What It Takes to Launch a Cocktail Conference

The founders of Chicago Style on bringing a fresh beverage event concept to fruition

Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein, and Shelby Allison.
Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein, and Shelby Allison. Photo courtesy of Chicago Style.

In May this year, 2,250 bartenders, brand ambassadors, bar and restaurant managers, and drinks writers gathered in Chicago to participate in the first-ever Chicago Style. The three-day symposium, created by a trio of industry vets—Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein, and Shelby Allison—centered on issues relating to diversity and representation in the industry, as well as sustainability behind the bar. While other drinks conferences have begun to dedicate a small portion of their programming to these concerns, Chicago Style wove these themes into every aspect of the event. More than two dozen panelists shared their stories and insights on community-building strategies and how to make bars more inclusive and safe. For balance, the three founders made sure great cocktails were served throughout the days and nights, keeping the wheels of progressive dialogue nicely lubricated. —Chantal Martineau

SevenFifty Daily: What is Chicago Style?

Shelby Allison: Chicago Style resulted from talks Sharon, Caitlin, and I had about the cocktail conference that we wished existed, one that would address topics that we felt were of importance to the lives of a lot of people working in our industry. So we dreamed up a schedule of seminars and parties that focused on inclusion, safety, and sustainability.

Caitlin Laman: We all know that this industry was built and is run by people of color, women, and queer people, but we see so few of them in positions of ownership and management. What we’re trying to do is offer a stage for people to share their experiences so that we can move in the direction of having a more diverse industry at all levels.

Sharon Bronstein: Another motivation for us was to create something here in Chicago to help spotlight our city. And to create a platform to celebrate some of the underrepresented voices within our community.

Describe the planning to get this project off the ground.

Bronstein: We’d been having casual conversations and daydreaming about it for a while, but the real turning point for us was when we had dinner with Lynnette Marrero [cofounder of Speed Rack, the all-women bartending competition] and she told us they were considering moving the Speed Rack finals out of New York [to Chicago]. The opportunity for Speed Rack to be a part of our schedule really challenged us to say, “Okay, let’s do this.”

From there, the planning accelerated full force. It was important to us to lay out the programming and recruit the speakers who would be a part of the different panels before we spoke to any sponsors. We wanted the content to be our vision and not be influenced by any brand agenda.

What are your day jobs and how did each of you balance your event planning responsibilities with work?

Allison: I’m co-owner of [the cocktail bar] Lost Lake in Chicago. The biggest challenge for me—for all of us, really—was balancing our day jobs with the work it took to put together Chicago Style. Sharon’s day job included producing Bar Fight Club, which was the kickoff party for Chicago Style but also part of her 86 Co. responsibilities.

Bronstein: I’m vice president of marketing for The 86 Co. For [Chicago Style’s] first year, we really just fell into what we are all individually good at: Caitlin with operations, me with brand relationships, Shelby with marketing. We also saw a lot of our skills overlap and will likely need more structure next year, but this year it was all hands on deck!

Laman: I’m beverage director for Ace Hotel Chicago, where Chicago Style was held. We just made sure, after every planning meeting, to go out for dinner or a drink—just to talk and relax and keep it fun.

Who are your mentors?

Bronstein: It’s probably no surprise that I consider Simon Ford of 86 Co. to be a mentor. I’ve learned so much from him. He challenges and empowers me and was so supportive of me doing Chicago Style and understanding that it pulled me from my day job.

Laman: I don’t have a mentor. I’ve been asked if there was another lesbian who led me along in the bar world, and there certainly was not. Part of Chicago Style is trying to create more mentors who are not straight white men because those have been all of my bosses.

Allison: I don’t have a mentor, either. I wish I did. Instead, I have an incredible community of women who are also organizers and business owners. I definitely lean on them for advice and inspiration.


What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned from this so far?

Allison: The three of us need to value the time we put into creating this event and pay ourselves next year! We did not pay ourselves for our inaugural year. It was a labor of love. But we do plan to include compensation for ourselves in next year’s budget.

Bronstein: I learned that we can strike a balance between having meaningful conversations and joyful moments of celebration. We believe that activism and joy are not mutually exclusive.

What needs to happen next to take this even further?

Allison: We need more money. We want to expand the conference next year with more seminars, workshops, and parties, while still maintaining a relatively manageable schedule for our attendees.

Bronstein: We want to offer moments of programming throughout the year to keep the conversation going. In addition to the webinars [available on Chicago Style’s Facebook page] on issues such as how to handle disclosures of sexual trauma and how to create a culture of consent], we want to have smaller live events in Chicago.

What is your team motto?

Laman: Year Two Spreadsheet!

Bronstein: Hashtag Year Two! But really, it’s “Equal parts drink and think, celebrate and critique, party and platform.”

Click here to read more about Chicago Style: How Chicago Style is Flipping the Script on the Cocktail Conference.


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A Montreal native now based in New York, Chantal Martineau writes about wine, spirits, food, travel, and culture. Her writing (sometimes accompanied by her own photography) has been published in VogueFood & WineDeparturesSaveur, and The Atlantic. She is the author, with Ron Cooper, of Finding Mezcal: A Journey Into the Liquid Soul of Mexico and the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila. 

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