Desert Delight: NAC welcomes food and beverage concession leaders to Scottsdale, AZ

Cinemas Features

When it comes to concessions, “everyone’s trying to be the next nacho.”

No, not literally. “When you think about it, nachos are the last big product introduced to theatres and sporting events,” says Daniel Borschke, executive VP of the National Association of Concessionaires (NAC). “Pizzas are OK, but pizzas are eaten everywhere.” What people are on the hunt for is the “new” and “exciting”—and that’s exactly what you’ll find at NAC’s Concession & Hospitality Expo, running July 11-14 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Every year, the Expo changes its location. Last year, it was in Minneapolis, where it “had a great response,” says Borschke, “because there is a terrific food environment in the Minneapolis area.” Next year, the Expo will call New Orleans home. “We try to spread it around the country,” Borschke explains, giving representatives from the movie theatre, sports and hospitality industries the opportunity to attend no matter what region they’re from. This year, Southern California and Arizona will be heavily represented. In a new twist, the Expo will also play host to attendees “from Saudi Arabia, from the UAE and from South America. It looks like we’re going to have a nice international mix.”

Still, though moving around the country is a good way to accommodate local attendees, Borschke estimates that “60 percent of our folks are regulars” who attend the show every year. They want something “new and different” when they attend the Expo, and Borschke and his team are happy to oblige. “This year, about a third of our vendors at the tradeshow are brand new,” he explains. Twenty-eight of the 93, in fact, not to mention all the new products on offer from tradeshow standbys. “For instance, M&Ms this year has a terrific new caramel M&M which everyone is thrilled about.” Stonegate Foods will be on hand with tater tots, perfect for movie theatres given their finger-food-friendly nature. “Believe it or not, Clif Bar is going to be with us! Even a healthy snack like Clif Bar is now finding audiences” in the movie theatre and sporting business.

Two breweries, New Belgium Brewery and Sierra Nevada, will take center stage during the much-anticipated Wednesday Summer Afternoon Beer Seminar. “We’re seeing alcohol and beer become major players in theatres, [and] obviously in sporting events,” Borschke says. But there are “real challenges” involved. Liquor licenses are difficult to obtain, first off. Once you’re legally ready to serve alcohol to your patrons, there are liability issues and “the fact that you can’t have 16-year-olds selling beer like you can soda or popcorn.”

Once you’ve cleared those hurdles, Borschke recommends making the most of your expenditure by encouraging customers to pair their alcoholic beverage “with other products that you usually sell, so the ROI is going to be much greater than just a bottle of beer.” Simply put: Upsell. That’s the point of the beer seminar: to investigate ways to “extend the excitement about beer to other products” by inviting attendees to try different combinations of beer and food, with the latter group extending to cheese, pretzels, pizza and more. (You can see why that 60% keeps coming back year after year.)

The key, Borschke always says, is to “let [your customers] spend their money under one roof. You’re seeing a lot of that now, whether it’s dine-in theatres or not. Why can’t I stop for a beer that I can bring right into the theatre? It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

But concessions isn’t just about food, which is why two of the Expo’s educational events will focus on business success more generally. Wednesday morning, Derreck Kayongo, founder of the Global Soap Project and CEO of Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, will be on hand to share his “rags to riches” tale. Kayongo is “from Uganda, and he was an immigrant who came to the U.S. with nothing,” Borschke explains. “He’s made a remarkable story out of himself.” The next day, Randy Dean will give a talk on “time management and how to deal with the overflow of information [in the modern world], whether it’s e-mails or texts.”

The focus is on food again with food ethnographer June Jo Lee’s Thursday morning talk “Millennials and Generation Z Appetites within an American Food Renaissance.” “Their expectations are so different than their parents’ and grandparents’,” says Borschke of movie theatres’ younger patrons. There are “a variety of restaurant services they can get around every corner. It’s the Starbucks mindset. ‘We’re used to spectacular products, and we don’t mind the cost.’ If anyone can drink coffee at Starbucks, they can pay the price of concession stands. And, to that point, they expect a great, comfortable environment with great products and, more importantly, great service. Because we know the longer the individual stands in line, the less likely they’re going to buy food, because they get tired of waiting.”

It’s true across generations that movie theatre customers have come to expect an increase in quality commensurate with rising sound and image quality—not to mention ticket prices. “We’re seeing audiences demand quality, they’re demanding variety, and they’re demanding locality,” Borschke says. “They want something close to home. And we try to make sure all those elements are part of the equation.”

The local emphasis continues with the Expo’s yearly lineup of venue tours. On the movie theatre side, attendees will trek out to the Harkins Camelview theatre, which, with its “huge” standalone bar, “as big as you’re ever going to find at any major hotel or restaurant,” Borschke says, provides moviegoers with a “glamorous” experience. “And then, of course, they have this huge concession stand with everything from specialty popcorns to White Castle sliders to Eisenberg hot dogs. They do not have Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, [because] they still believe it’s their job to make sure that the customer is served.”

Later that day, it’s out to Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium and Phoenix’s Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A word to the wise for the movie theatre crowd: Open your mind to what the sports world has to offer. The Expo is for concessions, hospitality and sports, after all, and Borschke, for one, believes that the three groups have a lot to learn from one another. On the sports side of things, he argues, you’re seeing “apps where you can order food online and either have your food available for you when you arrive, or have it available in your seat. You’re seeing some of that now with AMC, but it’s only [in the] experimental stage. But because it’s adding so much on the sporting side of our business, you’re going to see it in theatres, too. It provides speed, it provides quality, and bottom line it’s also probably going to cut down on labor costs, because people will be able to focus on getting the product to the right person at the right time.”

Tradeshow, educational talks, venue tours…and let’s not forget the Expo’s schedule of social events, which kicks off the night of Tuesday the 11th with the Opening Night Reception and Joe Chabot Memorial Silent Auction. The next day, it’s out to Topgolf Scottsdale, where “the food and drinks will flow. Then, Thursday night, we close down with a fiesta. When you’re in Scottsdale, you have to do some kind of Mexican food. So we’re going to have a mariachi band and Mexican food, and we’re going to say goodbye to all our friends at the closing-night event” at La Hacienda restaurant, located in the Expo’s home base hotel, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

All told, we’re looking at three busy days for Expo attendees—but three days packed full of value. “People say that they love coming to our tradeshow because they have time to network,” says Borschke. “They actually have time to talk to the customers, or the customers have time to talk to their suppliers, because [unlike larger shows] you’re not being pushed by 15 other people waiting on line to talk to the supplier.” As always, extra food will be given to a local charitable organization, this year the Scottsdale-based Waste Not. “We usually have plenty of candy and various other elements that are left behind” after the trade show, says Borschke. “Instead of throwing them away, God forbid, we donate them to a food bank in the particular city that we’re in. We’re excited again to be able to do that.”