Like all forms of communication, competitions and connections over the past 18 or-so months, Diageo’s World Class Bartender of the Year Global Finals 2021 went virtual this year. But this wasn’t your bog standard Zoom call, it was a full-on production with 50 bartenders, two MTV-style presenters and a plethora of star tenders in the mix for good measure. Little wonder why the five-day event notched up a whopping 21million views with an impressive 81.3% engagement rate.
Two months after the event, when the dust had settled we caught up with Simon Earley, Global Head of World Class for the debrief…
Above: World Class Bartender of the Year 2021 winner James Grant presents virtually to judges Siobhan Payne and Pritesh Mody
First things first, how long have you held the fabulous title of Global Head of World Class?
I took over the role in May 2019 when Emily Wheldon made the move back to Australia. That was just before the World Class Global Final in Glasgow (2019). At that stage I’d been involved in the planning but not the decision making, so this was my first year from A to Z.
So what was your plan for your first year in the hot seat?
To host the World Class Global Final 2020 in Sydney. In fact, we started planning everything a month after the Global Final in Glasgow. I flew over to Sydney in November to look at venues and get a feel for the city and flew back for a second time in February 2020 to finalise things. I remember thinking that we’d organised World Class six months in advance, everything was in place and it was going to be the greatest one ever because we had Emily on the ground in Sydney, me on global and we’d hit the ground running.
When did you first realise that it wasn’t to be?
On the flight home after my second visit to Sydney. I had a stopover in Korea and everyone was wearing masks except me. One month later we had to postpone the 2020 Global Finals. Everything changed from that day.
Fast forward to the conversation regarding World Class 2021, did you think that you’d be able to make it work?
Absolutely. Last November we made a commitment that World Class 2021 would happen no matter what. The day we released the news was the day that Margaret Keenan had the first vaccination in the world. There was hope. Globally the vaccine was arriving and we thought that things would start getting back to normal in a matter of months.
What was the plan?
We knew that Sydney couldn’t happen, so we thought it would make more sense to hold the global finals in Europe. We decided on Madrid. It’s a fabulous city, I know it well as I used to spend a lot of time there – it’s steeped in culture and they had an amazing cocktail festival planned which would have coincided with the dates of the World Class Global Finals. We also have a great team on the ground who were showing us the proposed venues virtually.
We had three scenarios planned: one, we would go fully live; two, have a hybrid version, and three, the back up plan was that we would go fully virtual. The key thing was, we were determined to find a way to make it work but safety was always paramount. Then in March the third lockdown hit and we made the call: no one travels, everyone stays in their own country and we decided to go 100% virtual.
How did you come up with the format? This wasn’t a cocktail competition, it was a real show!
I’d never done anything like this before – videos and content, yes but you’re right, this became a television show, a real production. This was the second year that we’d worked with Chorus Agency (the production company involved), so they already knew the format of the competition which made things a lot smoother. Additionally, they’ve worked on lots of different programmes and as all of their shows had gone virtual this year, they knew what was needed to get the best results. We weren’t even able to meet up during the planning process, everything was done via Zoom.
What were the main challenges faced by the competitors?
The fact that the bartenders couldn’t meet each other in person. That’s the biggest thing about these competitions, you have 50 bartenders coming together and they create this huge bond. What we didn’t want was for this to be the biggest moment of their careers and they only had 10 minutes on Zoom. So we created a mentorship programme which ran throughout May and June and brought them together on seven Zoom sessions. We had previous winners talking to them about an array of subjects such as winning, community, Ketel One – they were really engaged and by the time they came together, they knew each other virtually. The feedback from the bartenders was really positive.
Every country has had to deal with Covid and they’ve all had to face different issues at different times. Between January and until our last national winner was crowned in Spain in May, we were talking to every country, advising them as much as we could with the information we had access to. Safety first was the most important message. We had to pull in everybody for advice – our mantra was that we will bring bartenders together to celebrate them and crown a winner no matter what.
What were the main challenges faced by the World Class team?
