In the Arena: NAC Salutes Lexington Center’s Brian McMillin with Mickey Warner Award

Anyone who works in the movie exhibition business knows that today’s operational challenges are greater than ever, especially with so many complexes offering more than a dozen screens, a selection of VIP, large-format, and 4D auditoriums, event cinema programming, and tempting dine-in menus.

But consider the challenges at an operation like the Lexington Center in Lexington, Kentucky, whose venues include the Rupp Arena, the Lexington Convention Center, and the Lexington Opera House. Attractions there run the gamut from concerts by Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks to productions of West Side Story and An American in Paris to University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball to the Kentucky Reptile Expo and “The Price Is Right Live.”

An essential member of the executive team is Brian McMillin, concessions manager since 1997. McMillin will be honored with the National Association of Concessionaires’ 2019 Mickey Warner Award, which is presented each year at the NAC Concession & Hospitality Expo to an outstanding leader in the non-theater concessions industry. Named after the late Mickey Warner, father of the NAC Concession Manager Certification Program, the honor for McMillin is especially appropriate, since he currently serves as treasurer of NAC and is a past regional vice president. He earned NAC’s concession manager certification in 1996, and completed his executive concession manager certification in 2007. He has been with the Lexington Center since 1990, when he was hired as assistant manager.

For McMillin, the most intense service demands are at the Rupp Arena. “We do more bar and snack stuff at our performing-arts venue, and for our exhibit halls we are a little more laid back—flea markets, trade shows, things like that. But in the arena you’ll get 23,000-plus people for U.K. basketball and 15 to 18,000 for some really big concerts. It’s very time sensitive. At a U.K. game, you’ve got 23,000 people lined up at concession stands all over the facility with like five minutes before tip-off, and you’re wondering how are you going to get through all these folks. And 10 minutes later, everyone is inside watching the game. And then at intermission you’ve got 20 minutes. Same thing. You’ve got a ton of people out and, again, they’re lined up as far as the eye can see. And then, shortly after the second half commences, nobody.

“One of our big challenges here has been that, back when the building was designed, nobody thought freshmen at a college basketball game was a big thing. It was more about watching the games. We’ve seen that turn to facilities having bigger, more expanded menus. We have never gotten into any type of fire-suppression exhaust system—we are very much ‘heat and eat here’ across the board. About 20 years ago, you started seeing more upscale concessions, especially in buildings with basketball or hockey at the major league level. And you see that starting to creep into colleges as well when they’re building newer facilities. And that has also crept into the theater end of things with your Alamo Drafthouses and Movie Taverns. There’s a large contingent of smaller regional and independent folks that may have a hard time competing. They just got done moving to digital, and now to compete with some of these guys, you’ve got to have something a little more than just popcorn and soft drinks. But there’s a lot of heat-and-eat stuff out there. It doesn’t require huge capital investments.”

McMillin recalls, “I was assistant manager, and then I took over when the manager retired a little over 20 years ago. We’ve gone through one major renovation where we increased our points of sale by about 20 percent. That requires more personnel to supervise, manage, hire, and find, and bigger, more complex points of sale. Then, in an effort to expand what we were able to offer, we started partnering with folks like Chick-fil-A, some barbecue places, Gold Star Chili, and a few others to get higher-perceived-quality name-brand items. They had a level of expertise that we don’t possess. We do 60 to 80 arena events a year, and that makes it really hard to find people if that’s all you’re doing. It’s very hard to find people that actually do food service, because we are a small college town. I mean, it’s not that small anymore, but the big high point has always been U.K. basketball or events in the Rupp Arena that drive people into the city. While there are a ton of restaurants, bars, and other establishments in the area that are utilizing all the really good waitstaff in that particular industry, they can’t take 40, 50 nights off from their real gig and come here, because they’ll lose that slot. So we rely on a lot of people for whom this is their second or first part-time job to go with their full-time, 40-hour job. We have schoolteachers, we’ve got people in the hospital industry and other office environments who come down here for U.K. basketball for four or five hours in the evening or rock concerts, and it’s quite the challenge.”

Unlike movie theaters, where so many teenagers get their first professional work experience, “my median employee age is in the 50s,” McMillin notes. “We have a lot of folks who are retired or empty nesters who are picking up money for their kids’ college or added insurance when they start driving. And it’s a big social thing for a lot of the folks—they meet people here. They’ll be retired from their regular gig and still come down here and work events. So it skews older, which makes it challenging to hire younger folks. Our younger folks are about 20 and up, because we serve alcohol. Legally, we can hire [younger] people, but it really pigeonholes them into what they can do. And what we find with some of the younger kids is they don’t hang out very long, because it’s so hit or miss.”

