Whether you turn your dining room into a Bavarian wonderland for the night, complete with discounted steins of hefeweizen and grilled sausages smothered in boatloads of sauerkraut, or host a wine dinner featuring a 10-year vertical flight of rare Cabernet Francs from the Loire, beverage-based events are a way to showcase your operation’s concept, flex your creative muscles and engage your regulars in new and exciting ways.
“When throwing an event, you have to treat it as a housewarming party with your closest friends. People need to feel welcomed and taken care of. It’s as simple as that,” said Maurice DiMarino, beverage director for the Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego, who hosts between 20 and 30 events a year.
But while the goals of an event are often that simple, many operators struggle with what types of events to offer, how to market them, and whether they’re done for profit or solely for marketing. Executing events can swallow up staff and management time, but they can also work wonders for your bottom line if you create new advocates for your business by providing unique experiences that guests remember — and tell friends about — for years to come.
So how does one go about hosting events that deliver tangible results?
A great event disguises the work that went into it, much like a violin virtuoso who has spent countless hours practicing a piece of music before seemingly effortlessly sharing it with an audience. Managers and owners must pay attention to a number of important factors, including concept, timing, marketing, and execution.
“The impetus behind our events is a true desire to share something great with people,” said Aaron Wood-Snyderman, wine and spirits director at The Metropolitan Grill in Seattle. “If you are only doing it to turn a profit, your event won’t be great. You have to put the hard work into every aspect and your event needs to showcase something you truly love.”
The first step in planning an event is to ensure that it aligns with your restaurant’s concept. This is your chance to shine a light on something you do well, whether it’s your focus on local beers, your vast offerings of spirits, or your wine list of prized treasures.
“It’s most important to have fun and create an environment where people feel part of something unique,” said Katherine Kyle, general manager at Blind Tiger Ale House, a beer-focused bar in New York City. She typically does around 40 events a year, and has spent years honing her event chops.
“Have a special attendee, or a special beer, or a special food pairing — anything to make your event interesting,” she said.
Kyle focuses on events that not only educate guests, but also build community, and finds great success when featuring new local breweries and rare beers. Over time, the Blind Tiger has designated certain nights each week for events, and finds that sticking to the same nights each week creates consistency, while switching them up can confuse regulars.
The Metropolitan Grill uses events to create new regulars.
“We try to break even on the events,” Wood-Snyderman said. “If you’re holding events solely to turn a profit, you’ve missed the point. Certainly, the marketing and publicity generated from these events is nice, but that’s not our driving factor. We look to make our guests really happy with these events, and they come back again and again; that’s where we see our return on investment.”
For DiMarino, who oversees 20 different restaurant concepts, events are a chance to introduce regulars who may only frequent one spot to the different locations in his restaurant group — and, potentially, to move product and reduce inventory.
But there is no shirking on attention to detail. One major mistake is not being organized the day of the event, he cautioned.
“Many restaurants realize that the event is not going to make a profit, so they hold back on labor. It’s unfortunate because if the event does not go off smoothly you lose guests' confidence in your restaurant,” DiMarino said. “Another pitfall is to lack generosity. If you focus too much on cost and profit and don’t supply enough food and beverages, then guests will feel ripped off.”
When it comes to events focused on the trade or media, location and timing are crucial, said Constance Chamberlain, founder and principle of Wine & Co., a New York City-based beverage marketing company.
“We have to be very aware of the calendar and ensure the locations of our events are convenient for guests,” she said.
For Chamberlain, it’s all about consistency and persistence — especially in a market inundated with events. By sending appropriately timed reminders, as well as having one team member serve as the point person for an event, she ensures better attendance and clear communication channels. She also said that it’s important to allow plenty of time to plan and market your event appropriately.
Tapping into the creativity of your team can also ensure a great event. As DiMarino has a number of artists on staff, he asked each of them to pair one of their pieces with a wine that captured the essence of the work.
“Guests visited with the artists, tasted the wine, and if they liked it, they bought a bottle,” he said. “It showed off the talent in our group, we had free labor because the artist did the pouring, and some of them were asked to show their work at galleries. Most importantly, the guests had a unique experience. Don't be afraid to think outside the box and have fun with what you do.”