Attendees at this year’s NAC Concession and Hospitality Expo will see a familiar face on Wednesday, July 16, when Marianne Abiaad is set to accept this year’s Bert Nathan Award. Named after a former president of the NAC, or the National Association of Concessionaires, the Bert Nathan Award is given to someone who’s shown leadership and accomplishment in the theater concessions industry. Abiaad—and her husband George, who together with Marianne won the prestigious Ben Marcus Humanitarian Award at the Geneva Convention in 2019—have done that and far more.
Marianne and George Abiaad are the co-owners of Royal Corporation, which provides myriad everyday products—paper towels, janitorial supplies, garbage bags, hand sanitizer—to most of the cinemas in the United States. (“Close to 90%,” says George.) They don’t, strictly speaking, need new customers, and if they did there wouldn’t be that many more to get. But Royal Corporation and the Abiaads still attend “pretty much every single event or convention that has to do with the movie theater industry,” says Marianne, who estimates that before their eldest child was born they were on the road some 200-odd days out of the year.
“We go to these trade shows mainly [to] support the industry and [as an] affirmation of our commitment,” says Marianne. “Especially after Covid. It was wonderful to see people face to face.” At the Royal Corporation booth on the trade show floor, you might find one or more of the Abiaad’s three children, who “grew up in this industry,” she says. “They have [an] extended family, all these aunts and uncles. According to them, the really cool ones [are the ones who] come with candy and all that amazing cool stuff you can get at the theater. But really, we’ve had so many people in the industry that are truly family to us and our kids.” That’s all the more important, she says, because she and George are immigrants, and their relatives, even those who live in the U.S., are not always easy to visit.
Marianne and George were both born in Lebanon. Historically, says George, the country has been “the Switzerland of the Middle East. The culture was a culture of tolerance, liberalism, free capitalism.” The couple didn’t know each other back in Lebanon—in fact, George only met Marianne when he took a trip back to his home country after immigrating to the United States—but they both have fond memories of going to the movies there. Their first memories of going to the cinema involve different locations, but the same chain: Empire Cinemas, which started in Lebanon and is now one of the leading chains in the Middle East, with locations in Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. (A young George was taken by older cousins to see The Sound of Music; Marianne saw E.T.) The Abiaads now count themselves as good friends of the Haddad family, which has shepherded Empire Cinemas ever since its creation in 1919.
In 1975, the Lebanese Civil War began. Because of it, says George, “there is no family in Lebanon that has not suffered major losses in life and property.” The war would go on for more than a decade, with roughly 800,000 fleeing the country by 1990. One of them was George, who came to the United States to pursue his studies. His parents followed, and his father became gravely ill, necessitating a shift in George’s life plan. Namely: He had to earn money, and fast. He started with night shifts doing janitorial work; then his analytical skills (he’d studied math and logic) nudged him in the direction of starting his own janitorial business. After three or four years of “drastic” growth for the company, George saw another opportunity ripe for the taking. In the cleaning business, George explains, “there was a disconnect between the operator,” most of them immigrants, “and the supplier.” As a supplier, he could improve on the status quo, building a business that took the time to pay personal attention to its clients and their specific needs.
In 1985, Royal Corporation was born. Just under a decade later, in 1994, he met Marianne on his sole return trip to Lebanon. A long-distance relationship followed, and then marriage, with Marianne moving to America and getting her master’s degree in graphic design. Marianne began working at Royal Corporation, initially planning to help out for a small period of time. But she fell in love with the business—not so much the products, but the relationships she was building with Royal’s client base—many of them movie theaters.
“Time just flies. It’s amazing, just to blink and it’s like, ‘what happened?’” says Marianne. Clients they worked with who were theater managers now hold executive positions in the same companies. Royal itself grew to have five locations, with corporate headquarters in Southern California. “It feels like we are all growing up together in this industry, you know? It feels like a big, giant family, the movie theater industry. It’s wonderful in so many ways. It’s big, but at the same time small,” with its members “staying connected in so many ways.”
That connection became virtual-only in 2020, when the pandemic shut down the theater industry in the U.S. and most parts of the world. Marianne and George—running a company that provides, among other things, cleaning and sanitation equipment to most of the industry—kept busy, to put it lightly. The Abiaads sent out care packages of masks and cleaning supplies. They collaborated with cinemas on health programs, which “were up to par to withstand the Covid issue and beyond,” says George. He would joke with friends that the safest place to be during the pandemic was a cinema. “Better than hospitals—go to a movie theater!”
Meanwhile, companies within the cinema space were shifting gears to make safety-related products—like popcorn supplier C. Cretors & Co., which found itself selling hand sanitizer stands and protective shields—and companies from outside the cinema space were trying to sell unproven products to desperate exhibitors. “All industries and markets were invaded by the quick-buck trader that came in and wanted to garner resources and then maximize profits,” says George. Royal’s take was different. They researched products extensively, making sure they could put their name behind it. They encouraged people not to spend money—at least not thoughtlessly, based on the promises of a salesman who, after things had died down, could scuttle away to scam people in another line of work. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’ve been in this industry for [more than] three decades now!” says Marianne. Adds George, “We have 35, 38-year partnerships. And it’s not only with the circuit, but with the people.”
Some of those people from the cinema industry—a lot of people from the cinema industry—were in Las Vegas for CinemaCon in April. So, naturally, were the Abiaads. They’ll be at the NAC Expo in Memphis, with Marianne receiving her second award from the group; in 2019, she won the Krystal La Reese-Gaule Membership Award, given to the NAC member who sponsored the most new members in a year (she recruited seven). “Each convention is a little bit different,” she says. “CinemaCon is where you see everybody, and the schedules are very crazy. NAC is where you have the more one-on-one [conversations], a little more time to connect on that level.”
Those years spent building relationships bore fruit for the Abiaads. Per George, they’ve been approached many times over the last 15 years by companies wanting to buy Royal—and, in January of this year, they were acquired by a company called Envoy Solutions. It won’t mean anything for the day-to-day business, George says. “It will not diminish the high level of white glove service and the high level of customer interface” that’s made them so successful. With Envoy, “We have muscle and resources behind us that allows us to facilitate the growth that was launched and pushed during Covid.”
As that growth continues, you can bet the Abiaads will be on the trade show circuit, catching up with clients who have become friends. “It’s amazing to see how many people have impacted our lives in so many amazing ways and at the most unexpected times,” says Marianne. “People who took chances! Really, how Royal started is people who are in the industry—or second or third generations. Generations have taken these chances and shaped who we are and what we do.”