Food service at an arena requires a certain temperament, McMillan observes. “There’s a lot of hurry up and wait, because you’re setting everything up for this huge, intense rush in traffic and then it dies for an hour and you’re kind of reloading. It’s very hard to keep people constantly engaged during that stage of the game. During University of Kentucky basketball, people go, Hey, I must go and check out some of the game. And if it’s enthralling enough, you might not see them again!” he says, laughing. “At movie theaters you have all these repeat showings and it’s probably a little easier for somebody to sneak in and watch. But here it’s a little challenging. We tell folks when they come here that at least they’re going to get to be a part of it, they’ll get to hear the concert, or they’ll be able to say they were at Rupp Arena when the University of Kentucky won and went on to win the national championship.”

Unlike many other entertainment destinations, the Lexington Center faces some practical limitations, McMillan readily admits. “We’re a 45-year-old building, and our concession stands are very fixed and there’s not much we can do to add. It’s an old concourse design, so the bigger the event, the fewer portables we can actually put out because of the travel space and exiting capability. We don’t have any dining areas—it’s all stuff you have to be able to take in and basically put on your lap. We have to bear that in mind. We can’t get too complex with food, because the way our seating is set up, if somebody’s sitting in the middle, everybody’s got to stand up to let him through. So it’s very challenging. I really applaud what theaters are doing—plenty of aisle space you can walk through.”

But change is coming to the Lexington Center with the construction of a new convention center. It will partially open toward the end of the year and be completed in fall 2021. “It’s going to include three clubs for the University of Kentucky and us to utilize,” McMillian notes. “They’ll all have a finer dining type thing where you come in a couple of hours before the game and get more restaurant-quality food, a little deeper menu. And that may actually help us out a little bit, because then we may be able to reduce some of our reliance on trying to cater to as many people with hamburgers and barbecue chicken.” McMillan estimates the new clubs will take several thousand people off that crowded concourse.

Asked about his most memorable arena events, McMillan responds, “The Paul McCartney concert probably takes the cake. That was not too shabby. We did a two-day run of Garth Brooks shows, two shows each, which were nearly sold out, which created a huge infrastructure problem in the city of Lexington because you’re going to park 18,000 people for a six o’clock show, and then park another equal-size number three hours later and flip the building in between. And Mr. Brooks likes to do the encores, so everybody’s kind of sweating. But we were able to pull it off. And the first University of Kentucky basketball games, although that was 29 years ago, still stick out in my mind. When you get 23,000 people teeming into downtown Lexington into this little block and into the arena, it’s pretty memorable.”

He also cites an annual show called “Winter Jam.” “It’s a non-ticketed event, a Christian rock music show. The kids get here at six in the morning and stand in line because it’s all general admission, and we’ll have 12 to 15,000 by about three o’clock in the afternoon. We line them up from the front door out into our back parking lot, and they take up about a third of the lot. And since they’ve stood in line all day, they come to eat!”

McMillin has been active at NAC from the beginning, and he has high praise for the organization and its annual Expo. “The NAC has been just been fantastic. I started attending as an assistant manager and I learned pretty quickly about the educational programs, the networking, the trade show. I could justify going because I could always pick up a new method of doing something or a new product, so that it would easily pay for itself. There was always a return on the investment in it. I took their certified concessions manager course. It helped me to be able to train my assistants. After that, I got the executive concessions management certificate. And that was great because I learned a little bit more about what goes on beyond my little world. They always have great speakers and great programming at the convention. And the networking is fantastic because you can meet with a bunch of people that are as crazy as you are and share a common experience, and you realize you’re not the only guy in the world that’s got these issues. It could be some theater folks or parks-and-recreation folks with similar types of needs and problems or experiences.”

He adds, “Being from the convention side, I know what it takes to put on one of those shows. It’s interesting to see how everything comes off so seamlessly for everyone in attendance at the NAC Expo.”

McMillin says he regularly attends films at his local Regal and Malco theaters and enjoys the experience. “The larger chains are doing a really great job with how they’re presenting everything. I think it’s fantastic. But they just need to keep pushing it. I think for even the smaller guys, they need to take a look at upping their game in the food end of things. If you can get somebody to buy pizza or a new item, it’ll pick you up a little bit of extra money. It provides a little more incentive for somebody to not have to make a second stop during the moviegoing experience. But nothing beats getting to see a movie on the big screen—there’s always that. As long as there’s a great presentation of it, it’s fantastic. I love going—it’s a much more special event now than it used to be.”

So what does this veteran concessions executive snack on when he’s at the movies? “Popcorn, without a doubt. That’s how I measure a good movie theater. My popcorn plant for the arena is just across the hall from my office—I make a run and get a bowl all day. And when I go to a movie theater, my wife and I will get the popcorn and two-drink special and it’s great to be able to say, ‘Well, gee, this tastes like it was popped yesterday—or that’s popped fresh.’ That, and my other big one is Twizzlers. I get them because it’s a nice sized pack and it’s not something I’ll go through really quick. I did the Reese’s Pieces and the M&Ms, and they’re gone before the pre-show is finished.”

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