By: Donald Snyder, President Whiskey Systems Online
Another distillery conference season has come and gone. Distillers, weary from their travel across the country, are unpacking their conference tote bags filled with business cards and supplier goodies. The follow up vendor emails are slowing trickling in while the distillery owners dread their upcoming credit card bills. But for now, conference attendees reflect on everything they learned and have taken away from their adventures. The first quarter of the year contains some of the biggest craft distillery relevant conferences and expos including the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) Annual Distillers’ Convention & Vendor Trade Show, the American Distilling Institute’s (ADI) Annual Craft Spirits Conference and Vendor Expo, and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) Convention and Exposition.
The ACSA Convention and Vendor Trade show is usually the first major distiller conference of the year in either February or March. This year’s conference was in the wintery city of Minneapolis, Minnesota and appropriately themed “Distillers on Ice”. Next year’s conference will be in Portland, Oregon March 29-31, 2020. The conference is three-day opportunity for distilleries to connect with suppliers, attend educational breakout sessions, collect their awards from the spirits judging competition, and discuss the issues “du jour” such as lobbying efforts to continue the Federal Excise Tax reduction. The conference leadership is made up of elected volunteer board members and committee chairs from across the country.
Mike Blaum, Co-owner and Chief Distiller at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. in Galena, IL brought his entire distillery team to the ACSA conference this year and was very pleased with the show. Mike had several takeaways from the conference. “Besides the educational content and being exposed to new ideas, the networking with industry colleagues and opportunities to discover new vendors is always a highlight.” The travel and entrance fees for the conferences can add up but Mike believes there is significant return on investment for him and his team. “If we can all come home and apply the concepts we were exposed to, cut our costs or improve the value from suppliers, change our way of thinking or doing business, and improve safety, it’s easy to feel good about the ROI.”
The ACSA conference entry fees for 2020 have not been announced but they are anticipated to be close to the 2019 fees. For the Minneapolis conference, the prices for ACSA Members were $625 per person (with additional attendees at $425 each) and non-members $825 per person (with additional attendees $625 each).
The ADI Craft Spirits Conference and Vendor Expo is usually in March or April following the ACSA show. This year’s conference was in Denver, Colorado and had over 1,800 industry members in attendance. Next year’s show will be in New Orleans, Louisiana in April of 2020. The American Distilling Institute (ADI) is privately owned with conference leadership positions filled by full time employees. The ADI show is a week long event with several hands-on workshops, such as whiskey and rum distilling classes, before and after the three-day conference. Like the ACSA show, distillers can meet with suppliers on the vendor expo floor, attend educational sessions and paid workshops, and attend the Gala dinner to receive their awards from the spirits judging and tasting panel.
Matt Beamer, Distiller at Sagaponack Farm Distillery in Sagaponack, NY attended the ADI Conference this year. Matt enjoyed the one-on-one interactions with industry members. “I would say the biggest takeaway from attending would be listening to the panel discussions on several topics. Being in these discussions with distillers discussing their personal experiences makes a huge difference. The face to face interactions go beyond a phone call or email. It takes theoretical knowledge and adds a personal experience to it and makes understanding the issue much more effective.”
Matt spent time on the vendor expo floor as well. “Being at ADI and having face to face discussions with vendors is very helpful. Phone and email conversations pale in comparison to direct conversation.” When asked about making the long trip to Denver, he reflected on being part of a bigger community. “There is nothing like being in the community of distillers. When we’re at ADI, we get a sense that we’re not on an Island, but instead in the very thick of the journey of being a craft distiller.”
Matt and his team’s time away from the distillery, travel expenses and conference fees were high but he felt it was a sound investment. “As for return on investment, we come back excited, invigorated, and ready to incorporate what we learned to take us to the next level. Totally worth it.”
The ADI Full Conference Pass fees for 2019 were $550 per person for ADI members (with $350 per additional attendee) and $750 per person for non-members (with $550 per additional attendee). The ADI Awards Gala dinner is an additional $50 per person. Additional paid workshops are also available. It is anticipated that the 2020 conference will have similar fees.
