Vista Entertainment Solutions Turns Twenty-One

August 06th 2016 marked the 21st birthday of Vista Entertainment Solutions, Vista Group's flagship and founding business. Reaching such a milestone is normally cause for celebration and a chance to tell a few stories about the journey to adulthood - maybe even pull out some old family photographs you thought (hoped?) everyone had forgotten about.

A lot has happened in the last two decades, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to look back at Vista’s formative years, particularly those early character building experiences on which we cut our teeth. Start-up and finding our way, long before we became ‘grown up’ (publicly listed and having customers in every corner of the globe), was very different in the days when we were laying the foundations to become the great company Vista is today.

The Back Story

Every superhero has an origin story, a sequence of events that transforms the everyday into something fantastic and extraordinary. You know how it goes: trapped in a nuclear reactor meltdown, a fall into radioactive waste, bitten by a radioactive spider… (For some reason radiation never seems far away). Our setting is a little different, but not without its own dramatic tension. Picture Madison Systems Limited, a mid-range IBM reseller in New Zealand established in 1987 – an almost forgotten world where Microsoft was still in its infancy, while DOS and UNIX operating systems were the bosses in commercial computing.

Many names from that era will still be familiar to you today. Murray Holdaway was (and still is) our CEO and one of the owners. Brian Cadzow was the company’s CFO and also is still very much part of Vista. Sue Hamlin, Dave Smith, Allen Jowitt and I also all worked at Madison in those days before Vista. By 1995, the privately-owned company had around 110 staff, including a software team carrying out development for PCs.

Murray Holdaway and Bruce Wighton, ShoWest, 2000, Las Vegas.

Murray Holdaway and Bruce Wighton, ShoWest, 2000, Las Vegas.

If there’s a radioactive spider in this tale that sparks an evolution, it’s the Village Force Cinemas joint venture between Village Roadshow in Australia and Force Corporation, a New Zealand property development company. Since 1991 they had built a number of New Zealand cinemas, and in 1995 were poised to light up a new eight-screen complex. In a novel and pioneering concept, a single candy bar would sell both tickets and concessions simultaneously, instead of the traditionally separate box office and concessions counters. The 'Village Highland Park' (Auckland) location was selected as the first large multiplex in the world to run an integrated POS system. Yes. Who knew? ‘Innovation New Zealand Inc.’ strikes, and not for the first (or the last) time.

Village Roadshow’s IT team had been preparing an in-house system, but after two years, things weren’t looking good to meet a December 1995 launch. Around June that year, Village Force landed on Madison, who a few years earlier had already written a system for small cinema operator Everard that sold tickets and concessions from a single POS. To get out of the looming pickle, a new company named Vista Entertainment Solutions Limited was born, owned 50% each by Madison and Village Force. Our superhero name, courtesy of our very own Dave Smith, was initially an acronym for Village Integrated Sales and Ticketing Application, but this association quickly faded away with the plan to sell to cinemas worldwide.

By the time the contract was inked on August 14th 1995, just over four months were left to write Vista POS and Back Office, known today as Vista Cinema. The first version of today’s most comprehensive cinema management software was forged under tremendous pressure, a little like a very fast train approaching whilst the captive is still tied to the tracks.

The Technology Montage

Like the sequences of Rocky Balboa slaving away in the gym, running through the streets of Philadelphia, and charging up the steps of the Museum of Art, Vista has had to push itself to the limit, jumping through all kinds of hoops to become a champion of cinema software.

Take a moment to think of the multitude of changes in computing technology and technical frameworks that the Vista team has journeyed through. The original system was written way back in Visual Basic 3.0, and used Microsoft SQL Server 6.0, while the core modules are now written in Visual Basic .Net and C#, running against SQL Server 13.0.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how many of Vista’s techniques were industry firsts that would later become commonplace all over the world. For a start, Vista was the very first cinema ticketing system to run on Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and while touch screens are everywhere now, when the IBM 4695 came on the scene in 1995 as the first full-colour touch screen POS terminal, Vista was one of the first to utilise them. It would be over a decade before touch screens became the standard retail POS interface. Then, in search of lightning-fast ticket printing, Village Force Cinemas opted to print on thermal receipt paper instead of traditional card tickets. Many years later, this is now the norm.

Like that other classic Stallone montage of Rambo lacing up his boots and strapping on everything from knives, grenades, and extra ammo, to his signature bandana, even the earliest version of Vista had to have a wide arsenal of tools to meet a long list of required features.

