5 Top Takeaways from Bar Convent Brooklyn

Why pay-to-play is a race to the bottom, how to engage influencers, and other intel gleaned from leading drinks industry experts

Bar Convent Brooklyn
Photo courtesy of Bar Convent Brooklyn. Photo by Svetlana Blasucci.

Bartenders, distillers, distributors, and many others in the drinks industry flocked to the Brooklyn Expo Center on June 11 and 12 for the second annual Bar Convent Brooklyn. The trade show, an extension of Bar Convent Berlin, featured tastings, demonstrations, and seminars on such widely varying topics as cannabis in the beverage alcohol business, employee enrichment, and the importance of yeast. For attendees, it also provided an opportunity to learn more about how to partner, compete, and self-promote. Here are five key takeaways SevenFifty Daily gleaned from this year’s event.

1. Choose Partnering over Pay-to-Play

Bartenders can be influential in raising awareness about and promoting products, brands, and even categories. Panelists in the seminar titled Cultivating Successful Partnerships cited the success of the bitters category as a prime example. If you’re developing a plan to promote a product or brand, the panelists said, creating a campaign that benefits both the bar and the brand is vital; dropping dollars is not.

When trying to create powerful partnerships between suppliers and the bars that get their brands in the consumer’s glass, pay-to-play is a race to the bottom, said Simon Ford, the founder of Ford’s Gin Company. Creating remarkable experiences—such as one in which a spirit is presented in unique glassware that’s super Instagrammable—is much more effective than simply offering a bar cheaper booze, he explained. “If brands and bartenders thought about cool ways to work together,” he said, “it would promote the brands and the bars.”

2. Unite Around Shared Values

Whether a partnership is between a bar and a brand, or a company and a potential investor, building the relationship around shared values is critical, said Michelle Ivey, the chief operations officer of Illegal Mezcal, headquartered in Antigua, Guatemala, during the Successful Partnerships seminar. It’s important even if it means waiting until the right partner comes along rather than taking an enticing offer. “Don’t bring in a partner who doesn’t have the same values as you,” said Ivey. “That means that you need to know your own values first. You need to spend time identifying them, just as you would if you were looking for a romantic partner.”

It’s also important to remember whom you’re really entering into a partnership with. “We do business with people,” said Ivey, “not brands.”

Bar Convent Brooklyn
Natalie Migliarini and James Stevenson of Beautiful Booze. Photo by Julie H. Case.

3. Among Social Media Platforms, Instagram Reigns

In a seminar titled Building and Nurturing Meaningful Relationships Through Social Media, Natalie Migliarini and James Stevenson, the founders of the cocktail and travel site Beautiful Booze, zeroed in on Instagram—and only Instagram—and tips for optimizing your feed. To prevail on the platform, and drive traffic to your establishment, a strategy built on regular activity and quality content is vital. “If you’re posting [once] a week, you’re not going to be seen,” said Migliarini. “You need to get content up five times a week, though you need to choose quality over quantity.”

To be relevant on Instagram, the duo recommended a content strategy built on an 80/20 approach: 80 percent of posts should be content that’s fun for followers to interact with, and 20 percent should be sales oriented. For example, a bar posting five times a week might post cocktail shots and recipes four times and a sales pitch—a happy hour offer as an enticement enticement to come in, for example—just once. And, said Migliarini, “make sure you have humans in some [of the photos].” People like to see people—whether that’s patrons in front of the bar or the rock-star bartenders at work behind it.

4. You Don’t Have to Buy Influencers

Beautiful Booze’s Migliarini and Stevenson encouraged bars and brands to identify influential people in their niche or market who regularly post good content on Instagram. Then, they said, follow those people and engage with them—even reposting relevant content. “The best thing you can get out of [such] people is their content,” said Stevenson. “You want to invite them in.”

While Migliarini and Stevenson were referring to inviting influencers “in” in the digital sense, they also offered tips for businesses interested in having an influencer actually come to their bar for a drink—and hopefully post about it. They emphasized that not all influencers can (or should) be invited with cash. Instead, they recommended finding an organic way to incentivize influencers to visit. A gift card to the bar could be offered, for example. “Gift cards offer even more organic experiences than just inviting people to come in for a drink [on the house],” said Migliarini. “The influencer gets a more authentic experience. They also know their [own] audience and what appeals to them.” That knowledge allows the influencer to post about the kinds of food, drinks, and experiences that would appeal to that audience—which may mean posting about a Sparkling Rainbow Colada rather than a Smoked Old Fashioned.

6. Competition Can Have Advantages

When creating a category for your brand, or even overall brand awareness, a little competition can actually work in your favor, as panelists at the Brands That Build a Category seminar suggested.

Since the launch of WhistlePig in Shoreham, Vermont, in 2007, rye whiskey has boomed, with volume increasing 1,098 percent between 2009 and 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Jeff Kozak, WhistlePig’s CEO, has welcomed the competition—and even worked with bigger companies in an attempt to create a “Rye Day” in honor of the spirit. He mentioned that WhistlePig actually profits from the success of some peers. “Brands that are complementary benefit the company—and category,” says Kozak. “Maybe we benefit from their communications.”

Bar Convent Brooklyn
Panelists at Bar Convent Brooklyn’s Brands That Build a Category seminar. From left to right: Mason Engstrom of Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, Jeff Kozak of WhistlePig, Steve Luttman of Tortoise & Volt Marketing, Steve Brecher of Branca USA, and Arthur Shapiro of AM Shapiro & Associates. Photo by Julie H. Case.

Mason Engstrom, the vice president of on-premise sales for Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Nashville, the nation’s first federally licensed moonshine distillery in 2009, has seen the moonshine category grow up around the company. Yet as new competitors have been successful, Ole Smoky has also benefited. “We kept hearing from our employees that if a competitor was running a great ad, they would be congratulated by consumers who said, ‘Hey, we saw your ad and it was great,’” Engstrom said. If a competitor’s ad was driving traffic to Ole Smoky, he pointed out, that was certainly an advantage.


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When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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