In February, a new ownership team assumed control of the scandal plagued Tales of the Cocktail organization. Comprised of NOLA philanthropists Gary Solomon and Gary Solomon Jr., along with local hospitality magnate Neal Bodenheimer. The team quickly appointed a new director and rebranded the organization as the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. However, questions and speculation about the future of the cocktail industry’s largest conference have swirled ever since. This week, Neat Pour sat down with Solomon Jr. to get some answers straight from the source.
NP chatted with Gary Solomon Jr. over negronis in New Orleans’ Central Business District. Both Solomon’s sentences and demeanor are highly composed, likely a product of his background in the performing arts. After a childhood in New Orleans, he headed to New York City where he earned a degree in Theatre Design from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Upon returning to his hometown, he cofounded the Solomon Group, a (now) multi-million dollar events production company. His support for cultural programs also continued in a non-profit capacity via his role as President of the Board of Directors for The NOCCA Institute, a widely respected institute for the arts. Still, he is fully aware that these credentials have little to do with the business of alcohol.
‘We should be a platform for the industry to lead itself where it wants to be led.’
“The thing that should not go unnoticed is that I’m not from this industry. Neal [Bodenheimer, of Cure] is a wonderful partner. My focus is the foundation side,” said the new Tales co-chairman. “The Solomons are not telling the industry where to go. We should be a platform for the industry to lead itself where it wants to be led. That’s why participation is critical.”
The most marked change from the previous iteration of Tales is a shift in emphasis from one massive event each July to the year round operations of a philanthropic foundation. “I’ve got plenty of events to manage in my life; I didn’t need another event,” said Solomon. “But, what we, as a family, wanted was a real philanthropic effort that could make a difference. So, the opportunity to take the Tales event (and the entire brand) and really leverage the Foundation is what was appealing to us.”
The emphasis on the foundation side will result in some logistical changes. Simply put, the newly rechristened Tales of the Cocktail Foundation will begin functioning like a traditional not-for-profit entity. The organization already announced a commitment to give away $250,000 in grant money this year. Unlike past giving from Tales, the funds are open to anyone who chooses to apply, and the winners will be chosen by committee.
In addition, the Foundation intends to significantly shift Tales’ existing revenue streams. To date, the organization has been largely dependent on brand sponsorship and ticket sales from the summer event. Solomon said that this model needs to change.
“The future of the foundation needs to be tapping philanthropic and corporate giving budgets as well. There’s no reason that our entire foundation should be supported solely through marketing budgets and people’s desires to participate,” he explained. “Right now, Tales is only playing in the avenues of trade marketing or brand advocacy, not touching the kinds of hearts and minds pieces that people who have resources often share.”
Solomon theorized, “The work of this foundation should go beyond a six day event in New Orleans.” However, those six days still draw lots of attention and participation, and the industry is abuzz with questions. The short answer to those questions? Logistically speaking, the Tales of the Cocktail Festival will look a lot like it always has.
‘This is an industry event.’
“We should have the greatest hits of the past and we should have some refinements. But, we’re not going to have a lot of changes this year,” he emphasized. “We’ve said this pretty consistently since we started doing interviews and talks with stakeholders: our job in 2018 is stabilization.”
Another rumor making the rounds of social media is a pivot in audience towards consumers and/or locals. Solomon said that there is no change in audience in the works. “The headline of your article can be ‘This is an industry event.’ There should be a place for the consumer with regards to the foundation side, this is not that event. This is not a consumer event,” he stressed. “This is built for bartenders and spirits industry professionals and we need to cater directly to them. Then as a foundation we need to find ways to leverage what great power this industry has to attract consumers at some other time and some other place and bring those dollars into the industry.”
In the short term, there will be some minor changes. For example, the organizers identified accessibility to education as a key point. So, the pricing will be adjusted to allow individuals only interested in tasting room events easier access to those rooms without requiring that they buy seminar tickets. The idea is to free up seats in the seminars.
Basically, the new team is looking at 2018 as an opportunity to get the lay of land and begin to rebuild trust. “NOLA will hopefully will be the end of the ‘trust but verify’ phase.”
Another topic of discussion within the industry is the relationship with the brands moving forward. The organizer declined to get into many specifics but said that enlisting brands as partners is now moving quickly despite a slow start. “I have a lot of confidence that we’re at the right place in the process. I don’t like how last minute this is, but it seems like that’s how it’s always been,” he said. “There is a lot of commitment in place; there’s a lot to go.”
Leadership believes that executing the Tales on Tour satellite fest in Scotland a few weeks ago served as a positive litmus test for potential sponsors. “I think people wanted to see what happened in Edinburgh first. We delivered what we said we were going to deliver there. I think it paid dividends because in the two weeks since then, sponsor engagement has really gone up,” he opined. “Did we take a little bit of a bath there? Sure. We knew that we were going to take a little bit of a bath there. The positive is that we were really able to show people that we say what we mean and we deliver. I hope that translates here.”
Of course, issues like diversity, discrimination, sexual assault, wellness, and sustainability are the talk of the service sector—and nowhere more so than Tales. Solomon believes that change begins on a simple level. “The start of every conversation, every engagement with a sponsor or with a participant, should start with, ‘It’s hospitality. Be hospitable.’ That’s the easy part. It’s the freakin’ hospitality industry, how can you not be hospitable,” he mused. “So, the start is making it a warm environment for everybody. Then, through our actions and what we do, we will prove that we’re not all talk.”
‘It’s hospitality. Be hospitable.’
As far as those actions are concerned, Solomon suggested that inclusion will be visible in aspects such as personnel and programming, but most of all through the Foundation’s focus. “Things like diversity will be evident at the levels that we can control. The next announcement that you’ll see is our grant committee and it will be reflected there.” He continued, “Things like the grant awarding process is another way that we can show our commitment to diversity and build trust. It’s an open and transparent way to ask for support—and we’re going to give away a quarter million bucks this year—win or lose.”
Oh yeah, the leadership group also promises that there will be no plastic straws at Tales 2018.
In Solomon’s view, the future of Tales is all about philanthropy. After the group executes Tales 2018 and has a chance to “look under the hood,” there will be changes. Specifically, the producers are hoping to streamline the chaotic conference a bit. However, the bulk of the plans moving forward emphasize more grants, more education, and more programs for hospitality workers.
“You’re not going to see a logo that doesn’t say foundation in the future,” declared Solomon. “We’re front and foremost about being a non-profit that’s here to support the industry; every decision that we make is about that. No one is going to ‘out-support’ us.”