At no other time in history has the liquor and bar industry been as widely affected by events as it has over this last year. Not even during Prohibition did we see the same degree of global impact that has been witnessed through this pandemic.
Bars from Shanghai to Buenos Aires, from Chicago to Edinburgh have all had to shut their doors and are now either still closed or struggling with re-opening under massive restrictions. Many have foreshadowed that it will be years until the full impact is truly known but already it’s easy to see that the cost to hospitality has been huge.
In the midst of this, the World’s 50 Best Bars are on the eve of announcing their annual list. And it’s easy to see why some might question the relevance and importance of awards in times like these – seeing them as akin to ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.
But Mark Sansom, Content Editor for The World’s 50 Best Bars, believes that seeing the event as anything other than an opportunity for the industry is a little naive. “It’s about time that the bars started receiving some positive news stories and positive PR,” he said. “I’d say the awards are a factor in the next stage of recovery.
“Everyone seems to be writing off hospitality venues, but I think with the awards, it’s going to give bars the opportunity to get the message out there that guests can be confident that they can come into these hospitality spaces and that they can be treated or served safely and securely.”
In their twelfth year, and the first year where the event will be run virtually, Sansom explains that the Awards are not as you might assume, a B2B event, but rather a business to consumer offering. And that’s where their importance lies. “This is the time when bars really need their guests; they need people to come in and start spending their hard-earned cash.
“We look to provide an authoritative list of venues where people can go, be sure that they’re going to have a good time and be well looked after. And I think with these awards, that’s going to be a key goal for this year, and certainly going forward.”
Although the awards are the focus of what they do, Sansom points out that World’s 50 Best is about more than just this one night. Over the last few months, the organisation has been running 50 Best Recovery, which was designed to provide tangible financial relief for the industry, as well as to offer helpful resources for restaurant businesses as they emerge from the pandemic and seek actionable advice and support.
“So when we realized Coronavirus was going to have a significant impact on the hospitality industry, we asked ourselves how we could help. We started off with a content hub where bars and restaurants could speak to one another, interact and where workers could get advice about the grants that were available and get social support,” Sansom explained.
“With the virus hitting Asia first, we shared the learnings, stories and experiences of those bars, bartenders and restaurants in the East with people in the West, which many found incredibly useful.”
I’d say the awards are a factor in the next stage of recovery.
At that time, the organisation also launched their first e-cookbook, which they sold for $10 each, with 100% of the funds channelled straight into their recovery fund. The books featured 50 of the world’s best chefs, while 50 of the world’s best bartenders gave a cocktail pairing for the food recipes.
But their biggest fundraising drive was the Bid For Recovery auction, which 50 Best Bars ran in June. Sansom points out that the proceeds from that, the book and our other fundraising enterprises, raised in excess of $1.25 million for the hospitality industry. Those funds were distributed to 236 hospitality venues across 53 countries. And it’s interesting to note that the majority of those funds were distributed to bars and restaurants that were not on their lists.
“We’d like to see ourselves as very much part of the hospitality ecosystem,” Sansom explained. “And this year particularly, as well as going forward, we’re going to do as much as we can to support it.”
And looking forward seems to be very much the watchword at 50 Best Bars. Even with everything that has been going on, Sansom points out that there have been a number of changes, both within the organisation itself, as well as the opportunities it offers the industry.
A few weeks ago the organisation announced their latest project which they are calling 50 Next. The aim is to look for bright young talents who are disrupting the industry in the area of gastronomy, across both food and drink.
So the call is out to find activists, craft spirit producers, bartenders, marketeers, everyone who’s doing positive things for the industry – if you want to enter, we have a link at the bottom of this article, as entries don’t close until November 12. The entries will be adjudicated by the Basque culinary centre in northern Spain.
While the organisation may provide inspiration both to consumers and the industry alike, the stark reality is that 99.9% of the industry will never appear within the top 100 bars lists. Yet, through compiling the list each year, the organisation found itself with a huge amount of data on bars that had received one or two votes but not enough to get them on the main lists.
