TOTC owners: ‘2018 is a year of stabilisation’
After a torrid 2017, it’s all change at Tales of the Cocktail. With new owners and management, the team is determined to put controversy behind them and raise a glass to the future.
L-R: Neal Bodenheimer and Gary Solomon Jr with executive director Caroline Nabors Rosen
*This feature was first published in the July 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
What began as a small gathering of bartenders and drinks enthusiasts in 2002 has grown to become an unmissable summer event that attracts 15,000 attendees from all over the world. The impact of Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) is undeniable. Now in its 16th year, the New Orleans festival hosts some of the biggest names in the cocktail world and is now one of its leading events.
However, 2017 was a year of controversy for the annual show, with founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman stepping down in September. The announcement came after a much-criticised ‘blackface’ video of Ann on Facebook Live that showed her attending Mardi Gras parade with a black painted face, accompanied by an offensive caption. Both later apologised for the content, but the damage was done.
Now it seems that the troubled event may have found a saviour in the form of two local entrepreneurs. Philanthropic force Gary Solomon Jr of event company The Solomon Group and Neal Bodenheimer of cocktail bar Cure bought TOTC’s parent company, Mojo911, from the Tuennermans earlier this year, with plans to “breathe new life” into the festival and turn it into a not-for-profit organisation.
“Neal and I have very similar stories,” Solomon tells me. “Both being from New Orleans, both coming back a couple of years after [hurricane] Katrina, and both starting businesses about a decade ago.
“[TOTC] was an incredible thing for New Orleans. It was probably under-appreciated by locals. I don’t think they understood just what a worldwide impact Tales has in the spirits industry.”
The event is crucial to the New Orleanians who felt it was “especially important in July because the impact it has on the hospitality industry is critical to the survival of businesses in the summer”. Tales of the Cocktail 2017 generated a total economic impact of US$18.9 million for the city, according to a report from the University of New Orleans Research Department.
TOTC: time to hit the reset button
Bodenheimer says: “It took nearly 10-15 years for Tales to really hit the size that it is now and to have the impact it has. One of the things we looked at was how long would it take for an event to be built from scratch to reach the significance of Tales.
“I’m not sure if we could organise enough in the community to pull something off like Tales again, so it really felt like it had to be saved.”
The new owners are frank about the event’s previous failings and say they are going to make some changes, as well as donate US$250,000 to the industry. A Grants Advisory Committee, formed of 13 representatives from the spirits and cocktail industry, will manage the donation process and fund allocation.
To oversee the company, the duo brought in Caroline Nabors Rosen as executive director. “We’ve got a real dream team in a way that we each have our respective focuses and bring those to the collective,” says Solomon. “We view this as the industry’s foundation. This is their foundation to advance the industry in directions in which it needs the most support.”
REFOCUS ON EDUCATION
The team spent several months gathering feedback from industry stakeholders about the festival. One of the things that Rosen is keen to hone in on is education. “There is a need to refocus on education and access to that education,” she says. This year will see TOTC offer six free seminars, including talks in association with Green Dot, a violence-prevention organisation, and Sexual Trauma and Recovery (STAR) to support survivors of sexual abuse. “We’re also creating a space that focuses on sober living and how to best take care of yourself and your body. There will also be a 1800 hotline so that people feel safe while they’re here,” she adds.
Education is key to the new TOTC
New for this year is a series of ‘101 seminars’ – one-hour educational programmes offering foundation-level knowledge of spirits categories for bartenders new to the profession, as well as experienced ones. “We want to make sure that people who need a high level of education have access to it, and that we have the right people in the right seminars,” says Solomon. “We even made some changes to our ticketing strategy,” he adds. “Previously people were buying seminar tickets not to attend the seminars; they were buying them because when you had a certain number of tickets you got to attend and visit the tasting rooms. It was incentivising in the wrong way, taking up seats in the seminars that other people wanted to get into.”
And the new owners are keen to stress that TOTC is relevant far beyond its namesake event in New Orleans.
“We’re not here just for the sake of having a six-day awesome booze fest,” explains Solomon. “This is a very troubled industry, there’s a lot of fractured stuff going on in it. We’ve got the resources and the organisation so that the industry can come together to solve difficult problems facing it. We want to propel the industry forward and get out of some of the challenges it’s facing right now. It takes coming together to do that.”
Bodenheimer agrees. “It’s all about community. This industry needs community now more than ever as people are finding less common ground. We need to have a place where we can find common ground.”
The event aims to be more than a cocktail festival
As for the challenges of taking on the well-established cocktail festival, Bodenheimer is open about the early struggles. “In the beginning, we felt like we were being held accountable for the sins of the previous organisation. That was a big challenge, getting people to think about Tales not as what it was but as it’s going to be.”
“It’s been a day-at-a-time process, and that’s the way we’ve been approaching it. We find the momentum shifting and we just have to come through and have a great Tales this year and then get back to work to make 2019 even better.”
Solomon says this year is all about stabilisation and 2019 is going to be about change. “2018 is a year of stabilisation and evaluation and 2019 is when we’re really going to start turning the screws on this thing even more,” he emphasises.
“This is a year for us to hit the reset button, to reaffirm everyone’s belief that Tales is worth attending and being a part of year-round. Showing that it can have so much more impact than just a really great festival in New Orleans. It can have a 365-day-a-year impact through our grant-making and support programmes as well.”
For our pick of the top events at TOTC 2018, click here.