THE BUSINESS OF CORPORATE HAPPY HOURS
Bartenders hustle. Everyday, that’s what we do. But 2020 has dropped a ton of bricks on us– so we get up, dust ourselves off, and look for the next hustle. In that spirit, here is a how-to guide for one such hustle.
GOING CORPORATE: THE NEW AGE OF VIRTUAL HAPPY HOURS
A dependable revenue stream for a bartender not on the clock is running corporate happy hours. These used to be a regular feature out in bars in the “real” world, but of course everything has changed since Covid. People are still concerned about keeping social distance, and companies are often trying to avoid adding extra risk of exposure to their employees.
What once meant large groups meeting up at a bar now means another Zoom meeting, which has put a lot of bartenders out of work. But we are a resilient bunch, and we follow where the job takes us. So our work, like their play, has gone online.
THE GOOD OL’ DAYS OF IN-PERSON HAPPY HOURS?
Corporate happy hours serve much the same purpose as before, but their form has changed radically since going virtual– and in some ways for the better! Before, a group of coworkers were invited to a room with booze and let loose on each other in a Darwinian struggle for social survival. The most outgoing thrived while others may have been relegated to quiet sides of a circle, wondering exactly how long they had to nod before they could politely escape.
In an online setting, there is no movement between groups or random interaction – everyone is always present in one place. Because of this, a lot more structure is required, and that can put everybody on the same footing going in, giving everybody a chance in the sun.
HOW DO YOU “VIRTUALLY” DRINK?
Leading a virtual happy hour is generally very similar to leading a cocktail class. It’s a format that is easy to explain to potential clients, and since they aren’t paying you for the booze they’re drinking, it helps to have a ready structure to offer as a reason for them to hire you.
The participants will be people who work for the company or even potential clients that they’re trying to win over. It should be structured but also fun and, at times, interactive. It may be one more time they have to get on Zoom that day, but this time should be a relief.
In most cases, you’ll be showing people how to make a cocktail, provide some history and context for the drink, and also give opportunities to ask questions about this cocktail or drink-making in general. What makes it a virtual “happy hour,” though, is that social aspect.
You’ll be the MC of the event, but you absolutely have to look for those opportunities for the group to see and hear each other in addition to you. It shouldn’t just be a lecture, or they could all watch a video on YouTube– and that’s not going to get you paid!
GETTING YOUR FIRST CLIENT FOR VIRTUAL HAPPY HOURS
Your first client, like your first bar shift, is going to be the hardest to get. It’s possible that you can make this happen passively, especially if you have a strong personal brand already– whether that’s through social media or just a loyal following at the bars you work at. In either case, making it known that you’re available for events can be enough for someone who is excited about you to make an inquiry for their company.
CONNECTING: HOW TO APPROACH CLIENTS FOR VIRTUAL HAPPY HOURS
What’s more likely, though, is that you’ll have to do some legwork. This may just be seeking out companies you have some connection to through personal acquaintances, or it may be actively cold-calling (emailing) potential leads.
START LOCAL: MAKING BUSINESS CONNECTIONS
Begin by looking at the businesses that are right around you, and then expand from there. These are some of the first avenues to explore:
- First, look for any local mid-size businesses that have enough employees to make a small gathering. The hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or mom-and-pop store are probably not your target here. If it has an office, that’s probably a good place to start.
- The next avenue is more indirect but potentially more rewarding: Look for people who have established businesses relating to online events. For instance, there may be places that offer cooking classes and have gone online. If you can create a partnership with them, you may be able to make use of their network of customers, and they may be able to expand what they offer.
- Lastly, you can find corporate event planners online and through social media (Facebook, Linkedin) who already have client lists and may be able to incorporate what you’re offering into what they’re already doing.
As you pursue these options, it’s important to keep in mind that idea of local. The internet allows us to be anywhere at any time, but if you can give the person receiving your email the name of a local bar you’ve worked, they’re more likely to consider you. Be professional, but don’t be afraid to be yourself and show how you’re connected to the area. If it’s a cold call from what seems like a random stranger, it’s easier to disregard than if you greet them with common points of reference.
