mid-March, and we had to move and pivot the business to off-premises.
This has been the most challenging time ever in the four decades of CEC Entertainment
“With most pizza companies, their expertise is carried out in delivery, and that’s just not part of our business model. It never has been, because we host people, and entertain them as part of our offering.
“So we had to completely pivot the organization, and we did. We signed deals with all of the third-party delivery companies, offered a special carry-out value meal, and reopened all of our locations just for carry-out and delivery.”
A new pizza brand
It was, he says, a huge pivot in a short amount of time:
“The Chuck E. Cheese pizza brand is really for families with young kids and is outside the consideration set for your traditional pizza consumer. One of the things we did, therefore, was we launched a brand called Pasquale’s pizza and wings. We positioned it as bold flavours with a grownup taste.
“It is a virtual kitchen brand; a different pizza with a new recipe, more sauce, different blends of cheese, Italian seasonings, and now seven different wing flavours. This allowed us to attract the traditional pizza and wing consumer with a completely new brand. It has been brilliant.”
“We reopened some of our restaurants in mid-June, and have approximately 315 locations open for full dining and gameplay right now. Around 60% of our locations are open, but that means 40% are closed. It’s still very, very difficult for the company, but we are putting measures in place.
“We have limited capacity in our venues. We’re taking temperatures at the door, we’re asking every single guest to wear masks. Plus, we’re upgrading air filters in all our open locations to MERV 13. This is a hospital-grade air filter, which traps microbiological particles.”
The Afternoon Fun Break with Chuck E. Cheese
With some regret, the decision has been made to suspend the character programme for the moment:
“It’s really hard because Chuck E. Cheese is the heart and soul of our entertainment offering. In the meantime, we also looked at how to bring the brand to our fans.”
The answer was to launch the Afternoon Fun Break with Chuck E. Cheese.
“It can be found on our social channels or YouTube Kids, where we have Chuck E. Cheese and friends entertaining our guests at home and online. This was a great way to keep in touch with our guests, and to keep them entertained. We also launched the Chuck E. Cheese shop.com as well. It is the first time that we had a retail offering online.”
The shop sells themed masks for children, toys, T-shirts, socks, gifts, and partyware.
“All that is in addition to the parties, carry out and delivery that we can send to homes We wanted to make sure that the full Chuck E. Cheese experience was still within reach, both delivered and online, and in-person, as we reopened all of our dining rooms safely so that the guests could come in and visit us as well.”
As this was being put in place, David McKillips and his team were looking for ways to bring a touchless or contactless experience to venues:
“We launched online ordering via mobile, and then the second thing we did is to phase out our paper ticket programme, and to move to e-tickets.”
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This was a huge announcement for the company:
“It was something that was part of our strategic plan moving forward. But we made the decision to expedite it, making sure that we could launch it as we were reopening locations. All of our locations in the United States and Canada and some of our international markets right now are moving to the e-ticket platform.
“This is important for our guests. It’s safer, it’s cleaner, it’s greener, and it is being well received by guests. They’re thanking us for making that move.”
Gaming at Chuck E. Cheese
“One is our Chuck E. Cheese Skate Universe,” says McKillips. “It’s a fun and entertaining game for kids. We have millions of gameplays on it, and this is something that, between visits, allows us a great brand connection to our guests. And in addition to having interactive games on the app store, as part of our Afternoon Fun Break, we have live games with Chuck E. Cheese, and downloadable activity sheets and games to play at home as well.”
Gaming also has a role in drawing people back as the lockdown eases and people return to the venues, albeit in a socially distanced and mindful manner.
“It’s part of that whole entertainment experience. We have anywhere between 90 and 100 games, many of which are customised to the Chuck E. Cheese experience.
“Our demographic is very young, anywhere between three and eight years old. So we have participatory games, and, for a slightly older audience, we have traditional games such as Alley Rollers. Then there are sports games. What we really try to encourage is participatory play between parents and kids.”
A ‘Boo-tacular’ experience
One of Chuck E. Cheese’s long-term strategic goals has been to launch major special events. The first of these fully immersive occasions is Halloween, as the venue lays on all conceivable tricks and treats to provide a Boo-tacular experience.
Taking a slurp from a pumpkin-shaped mug, David McKillips says:
“This year we had to be a little different. The original strategy was to be a fully immersive destination for three-to-eight-year-olds: the number one Halloween destination in the world.”
The pandemic meant this had to be reshaped:
“We had to think differently, and to make sure that Halloween is being delivered safely and can be enjoyed in a venue, or in the 300 plus stores that we have open, and we also had to make sure that experience could be brought home and enjoyed online. It was a real challenge this year.”
“As you walk into our venues, they will be fully decorated – not too scarily, because we’re talking about young kids, but fully decorated nevertheless. Then we re-did and re-imagined our entire menu, with all kinds of fun foods. Chuck E. Cheese is where a kid can be a kid. Our mission is to deliver fun in every single experience.”
“We have Boo-tacular throughout all our menu items. We have a new pumpkin-shaped pepperoni pizza that is just so cute; Candy Corn-Colored Orange Cotton Candy; a Boo-tacular Brownie, and an Eye Scream dessert with gummy worms.
“We’re also bringing in custom masks for Halloween, with little vampire teeth. Kids can wear costumes. They’re each going to get a treat bag, but here’s where it gets really fun: we have brand new entertainment content.”
The entertainment and show is a big part of the Chuck E. Cheese experience. The Halloween month of October has seen the debut of ‘Mr. Munch’s Monster Mash-Up,’ an exciting new entertainment show including vignettes, music videos, and a Boo-tastic Dance every hour.
McKillips says: “We produced and executed all the content with all the safety measures in mind: six-foot distances between dancers, masks are worn, and all CDC guidelines followed.
“It was a challenge. I applaud our entertainment and marketing teams that have worked so hard to create experiences that could be enjoyed in person or at home.”
The growth of Chuck E. Cheese
McKillips envisages the pandemic experience will drive long-term change in a number of ways.
“There’s no question that digital needs to be a complementary brand extension to Chuck E. Cheese,” he says. “Our long-term goals are, essentially, to grow the Chuck E. Cheese brand. We’re the number one family entertainment brand in the world; we want to expand internationally.”
Our long-term goals are, essentially, to grow the Chuck E. Cheese brand
“I don’t want to have a United States brand that has an international division. I really want Chuck E. Cheese to be a global family entertainment brand. We are having those discussions now, even in the pandemic, which is so exciting. When the pandemic is over, we’ll be well-positioned to expand all over the world.”
Looking to the future
The brand has a successful remodelling programme in the US.
“We are going to continue to look at reinvesting in our locations to modernise them, and to bring in digital technology,” says McKillips.
“The last thing that I’m super-excited about is that, of course, Chuck E. Cheese is known for its family entertainment centres, but we are now, in addition, launching an entertainment division, looking at how we license and create original content for animation, for features, for consumer products, toys, games, and other areas of entertainment.”
The entertainment division will focus initially on merchandising. But its goal will be to turn Chuck E. Cheese, the mouse familiar to millions of 3-8-year-olds, into a movie star.
As David McKillips says:
“When we think about how we can grow this, there really is no ceiling.”