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Nick Gillett: Education, education, education – hospitality’s secret weapon

Published:  15 January, 2024

When it comes to the spirits and hospitality industries, I harp on about education a lot. But with good reason. That dinner you had out the other week with the outstanding service – it’s thanks to education. Receiving a top new tipple recommendation from your local bartender – education. Formal training, cocktail masterclasses, category insight – it’s all helping to create better teams, better serves and ultimately an altogether better experience for the customer. So as someone who works for or is interested in the industry, here’s why you should care about it.

A brief history of trade education

When I first started Mangrove in the naughties, it wasn’t yet ‘the norm’ to educate your teams to the hilt. Yes, there was a bit of it going on, but truly caring about the provenance and flavour of products was still rather niche. A few years later, in the early 2010s, trade education and training was at an all-time high. The huge spirits companies were investing millions into training teams who kept all their professionals up to date on the latest category knowledge, styles and applications. In hospitality, training programmes remained abundant, ensuring the very best of service was provided to each customer who stepped over the threshold. And through all of this the general public started to care more about the products and service they received.

Toward the end of the decade however, we saw training teams disperse, especially in hospitality. Venues were hit hard, societal and political pressures (which are too numerous to list) hit the bottom line and all of a sudden training became a luxury. In line with that, many third-party national training programmes closed. But for those of us in the spirits industry, especially companies like Mangrove, we continued to do more training than ever before, a fact that remains true to this very day.

Industry misalignment

Coinciding with the decline of training in hospitality, we’ve seen a seismic shift in the workforce. Huge numbers treat the industry as a stepping stone (I’m not being critical here) and fewer see it as a long-term career plan. Covid and Brexit combined brought about a mass exodus and now we’re finally bringing in new talent, but it’s fresh and would really benefit from the training schemes of old. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the decline in customer service standards – and there’s no blame to be laid here, it’s merely been caused by circumstance.

But why does it matter that the education we’re doing in spirits is misaligned with the hospitality industry? Because ultimately, when it comes to the on-trade, it’s the experience that sells the product.

We provide heaps of training to teams across the country: category masterclasses, professional development and even programmes tailored to clients on topics like sustainability. In 2024 we’ll be delivering a programme that’s all about the production of rum and teaching more about the beauty of rhum agricole. But all of this education will go even further if customers leave venues feeling like they’ve had a wonderful experience from start to finish.

As an independent distributor representing the best of independent producers, we rely on customers being informed and appreciative of all the provenance and quality that goes into the production of our brands. That’s how we’ll get liquid on lips. And with a proportion of those customers being exposed to new brands through the on-trade, we rely heavily on venues and in-venue teams to provide that education piece on our behalf.

The education needs to happen across the board; and when it does, we’ll hopefully all reap the benefits.

In a perfect world

It’s hard in hospitality right now. You’ll no doubt have heard me spout the statistic that one in 18 hospitality venues closed their doors for good in the year between June 2022 and June 2023 and whilst the Autumn Statement brought a meagre amount of support from government in the form of potential rates relief.

But I am absolutely certain that despite the hardship, there is an opportunity here for venues.

I recently visited a venue for a couple of hours, enjoying my favourite tequila blanco. The bartender serving me struck up conversation, and began to recommend a few different brands, convincing me to sample in place of my staple favourite. Now, my favourite remains my favourite, but what a great few hours we had, chatting to each other about the industry – she was knowledgable, sociable and the customers around me (none of whom worked in spirits) were hanging on her every word. I firmly believe that bartenders and mixologists are some of the most interesting people out there, but regardless the experience was memorable and I’m left with such a great lasting impression of that bar, as well as the brands I sampled. I know so many venues out there who are doing wonderful, exceptional things – and I bet that each of these venues invests in team training.

There is ample opportunity for more bar teams to have this knowledge. In the first instance venues can speak to their suppliers, many of whom (if they’re like Mangrove) will have different training opportunities available. A great starting point is to get your teams through their WSET certification. Then once they’ve got this foundational knowledge get them attending local masterclasses, of which there are plenty to choose from. It’s good for the skills, but also great for their networks and that social element might just help us encourage more people to stay in the industry.

I truly believe that the hospitality and spirits industries are great career options. They’re fun, sociable, rewarding and you meet some great people. Not only that, they can take you far across the world. Let’s engage with the new workforce, give them ample training and communicate the appeal of the industry – or even better ask what they want to be trained in.

Modern-day consumers are thirsty to know about products; they want to learn about the liquids that hit their lips. By investing in teams, we’ll not only even the playing field for wonderful independent producers, but we’ll also show those working in hospitality that it’s a career that really can be a rewarding long-term option. And that would be a win for everyone.