“When I took this position, I remember telling someone: ‘They’re actually paying me to do this. I get to go to the movies and eat popcorn and candy. I would do it on my own!’”
So began, in 2011, Daniel Borschke’s journey as executive vice president of the National Association of Concessionaires—a journey that ends this month, as he caps off a four-decade career in trade associations with a well-deserved retirement. Replacing Borschke on an interim basis will be Christopher Dammann, the NAC’s director of communications since 2012.
An avid fan of moviegoing since childhood—his family would go to the movies once a week—Borschke’s career began in quite a different field. Throughout high school and college, “I was a mail clerk for the Milk Foundation, which is a trade association for milk and cheese producers nationwide,” he says. One master’s degree in communications later, and his bosses asked if he’d be interested in applying for a job. “Here I am out of school, without a job opportunity. I said, ‘Sure.’”
The position he ended up applying for was CEO. At age 24, just out of college, Borschke found himself at the head of a $3 million operation, in charge of 24 employees. It’s a job he held for nearly 25 years, until the Milk Foundation was merged with another group. (Incidentally, Borschke is lactose intolerant, a fact he would bring up in a later job interview when asked how he could represent a group without being part of it himself.)
From there came a short stint as executive director of the American Lamb Board, a role that had him working with “salt of the earth” ranchers and making a weekly commute from Chicago to Denver. (“You know you’re getting into a routine when the flight attendant knows you as you get on and get off the plane every week.”) It was the latter part of the job that had Borschke looking elsewhere after a year; the hunt landed him at the National Association for Retail Marketing Services, where he served as president and CEO until 2011.
Then came a move back to Chicago and his most recent role, heading the NAC and its annual expo. (Replaced this year, by necessity, with the “NAC ReTreat Week,” which despite being online still managed to host a wine tasting.) The NAC, like Borschke’s career, has undergone some major shifts over the years. Founded in 1944, it initially represented popcorn growers, eventually expanding its purview to include popcorn machinery manufacturers, movie theater concessionaires, and—now—concessions product and service providers across a variety of businesses, including movie theaters, sports arenas, and colleges and universities.
A veteran of trade associations, Borschke looks at heading the NAC with special fondness—and not just because of all the food he gets to eat. “[The member companies of] all those other associations always had proprietary information,” he says. “They were competitors. They never wanted to talk about their own information, because they didn’t want to share it with anyone.” Working in the concessions industry, however, has been “an absolute treat,” because the companies involved “are willing to share. They’re willing to help.” Borschke touts that spirit of open communication as one of the key draws of the NAC, allowing as it does members from different fields—whether cinemas, convention centers, or sports venues—to seek out inspiration from each other. NAC member companies “show a warmth that just isn’t there in other groups, by any stretch of the imagination.”
That spirit of comradery has proved essential in 2020. Through much of the year, the NAC has hosted weekly calls, allowing its members to share ideas, news, and—hey, it’s 2020—concerns about the future of their respective industries. “Especially now,” says Borschke, “it’s comforting to know that everyone is out to help each other under the circumstances. I had to wait all these years, but I finally found an association that’s heartwarming and works together.”
High levels of “involvement and engagement” from NAC members has been fundamental to the cross-pollination of ideas that’s thrived during Borschke’s tenure. “The committees were always very, very engaged in the activities of the organization,” he says. Unfortunately, that level of participation has gone down, Borschke explains, as individual members have had more work piled on them and thus have less time for active participation in the NAC. “Some of the theater people are now representing prisons and vending,” too, says Borschke. It’s a change that was in the air already but has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the industry-wide belt-tightening it led to. This could, Borschke fears, have a long-term impact on the NAC.
“From a management standpoint, it’s in many ways much more efficient to be able to get things done without a committee,” he says. But, in losing insight from concessionaires who no longer have time for active involvement in the NAC like their predecessors did, “You lose the flavor. You lose the influence.” And you lose the boots-on-the-ground knowledge of the concessions industry that NAC members possess. “Frankly, we aren’t the professional concessionaires,” says Borschke of NAC management. “These people are, from a sales as well as an operational standpoint. They know what is selling. They know what is hot in the theater industry. We’re going to lose that, because they just don’t have the time for input. That’s the major change I’ve seen over the [last] nine years.”
Borschke had planned to retire from the NAC after this year’s trade show, the group’s 76th, which now has not happened. In making a clean break, he leaves the NAC at a time of unprecedented upheaval for the theater industry—but not one without opportunities. Increasing automation, from high-tech machines in theater kitchens to Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, has already made concessions much less “hands-on, more digital, more remote”—which, in the current Covid landscape is a positive thing, though it leads to longer-term questions about the role of flesh-and-blood employees.
Looking at the exhibition industry as a whole, Borschke sees potential in thinking of theaters not just as theaters but as more general-use event spaces, thus making the industry less subject to the “whims and impatience of studios.” He points to Malco Theatres, which has made an arrangement with the University of Memphis to host classes, during which the concession stand will be open for business, selling snacks and beverages (including all-important coffee) to college students. It’s practices like those—and like private theater rentals, which have been adopted by cinemas worldwide since the Covid-19 shutdown—that Borschke looks to for the future of the concessions industry. Concessions providers are increasingly “looking at other places” beyond theaters to sell their products—and theaters need to be there to meet them, acting as classrooms, churches, restaurants, and bars in addition to screening venues.
In leaving the NAC, Borschke looks ahead to the future—but he also looks to the past, when veterans gave a newcomer to the concessions industry a warm welcome. Ron Krueger of Southern Theatres, for example, “was one of the first people who interviewed me for this job,” says Borschke. “Ron obviously comes from a family business in this industry. Those are the kinds of people that I’m going to miss the most.” Though he won’t be attending trade shows or involving himself in NAC business post-retirement, “because it wouldn’t be fair for the other people who are still working with the NAC,” he won’t stop going to the movies—or eating his fair share of concessions while he’s there. “Even though I’d been in the association business for 40 years,” leading the NAC “really was a great way to finish off my career. I hate to think that I’m leaving the association industry during a pandemic, but I think if I have to leave, this is probably the best way to do it.”