Shelli Taylor is the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an entertainment company providing the best cinematic experience in the world through good food, good beer, and good film in one place. She is an accomplished Fortune 100 executive and also serves as a board member and public speaker. Before Alamo, Shelli spent her 25-year global career with brands like Starbucks Coffee Company, The Walt Disney Company, and Planet Fitness. She is well known for leading high-performance teams through rapid growth and transformation to achieve outsized results.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
Shelli Taylor talks about Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and how it helps people
The Alamo rules and culture and how they were developed
The value of hiring the right talent that aligns with your values, culture, and passion
How Shelli got into the retail space
What drives the best customer experience?
Tips for measuring success
Shelli’s advice for entrepreneurs for winning more customers
In this episode…
Do you find yourself getting distracted in most theaters and being able to fully enjoy the movie? Are there theaters that still offer singular, refined theatrical experiences?
Shelli Taylor believes that a theatre should focus on offering the best guest experiences when setting its rules and culture. As for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, it has gone an extra step to become a dining cinema where food, beer, and film can be enjoyed in one location with dedicated customers. Now Shelli Taylor shares how they deliver the best film experiences to their customers.
In this episode of The Customer Wins, Richard Walker sits down with Shelli Taylor, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, to discuss tips for the best customer experience in the film industry. Shelli talks about Alamo rules and culture and how they were developed, the value of hiring the right talent that aligns with your values, how to drive customer experience, and advice for entrepreneurs on how to win more customers.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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Welcome to The Customer Wins podcast where business leaders discuss their secrets and techniques for helping their customers succeed and in turn grow their business.
Richard Walker 0:16
Hi, I'm Rich Walker, the host of The Customer Wins, where I talk to business leaders about how they help their customers win, and how their focus on customer experience leads to growth. Some of our past guests have included DocuSign and Chief Outsiders. Today I'm speaking with Shelli Taylor, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, and today's episode is brought to you by Quik! the leader in enterprise forms automation, when the last step to earning your clients business requires filling out paperwork. Don't ruin a relationship with a bad experience. Instead, get Quik Forms to make filling out forms a great experience and the easiest part of your transaction, visit quikforms.com to get started. Now I'm excited to introduce my guest, Shelli Taylor is an accomplished fortune 100 executive board member and public speaker. Currently the CEO for Alamo Drafthouse. Her 25-year global career spans the US, China, Taiwan, Starbucks Coffee Company, The Walt Disney Company and Planet Fitness. Shelli is well known for leading high-performance teams through rapid growth and transformation to achieve outsized results. Shelli, welcome to The Customer Wins.
Shelli Taylor 1:24
Hey, thank you, Rich, nice to be here with you.
Richard Walker 1:27
Now, if you haven't heard this podcast before, I talk with business leaders about what they're doing to help their customers win, how they built and deliver a great customer experience. And the challenge is to grow their own company. Now, Shelli, I mean, I know Alamo Drafthouse. I think it's one of my favorite experiences to go have entertainment, but I don't know that everybody else does. So tell us about your business. And fundamentally, how are you helping people?
Shelli Taylor 1:50
Yeah, so if you haven't been to an Alamo, the best way to describe it? Well, first of all, we're the original dining cinema. So what that means is that when you show up, not only do you get to have a great movie, but you also get to have dinner and or drinks deliver to your seat. So what it means for our customers like what's amazing is a couple of things. One, we are a distraction-free zone. So we've really created boundaries, when we think about our guests and the experience we want them to have. And so we have a culture, and we share that culture right up front of our rules. So one you cannot show up late, we won't let you in, we will refund your ticket. And it's not to punish you or someone showing up late, it's to reward everyone in that auditorium who's shown up and wants to have a distraction-free experience. The second thing we do and we put it in and we try to have fun with it, but we're really serious. Laugh all you want cry all you want gasp all you want. But please don't text and talk. Like if you want to do that stay home stream a movie. But once you get to Alamo, we want you to have just like this perfect movie-going experience. And we think we create these boundaries and rules and really our culture, it creates the best guest experience. And it's what distinguishes us from all the other cinema chains out there.
Richard Walker 3:19
I think that's really well put, I haven't talked to other people about customer experience, who said it's about rules and boundaries. And I know with my experience going into your movie theaters that I've learned to show up early, because it's actually more fun to be there early than to be right on time or potentially late and kicked out. How did you guys develop these rules?
