Ahead of this year’s Tales of the Cocktail which begins this weekend, we caught up with CEO Eileen Wayner to find out what’s in store.
*This interview was conducted before the devastating effects of Hurricane Ida. To show your support to the displaced hospitality community in New Orleans, please donate here
Before we start, can we talk about you and your role. What does the being CEO at Tales of the Cocktail actually entail?
My job is sort of myriad. I play a central role in making sure we have central communication with our stakeholders, committee members and brands that support the foundation. I also help set the vision for what our longer term goals are, which as you can imagine in this covid environment is pretty challenging to forecast. But, we know we are going to move forward with our mission to support, educate and advance the global drinks industry and look forward to sharing some of those programming updates later this year.
I also get to help develop what our programming gets to look like over the next few years and work closely with our committee members to make sure what we’re delivering is what the industry wants. We are so fortunate to have super engaged committee members who help drive that.
I wear a couple of different hats including the fun, financial stuff which is the less exciting side of things. In short, my role is a little bit of everything but what’s most important is making sure that we’re connecting in a really meaningful way with our community and we’re building educational platforms that resounds with the bar community.
So you weren’t in drinks before starting at Tales. Now that you are, what are your impressions of the industry?
That’s true. I’ve worked around culture and hospitality in different ways including roles at the Smithsonian and Washington National Opera, but not in drinks. My impression of this industry is that it’s so critically important in so many ways. Not to take this too macro but certainly to our society, seeing the disruptions that have happened over the past year, certainly to this industry and how we’re able to establish bonds, be creative and share ideas – it’s so creative and passionate. Everyone I’ve met and had a chance to talk to has such an incredible work ethic and approach to what service means – it’s just so humbling. It’s so important in so many ways and I’m excited to be able to support it through my set of skills.
You’ve been involved for coming up to three years which means you’ve had one ‘real life’ Tales.
I’d like to think all three have been real life!
You know what I mean – everybody being in New Orleans and the fantastic energy that goes with it – it’s all changed so much and we want to talk about that change. So let’s rewind the clock to last year. How did the first virtual Tales go? Were you nervous?
I still have very stark feelings and memories of those moments. When Covid first struck I think we were all naive enough to think that it would only be for a few months. It made its effects felt just as we were about to start Tales on Tour in Puerto Rico. We had a huge responsibility as we were planning on bringing so many global people together to the island of Puerto Rico and we knew we couldn’t do that in a way that wasn’t going to impact our host city and our incredible partners on the ground. So we had to make a very difficult call really early on as it was clear just how devastating this pandemic was going to be.
Once we made that decision, I remember thinking it would be fine by July and we’d be able to host Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans later in the year. Well, as we all know, that wasn’t the case… We made the decision to postpone Tales of the Cocktail to September and I remember very clearly having conversations with our committee members, really rethinking our education programme entirely.
We knew what we had originally built in our state of education wouldn’t quite resonate given the changing circumstances, so we spent a lot of time creating programmes about business practices, how to be efficient through closures, mental health etc – we completely reworked the programme in an incredibly short amount of time. That was down to our committee members. They made sure that what we did present was what was necessary.
The whole thing was incredibly daunting and it certainly came with a healthy does of disbelief at first but we knew we had a responsibility to be safe and take the time to consider what the programme should look like as a result.
What worked particularly well in the new format?
What is really interesting with the digital platform is how much more democratised you can make education, training and resources. In our first year we were able to reach 100 unique different countries and we had over 6,200 registrants globally. That showed us that there’s an appetite for what we offer. People are really interested in learning. They may not be able to travel to New Orleans every year but they want this information, this approach to network and connect with industry leaders.
What resonated most with me was that in some aspects digital is here to stay, but in a completely new way. That’s what I find most exciting. And now, as we evolve this year in a hybrid format with me thinking to the future of 2022, part of our education is going to have to remain digital so we can ensure people globally have access to it.
It was an incredible year for lots of reasons – it went mad for one thing but there were other important matters being addressed, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo amongst them. Congratulations on covering these matters in a very informed and balanced way.
Honestly, I have to give a lot of kudos to our co-chairs of our Education and Committee members who really shaped the programme, they ensure that we’re doing our part to lead and host those discussions. Again, we’re here to serve the industry and reflect what our leaders are saying and validate what’s important to the committee. We wanted to make sure there was space to have real and sometimes difficult conversations. That’s really critical in order for us all to move forward.
Hand on heart, what were the biggest challenges?
