Fun and Food in the Big Easy: The National Association of Concessionaires brings their annual Expo to New Orleans

Cinemas Features

“Fun and food” is the new tagline for the National Association of Concessionaires—and both will be in abundance at the organization’s 2018 Concession & Hospitality Expo, taking place August 7-10 in New Orleans. The Big Easy “is one of our favorite cities for a lot of reasons,” says NAC executive vice president Daniel Borschke. “The food is spectacular, it’s a dynamic city—granted, it’s not exactly comfortable in August, but you know, people are inside anyway!”

A little bit of sweat is a small price to pay for what promises to be an unforgettable four days of socializing, meeting new vendors and getting up-to-date on issues affecting the concessions industry, across not just movie theatres but the sports and hospitality arenas as well. And, oh yeah, there’s food and drinking. Last year, when the show was held in Scottsdale, Arizona, there was beer and a cheese tasting; this year, attendees will be treated to a Thursday night “Taste of Bourbon” event, hosted by Kentucky bourbon expert Tim Knittel. That will be followed by a trip to Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House on world-famous Bourbon Street. “If you like seafood, if you like oysters, if you like New Orleans traditional food, you will indeed enjoy this [outing],” says Borschke.

Other events taking place outside the convention’s host hotel—the New Orleans Sheraton, located in the heart of the city—include trips to the National World War II Museum, the Mercedes Benz Superdome, the New Orleans City Park and—most relevant for the movie theatre set—the famed Orpheum Theatre, built an even century ago in 1918. Wednesday, August 8 sees a “Brunch at the Movies” event, where attendees will trek two blocks from the Sheraton to Regal’s Cinebarre Canal Place 9 for a meal and a screening of Warner Bros.’ comedy Crazy Rich Asians.

Speaking with Borschke about NAC’s Concession & Hospitality Expo, what comes across is the organization’s dedication to mixing things up from show to show. The city changes each year—next year, for the NAC’s 75th anniversary, the show will take place for the first time in its home city of Chicago—but on top of that, NAC organizers recognize the value of keeping things fresh. Approximately 40% of the show’s attendees, Borschke notes, attend every year, regardless of geographic distance—a testament to the sort of event they put on. “After all these years, even our members get tired of the same old, same old!” he explains.

To that end, this year’s Expo has a few changes up its sleeve. First, the traditional Joe Chabot Memorial Silent Auction, taking place on opening night, is being augmented by a digital component that will give those not physically present the opportunity to bid. “We have some great packages,” Borschke explains, all of which “benefit the NAC education fund, which helps us do our educational programs internationally as well as keeping down prices for members and for our certification programs.”

In a more general sense, this year’s Expo sees an increased focus on networking events, the direct result of member feedback. “We are providing additional time for networking and relationship-building,” Borschke notes, in addition to “providing more in-depth discussion and information. Finally, our dynamic tradeshow continues to evolve and focus on unique and new products that our members can offer their customers and clients.”

This year, vendor booths at the tradeshow, taking place on Wednesday, sold out “nine or ten weeks” in advance of the show. “We’d never been sold out that early,” Borschke explains. And that record interest was despite being told that “this was going to be a tough year to sell booths, because of the mergers and the acquisitions in the industry.” It may be tough out there—but clearly our industry recognizes the value of investing in innovative concessions solutions.

Two beer companies—New Belgium and Sierra Nevada—will be in attendance at the trade show, despite the fact that, as Borschke explains, “beer companies are not exhibiting anywhere anymore… We’ve made the argument, and obviously it stuck with them, that alcohol, especially craft beers, have done very well in the movie theatre side of business, as well as the foodservice side.”

Sponsors, also, have lined up to offer their support for the NAC. The list ranges from big dogs like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, Hershey and Mars to industry vets like Ricos and Kernel Season’s and innovators like Govino and Tossware, both producers of high-quality disposable glassware. “Frankly,” says Borschke, “we have the strongest array of sponsors we’ve ever had. People see the value in our show, see value in this industry, and they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

The NAC Concession and Hospitality Expo may not be the biggest show, Borschke concedes, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality—both in terms of those who attend and in the more unhurried interactions you get to have with fellow attendees. Sales, Borschke notes, are actually made at the Expo—you don’t just get a hurried 15 seconds to exchange business cards before a vendor you might want to work with has to move on to someone else. Attending the Expo are “[people in] procurements and vice presidents, directors from all the major foodservice operations and the major movie circuits—those are the people that vendors want to see. All in one place!” New vendors will get a further opportunity to show off their products with the New Product Presentations block, slated to take place right before the tradeshow itself.

It’s already a full four days—and we haven’t even gotten into the educational sessions, meant to keep industry professionals in attendance up-to-date on a wide variety of issues relevant to the concession and hospitality spaces.

Wednesday morning sees the Expo kick off with a keynote address titled “Our Disrupted Concession & Hospitality Industry.” What sort of disruption are we talking about here? “We will be addressing everything from programs like MoviePass to plastic straws to labor issues,” says Borschke. Krista Schulte from Coca-Coca will discuss “trends in beverages,” while Shelly Olesen from C. Cretors & Company will discuss “the demands that are being placed on the manufacturers of popcorn machines, both domestically as well as internationally.” Ken Whiting of Whiting’s Food Concessions will address “the quest to find new sources of labor… It’s becoming harder and harder to find teenage labor, and also starting labor. As you can see, there’s going to be something of interest to a lot of audiences.”

The Friday breakfast presentation, meanwhile, is intriguingly titled “Stories That Will Keep You Up at Night.” Panel members—Brian McMillin, ECM, The Lexington Center Corporation; Dave Guepfer from La Crosse Center; and Jon Muscalo from Legends Hospitality Management—will discuss “their experiences of success and failures. We believe, frankly, that our members love to hear stories, and we know a lot of people who are great storytellers.” Jon Muscalo is also receiving this year’s Mickey Warner Award, given to someone in the non-theatre business; the NAC’s annual Bert Nathan Award was given at CinemaCon to Brian Biehn, executive VP at FUNacho/Pretzel Haus Bakery.

The Expo also gets into the TED Talk-adjacent arena with their “Shop Talk” series, where six experts are invited to hold court for 20 minutes each on a wide variety of issues. On deck are discussions of labor laws, food marketing and government relations. SurveyMe will also present their findings “on participation in cinema sports and entertainment,” while another Shop Talk will share the results of analytical research of what attracts people to theatres. Finally, there’s a Shop Talk on Millennial Marketing, led by an NAC Future Leaders Committee made up of (wait for it, because this is kind of rare) actual Millennials.

“It’s going to be a fun event,” says Borschke—if one that, given the sheer quantity of networking and educational events on offer over such a short period of time, seems somewhat exhausting to plan! “Give us a week or two after New Orleans”—to catch up on sleep, one presumes—“and we’ll start planning for Chicago” in 2019. The following year brings the show to Orlando, Florida. “Three great cities for entertainment and food. We’re looking forward to a fun swing through the country.”