Our first VIBE VAC Roundtable took place in early January, when three leading operators shared with VIBE their insights on factors that will affect their businesses this year. Participants included Edithann Ramey, Senior Director of Marketing for Chili’s Grill & Bar (Brinker International); David Morgan, Vice President, Food & Beverage at Omni Hotels; and Ryan Valentine, Director of Beverage at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. Read on to learn their take on social media and vendor relationships, was well as their expectations for the upcoming VIBE Conference. To read the first portion of the VAC Roundtable coverage, click here. Our thanks to these VAC members for sharing their insights.
VIBE: How will social media impact the bar business this year? Will you utilize social media to market beverage promotion programs, new drink offerings and otherwise engage the guest in your beverage program? Is this an increase from activity in previous years?
Ryan Valentine: In the past 12 months, we’ve had a lot of increased [social media] activity. Last January, we launched into doing more with Facebook, like when we updated a cocktail menu, we’d get that out there on Facebook. We’re posting beverage updates on a weekly basis. We’ve also seen more Twitter activity by our guests, with more people doing shout outs from our stores. Overall, we’re very involved in social media and have a lot of activity to pay attention to. Our plan in ’12 is to stay the course.
Edithann Ramey: We’re also very active. Chili’s is on Facebook, Twitter and active in the social space. We do banner ads for beverage and work with bloggers to ensure we have a presence and also leverage all that to build awareness for innovation at the bar. When the Platinum Margarita was introduced, we leveraged all our social-media and social-space outlets. We’re getting into geolocation, where we can limit the scope of the activity because it’s digital. And with the 21+ consumer, we can talk about beverage and control the messaging and the targeting. For marketing and guest relations, we use an external agency, but then there’s the response piece. While social media allows you to announce something, you need to be able to engage, answer questions back, etc. That takes a lot of strategic thinking and messaging.
David Morgan: At Omni, we’re working in that vein, as well. We don’t let individual stores or hotels handle social media. The concern is that the dialogue has to be continued, and they have enough on their plates. Social media isn’t something to be taken lightly, especially where alcohol is concerned.
VIBE: Given your own challenges and opportunities, what are you looking for from your vendor partners today, and how is it different from five or seven years ago?
Ramey: The vendor landscape is different today. Actually, vendor relationships become simpler when there’s not as many, and as the industry has contracted and become a lot more segmented, there are some positives. But it’s also more complicated in other ways. We need to make sure with promotions, that we’re compliant, and I find that frustrating. Five or six years ago, it was simpler to develop a promotion together, incentivize our workforce and let’s go. The whole process is a lot more policed now. But, suppliers and wholesalers are still very valuable to the process of selling drinks. We rely on them for bright ideas to drive innovation. Many have resources, like bar chefs, on staff. I’m a big brand, but I don’t have a bar chef on staff, so theirs can be very valuable to me.
One thing we’re trying to do is communicate more regularly with them about what we’re doing vs. the once-a-year update. Now, we communicate our objectives and programs every quarter, and that’s been very effective.
Valentine: [Vendor relationships] are definitely a different playing field today. I value our supplier and our wholesaler partners a lot. But it’s continuing to change. With consolidation and with wholesalers being bigger, I have to work harder to make sure I can do what I want. They want to control what’s presented. I see those dynamics changing. On the supply side, people want to participate in the business any way they can. And today, there is a lot more scrutiny, so we have to do things differently. With all that, it’s still crucial to work those relationships.
VIBE: The 2012 VIBE Conference is just around the corner. What are you most looking forward to and what do you expect to bring back to your business from VIBE?
Morgan: Two major elements make VIBE attractive to me. One, I get a chance to see my beverage colleagues, which I don’t get to do very much unless it’s in an airport. And two, the program. The VIBE workshops and general sessions either validate what I’m doing or prompt me to change course.
Ramey: I’m hoping to learn something new. I’m investing the time, so I want to walk away with one “Ah-ha” moment. What keeps me up at night is thinking of ways to drive traffic and sell drinks, so I’m hoping to bring home new ideas to help me on those two fronts.
Valentine: To David’s point, I’m always looking for validation. It’s so important to look around, to ask if we are doing things in step or are we a step ahead or behind of what others are doing. The seminars — I always learn something. Also, the way the agenda is run, I can knock out a lot of business while I’m there because I’ll see the suppliers and wholesalers I need and want to see. That helps me keep things moving.
VIBE: What business topics do you most hope to learn about or explore while at the VIBE Conference?
Valentine: I go there with an open mind and am always looking to see what’s going on in the cocktail world, as we have a lot of cocktail menus. And then I want to know what’s new in craft beer, to see if what I think is happening is really happening. There will be people there, experts, who may see it going in a direction that you never thought. Our [sister company] Rusty Bucket Tavern & Restaurant is a beer concept, so the beer piece is important. For wine, when I go to VIBE, it’s more about working with the suppliers I see at the event. But mixology and beer are important topics where I need to take stock of the trends.
Morgan: I also want to make sure we’re up on the trends, because if we hear trends are different than what I thought, there can be a financial impact. VIBE gives me the ability to be forward-thinking.