Cinemas generally had to fit themselves out with two separate computing systems: one for ticketing and one for retail management. With Vista, the POS staff and managers would finally be on the same system. But Village Force also wanted to track the consumption of items that were used as part of a recipe on-site, which was not normal for retail systems. And of course, the whole system also had to be easy to use, for both managers, and the mostly part-time student POS operators. As you’d expect for any dramatic and action-packed story, it was a real race against the clock.

Home in time for Christmas

I was assigned as the project manager in August 1995, with a small team of around seven developers at Madison Systems, and a mission timeline that was impossibly tight. Sue Hamlin, a senior developer, was the sole person responsible for writing Vista’s POS system. Vista POS went live on December 21st 1995. A bit of hand-holding still went on (such as inputting data directly into the database), until some Back Office functions and reports were completed around May 1996. But amazingly, we got over the line, and have never looked back.

Village Force Highland Park opened four days before Christmas 1995, running Vista. Some Madison support staff had even got their hands dirty installing the hardware, network, and Vista modules down at the cinema, with a Windows NT 3.51 server and Windows 3.1 on POS and Back Office computers. Twelve POS terminals sat on the counter, selling both tickets and concessions. The twelfth corner POS was known as “the bar” and also served coffee. Highland Park was the first Village Force cinema worldwide to sell alcohol, and was probably one of the earliest worldwide to be licensed – years ahead of Village unveiling its most ground-breaking concept yet – Gold Class. The cinema also sold weight-based pick ‘n’ mix sweets and pre-rolled ice creams.

The new multiplex, in a suburb about 30 minutes’ drive from Auckland’s CBD, was an immediate drawcard. Back then, at this very first Vista cinema, there was an assistant manager named Tan Ngaronga; nowadays you’ll find Tan at Vista HQ in Auckland, where he’s Head of Account Management.

The Old Family Album

So what was the software like way back then?

The Vista software showed a lot of talent even at a young age. POS had a lot of advanced functions already, including selling tickets any number of days in advance, booking pickup, and unpaid bookings. Multi-mode really helped operators to sell multiple tickets and concessions. Refunds could be performed at the POS, and even house seats could be released. Many of the original Back Office maintenance forms (such as Film and Ticket Type) are still going strong. In those earliest days we were already using Price Cards to control pricing, and our Stocktake Entry was comparable with retail systems. We even integrated with Highland Park’s banks of LED textlight signage for displaying session times. Initially, the software only offered around five reports, but this quickly expanded.

By mid-1996, there were just three dedicated Madison Systems staff assigned to Vista – Sue Hamlin, Greg Trounson, and myself. A second wave of development added key new features to POS and Back Office, and entirely new modules soon followed. Kiosk was the second sales channel to be written, and IVR (now Telephone Ticketing) came along in November 1998. Work on the design for Head Office started in 1997.

We also started to do some travelling, as Village Argentina went live with Vista (in Spanish) in December 1996. This was just the first in a long line of expansions overseas that has made Vista the most widely used cinema management software in the world. This part of the Vista story also includes the dedication and loyalty of our colleagues in London, Shanghai and Los Angeles, and our 12 Business Partners located around the world some of whom have worked with Vista for most of our lifetime.

Our brand mark has evolved over the years too; the original Vista logo was created by Mary Davy, then creative director of a local strategic design agency. The vibrant and playful design represented clapping hands applauding, a sign of appreciation in entertainment for a job well done. We still proudly display the blue and orange colours to this day. Mary has since established her own company, but like any good family story, Vista still uses the services of Mary and her team at ellen & company to craft the positioning of our marketing communication.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Eighteen years after it opened as the very first Vista site, Highland Park (then owned by Event Cinemas) finally closed its doors in 2013. We’ve grown a huge amount as a company, capable now of rolling out software across an entire chain of up to 100s of multi-screen cinemas. The Vista product has evolved into a comprehensive suite of software catering for everyone from small independent operators to giant chains. But we like to remember where it all started out, in a single suburban Auckland cinema in New Zealand – a small island nation located at 40.9006° S, 174.8860° E and now world-renowned for its contributions to all things film.

Many years on after both Madison Systems Limited was sold and Village Force Cinemas sold all of their New Zealand cinemas, Vista Entertainment Solutions Limited is now owned by Vista Group International Limited, a dual-listed company trading on the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX) and the Australia Securities Exchange (ASX).  However, 21 years on, still lead by Murray, our Group Chief Executive - the drive of the Vista family, innovative thinking, the people-oriented culture and the dedication to delivering leading-edge solutions for Vista’s many customers - is exactly the same.

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