Next month will be my fifth time attending Tales of the Cocktail since my first adventure back in 2009. When I first attended, I had no clue what to expect for I had made my decision to go shortly after hearing that I was competing as a finalist in a bitters competition six weeks out. Since Tales is a multi-ring circus with a lot going on in tasting rooms, seminars, official events, and the year-round offerings of restaurants, bars, and music halls across the city, I felt that sharing some advice might help some to navigate a week long opportunity for not just fun, but career advancement and to avoid some perils along the way.
Since you are a member of the USBG, it is rather likely that improving yourself and your career are high on your list. First, Tales of the Cocktail offers a great deal of education. Be sure to pick out a few talks in regards to technique, history, culture, and team building that will advance your way of thinking about your job and enhancing the experience for your guest. Education also continues in tasting rooms via new products as well as interacting with peers and mentors who love talking about their experiences and problem solving your concerns.
Second, Tales is a great time to network. Do not overlook the old school world of business cards, and I recommend getting some printed up if there is still time. And to avoid the issue at the end of the week when you peer at a stack of random business cards, I found that writing a short note on each card will help trigger a memory of who this person was and why I should contact them in the future. Hints about what event, what they were wearing, and what was spoken about have been rather meaningful in how to follow up later. One great way to follow up is to write thank you emails to these people and reconnect when things are calmer. Now with the new school world of mobile devices, adding people to your Facebook or LinkedIn on the fly is a great tool as well, but it is not as appropriate for all situations.
Also in terms of networking, act like your potential future employers, employees, and guests are watching. Similarly, you represent your current establishment everywhere you go, so act with dignity. That does not mean do not go on a mechanical bull or other silly things at the appropriate times, but try not to do or say anything negative or hurtful. Treat others at the event including the establishments you visit with kindness, for how you behave shows a window not only into your soul, but it projects the sense of hospitality one can expect in your bar or restaurant.
Split your time between the people you know from your home city and meeting new people from around the world. Making new friends and following them to the next events can add a wonderful curveball to the week. For example, I am thankful for the group of Dutch bartenders that I befriended in 2011 as they adopted me into their circle and made me feel at home when my Boston crew were off doing other events. Likewise, try things that take you out of your comfort zone whether it’s an event like a pool party, going to a jazz show, or dining in a dive bar. Memories are strongest with what was novel opposed to safe and usual.
Another great place to meet people from different cities is the USBG Midnight Toast that takes place every year in front of the Old Absinthe House. This year it is on Thursday night and hosted by Cutty Sark. Come raise a glass with all of your fellow USBGers!
The whole week itself is a marathon not a sprint, so find your rhythm, and find your pace. Take time to rest, eat, and drink water. Moreover, try to start your day with a decent breakfast, even if that meal is more logically called lunch; drinking on an empty stomach is rarely a good idea. Do not overexert yourself or overdrink for it will make the next day or two much more difficult. Seriously, do not drink everything offered to you; putting a drink down half way might seem wasteful, but it is better for you in the long run. Alternating busy and down days is not a bad strategy, but if you can handle the rush, remember that there will be a chance to decompress at the end of the week. And taking an extra day in New Orleans after Tales to recover is not a bad idea either.
Fear of missing out can be a major issue especially with social media providing images of missed opportunities from multiple sources. However, if your week is full and otherwise pleasurable, do not overthink what could have been. Every year, my Tales experience has been different and I do not feel that one year was better than the other because of it. Just try to fill your week with a variety of activities. If it is your one visit a year to New Orleans, do not neglect the city itself including the bars, restaurants, tours, and museums.
A few things to point out about New Orleans: First, there is quite a bit of crime in the city so do think about traveling in groups or taking taxis. Keep alert. And do not let anyone bet you as to where you got your shoes. Second, New Orleans’ weather is extreme. It can go from hot and sunny to dark and stormy on a moment's notice. Carrying a portable umbrella and wearing a hat to keep sun and rain away are good ideas. Third, drinking on the street is permitted, so do partake sensibly in this activity. My favorite spot is Sidney’s on Decatur Street to get great local craft brews (especially in cans, since glass on the street is frowned upon) to enjoy while walking around. So to recap, somethings to remember to pack: an umbrella, a portable cell phone battery charger, moleskin and pen for notes, business cards, sensible shoes, a hat to keep out the sun, a bathing suit for pool parties, and Advil (or your own favorite hangover cures although there is a CVS right near the Monteleone).
Unlike many other cocktail events, Tales of the Cocktail has almost too many things going on at once. Do not be overwhelmed. Give some aspects forethought but allow others to just happen as they appear. Be safe and sane, and if you see me that week, say hello and cheers!
This column was adapted from an article in The Weekly Dig and Frederic Yarm's blog Cocktail Virgin, which you can follow at http://cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com/