The creative geeks at Vista Entertainment Solutions have captured a large share of the cinema ticketing software market. Unlimited Magazine Article. Aug/Sept. By Christine Nikiel
Software developers are an unusual breed, says Murray Holdaway. "They're very bright and geeky, but not insular geeky. They're a mix of the scientific and the creative, Holdaway, a former non-insular, geeky software developer himself, heads Vista Entertainment Solutions. The company mixes the scientific with the creative by developing ticketing software for the cinema industry.
Judging by staff turnover figures, Holdaway has got the mix just right. In the New Zealand office of 60, he'd be "unlucky" to lose two to three staff a year. The association with cinema is one attraction for potential employees, says Holdaway. "You could be a very successful company but [developing] banking software. That's just not as fun."
It’s clear from talking to staff that a spirit of fun and generosity pervades the company. For example, two software developers got permission from their bosses to cover a manager's car with Post-it notes as a practical joke. Another time, they built a cardboard caste around the company accountant's desk (not during work hours, of course). The company treats staff and their families to a ski trip in Ohakune once a year and Holdaway gave everyone the day off on the Monday after Waitangi Day (the public holiday in February on a Sunday this year).
"On finishing a major version of software the core team for that project threw a party for the company. We gathered everyone in the main office and handed them a series of clues. Answers were found in the building and inside data hidden in our new software. Once all the answers were gathered, people had to enter them into a sec ret program we had written which then gave them an entrance code and a location. They were asked for their secret code at the entrance to the party, which was on a separate floor of the building. If they were correct, guests were rewarded with a shot of alcohol and a fancy dress hat or mask. Of course, the first one into the party was Murray Holdaway, proving that our CEO is the smartest guy in the house." Vista software developer Ruby Smith
He believes in letting staff play hard because they work hard. The Auckland company turns over $25 million, has 85 staff in its offshore offices and is considered a world leader in its field. And while most New Zealand tech companies dabble in their markets with a share of between 1% and 2%, Vista's whopping 17% is pretty rare", says New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) ICT sector manager Martin Knoche.
Despite having a number of owners or part-owners in the past 20-odd years, the company's aggressive focus on software has never wavered and is one secret of its success, says Holdaway. That, and the fact it’s always made a profit. "Investors tend to leave you alone if you're profitable."
Vista began as a piece of software developed by Madison Systems (an IBM reseller and systems integrator) for what was then the Village Force cinema chain back in 1995. Madison had previously written software for the Kerridge Odeon company and when a handful of Kerridge staff switched to Village Cinemas they asked Madison to develop software for them. It was written and placed in joint venture company Vista - owned 50/50 by Madison and Village Force. In 2001, Madison was sold to Infinity Solutions and Vista became part of that group, with Murray Holdaway as Vista's CEO.
In 2003, the five Vista founders bought Infinity's 50% stake while the other 50% was still held by the renamed Village Sky City Cinemas. With Sky City's exit from the cinema business in 2010, Vista staff shareholders acquired Sky's 50% and the business is now wholly owned by staff and management. The company's niche is developing ticketing and management systems for cinemas with 20 screens or more: things like staff scheduling, cash management and seating plans. And, because an early customer was a chain in Argentina, it has built in multi-language and multi-currency support, which helped sales in other countries.
As ticket margins erode, cinemas are looking to food and beverage to encourage movie goers to spend more. New cinemas in the US have bars and serve woodfired pizzas, with call buttons on PDAs so customers can order from the kitchen, says Holdaway.
One Vista customer in Canada runs a food court in front of its cinema - all run by a Vista system. "We could run a McDonald's if we wanted because what we do in food and beverage is as good as any quick service restaurant," Holdaway says.
However, the biggest changes will be in digital, says Holdaway. He says it will prompt more non-film content for cinemas - such as opera, ballet and theatre on the big screen. For Vista, that means adapting its ticketing systems to include things like seasonal ticketing options and one-off shows. The company is also developing applications for Facebook, the iPhone and Google's Android mobile platform. And it's branching into web ticketing.
Two years ago, Vista set up Book My Show, a website that allows customers to book tickets from different cinemas. Book My Show is part owned by Vista and Indian tech company Big Tree, which controls and updates site content for movies showing in New Zealand and India. It competes with a similar site owned by the New Zealand Herald, but Holdaway points out that that site doesn’t offer ticketing.
With so much on the go it's not surprising the company has 30 software developers on its team - quite a lot for a Kiwi software company, says Holdaway. Vista's customers are spread throughout Canada, Australia, India, Mexico, Brazil and Latin America. It recently snared the UK's largest independent chain Apollo Cinemas as a customer, and last year secured Mexico's Cinepolis, the biggest cinema owner in the world. Cinepolis' aggressive growth plans include Mexico and the US, but it's targeting the emerging markets of Brazil, India and Latin America where new multiplex cinemas are being built. Vista also has two staff overseeing the business in China.
Most Kiwi cinemas already use Vista, says Holdaway, but there’s plenty of room to move in the US, where Vista's market share hovers around 2%: It will be tougher to get new customers there because there aren't a lot of new cinemas being built, says Holdaway, and the company would have to usurp an incumbent system.
But it has nabbed the high profile Los Angeles arthouse chain ArcLight, which hosts a number of premieres in its Hollywood cinema. This association helped Vista win the 30-cinema Michigan chain Goodrich.
Vista clearly works hard to foster good relationships with clients. In New Zealand, all 17 Event Cinemas outlets use Vista's software (the company's Highland Park cinema was the first site in the world to operate the Vista software). Chief executive Jane Hastings appreciates the software company's Willingness to communicate directly and listen to feedback. "We have regular meetings with our account manager but due to our long standing relationship with Vista and being geographically close we are able to talk directly to the developers of the product. We are also often involved in helping provide direct feedback on proposed upgrades [and] ideas as well as being able to provide a real cinema environment at which the staff at Vista can visit and see their software used in real life situations, benefiting both companies."
It's testament to Vista's success in that area that 70-odd offshore customers attended its conference in February. True to form, Vista staff showed them a good time, hosting dinners and harbour cruises. But NZTE's Knoche recalls how in one session the company gave customers a virtual budget and asked them what improvements they wanted on their particular product. "They engage in a very positive way. There was very open discussion about what was working and also about what wasn't working. I had the impression that Vista was really listening to its customers."