From cocktail demos to beer dinners and mezcal master classes, to poetry readings and spinning records, beverage pros have flooded the digital channels with a vengeance. Virtual events are the new norm, and for those who do it right, there is an eager audience waiting to engage.
While the last six months have left many reeling and uncertain, there has also been an explosion of online exploration that has opened new avenues of expression, communication and connection. In fact, it’s now become essential to operate in the virtual space effectively to ensure restaurants and bars stay relevant and top of mind for an ever more distracted public.
“If you’re not reinventing yourself these days, I think you’re ultimately screwed,” said Paul Grieco, general manager and owner of Terroir Tribeca wine bar in New York City. “It used to be that you just opened up your doors, and as tough as that was, now you have to try to do that and also reinvent the wheel at least every week. I had the notion that people might forget about us, so we had to find a way to say ‘no, we are still here and we still have something to say.’”
Soon after closing his wine bar, Grieco jumped into the online fray. He began an interview series called “From the Bunker,” a reference to him being stuck in his basement office, that features luminaries from the hospitality industry such as chef José Andrés, founder of Central World Kitchen, and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Col. His interviews last about an hour and are well-researched, giving them an immediate quality of professionalism, preparedness and immediacy. Technology has allowed him to jump across state, and international, lines and connect with some of his favorite people in the business while bringing his fans along for the ride.
“I did not want to lose touch,” Grieco said. “It was hard to shut down. I wanted to talk about wine. It took a pandemic for me to start using social media. I'm an old dog, but it became time I started learning these new tricks. It has kept me engaged and it has kept our guests engaged with us.”
With so much content now out there, fatigue has set in for many viewers, so having a fresh perspective and an inspired point of view is essential.
“The model of the ‘Zoom happy hour’ is dead,” said Erik Segelbaum, founder of Somlyay, a hospitality consulting business based in Washington, D.C. “People are missing experiences. So, think about what your guests want. If you’re a regular at a restaurant, and they say ‘we are gonna teach you the secrets behind some of our signature dishes along with some great wine pairings,’ that could be meaningful. Restaurants can create a kit that the guest will pick up, or they can provide a recipe and a shopping list, and then the chef and beverage director can come online and they can all cook and drink together. That's engaging content.”
Across the country in Seattle, Zach Geballe, wine educator for Tom Douglas Restaurants and owner of his own company, Disgorged Wine, has also been very active in the virtual space by running a series of ever-evolving online wine classes.
“You have to really think about what you're trying to accomplish,” Geballe said. “Is it entertainment, education, or promotion? All of those will require different approaches. As best as you can, try to figure out who your audience is. I knew that I had to aim at folks who were looking at quarantine as a time to explore their passions. My classes are quite reasonably priced, but they, and the wines that accompany them, are definitely more expensive than many wine drinkers would be interested in, and I'm fine with that. I feel very confident that I can deliver a class experience that makes people feel very good about the $25-$35 they've spent on a 90 minute class.”
In San Diego, Maurice DiMarino, beverage manager for Cohn Restaurant Group, has executed a huge slate of online events that span the worlds of wine, beer, and spirits. He has learned not only the importance of creativity and fun, but also how to repurpose content for different audiences.
“I started out during the shutdown doing Zoom classes with my staff where we covered the history of different spirits,” he said. “I realized I could repurpose them and tailor them for consumers. Sure, consumers have information at their fingertips with Google, but there is something about tasting and listening to someone talk about the product that they can’t get elsewhere. They’ve been blown away by the experience.”
DiMarino has specifically focused on virtual classes as a way to bring in revenue for his restaurants. “Anything they tasted during the classes, I offer for retail sale afterwards,” he said. “I send everyone a simple Google form where they can place orders for the things they liked. The guests come to one of our designated restaurants to pay and pick up their orders, with many of them ending up eating on the patio or doing take out. It gives guests a reason to come see us.”
Approaching these events with the same rigor one approaches a night of service is key. The details matter. Pay attention to the construct.
“Be well versed on the content, and more importantly, set expectations for your panelists,” Segelbaum said. “You can absolutely tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, talk about. For specific audiences, I don’t want them talking about harvest date, blends, how long in barrels, etc., for instance, unless someone asks. And also set the expectations for the attendees. How long will this go? People get so offended when you waste their time. Always start promptly and end on time. And ask everyone to be on mute, and address whether you are going to be using the chat function — let them know. Are there going to be questions at the end? However you want this to work, tell them, just like a real event.”
Lastly, virtual events can be a mishmash of success, with some seeing big numbers, and others close to nothing. So stay true to your own sense of taste, just like you do in your approach to your business.
“So what’s the measure of success? I don’t think about that,” Grieco said. “Obviously you can see how many are viewing live, or booking a spot, but I can’t obsess over that. I have to do what I do. This is our sandbox. If you like it, great, if not, go somewhere else. Don't measure success through numbers. My experience after three months of doing this is I have no idea what works and what doesn’t. I just know I have to keep our name out there, so I will continue to look and stretch for new ideas.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.