Shelli Taylor 3:37
I think there's a couple of ways in which, like the business was founded. I think, first of all, when Tim and Carrie Lee our founders started off, I mean, this was just a dream, they went and found a parking garage in downtown Austin and converted that into a one-theater movie chain. And when they were thinking about it, literally, their attitude was what everything we hate about going to the movies theaters right now, because we love movies, and let's do the absolute opposite. So let's have great food. Let's have lots of beer. That's why draft house is in our name. We've got 24 more taps and all of our theaters with local breweries. So the best of the best and then let's make it really fun. So it started with like, what's the opposite? And then what makes that fun inside which is and you mentioned this you like coming early and a lot of guests don't always recognize why but if you go to another theater chain, you have to watch local or national ads. And when you come to Alamo we've decided not to take that revenue it's an incredible revenue loss to us pure profit right? And we said no, and instead we curate a pre-show which might be funny video. goes, it might be an homage to the movie that you're about to see somehow. But we curate, like this show for 30 minutes or less 20 30, depending on the length of the film that you get to come and see and then used to watch the trailers, which is, of course, very fun, and then the movie that you've paid to see, so we don't hit you with a bunch of ads.
Richard Walker 5:21
Now that's so true. In fact, I've seen some really good homage as to Bollywood films that I've never seen that make me die laughing just and we're not even watching the movie yet. We're watching these like, intro stuff. I think that's really, really clever. You also mentioned culture, and that you actually bring your culture to the customer, which is another interesting concept, because most companies talk about their culture from an inside perspective, is your culture these rules? Or is it something more than that, that you are unable to bring out?
Shelli Taylor 5:48
Yeah, it's a combination, right? Like the experience that your guests have. And the culture that they get to experience starts with the culture you build inside, and they should be seamless. It shouldn't be like you act one way at work, and then you expect your guests experience to be different. And so, one of the things that Tim and Carrie started off again, from the beginning, is really valuing the people that work here in Alamo. So we've always had a culture of fire movie lovers who want to show as many movies that we love to other movie lovers. So it all starts with passion, and then just this commitment to this truly excellent experience. And then that flows over because that's what we want to give our guests so they might not be able to articulate our culture, but they should be experiencing it and feeling it every day.
Richard Walker 6:41
Do you feel that permeates the inside of your headquarters? I mean, down to the accounting department, and people who aren't delivering the actual movie experience?
Shelli Taylor 6:49
Yeah, absolutely. Probably the most intimidating aspect of working at Alamo for me personally, is well, I've grown up going to the movies, and I love going to the movies. Like I'm not a cinephile, like I can't tell you every director and actors names and when a movie was made, and it doesn't matter who you speak with at Alamo, you're going to get some sort of movie trivia in history, that's important to like the experience that you're having in the moment. And it doesn't matter what role people play. So we really do believe that people who come here need to believe deeply in creating great experiences for guests and be in love, not just with Alamo, which is expected, but really with like the whole cinema movie-going experience. So that is part of our success is we hire people that share the same passion. On the other hand, we don't hire people who are all the same. We believe in hiring the smartest, best people, hopefully smarter and better than us, who bring in talents and experiences that we're missing. And so diversity and race and gender and all that. But diversity in thought and skill is also critical. So there's a unified passion. But then with this just relentless pursuit of bringing in just the best people.
Richard Walker 8:17
I love it, I would hate to encounter a trivial pursuit game at your office. I also think about that nobody on my team is talking about their favorite form. That doesn't happen to my company. But I love that you said diversity of thought, because I think about my own company in the sense of how diverse it is, and we don't talk about it. But if you actually peel back the covers and saw how diverse my company is, you'd say, wow, you guys are doing all these different things. But what I care about is, are we bringing the best people to the mix? And are we bringing different perspectives in to really challenge ourselves to be better in what we do. So it's nice to hear that especially with such a successful company like Alamo. Let's go backwards in time. Well, how did you get on this path? I mean, retail is something I can never do. I'm so glad that you do it. But I could never do that. That's not my model. What led you down this path to eventually find your way to Alamo?
