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How Cocktail and Spirits Festivals Have Changed During the Pandemic

Thank goodness for technology and FedEx.

Global Bar Week mashed together Bar Convent Berlin, BCB Brooklyn, BCB São Paulo and Imbibe Live into a single virtual super-conference.
Global Bar Week mashed together Bar Convent Berlin, BCB Brooklyn, BCB São Paulo and Imbibe Live into a single virtual super-conference. Image:

Bar Convent Brooklyn

I celebrated Repeal Day 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky, the spiritual home of bourbon. I attended parties, chatted with whiskey-makers and sat in on a few panels hosted at the Copper & Kings distillery.

Repeal Day 2020 was surprisingly similar in some ways: I attended a party, chatted with some whiskey-makers and sat in on a few panels of experts. But I did all of it while sitting at home, while my avatar navigated DegyWorld, an immersive virtual platform not unlike the online games The Sims or Second Life. This was the Repeal Day Expo: Organized by Fred Minnick, who’s also the co-founder of Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond festival, this was a purely virtual format developed for the COVID-19 era.

It was an off-kilter but mostly enjoyable experience, because it offered ways to interact with people beyond static Zoom boxes. I navigated my avatar outside of the conference rooms to look at (artificial) scenery, used the microphone on my headset to voice chat with people I “bumped into” and recognized, even figured out how to make my avatar do a gawky little twist while watching musical acts at the end of the night. 

Hopefully, Repeal Day 2021 will see all of us back out in the physical world once again, interacting face-to-face and safely sharing space at tasting rooms and live events. But until that time, this is how cocktail and spirits festivals evolved during 2020, including some changes that may carry over even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

1. Audiences Were Smaller but Broader

As conferences moved from the physical world into online formats, fewer people tuned in, but those who did were more far-flung than usual. “I think we were able to truly make ourselves open to the world,” says Caroline Rosen, the president of Tales of the Cocktail Foundation (TOTC). “Education was all free. We had over 100 countries tune in—and I mean tune in—and learn.” 

In 2020, TOTC had 6,123 attendees, roughly one-third of the usual in-person traffic at the New Orleans conference. But global attendance increased threefold from the 38 countries that joined TOTC in 2019.

Those statistics were a bit harder to compare for Global Bar Week, which mashed together Bar Convent Berlin, BCB Brooklyn, BCB São Paulo and Imbibe Live into a single virtual super-conference. Taken all together, GBW drew 6,800 attendees from 77 countries, with the majority of visitors coming from the U.S., Brazil, the U.K. and Germany. 

Looking back at 2019, Bar Convent Berlin saw 15,162 visitors from a total 86 countries, with half of those attendees from outside Germany, while BCB Brooklyn had an estimated 4,000 attendees.

2. Dream-Team Presenters Became Available

One of the advantages of digital lecture halls and unnervingly travel-free calendars was unfettered access to guest speakers who usually were too busy or too far away to attend.

“The lack of real-world logistics allowed us to have more speakers from more places and even panels that we have normally shied away from so more voices were heard, which was great,” says Angus Winchester, BCB’s director of education.  

3. The Scope of Education Shifted

While technology facilitated how the industry convened, what was said within these forums mattered most. In addition to familiar topics such as practical issues related to cocktail and spirits knowledge, bar operations or drink history, conferences this year had to acknowledge an industry in distress, as the pandemic has kept bars, clubs and restaurants partially or fully closed and unprecedented numbers of bartenders have been unable to work. Discussions about how to navigate career changes and manage finances were front and center, along with seminars about fostering physical fitness, wellness and mental health.

Taking note of the Black Lives Matter movement, many event planners took care to ensure diversity among presenters, as well as to include relevant content, such as seminars about fostering Black liquor entrepreneurs and addressing Black consumers (both Global Bar Week topics). In late June, the groundbreaking Radical XChange organization presented Gimme Brown, a virtual event centering BIPOC voices to discuss drinks, history and culture. 

Global Bar Week online

Bar Convent Brooklyn

4. Technology Counted More than Ever

In retrospect, the importance of technology might seem obvious during a year in which Zoom and the like enabled the industry to connect from afar. But event planners hadn’t anticipated digital-only conferences and had to scramble to ensure that technology was a feature and not a drawback for participants. 

For Minnick, that meant pre-recording all the panels for Repeal Day 2020. “Once you have a glitch in technology, everything can snowball,” he says. After test-driving a couple of panels, he knew that he needed to take steps to minimize the tech risks of a virtual conference. A quick glitch would be forgiven, he knew, but if the screen completely dropped out, participants would vanish. “You need to know the limitations for the technology,” he says. “Once we ran a test, I said, I’m pre-recording everything.”

That said, pre-recording provided some benefits, too. “Our decision to pre-record and then release each day rather than live-stream was successful, as it allowed people around the world to watch when they wanted to and not have to schedule across time zones,” says BCB’s Winchester.  

Virtual tours hosted during the event also were well-received, added BCB event director Jackie Williams. “We definitely want to keep this.”

5. Tastings Required Advance Planning but Weren’t Impossible

No doubt, the opportunity to enjoy cocktails and sample the newest spirits releases was sorely missed. That didn’t stop conference organizers from trying to set up tastings in one form or another. In some cases, cocktail recipes were released ahead of time, so participants could follow along with online cocktail demonstrations.  

Elsewhere, producers assembled and shipped vials of spirits intended as flights or pre-release samplings or distributed prebatched cocktails. Yet the contortions of advance planning, shipping costs and logistics didn’t always yield results. 

“We had hoped to help and engage bars by developing a Tasting Hubs concept, where a bar could host a tasting that we provided content for,” says Winchester. “We thought this would allow bars to make some money and drive some footfall. But while a few bars did this, it was not as successful as I would have liked.”

6. Virtual Conferences Resulted in Cost Savings

In 2020, attending conferences online didn’t require flights, hotel reservations, meals or other expenses. There’s no doubt that cash-strapped corporations may eye virtual conferences as potential cash-saving opportunities going forward. Virtual conferences also may extend beyond COVID, while some people remain wary of travel.

“We may have a fundamental shift in society, with how comfortable people are going out, for a while,” says Minnick. “I think virtual events will always be enticing to organizations for several reasons, including that they’re far less expensive to produce.” Until everyone is comfortable traveling, he anticipates hybrid conferences that incorporate both virtual and in-person events. That said, “I do think that the real events eventually will come back,” he says. “But it may be a good two years before we see the entire country is comfortable with traveling like we used to.”

7. We Remembered the Value of Networking

The industry found ways to connect despite unprecedented conditions, and that reinforced the importance of connecting, period. Though the industry found ways to come together despite the circumstances, the broad consensus was that digital trade fairs will not replace in-person events.

“BCB has a threefold purpose: to showcase new and existing brands to possible business consumers, to provide useful education for the hospitality and drinks industries, and to facilitate networking within and between the two industries,” says Winchester. “Two of those three really need face-to-face human interaction, but we adapted.”

Minnick concurs that drinks professionals want to find ways to forge deep connections going forward. “Things may look a little different, or we might have different people moving things forward,” he says. “But our industry is a social one, and we shouldn’t let COVID or any political nightmare get us down. At the end of the day, we pour ourselves a little drink and have a toast, and everything’s all right.”