The ACSA conference and ADI conferences provide many similar benefits such as a vendor and supplier expo and diverse educational workshops but there are many reasons to attend both. Some distillers choose to attend one versus the other while many distillers try to attend both conferences each year. Jared Himstedt, Master Distiller of Balcones Distilling in Waco, TX is one of the many distilleries who send teams to both conferences. “For me, the value falls into a couple of categories. The most enjoyable by far is the time with industry friends and colleagues. Every year there is always a new connection made or chance to deepen old ones, whether it’s serious discussion on the trade or just good laughs over drinks. Opportunities to discuss and brainstorm around legislative issues are super valuable to me.”
Jared and the Balcones team are experienced distillers who have had some disappointments with the technical educational sessions at the conferences. “I always look forward to technical and research sessions with high hopes, but I feel like only a few deliver. There are only a rare few that live up to the expectations of delivering actual research. A lot have anecdotal and uncontrolled ‘experiments’ that leave me a bit disappointed. I look forward to those getting more dialed in over the years.”
The Balcones team believes that the price to send the team to these conferences is an investment more then an expense. “We have no problem investing in the professional growth of our crew as long as they see the value in the experience. The team does a good job of attending sessions relevant to their role at our distillery and bring a lot of good info back to the table.”
The last major show that craft distillers attend in the first quarter of the year is the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) Show. The WSWA show is an opportunity for wineries and distilleries, big and small, to reserve a booth to showcase their products to distributors from across the country. Distributors walk around the show tasting products and meeting up-and-coming brand owners. If distributors like a product, they can decide to add it to their portfolio for distribution. The WSWA show is one of the biggest wine and spirits show in the country. Impressing a large distributor could mean a huge increase to sales for a growing craft distillery. This year the show was in Orlando, Florida and next year the show will be in Las Vegas, Nevada. The show alternates between these two cities every year.
Nick Ladig, VP of Sales of Hotel Tango Whiskey, Inc. in Indianapolis, IN. attended the WSWA show in Orlando, but did not attend the ADI or ACSA conferences this year. Nick’s biggest take away from the WSWA show as both the opportunity for new sales and keeping up with industry trends. “It was interesting to see the proliferation of new products chasing the trends (ex. canned cocktails, low abv) and the emergence of the new web-based tier in alcohol distribution and wholesalers becoming more disciplined when adding to their portfolios.”
When asked why Hotel Tango Distillery did not attend the ADI or ACSA conferences, he felt increasing sales was priority for them right now. “We opted not to attend ADI/ACSA because they are more educational and internally focused versus WSWA which is more likely to lead to new business partners.”
The WSWA pricing for distilleries, wineries, and brand owners to get a booth varies. For WSWA Members booths start at $2,800 for a 10’x10’ booth but go up to $11,900 for a 20’x20’ island booth. Larger suppliers may opt for a private suite or reserve entire conference rooms to showcase their brands. Distillers can pay for additional attendee tickets such as $275 per model and $675 for each additional non-member or spouse to attend.
Tyrone President and Co-Founder of Islamorada Distillery in the Florida Keys attended both the WSWA and the ADI conferences this year. At the ADI conference Tyrone and his distillery team was able to take away education on good distilling practices. At the WSWA show, Tyrone was able to expose his brands to distributors of all sizes. “The WSWA show opened us up to industry contacts and smaller distributors that we wouldn’t have been able to connect with before. We got to talk to people in the industry that gave us excellent advice like not to be in a rush to get out of your home state and don’t grow too fast. We are a small startup distillery and competing against the large brands can be incredibly difficult.”
Whether distillers are looking for hands-on workshops, educational breakout sessions, panel discussions with industry experts, connections to vendors, or exposure to distributors, the first quarter of the calendar year has multiple resources. Distillers who can raise the funds to travel to the ACSA, ADI, or WSWA shows, will usually find a considerable return on their investment.