Shelli Taylor 9:13
Part, good luck and part following opportunity. When I first graduated from university, I joined the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, which was fabulous to learn great skills and how to act in a business right? But it wasn't my passion. When Starbucks Coffee Company was coming to town and for many people out there, I realized that people think of the behemoth it is today. When I joined we had less than 125 stores. It was before an IPO we weren't profitable. Like we're still trying to figure it out. But I already loved coffee and I had been passionate about coffee since I was four years old. And so I was like holy cow like I could actually get paid to make coffee, I can't think of a better job. Now my dad felt differently. He's like what? Go to university and serve coffee that probably not the smartest thing. But it worked out, right? Because Starbucks continued to grow. And it gave me opportunity to learn. So I was able to bring a passion into a job, but then get the hard skills that were needed. And with each job, I really followed a passion and that passion is people, serving others, helping develop myself and develop others and growing teams in this pursuit of excellence. And so the vehicle in which you express your passion is not as important as finding those vehicles that match your passion and your skill set.
Richard Walker 10:49
So wait, did you start as a barista?
Shelli Taylor 10:51
Almost. I started as an assistant manager. But when you started back, then you had like a pretty serious and long plant training plan to make sure that you were strong and ready before you were unleashed on the guests. So I'm pretty professional, I still would brag today that I think I make one of the best cups of coffee out there Starbucks.
Richard Walker 11:16
I wish I could share in that I'm allergic to coffee, allergic to caffeine. And so I don't have coffee. But that's amazing. So you actually started in a retail store at Starbucks right out of college? And here you are you've done fortune 100 level leadership has amazing. And how far did Starbucks did you go?
Shelli Taylor 11:35
When I left Starbucks, I was the senior vice president for China. So we went from 400 stores to 3000 stores. And at the last couple of years, we're opening 500 stores a year. So pretty big opportunity and role. So I guess I went far.
Richard Walker 11:57
No, that's really I mean, that's such a great success story. But I also imagine that framed a lot of how you view customer interactions, because you've done it globally. You've done it at scale. You've done it with multiple companies, right? What are some of the techniques or processes that you think about that you can use to create an excellent experience for customers? I mean, you have your rules at Alamo, but just in general, what have you learned that you say drives the best customer experience?
Shelli Taylor 12:23
Yeah, I think is the hardest part of business is that people always want to innovate, and focus on Strategy. And there's a reason to do that, and a time to do it. But it has to also be balanced with like culture and execution. And so when I look at what we did at Starbucks, when we were in China, in the early days before we truly thought we could grow at the rate we were, we came in humble yet arrogant, because we brought in our value proposition. And we said, we're gonna sell coffee in China. And that 1.2 billion population smiled back and said, what's to solve? We don't know what coffee is, and we don't like it when we try it. You can't fill your doors up if you're trying to sell coffee to a population that doesn't want coffee. So we flipped the business model around and we said, okay, we have to truly understand Starbucks, because we're not there to stand up a new business, and not look like Starbucks. But yeah, we needed to be able to hold our brand and the guests, the customer experience deeply inside our hearts and our minds, and then look at our customers and understand how could we change that offering in a way that would resonate? So at the time, China was just opening up. And what people wanted the most was to experience Western culture and to be seen with friends and giving gifts and experiences. So we were bound by Starbucks corporate, the average size store at that point in time was capped at I think 12 to 1500 square feet. So we went back and said, well, guess what, that won't work in China, we need to build three to 5000 square feet stores, they need to look like a Starbucks. And we need to start bringing in elements from China from an architectural art perspective. And so blend the two worlds. The second thing, so creating that community experience and a place where people could come in with five or six people and hosting guests, really give them that experience. So give them the face and that Western experience. And then we needed to change our beverages. So we still serve coffee and lattes. But we looked at flavors that would resonate inside the country which might not resonate inside the US. So we created a different type of wolf-style lattes, but a beverage recipe menu that really focused on their tastes and likes. So by creating an experience that they wanted, and then an accessible product that got them in the door, and that's what led to our success, because we found that way to blend the US really kind of our brand and values, but with huge respect for China and what they wanted.
Richard Walker 15:20
I think that's fascinating, because I've seen a lot of companies fumble on that they don't listen to the customer well enough. And not only did you listen to the customer, but you went back introspectively and said, who are we? What is it we really bring to the table? I heard somebody say this a while back, I don't know how true it is from inside Starbucks perspective. But they said, the brand of Starbucks is renting space, I go to Starbucks, so I can have a space where I can sit with my coffee, do my homework, work on my laptop, take a phone call, I'm experiencing a different space, I'm really renting, whatever, 10 square feet five square feet of my space. That's why I paid for the coffee. It wasn't the flavor of the coffee, per se. So I just heard you say this about China, like you are creating a space for people to really engage and interact the way that they want to. So I think that's amazing. How did you measure success? I mean, is it just raw dollars? I mean, how do you measure if people are truly liking your products and services? And like I think revenue is easy to look at. But what are the other things you say are working or not working?
