By: Donald Snyder, President, Whiskey Systems Online
December/January 2018 – Beverage Master Magazine
Released in 1989, Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Field of Dreams” plows his cornfield to build a baseball field motivated by one of the most iconic movie lines of all time; “If you build it, he will come.” Investing all his family’s savings into the infrastructure, he built something that not only had a special meaning to his community but drew in people from all over. The parallels to the growing craft distilling industry are striking. Aspiring distillers share the passion for building something special and making an investment in their community that will draw a crowd. After the corn is plowed and the lights installed, here are some ways craft distillers can bring in foot traffic.
Every state has different regulations on what a craft distillery can sell to consumers, including limits on bottle sales, cocktails, samples, and food offerings. Those distillers that can sell cocktails have an advantage as people can come in for a drink or take advantage of happy hour specials. However, just having a welcoming and well-decorated bar does not guarantee boots in the door.
Richard Stabile, owner of Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow, New York has a craft distillery with a tasting room bar off the Long Island Expressway. Part of his success bringing in customers is maintaining a vibrant social media presence and encouraging people to try a rotating list of craft cocktails.
“People come out to see the local wine trail and stop at the distillery for a cocktail,” said Stabile. “Being listed on the expressway signs as an attraction is a big benefit. We get to show customers how to use our spirits in their own craft cocktails at home which encourages them to pick up a bottle while enjoying a drink.”
Some states don’t allow cocktails or mixed drinks on site, which means distilleries need to be creative on how to bring in foot traffic. Paul Tomaszewski, owner of MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky, hosts regular events to bring in a crowd and stay connected with the community. “Pickin’ on the Porch,” combines live music, drinks, and food trucks and is one of the most popular events in the area, drawing 1,500 to 2,500 people per night. Another big draw to the distillery is “Vintage, Crafts & Cocktails” where the distillery hosts a variety of vendors from jewelry makers to craft artists that embody the artisan spirit.
“The Vintage, Craft & Cocktail event brings in people who normally wouldn’t seek out a distillery, and helps build strong relationships with the community,” said Tomaszewski.
Hosting events has the potential to expose your brand to large crowds, but there can be significant risks and costs. Tomaszewski urges caution when planning a big occasion.
“We have a dedicated person working on planning, finding music, and making sure logistics are lined up. It’s quite a process and a whole other part of the business on top of production and distilling. One rainout could mean a significant loss of money. In the end, it’s a balance between the risks and reward,” he said.
A less risky and less costly way to draw in foot traffic is to engage with followers with a regular email newsletter. When visitors to the distillery check-in, collect email addresses. Add a link to the distillery webpage where fans can sign up for email updates. The newsletter can communicate big and small events, cocktail recipes, new releases, and any other exciting distillery news. Include links to purchase event tickets, get coupons or discounts, or engage with the distiller via social media channels.
Travis Barnes, owner of Hotel Tango Distillery in Indianapolis, Indiana, sends regular newsletters to his customers and fans.
“It’s a balance of keeping folks up to date on what is going on with the distillery, menu changes, and new projects. People want to stay engaged with the distillery but not get inundated. We have a distillery cat named Fletcher, and everyone looks forward to knowing what he’s up to. Keeping fans engaged keeps them coming back for more,” said Barnes.
Another way to get traffic is to rent out the distillery space for private events like weddings, business conferences, and parties. In addition to the revenue from renting the space and possible bottle sales, it provides brand exposure to people from outside of the immediate community. Weddings, in particular, provide opportunities for product recognition as they draw people from across the country. Special event spaces in a distillery could range from a renovated barn on the property to a portioned off section of the distillery gift shop.
Branden Bumpers, co-owner and head distiller at McClintock Distillery in Frederick, Maryland rents out space in his distillery for a variety of events. “We have only been open for about a year, but money from our event space is 25% of our total revenue. The building is 106 years-old, and we spent over two years restoring it with the event space in mind. It has all the amenities for a wedding and corporate parties. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Bumpers recognizes that renting out the distillery space can mean less revenue from peak tour and tasting times. That can be mediated, however, by budgeting the revenue shortfall into the rental price. When asked about the risk from theft or damage, Bumpers notes the risk is always there. “We hold a security deposit, but so far people have been respectful and caused no serious issues.”
The summer of 2016 introduced a unique way to draw crowds to specific points of interest, including craft distilleries. Pokémon Go, an augmented reality cell phone game by Niantic placed digital characters, poke-stops, and gyms across the country. Players must physically visit these locations to earn items or to battle other Pokémon Go players digitally. Many distillers don’t know they are featured in the game until several random players show up all at once. Some distilleries who know about the game openly advertise that they are a poke-stop or gym and encourage of-age customers to visit their gift shop to “collect them all.”
One of the most popular ways to get boots in the door is to release special- and limited-edition bottles. Craft distilleries have the benefit of being able to experiment with new or unique ingredients in small batches. Small batches give them innovative strategic strength over larger distilleries who don’t have the resources or capacity for research and development. Not only are limited edition products a fantastic way to get customer feedback before launching a larger batch, but bottles are often seen as collectibles and in high demand. Lines for a new product commonly run out the door. Getting fans excited and hyped for a new or seasonal product can create raving fans in the community.
Robert Dawson Jr., owner of Manulele Distillery in Kunia Camp, Hawaii, knows the benefit of special and rare bottles. “We release different limited-edition rum bottles through our Artist Series every quarter. We work with Kim Taylor Reece, a local photographer, who shoots traditional Hawaiian imagery. Each rum bottle is etched with Kim’s iconic images, labeled, and given a hangtag that is hand signed and numbered. Fans of Kim’s photography search out the bottles bringing foot traffic to the distillery.”
A final way to bring attention to a brand is to offer a personalized bottling experience. Bringing in customers to label, wax, or sign their bottles gives fans a chance to make a connection with the distillery and bring home a memory. Word of mouth often spreads quickly following these personalized experiences which mean little, if any, ongoing advertising cost. In states that permit volunteers to work at the distillery, bringing in a crew to run the bottling line also builds positive experiences for usually no more than the cost of pizza and some drinks. These bottling events are great for building up a social media channel to bring more people in the front door.
Dan Garrison, owner of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas, believes marketing and branding are moving towards more hands-on customer experiences. “Customers are looking for outward-bound experiences that they can have with our brand. We have a 10,000-person waiting list to join the bottling parties at the distillery. Bourbon is a great way to share relationships, stories and create a bond. When they are here, we treat them like royalty and take care of their every need. In return, they become brand ambassadors.”
28 years later, the original movie set for “Field of Dreams” continues to draw huge crowds as people from across the country travel to be a part of cinema history. Just like people seeking the movie experience, there are several ways craft distilleries can attract customers. Cost effective tools like keeping up an active social media platform and sending regular e-newsletters can keep your local community engaged and excited. Hosting events can be expensive but could bring thousands of people into your distillery. Offering people unique and firsthand experiences can quickly go viral. Even bringing in live and local musicians can keep the regulars coming back for more.