MARKETING A COMPANY’S BRAND CAN KICK OFF YOUR VIRTUAL HAPPY HOUR BUSINESS
Another route to explore is companies that are seeking attention for their brand. Brand “activations” can take many forms, even ones that don’t appear to be immediately connected to their primary product. So look for companies that have marketing departments– particularly “field marketing” departments– and pitch your work to them as a way to engage people in an unexpected way.
Also seek out companies that offer cocktail kits or branded syrups, and offer to partner with them to work with the products they use and help sell their brand. They may offer you leads or at least give your personal business a more credible appearance.
Returning to the focus on what’s in your area, many bars are now offering cocktail kits as part of their business model. This can be another partnering opportunity and a chance to support and work within your local business community.
BE CLEAR WHAT YOUR BUSINESS PITCH IS
Create marketing materials that give a clear and concise idea of what you’re offering. Create an email template that includes the kind of events you offer and images of what the class might look like and the drinks you’ll be making. The more ready-to-go your concept looks, the more appealing it will be.
A nice example is A Couple of Cocktails, started by New York City bartenders Sarah Charles Lombardino and her husband James to create work for themselves before Covid, but which has provided them with a good alternate revenue stream during these uncertain times.
YOU GOT AN INQUIRY! NOW WHAT? FROM CONTENT TO EQUIPMENT, HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO HOST A VIRTUAL HAPPY HOUR
Get all the details set up ahead of time. First, the obvious: Date? Time? How long is your segment? Are you part of a larger event? After that, though, you’ll also want to find out a little more context if you can: Who are the participants? What defines this group? Is this for a holiday party? Is it for corporate VIPs? This may not change the bulk of your content, but it can better prepare you to engage with the group.
WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING? HERE ARE SOME VIRTUAL HAPPY HOUR IDEAS
If you’re partnering with a cocktail service or are building classes around a company’s kits, the choice is pretty straightforward. If your client doesn’t want to make the participants buy much ahead of time, you can take a slightly more freeform approach.
As Sarah from A Couple of Cocktails notes, if you’re working off of everyone’s home bar, it’s almost always better to teach a type of drink rather than one particular drink. You can teach how to make a gimlet, but not everyone may have a bottle of gin at home. Some people may even think they don’t like gin! They’re wrong, but you may not have the time and earned-goodwill to teach them differently.
If you teach a class on “How To Make a Sour,” however, you can probably cover everybody’s home bar and individual tastes, as long as they have at least one bottle at home. Covering a broader category of drinks gives you an opportunity to go into some of the history and evolution of the drinks. You can also show the flexibility of the format with what everyone brings to the table, with some suggestions for further experimentation. This also empowers the participants to keep playing with what they learned after the class – and will keep you on their mind, potentially leading to more bookings!
PREPARE YOUR CLIENTS FOR THEIR VIRTUAL HAPPY HOUR OR HOLIDAY PARTY
Be very clear with your contact person about what every person needs in terms of equipment and ingredients. A good way to make this list is to make a drink yourself and write down EVERY single thing you touch with your hands in the process. It’s amazing the obvious things we take for granted, so it’s helpful to get really specific. And maybe your drink has simple syrup in it– but not everyone will necessarily know what that is or how to make it– so give very clear instructions for every step.
TINS OF CHOICE: WHAT DO YOU NEED FOR A VIRTUAL HAPPY HOUR?
Preparing your clients also includes equipment, and there’s a lot of range here. If you’re going the super low-tech route for shaking a drink, you can just ask everyone to have a sealable tupperware container; for stirring, have them use a big glass and a chopstick. This can be the easiest and most accessible.
If you’re offering a more elevated preparation and really bringing your guests a little into the world of bartending, it’s not a bad idea to suggest everyone invest in some basic equipment. Everyone will eventually finish that bottle of booze, but a set of shakers will last forever.