Planning to go live from 50 countries while taking safety and logistics into the equation. We also had to consider scheduling, back up slots and alternative scenarios, just in case. Even during the week of the finals, Covid rules were changing on a daily basis. For instance, on the Tuesday of the Don Julio challenge we had a call from the team in Panama saying that they couldn’t leave their homes until 5am which meant they couldn’t get to the studio in time to do the live feed. Then we had to factor in things like having one bartender in Sydney and one in Los Angeles with a 16 hour time difference.
Also, while World Class culminates in an exciting week-long global final, there are nine months of activity behind it. When we made the decision to cancel, there were no country winners – we were at semi- and quarter- final stages in different countries. So it became a huge planning logical role – I’d never really used Zoom before but it proved invaluable to keep in touch with everyone.
What were the positives of having the competition in a virtual space?
The virtual format allowed the bartenders to edit their videos and do things locally which meant we received some beautiful videos for things like the Ketel One Community Project. Working with them and co-creating their submissions gave us lots of wonderful content we could use and bring into the live stream.
How did the effects of the pandemic affect your work?
The job was more fast paced than ever, the only difference was I was doing it from my desk rather than travelling.
It was non-stop from March until 8th July when James Grant from Canada was announced World Class Bartender of the Year 2021. Only then was I able to take a deep breath and relax because we’d actually done it. The entire process was very emotional, you just never knew what was or could happen.
I wanted to be in London for the Global Final but the global team had to stay in Amsterdam as we couldn’t risk travelling, but as a result I actually saw the bartenders making their drinks! Usually I don’t get time to see the competitors because I’m rushing around but this year we were watching, approving and making sure everything was compliant in real time. It was amazing to see the way the bartenders came together and I loved the fact that their hope, energy and culture came through – particularly in the Johnnie Walker Hidden Cities Challenge. The bartenders still shone and that’s what we celebrated. Their excitement really came through the screen.
What have you learned from the process?
That you can’t plan enough. You have to think and rethink every possible scenario. You also have to trust your agencies to get on with it. Most of the bartenders had competed virtually to get through to their national finals so performing online wasn’t completely new to them, which helped. But at the same time, they’re not performers so we wanted to ensure they were as comfortable with the format as possible. Everyone was sent a camera, laptop and halo light so they all had the same equipment which meant we could pre-programme everything and control the technology.
The thing that I found most important was remembering to breathe. I used to work in the accounts department at Aer Lingus and I went through the training for cabin crew. One of the things they teach you is to remember to take a deep breath and stay calm no matter what, everyone is watching and taking their lead from you.
Now that you’ve proved that competitions in a virtual space not only works but works successfully, do you have any plans to change the format going forward?
One hundred percent. We want to go back to live again, of course, but how do we take the learnings from this year and move things forward? When you think about it, everyone wants to cheer on their country winner but they’re not going to watch a live stream for 10 hours, there’s too much downtime. Next year we’ll look at having great content – like a mini-series – and airing the highlights for 20-45 minutes each day. In fact, some countries have already started talking about doing a documentary series before coming to the Global Finals.
What are the key takeaways from this year’s event?
At its peak we had 21.1 million combined livestream views compared to 3.5 million in 2019. Added to that we had 44 million total earned social reach which shows that there’s a huge interest in drinks culture and drinks programmes in the same way that there is with food. Hopefully, we can be a part of that going forward because you’ve got 600-1,000 people together at the global finals but as the statistics show, there are millions of people around the world who watch this show. We want to make sure they are part of it.
Do you think there will be a change in how competitions are run going forward?
I think the virtual format will stay for a while but that’s not our plan. We’re going to take all of the learnings from this year, including looking at the broadcast element and see how we can amplify them. This competition takes place from January to May but we never see the local competitions, we just see a photo of the winner and that’s it. However, I think we’ll start to see more of what’s happening, more of the drinks culture from those countries.
We know we can do it again in a virtual format if we have to but one of the reasons bartenders enter is for the travel. If World Class was to be online again, would they enter? Maybe but not in the same numbers. A key part of the competition and making it to the global final is meeting the previous winners, the judges and mentors – it’s important they get that face time. For all of us at Diageo Reserve World Class, the bartender is always at the heart of everything we do.
To see highlights from Diageo Reserve World Class 2021, see instagram.com/worldclass