The Event Industry’s Problem with Alcohol

The amount of alcohol being served at events is concerning. As an industry we need to step it up and take responsibility for our attendees. Here is why alcohol is a problem and what can we do to fix it.

When I bumped into an app that let you scrape the internet for free booze events I had an epiphany, there is a problem with uncontrolled alcohol at events. A website that sums up all the events offering free booze for attendees to enjoy. Really?

Before we even start discussing the topic, let me set the record straight. If you’ve met me at events around the world, you know I enjoy my wine or beer. I am not trying to instill any moralistic perspective; that frankly would be just plain hypocrisy. We are all adults, we can make our own decisions and nobody has the power to judge one’s decisions.

Alas as event professionals we have the commitment of taking care of our attendees. I look at the current state of events and I see wise event professionals providing healthy food, reducing waste, taking care of crowd security, ensuring prime entertainment, sparking brilliant learning, accommodating fantastic networking and then I get lost.

Why do we feel that in order for an event to be successful and remembered everything must end in a drunken party? I am genuinely asking. I am not being sarcastic and this is not an exercise in writing.

Several events end up with lavish ‘closing ceremonies’ that offer huge amounts of free alcohol and very limited if non existent non-alcoholic options.

I spoke to my personal hero Joan Eisenstodt asking for her opinion and she replied:

“We exclude people by serving alcohol. We put ourselves, our employers and clients and those who attend our meetings and those who may be ‘hit’ (literally) by someone who has over-consumed at one of our events, at risk. We exclude those who for religious or cultural reasons cannot be in places where alcohol is served. We contribute to an illness. Sheesh, we have non-smoking meetings; why not alcohol-free events?”

The Event Industry’s Problem with Alcohol

‘But This is How it is…’

If there is one answer I hate wholeheartedly, it is the one above. It refers to a supposed agreement someone made for you and to which you have to agree. This way or the highway.

Whenever I’ve planned a social event (as part of a larger event or as a standalone gig), my first problem after sorting the issue was the amount of alcohol I had to invest in. It seems there is an untold correlation between the satisfaction of our attendees and the amount of alcohol provided.

The more alcohol, the better the event.

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It’s Cultural

In some cultures alcohol is an integral part of the lifestyle, society and human interaction. I know I lost some of you on the first paragraph because this seems to be a taboo in some environments.

Let’s be honest, if you are an introvert (like I am) it is highly likely you will need a ‘boost’ to get networking. Not everyone is outgoing, not everyone can get out of their comfort zone easily. Call me crazy, but I understand and embrace that.

There are several studies that clearly state how a small quantity of alcohol can actually be beneficial to relax nerves and let go. But there is a difference between relaxing a bit and getting wasted.

While the choice in both cases lies with the attendee, we are often guilty partners in crime. Let me give you some examples of a standard social gathering.

– waiters passing around the room constantly asking if you want more
– open bars with all you can drink cocktails, beer, wine and spirits
– nicely lined up glasses full of the above options on huge buffet style tables
– waiters constantly refilling glasses or changing bottles as soon as they finish

Sounds familiar right? I, for one, am super guilty of at least one of the above practices. But that does not mean it cannot be changed.

Ch-cn-ch-cn-changes

Serving absurd amounts of alcohol at an event is not good for our attendees. Alcohol companies themselves invite you to ‘drink responsibly’, I am not sure why we shouldn’t embrace such mentality.

We need to erase for good the equation lots of alcohol = great event. If that was the case this blog should not exist. What’s the point of giving you pointers on making events better if all that counts is getting drunk?

Of course you can have an amazingly great conference and then just give a divertissement to your attendees and they would be two separate moments, but are you really proving an amazing experience if the closing is just all about the booze?

I am so lucky to meet a lot of you whenever I speak at events around the globe. I see strong individuals. I see women and men whose only objective is to make people happy and I cannot reconcile it with such lack of accountability.

So what does change look like? I am not asking to revolutionise and disrupt our daily practice. I think we should give options to our attendees. I also think we can make a big difference with small changes.

Here are 5 ways to preserve your attendees wellbeing while giving them the choice to ‘let go’.

Low Alcohol

The Meeting Design Institute has come up with the concept I’ve already mentioned several times of CLAMP. If you’ve attended any of the events inspired by this philosophy you would know that alcohol is not banned but it is also not encouraged.

The line is very fine, but it can make a giant difference. If you have to proactively ask for alcohol you will undeniably drink less than if someone constantly pours it into your glass.

This is probably the single most important step you can do to take ownership of the alcohol issue, the one it will make the biggest difference.

Tell Your Attendees

Low alcohol events translate in high communication requirements. Several attendees may in fact be disappointed by the lack of a basic pillar of so many events. I remember I was quite shocked when I first experienced a low alcohol event.

After a long day at the conference, I ‘earned’ my booze. You could not take that away from me. When the master of ceremony mentioned the approach to alcohol and that I had to ask if I wanted to drink I was initially disappointed but I immediately realised how much of a difference it made for my experience. I could talk to people, truly listen to what they had to say, enjoy the food, feel healthy the day after. My experience of the event was incredible.

The communication part is such an important piece of the puzzle. Let your attendees know what you are up to. Don’t let them get the wrong impression, tell them you want them to have fun rather than feel sick. Some won’t like it, but the majority won’t even remember this was a low alcohol event. The amount of positivity coming from a true social experience cannot be compared to a bottle of wine.

Talk to the Venue

Choose venues that are ready to collaborate. Too often we leave F&B management to the discretion of the venue staff. For them, they are keen to ensure plenty of alcohol is passed around and to make sure patrons drink as much as possible.