So what do you do with all that information? Well, obviously, you create 50 Best Discovery, an additional list that the organisation made public last year. As Sansom explains, it is a list where consumers can discover bars that the organisation has not had a chance to highlight before. “There are between 600 and 650 new bars that people can search through on 50 Best Discovery and be assured of a good experience.”
While the lists are squarely aimed towards consumers, the question of how much impact they really have outside the industry has to be asked. As Sansom points out, the objective of the group is to highlight venues both locally and internationally, and he feels that increasingly that objective is being met.
“Before the pandemic, we were becoming aware that people were planning their travel and vacation around the hospitality experiences they wanted to enjoy and a lot of them were using 50 Best Bars to do that,” Sansom explained.
“We’d certainly like to think that we’ve got more bums on seats for restaurants and bars over the course of the award’s history. And certainly, when we speak to bartenders and bar owners about the awards, they’re very complimentary about their increased covers, with many directly attributing traffic to their position on the list.”
Sansom will go as far as to say that he believes the list has gone a long way to not only promoting individual bars but also the skill of the industry itself. “Twelve years ago, people wouldn’t have considered the craft of bartending as an art form; certainly not in the same way they would consider a chef at the top of his game. Now I think people are regarding bar craft and bar art as a valuable skill that they will come from far and wide to see.”
Even during the pandemic, Sansom believes that that shift in perception has only increased, as masterclasses and zoom gatherings allowed bartenders a greater ability to get in front of consumers and instil a greater awareness of the craft.
Yet Sansom says that it is unrealistic to think that things will go back exactly as they were before. As with everything else, the pandemic has changed the way that both consumers and industry will move forward, but that said, he still believes that people are always going to be looking for a wonderful experience, both in bars and in restaurants.
“People are still going to be looking for standout hospitality experiences and, and it’s going to become very, very important that when they do choose to go into restaurants and bars, that they feel safe and secure.
“The restaurants and bars I’ve spoken to in the UK, Europe and in Asia, people are noticing that they might be making fewer bookings, but their average spend has gone up quite significantly. I was speaking to the guys at Maybe Sammy and they’ve noticed that it’s not quite doubled, but it’s gone up by at least sort of between 30 and 40%.
Obviously, lower capacity in venues provides those bartenders with a great opportunity to spend more time with each customer and reconnect with locale clientele. This is one of the reasons that 50 Best decided to launch a new award this year that gets to the heart of the hospitality industry and that is the bar experience and service of hospitality itself.
As Sansom points out, the award was something that the organisation had been considering for a while but this year seemed the perfect time to highlight and introduce the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award. “It’s arguably the most most important facet of any bar,” he said.
“Indeed people who come away with a positive hospitality experience are more inclined to tell their friends than for any other reason. In times like these, where guest confidence is going to be so important going forward, as the bars try to lure people back, it can be the deciding factor.
“And in terms of the actual voting for the award, 540 members of our academy are asked to name the one bar where they had the most outstanding hospitality experience within the voting period. And this year, Maybe Sammy was the winner.
“I think they’re a great shining light for how hospitality doesn’t have to be staid and structured. The fluid, reactive way that the team at that bar provide service to their guests is a great example of how good hospitality can operate in bars, especially in these difficult times.”
While Sansom believes that if the industry focuses on what it is good at – creativity and service – it will bounce back, the future of the awards themselves, particularly next year, is still up in the air. This year, the normal 18 month judging period was reduced to 15 months as bars around the world began to shut down. But what happens next year, is still in discussion.
“It’s a question which is very, very much at the top of our minds across all of our lists,” Sansom said. “We’ve got a number of different options in discussion but it’s going to be very difficult for us to come up with something which is fair and I’m not really in a position to be able to give any detail on that just yet.
“This year, there was only one bar in Miami that made it clear that they had no plans to reopen. For next year, we’re going to have to speak to industry figures, bartenders and our academy chairs to try and come up with a system which is fair and reliable. It’s very much a question we’re working through at the moment.”
For more information on World’s 50 Best Bars go to worlds50bestbars.com
For more information on 50 Next, go to theworlds50best.com/50next/ – entries close November 12