Brand Ambassador of the Year: Meet Vance Henderson

Image: Vance Henderson

Like the hospitality industry itself, brand ambassador Vance Henderson is all about nurturing relationships and taking on challenges.

Efforts made by our 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award winner for Brand Ambassador of the Year have helped make several brands within the William Grant & Sons portfolio household names.

It’s his commitment to relationships and overcoming obstacles that he credits for his success in the industry he loves.

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Whether talking about the guest experience, managing a bar or restaurant team, building rapport with sales reps, or the countless other interactions hospitality professionals have with others, this business is about relationships.

From Back of House to Front

Henderson learned early on in his career that building bridges and growing relationships is crucial to anyone in the business of hospitality. He started his journey through the industry the same way as many others—working a job in college. Dishwashing, hosting, serving, tending bar…Henderson worked his way up.

The latter role came somewhat out of the blue. One day he told a manager that “I would love to just learn a couple of recipes, how to make drinks or whatever, just out of curiosity,” he says. “So, the next week he put me on the schedule for my first training shift to actually be a bartender, which was totally a surprise.”

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From there, Henderson earned management positions, culminating in a role opening a restaurant with a nightlife component called Cuba Libre. He was promoted from bar manager to beverage director, then took on the role of nightlife manager, learning more about operations, including hiring security and booking entertainment.

A New Challenge

It was Henderson’s affinity for developing relationships with people that changed his path within hospitality. While working a manager shift at Cuba Libre, he was approached by a sales rep with whom he had developed a great working relationship about a new opportunity.

“When I was working at Cuba Libre as a manager, I always had good relationships with my sales reps. This one guy came in, Jordan, and he said, ‘There's this company that's looking for someone to represent Hendrick's Gin locally.’ And I went, ‘What do you mean by represent Hendrick's Gin?’” Henderson explained. “And he said, ‘Well, they want someone who has a network and has a good rapport with people, and has a personality and can program events,’ and so forth and so on.” Our Brand Ambassador of the Year had found his calling.

“I loved it. I loved being able to be creative and to treat these experiences, to get around the city and meet people, still being able to make drinks and create experiences for the masses,” Henderson said. “So, we were able to do extremely well and get Hendrick's into a bunch of accounts, moving a bunch of products, and they just kept giving me more brands in the associate position.” Some of those brands were Drambuie, Milagro Tequila, and Monkey Shoulder Scotch.

William Grant & Sons purchased Drambuie in 2014, and Henderson saw opportunity where others saw only an old brand that wasn’t getting much attention. In fact, he saw the chance to dig deep into his creative capabilities to overcome a challenge and modernize a brand with nearly 300 centuries of history.

When it came to Monkey Shoulder, he knew he needed to overcome the perception of Scotch in general. Many people, unfortunately, believe Scotch is old-fashioned, mired in history and enjoyed only by older, pretentious people. Instead, Henderson steered hard into Monkey Shoulder’s playful, unconventional side.

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“Thankfully, as a Scotch whisky, it's branding and personality is just so much more in the opposite direction of how Scotch is traditionally thought of, being super premium, but pretentious and kind of tight,” Henderson says. “With Monkey Shoulder, we just opened all of that up, unbuttoned the collar, and just had a good time. We want to create amazing drinks and have people play with their whisky. It's made for mixing and to play with, to have all the fun while you do it. And I've just had the time of my life for the last six years in this marketing realm, but four years for the company. I'm just living my best life doing all of the things and traveling the world while doing them, and creating these experiences and literally changing people's hearts and minds the entire way. I love it.”

Relationships, Trends & Hospitality

Henderson now gets to enjoy multiple sides of hospitality. On one side, everything he experienced working in every role from dishwasher to director informed his understanding of the business. On the other, he gets to continue tapping into his creative side, from creating cocktails to designing entire brand activations. On both sides, he has never lost his appreciation for developing new relationships and strengthening them over time. To that end, he has some advice for operators to get the most out of working with sales reps and brand ambassadors.

“It always comes down to the relationship, and I don't think that operators should take them for granted. Whether you're an operator, an owner, a manager—in any capacity of management or leadership in the restaurant scene—I don't think that you should take those relationships for granted,” says Henderson. “One, you just never know what will come out of any relationship. Two, they're doing a job just like we're doing a job, and they have things they need to get done. It always works hand in hand.”

Traveling the globe with some of the most popular and forward-thinking spirits brands also gives Henderson a view into consumer trends. Low-ABV, edible garnishes, highballs and spritzes, simple cocktails (think three-ingredient drinks), and the continued rise of all categories of whiskey are the trends he feels are going to be important in 2020.

Of course, relationships with brand reps and trends don’t mean much if the core mission of hospitality is ignored. If that key element isn’t there, guests simply won’t return.

Give this a read: Congratulations to Our 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award Winners!

“It's service—hospitality and service. It's the meaning of what it is that we do,” Henderson says. “And we can't be so caught up in the creative. We can't be so caught up with telling a story with a menu or showcasing your skills in a cocktail, or how many tequilas you have or how many gins you've collected from around the world or how many Scotches or how expensive the Scotch is. All of that is nice and adds to the experience. Those are benefits of the experience, but the core of the experience is the service.”

Clearly, the most important relationship in a bar, restaurant or nightclub is with the guest.

“Service and hospitality are always going be the core of what we do, and we cannot lose sight of that. We can't let it go because no one's going to come out,” cautions Henderson. “Pretty soon, there'll be maybe an app for cocktails one day, and it's like, ‘Why the hell do I need to go out? I'll just get Uber Eats and then download the new drink app thing and everything will be delivered home.’”

Coming Home

Because life can be a comedy, Henderson will be returning to the brand he first represented and helped develop.

“I just was promoted to the national ambassador of Hendrick's gin,” Henderson said of his newest role. “And it's so funny to me because it's where I started, so it's like coming home.”

Welcome home, Vance! We can’t wait to see what you do with Hendrick’s in 2020.

Want to learn more about developing relationships in this business? Vance Henderson and Natalie Migliarini of Beautiful Booze, Jabin Troth a.k.a. Licensed to Distill, and Adam Rains of Las Vegas cocktail destination The Golden Tiki are hosting a panel discussion at Nightclub & Bar Show 2020 titled “Best Practices When Working with Social Media Influencers.” The 2020 Nightclub & Bar Award ceremony will take place on our brand-new NxT Stage. Register now!

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