Shelli Taylor 16:19
Right? So what goes to the bank is revenue, right and EBITA. But the other tangible ways to measure success would be like the Net Promoter Score. You can look at frequency, how many new customers versus repeat customers you have, you can look at teammate engagement scores. So there's many, many ways in which you can measure it. I think the true measure of success is when you're actually inside your business. And talking to your teammates, and your guests, and you hear things back that you're trying to instill. And so one of the things so what most people don't know and people in Austin here, if you're listening in Austin, you're probably going to be surprised. We actually have 39 locations across the United States. And when we go into a theater somewhere else, I hear this all the time, people are so surprised. So like, what do you mean, there's more locations, I thought this was my local theater. And that's exactly what we want people to feel like we're they're creating an experience for them, and no one else in the world. And so when you hear that type of feedback, and that end, you're getting the revenue and EBITA right. Like you have to have those. But when you start to hear the things parroted back without having to unsolicited, that's when you understand that you're hitting the mark.
Richard Walker 17:45
I feel that that's also a measure of the success of your company culture. When your customers reflect back the cultural tenants or the values that you have, I feel like you're really living and breathing your culture, and it's coming out. Right, the truth is being said. That's really amazing. Yeah, 39 locations, right? Especially us in Austin. We're like, Oh, I know of two locations, maybe three, and I looked online, there's like six or something, I believe into one, it's the only one I want to go to second, right? It's my local movie theater. Are there other companies, Shelli that are inspiring you that you look to and model for great experience, or even bad ones just to avoid, because like you said, you guys started from the sound point of, I don't want to do that, the bad experiences?
Shelli Taylor 18:29
I think there's lots of great experiences. And I'm not sure that there's like a singular company that I think about, but rather I've noticed every detail as a guest or a customer. So if I go to a restaurant, and they've taken an extra step and do something to surprise and delight, like I will notice that and think about that and wonder how we can learn from it. I think about e-commerce the same when you receive a package, and I received one the other day, it came three days earlier than they told me. And then on the receipt there, my name was handwritten with a little smiley note. I don't know who taught, I don't know what their company culture is. But I can tell you I stopped and smiled. I was like, oh, this is for me. So I think that sometimes we fixate on a singular hero or leader. But I think that there's a million examples around us all day long. And when we tune into that we're getting more feedback than we could have ever hoped for.
Richard Walker 19:32
Yeah, I agree with you. There are companies that I look to, but there are specific events that I look to more. I had that same experience. I bought a car care product. And a week later, it came in the mail with a handwritten note from their CEO. I have now bought so many of their products because of that note, I was just like, I liked this guy. I want to see him succeed. And I like the product too. So there you go.
Shelli Taylor 19:54
Exactly. It's a win-win. Everybody's happy.
Richard Walker 19:58
Yeah. Okay, so I curious question is something that I'm really interested in, especially being in tech is about artificial intelligence. And I'm really curious, from your perspective, if you see artificial intelligence making its way into an Alamo Drafthouse, or how you see it impacting customer experiences overall, what's your perspective on artificial intelligence,
Shelli Taylor 20:18
I personally am super excited by AI, I've played a little bit with it personally, I still have a learning curve ahead. But we're already on a digital journey of how we reduce friction for our guests, when they purchase their tickets when they come, whether it be how they look in and search and find a movie to how they come into the theater, and then when they leave how we engage again. And so I can imagine that there'll be potential for AI to remove some of that work that the guest has to do right now to either search for a movie, maybe it's location, or time or movie that works within their schedule. So perhaps they say to us, like, hey, I want to come on this day between these hours, and I like this type of genre film, could you give me two recommendations? To me, that would be awesome. And then the flip side of it is when someone leaves, we'd love to get that feedback back from them. Hey, I love that movie, or I didn't. This is on our roadmap, but I can see AI taking that even further and be like, oh, fantastic. You like that movie. Here's three movies coming up this year that you might like and here's one that you might not expect. But we think you would like as well.