Make sure staff are properly briefed in regards to serving alcohol. They need to offer alcohol on demand and not suggest ‘one more?’ At every viable opportunity.

I’ve seen many venues completely ignoring the directions given by the event planner because of lack of proper brief and communication. Make alcohol serving part of your venue agreement, expect a deliverable from the venue.

Pump Down the Volume

In a networking or social environment, loud music is the strongest ally of binge drinking. There is a correlation between high music levels and alcohol consumption.

We tend to lose control when the music levels are high. Speaking with our counterparts becomes more difficult.

Close the Bar

An open bar is never going to play nice with the objective of limiting alcohol. Opening a bar in a social environment is very similar to throwing a huge piece of cheese to hungry mice.

You can use a ticket system to allow a certain number of drinks on the house and then make attendees pay for their own drink. Money seems to be one of the strongest deterrent humans react to.

Once again communicate your plan to attendees, tell them you are not trying to be cheap but you are just looking after them. Try to discourage as much as possible the link between alcohol abundance and success of the event.

Give Them Distractions

If you put 500 (but also 5,000 or 50) and people in a room with a bar and that’s it, do not be surprised if all they can do is think about how they are going to get drunk. Make sure the set up of the room is engaging, that food is also present, that there is a proper entertainment in place, that music helps socialising instead of killing it.

Stimulate networking, playing, interacting among attendees. Technology is the strongest ally in your quest to take the focus away from getting drunk. Put up social media walls, have networking apps, gamify the event, give away prizes, have performers, offer content. The options are endless.

If you only put up a sign with ‘open bar’ on it, do not expect attendees to achieve any of their networking, entertainment or education objectives.

In Conclusion

Is there a problem with the event industry and alcohol? Probably.

Can we do anything about it to change the equation between good events and lots of alcohol? Definitely.

I would like to hear your opinion.

Please make sure to read all of the above points as the objective is to discuss, not to troll or create unnecessary controversy.

About The Author
Julius Solaris
Julius Solaris is the editor of EventManagerBlog.com, he is an international speaker, author and consultant.
Comment Policy Comments
  • suepelletier

    Last summer I was on antibiotics and unable to drink alcohol while attending social functions at a conference. The entire contents of this post ran through my mind when I tried to get a bottle of water and the bartender actually sneered at me before finally handing me a paper cup and pointing me toward a water fountain. Seriously!

    Love the idea of giving people something to do other than drink and be assaulted by overly loud music—though I do love to dance! But if you give people a purpose, a game, some directed activity to occupy their minds and get them mingling, your “social” will actually be a whole lot more social, and everyone will remember it in the morning. Great suggestions, Julius!

  • Gretchen Irvine

    Thanks for a thought provoking article. You are right that the events industry needs to take some responsibility for the way in which we serve alcohol. I like the idea of low alcohol events, that we have the alcohol there, but people have to ask for it. Certainly worth thinking about.

  • Weddings of Coronado

    We frequently set up outdoor smores’ bars and games,outside of the designated alcohol consumption area during our wedding receptions.. twister, croquet, smash ball, boccie ball, ping pong, softball, bag toss..distraction works very well 🙂

  • Ray Smerlin

    This is a great point of discussion. One of the first questions we always ask a client is “Why are you putting this event on?”. I have yet to find one that answers “Oh just so everyone can get drunk and rowdy”.What makes this discussion even more thought provoking for me is that we offer a special dinner event that features bourbon and Kentucky distilleries. The object is not to “sell out the brand” that night, rather, to make people aware, for WHEN they chose to have a cocktail. I would be very interested in getting a roundtable discussion going on this with the distilleries we work with. Could be interesting.

  • Thanks, Julius, for the kind words.

    A subject about which I’ve talked for years especially when it comes to liability of all those involved in arranging for and serving alcohol. There are so many who believe that if they provide drink tickets that they are limiting consumption. (False. Often individuals in companies carry around rolls of tickets to ensure that there are ‘enough’ to be given.) It’s believed that if coffee is served later in the evening, it will sober people up. (Nope.. just alert drunks.) And then there are the many people in our industry and at all meetings in AA and for whom we make it awkward. (I have an horrific story from a hotel advisory board meeting years ago where the hotel at which we were staying put in a full bar in each guest room for the advisory board members…..)

    Would I prefer no alcohol served at events? Probably. And I realized it’s not realistic. It is possible to limit it and to set good examples at industry meetings about drinking responsibly. It is smart to have designated walkers as well as drivers – the walkers being those who will ensure someone gets back to a hotel room without harming her or himself and others.

    It would be nice to be inclusive and not put those whose religious practices prohibit the consumption of alcohol.

    And if you people at events are considering job hunting, being drunk while being observed from others is not the way to go.

    And about the Introversion, Julius: Instead of drinking, find a small group that wants to have a deeper, better conversation. Alcohol isn’t needed.

  • Emma

    I’d love some ideas on how to change the attendee’s perception / behaviour towards alcohol at events. We hold a conference at a convention centre every year and lose a lot of our delegates to a nearby hotel’s bar during the afternoon sessions. Our committee puts some high profile / exceptional quality speakers on during the afternoon to try and encourage people to stay but every year it’s the same thing. We have a long lunch break and standard morning and afternoon teas to encourage networking so it’s not as though they don’t have the opportunity to catch up with their mates. Without fail our survey responses will make note of the ‘lack of bar to get a drink’.
    We have a great dinner on the first night which has a band playing all night (mellow at first until after main where they kick it up a notch), a stage show performance (ie this year was a mentalist). There is the opportunity to have the standard celebration over a three course meal and drinks.
    I’m struggling to find a way to educate our delegates that the conference sessions are not the time to grab a beer.

    • Emma,

      Would any of the suggestions in the article work for your audience?

Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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