In our Unsung Heroes series, we profile behind-the-scenes professionals in the drinks industry who are essential to making businesses function but who don’t normally appear in the spotlight.
When a new cocktail or craft beer makes its debut on the menu at any of the approximately 150 food and beverages outlets within the 18 properties of MGM Resorts International (MGMRI), it’s the result of a carefully executed behind-the-scenes orchestration of moving parts that reflect stakeholders’ interests, vendor relationships, critical data analysis, contract negotiations, and industry trends—and Gwen Chappell, the director of beverage sourcing in MGMRI’s global procurement department, is usually the composer responsible.
Chappell oversees the company’s corporate beverage program. She manages an annual budget in the tens of millions, and she’s in charge of sourcing and negotiations for all spirits, beer, and nonalcoholic drinks for MGMRI’s massive domestic portfolio, including its 13 properties in Las Vegas and others in Michigan, Maryland, and Mississippi (a Massachusetts property is scheduled to open in August of this year). Additionally, her purview includes spirits activations and programming, which requires constant cross-department interaction, including collaborating on menu engineering, project management, and procurement analytics. In short, she says, “I sit on the seat of everything liquids—[minus] wine.” (Wine is handled through a different department.)
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Chappell has been with MGMRI for nearly two decades, and in that time, she’s received several industry accolades, including a Woman on Top in Las Vegas 2017 award, given to the most influential women in the city by worldwide hospitality company Hakkasan Group; she’s also frequently asked to speak at events and conferences, such as Women of the Vine & Spirits.
Keys to Success
Chappell works closely with vendors to strategize the beer and liquor brands best suited for each of MGMRI’s dining and drink establishments. This necessitates that she manage a head-spinning array of factors, from seasonal menu changes to special events and drink trends; she then has to coordinate with several other departments to get the right beverages in the right venues to maximize profits for everyone.
Any major changes to a menu typically require months of planning. For example, spring kicks off “pool season” in Las Vegas—when tourists start wanting to relax by the city’s hotel pools, sipping refreshing drinks. Chappell explains that this period generally runs from around March Madness through Labor Day, and she suggests it can easily be a million-dollar-grossing revenue opportunity for larger properties. She and her team start planning for pool season—and any related menu changes—in January. “We know rum is a spirit that will be capitalized on because it’s in our frozen daiquiris,” says Chapell. “We know vodka will be in mixed cocktails, and that our number-one seller will be buckets of beers. We work with our analytics team on how we can leverage our seasonal brands. You’re not going to look at cognac and whiskey that much in the hot season.”
Chappell is a veteran in the industry, and her institutional knowledge runs deep—it has not only contributed to her success but helped make her a highly respected authority among her colleagues. Those who work with her also point out that her philosophy of treating her relationships with suppliers as more than just transactional is another factor that’s helped her achieve success.
“There’s a tendency [in the industry] to look at suppliers as vendors, where a vendor is seen as somebody who … just takes an order,” says Chris Picone, the director of sales for On Premise Spirits, a division of Breakthru Beverage Group. Picone, who has worked closely with Chappell for more than six years, says, “But she understands the benefits of building a partnership instead of a vendor relationship, where it’s a win-win on both sides.”
Although Chappell has risen through the ranks of one of the biggest brands in Las Vegas, her start in the industry wasn’t exactly seamless. When she was 25, her husband passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm—a traumatic event made more so because Chappell had to find a way to provide for their three young sons.
She decided to move from Las Vegas, where she and her husband had been living, to her home state of Mississippi, where her parents provided much needed support during that difficult time. “I had to go back and reset,” Chappell says. “I knew I was going to come back to Vegas; I just didn’t know when.”
For the next several years, Chappell held various jobs, from one in a jeans factory, where she made buttonholes (she lasted a month before quitting), to clerical and administrative positions in a hospital. But it was her weekend gig as a cocktail server on a riverboat, earning extra income, where Chappell discovered she had a knack for customer service. “I guess my personality [was a good fit],” she says with a laugh, “because I was making a lot of money.”
Five years after her “reset,” Chappell was ready to put her new skills to work, so she packed up her boys and headed back to Nevada. “I didn’t know anybody [in the hospitality industry], but I knew there were opportunities in Vegas,” she says. “I went to the Mirage and was hired on the spot for a cocktail waitress position.”
Chappell started her trajectory there and rose through MGMRI’s ranks, learning a new skill set every step of the way. She’s worked in various capacities across several verticals—managing cocktail servers, doing menu development, and eventually becoming the director of beverage at the Bellagio, a position she held before being promoted, in July 2014, to her current role.
“If you look at the most successful people in the restaurant industry,” says Jamie Chilberg, the national casino manager for the premium spirits company Beam Suntory, who has worked with Chappell for three years, “they usually started as a line cook or a dishwasher, and in the same way, [Chappell’s] 360-degree approach is a huge advantage that she brings to the table.”
Creating Strategic Wins
Chappell doesn’t mince words about a certain nonnegotiable aspect of her job: There are “a lot of meetings.” But constant collaboration across several internal departments, as well as with vendors and suppliers, ensures that the stakeholders’ expectations about sales figures are realistic, that logistics and rollouts run smoothly, and that goals are ultimately met on all sides.
A recent notable accomplishment of Chappell’s was the spearheading of a massive streamlining and consolidation project. Driven by a company-wide goal to improve profitability, Chappell and her team took a hard look at sales figures for the dizzying number of SKUs in the corporate beverage program—and began making cuts. In the vodka category, for example, they were able to slash the total number of brands from 316 to 106—which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.
Chappell also recently completed an expansion of MGMRI’s beer offerings to better meet guest demand. For years, MGMRI had just one domestic beer supplier in its corporate beverage program. Chappell and her team, realizing that a greater brand selection would be of value to MGMRI’s guests, eventually expanded the program to include multiple partners across the domestic, craft, and import categories. “My goal was that if the guest is requesting it, we have to have it,” says Chappell. “If we only have one domestic partner for beer, that means we’re telling our guest no at some point. I saw an opportunity to bring everyone to the table.”
Chappell’s persistence in bringing about such a change earned her a lot of respect from industry colleagues. “[Chappell and her team] just did a phenomenal job of expanding the program, bringing additional revenues to the company and making sure their customers are getting the brands they’re asking for,” says Ron Freeman, a national account manager at MillerCoors, one of the brands that was added as a partner in the expansion. “From what I understand, there was a lot of pushback, but she not only got it done—she got it done and kept a smile on [everyone’s] face. I still don’t know how that happened.”
Blane Bachelor is a lifestyle and travel writer based in San Francisco. Her work regularly appears in New York magazine, Marie Claire, the Washington Post, Hemispheres, and many other publications.