Richard Walker 21:42
That's awesome. My wife and I, we get a rare date night. We have a timeframe when the babysitter is available. And we say, okay, what movie can we see? And I think if you had a model that said, hey, it's actually available this theater at this time, that might be better fit for you that might be worth the extra 10-minute drive or whatever. I think that's awesome. Look, I do I have one recommendation as a customer, Oh, yay, please don't replace your servers with AI, the people who bring us the food and take our orders and engage with us before the movie. I actually love engaging with them. They have ideas, they're talking about the movies, they have an interest and a passion, I would hate to see that replaced with a robot. And I know I can order online ahead of time. And that's fair. But I wouldn't want to sit at my seat and eliminate that person. Because there's high-quality experience too.
Shelli Taylor 22:28
Well, we love that and we agree and sort of disagree, we are on the path of really how can we continue to one ground our business and people because it is about like our people who work for us and our guests and that energy when we come together. But we're also looking for as many ways to take out the manual kind of tedious work as possible. So that when you do engage is a deeper and better engagement. And so you will see some changes over the next six months that we're pretty excited about. But we hope it furthers and deepens that relationship. And not less than two. So people will never disappear at Alamo. That's just who we are.
Richard Walker 22:33
Yeah, I trust that you guys are making great choices. As we get close to the end here, I wanted to see if you had any, like key lessons or secrets that you've learned over your 25-plus years as an executive, what would you share with other business leaders who want to grow their business and actually win more customers,
Shelli Taylor 23:31
I think treating your people that your team well. And that's not just pay, and it's not just career opportunities, but it's that holistic environment that you create, will never be overrated, and investing ahead of the curve while sometimes painful and difficult when you're trying to manage the money which can be difficult. When you don't do that, the rest won't come. And I know that a lot of companies tend to cheat on that side. And then they see it because they get kept at some point. And so I think knowing who's your best resource and your most valuable asset and being willing to have the courage to invest.
Richard Walker 24:24
Yeah, I know there's a lot of mergers, acquisitions change in ownership. And that's one of the saddest things I see happen is they lose that sense of the team when those events occur. So I really hope that your leadership and others are going to help people navigate that better. Awesome, me too. All right. So like as we wrap this up, I do have another question. But I want to know how can people connect with you if they want to meet up with you or your company? What's the best way to connect?
Shelli Taylor 24:52
Well, two ways but the best way is to go to Alamo go to drafthouse.com, no Alamo, our name is Alamo Drafthouse. But drafthouse.com And then you can always find me on LinkedIn. But we do hope to see you at the movies. There's nothing better.
Richard Walker 25:07
No, there isn't. And as I recall, you've actually been at some of the theaters working sometimes, right?
Shelli Taylor 25:13
Yeah, I'm known to be behind the popcorn machine. I take great pride in getting your popcorn, hot and buttery or not buttery, but just the way you like it.
Richard Walker 25:24
That's awesome. Okay, so here's my last question. Who, over your life or recently, whatever has had the biggest impact on your leadership? Or how you approach your role as CEO?
Shelli Taylor 25:35
Yeah, that's a great question. And there's so many people I always hate narrowing it down. But I would say right now, it would be the Alamo team. And there are some very specific people within it. Like everyone COVID was difficult. But movie theaters, and probably the fitness industry, but movie theaters were hit extra hard. And we're very thankful to be alive today. And still in existence, it was a pretty close journey, to say the least. And so I look back at the folks at Alamo who are willing to stay on board with reduced to almost no salaries with no guarantee of a future who are willing to stay on and fight for the company. And I think about the people that stood beside and alongside me and the founder and all of us, but really it's that group of folks, Alamo that I've learned the most about courage and belief, loyalty, and just pure grit. So for them, it will always be probably the most memorable growth experience of my life and will always be deeply grateful.
Richard Walker 26:50
That's super inspiring, because I think it's very easy to forget how challenging it was for a service-oriented business, a destination business like yours, to even survive COVID. Yeah, wow. Well, hey, I want to give a huge thank you to Shelli Taylor, the CEO of Allamo Drafthouse for being on this episode of The Customer Wins, please go check out Alamos website drafthouse.com. Make sure to get your tickets in advance show up early. Enjoy the show. And don't forget to check out Quik! at quikforms.com where we take the work out of paperwork. I hope you've enjoyed this discussion will click the like button, share this with someone and subscribe to our channels for future episodes of The Customer Wins. Shelli, thank you so much for joining me today.
Shelli Taylor 27:30
Thank you, Richard. It's been a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to The Customer Wins podcast. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.