YOUR PREPARATION FOR HOSTING VIRTUAL EVENTS
Practice, practice, practice! You should have an agreed-upon amount of time that you’ll be talking – whether it’s the main part of the happy hour or just a component of it. Run through your presentation a couple times to make sure you’re fitting into that time frame. You may discover that you need to cut down on time or perhaps fill out the time a little more. If that’s the case, consider upping the interactive elements with some trivia or other games around the topic.
TIME: PREPARE TO STALL WITH BACKUP MATERIAL
Something else to consider is that, for a lot of your time in the online format, there is not going to be an audience response the way there would be in an in-person situation. As a result, you’ll probably go through your material faster when you’re actually presenting than when you practiced. Plan accordingly with some backup material. If you find yourself taking a little longer than expected, it’s easier to leave out a bit of your content than to make up something new off the cuff.
ONE USB PLUG, THREE USB CABLES
Practice also applies to your tech! You may be a software savant or a network newbie. Either way, plug in everything you’re going to use and take it for a test drive. Find out what platform you’ll be using and try it out ahead of time. You don’t want to find out at the last minute that your new microphone needs an adaptor to plug into your computer or that your network speed is too slow for the meeting platform.
If possible, do a dry run (or a wet run to calm your nerves) of your whole presentation with a friend or two ahead of time – on the platform you’ll be using.
There’s some equipment that’s worth investing in to help yourself look as professional as possible:
And while not necessary to invest in an actual background, do think about curating the view your guests will have behind you. You don’t need to recreate a whole backbar behind you, but it can be helpful to have some visual references to the work you do — perhaps some choice bottles, mixing equipment or cocktail books.
DAY OF THE VIRTUAL EVENT: WHAT TO DO BEFORE AND AFTER
Check in with the point person for the company/group and generally be available for any last-minute questions. Run through your own checklist of ingredients and equipment again to make sure you have everything ready. Arrive early. Have fun!
AFTER THE BALLOONS DROP: KEEP THE LINE OF COMMUNICATION OPEN WITH YOUR CLIENTS
After your events, make sure to follow up with your contact person at the company. An easy excuse is to check in to see if there were any additional questions your guests may have had that you didn’t have time to answer, but this is a good time to look for any feedback on your presentation… and to make sure they have your billing info!
A very good thing to end with is your elevator pitch for referrals. This can be as simple as letting them know your upcoming availability in case they’d like a repeat performance with a different group of people from the same company or telling them they’re welcome to share your info with anyone they know who might be interested in a session. The same way you encourage a new guest at your bar to come back again, you should give the same friendly offer for another virtual visit to your online gathering spot.
A WORD OR TWO ON PRICING YOUR VIRTUAL EVENT
At some point, you’ll have to ask yourself “How much is my time worth?” The answer is a fair amount, actually. Start by thinking about what you expect to make in an hour as a bartender. The session isn’t likely to be any longer than an hour– and might be quite less– but also factor in the time you’ll spend preparing (shopping, practicing, etc.).
Some people will charge based on the number of people attending, e.g. $30/screen. However, a flat rate can make everyone feel a little more secure in how much is being paid. If two people drop out at the last minute, you don’t want your fee to be a topic of conversation all over again – you’re supposed to be at the fun part!
Also consider the size of the business you’d be working for and how much they might be able to afford. A smaller, locally-based company may not have the same financial resources for this kind of event as, say, the local office of a large tech company. For your first outing, asking $300 is a pretty decent place to start, knowing you can go up later as business increases.
What’s also important, though (especially early on), is letting the potential client know that you’re flexible on price. Some verbiage along the lines of, “For an event like this, I typically charge $XYZ, but I also want to make sure that it fits in your budget as well. I’m sure we can find a price that works for both of us,” can go a long way to putting a potential client at ease.
NEVER STOP HUSTLING
A career in bartending may take us away from the bar itself sometimes, and that’s OK. We are adapting to the New Normal; but even when that starts to look a little bit more like the Old Normal, we’ll still have the new skills, experiences, and connections we built during this time. Keep in touch along the way, and let us know if you book a corporate happy hour! We offer affiliate codes if you want to suggest to your clients they purchase our cocktail equipment, but we also just want to cheer you on. Good luck out there, and stay safe.