Fatigue of digital education. Depending on where you are in the world, you may have a very different experience of what you can or cannot do in person. We exist to serve the global community, so we had to pick a path that is safest for us to deliver that education. Digital made the most sense and offering opportunities to pop up in different markets where we could made sense. However, digital fatigue is very real. But budgets are smaller, we’re a foundation, we rely on the support of our brand partners and certainly everyone across the board had to look at their budgets, all of us did, at the same time ensuring that we were building something that could be sustainable for the foundation and still allow us to take more of our programming and build it out in that digital space. That combination has been very challenging but I do think it’s tempered with the fact that we know we’re reaching a bigger, broader audience. And what we’re delivering is really exceptional quality. We feel really good about that.
How does the hybrid part of TOTC work?
All of our education is digital so it’s accessible but we wanted to make sure that we could make opportunities available to partner with our brands so they could create content on our schedule if they wanted to do so. Each of our brand partners has different policies when it comes to what they can or cannot do around Covid, so we wanted to allow some flexibility for those who are able, depending on their community, to host safe events. There will be various pop-ups, tastings and activations on our event platform – if you search under ‘in person’, you’ll see where those are happening.
We’ll be creating billboards saying things like ‘if you’re in London during the week of TOTC, here are three things that are happening. Here’s what’s happening in New York, Chicago etc’, so there will be an opportunity to convene as a local community, to drive our industry numbers and our consumers to those bars. That’s really important to us, we wanted to make sure that we are getting as many people as possible to visit and support their local bars to support them.
What are the biggest learnings from last year and how have they affected what’s on offer at Tales of the Cocktail in 2021?
The biggest learning has been harnessing how to best use digital education. We were one of the first industry events last year to steam roll ahead with a digital platform and I think we did a pretty good job on the delivery side of it. Where we had some challenges was how best to make sure these things were available on YouTube. This year we’ve done a much better job of tweaking how to make them accessible and how to include a live chat during a viewing of a seminar so there are interactive moments. We’ve also better built our community board. Weeks ahead of the event and hundreds of people were already talking, already networking, sharing questions and enquiring about the seminars. It’s such a strange concept in this digital world but seeing so many people connect and asking questions gives me a lot of excitement and hope that we’re doing something right.
Community is the theme for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Was the need for Community even stronger because of what we’ve all been through?
You’re absolutely right, at the beginning of this year, we all looked up and acknowledged that the only way we’re going to get through this, learn and share ideas and support each other is to be in community.
Tell us how the Community side of things comes together in the programme?
First and foremost on Sunday, our pre-Conference day, Virtually Distilled are hosting and we’re powering our first career fair and it’s going to be really awesome. Obviously, there are lots of challenges around staffing in the industry for various reasons and I think one of the things we’re really interested in hosting and partnering with Virtually Distilled on is creating a space where we can connect people who are seeking employment.
In New Orleans we’re hosting a day of service where we will be partnering with Red Bull and a group of 15-20 local New Orleans folk. There are lots of challenges in New Orleans right now, it’s a difficult place to be at the moment but we’re working to create 500 meals that will be delivered to community fridges, again speaking to community but working with hospitality to create those lunches and make sure they’re available.
We’ll also be doing our Toast to Tales and there’ll be a live ceremony of the Spirited Awards with our fabulous co-hosts celebrating some of the stories we’ve heard from our global communities. Through those lenses, there are lots of different ways to explore what the communities are doing and there are lots of really important challenges that we needed to respond to.
For anyone who has yet to register, please give us a reason why they should do it asap?
There’s such incredible content that you don’t want to miss. There are opportunities to connect and feel part of this global industry and I think, because we’re individually struggling with day-to-day challenges, we need to be able to look up and feel like we’re part of a community. I feel like that’s what Tales offers.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
The Spirited Awards are very near and dear to my heart – it’s such an important moment and I really hope people will tune in.
And your hopes for next year?
Looking at it through the lens of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, I really hope that we find ourselves next year in person, in New Orleans celebrating 20 years and it being a really exciting homecoming for the industry to come back together. We need it, we need that spontaneity, creativity and innovation that happens when we all come together. And back to our earlier discussion, I hope we can really start thinking to next year, what does education look like now with a digital and in-person component? I’m really excited to see what that is and to work on how that changes and evolves.
The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ida has left many in the New Orleans hospitality community temporarily displaced and without a source of income while the city recovers.
In partnership with Another Round Another Rally, Turning Tables will be distributing funds to members of the hospitality community who have directly been affected by the impact of Hurricane Ida. Show your support by donating here