By Amy H. Blankstein
For a complete list of this year’s SBC 50 businesses, see ‘The SBC 50,’ December 2001 SBC.
Principal: Tom Kiefaber
Business: Movie theater
Tech: Automated ticket sales and e-mail marketing efforts represent the future for this historic movie theater.
When audiences flocked to the Senator in 1939, owner Frank Durkee, Sr. enticed them with great movies and state of the art film projection. Once the flagship property of Durkee’s movie empire, the theater is now one of two independently owned, single screen theaters left in the city of Baltimore. Durkee’s grandson Tom Kiefaber purchased it when his family sold the chain in 1989, and has struggled to keep the 900-seat, art deco jewel afloat ever since – no mean feat in an industry dominated by megachain multiplexes. Kiefaber continues the family tradition of using the latest technology, but takes it beyond the screen to manage tickets sales and his audience more efficiently.
Selling advance tickets used to be a time-consuming affair. The house would print out a box of tickets for a given show. The process hadn’t changed much since the Senator opened in 1939. Kiefaber could eyeball whether a show would sell out, but the biggest decisions he could make would be to pop more popcorn and call more staff to come in for that shift. ‘We like to try to keep certain aspects of historic theater, but as much as we’re into nostalgia, that was a little too historic.’ Kiefaber says. After being swamped by audiences for a re-issue of Star Wars, Kiefaber installed a Theatron ticketing system in 1999. Now Kiefaber can print out a report and decide quickly whether he should add a week to a film’s run or whether it’s time to cut his losses and make a quick switch.
The system also automates the process of balancing the box- office sales and producing reports. ‘Remember, it’s my theater and their film, and it’s a cash business in many cases, so it’s very important that all people involved keep accurate records with regards to the sales that are taking place all the way down the line,’ he says.
The theater’s Web site lists upcoming special events, showtimes, and information on historic theaters. But Kiefaber finds that nothing beats e-mail when it comes to reaching an audience for the least amount of money. In the past Kiefaber relied on newspaper advertising and mailing lists to publish schedules and updates. He estimates that the calendar listings in area newspapers cost $700 a week, while sending an e-mail update to just over 2,000 people costs about $20.
‘Our mailing list got too big – close to 30,000 people,’ he says. ‘You’re can’t use mail to communicate with that many people each week.’ Keeping the audience engaged is what keeps Kiefaber and the Senator in business.