It might initially be a bit disheartening to be passed an envelope as your main Christmas present from under the tree, but you might be one of the lucky ones that gets given an “experience” this year rather than another ill fitting jumper. Yes, “experiences” are all the rage, both in our personal lives, but also what we increasingly expect from our high street retailers and most definitely if you expect people to turn up for something as mundane as a wine tasting. Richard Siddle looks at how not only is the high street being transformed, but also the hospitality and event sectors as people look to save up and spend big money on what they hope will be memorable “experiences” to tell their friends about.
If you really want to make someone’s Christmas then put that bottle of perfume down and pick up a copy of the local paper to find out what you can do locally that will really give your loved one a memorable day or night out. And if you are planning an event in 2018 then you’ll have to work even harder to attract a crowd. Richard Siddle explains why…
Back in the day if you were invited to go on a stag or hen do for a good friend’s wedding all you had to worry about was making sure you packed enough paracetamol for a raucous night out.
Nowadays you have to commit yourself to at least a long weekend away and may even have to pack a passport. That’s before being asked to sign away your life to take part in some sort of out of body experience that involves being dropped from an enormous height. Why can’t we just go to a bar and have a drink? However tasteless it is.
Yes, when it comes to going out we are no longer happy just with an afternoon down the shops, a quiet meal at the local Italian, or a chance for a chat over last orders. No, days and nights out are planned to military precision. Where it’s all about the ‘experience’.
Just look at Halloween and Bonfire Night. It used to be an excuse to go and send the kids out to get some free sweets. We used to be quite happy standing around the local park watching uninspiring fireworks, eating half cooked hot dogs. Now Halloween involves so much dressing up, that even Freddie Kruger would be scared to walk the streets. Whilst local firework displays can be picked up by the International Space Station.
Leading up to Christmas is now a two month affair, with some household decorations better than the shop windows at Harrods.
It’s all down to the kids
We can, quite justifiably, blame all those youngsters for changing how we all now behave. Oh, and the smartphone. Previous generations were quite happy hanging out under a street light sharing a bottle of cider. They knew that was the best experience they could have on a night out. Now the smartphone generation don’t even need to leave the comfort of their own bedroom to explore the world. Be it through movies, video games, or social media where they can be constantly in touch and chatting to friends.
If they are going to be enticed outside, then it has to be for a very good reason.
It’s the same up and down the high street. Retailers can no longer just get away with putting products on shelf and expect loyal customers to flood through their doors to buy them. They need to be cajoled with personalised email offers, tweets, pictures on Instragam and the promise of so much more if they can bothered to go and visit them.
Retailers are now in show business, using every trick they can to make themselves stand out and appear as attractive as possible. Staff, for example, at the new John Lewis department store in Oxford are being given acting lessons on how to control their body language and talk to different types of customers.
Airbnb is no longer just in the business of putting people with spare rooms and apartments in touch with travellers looking for a place to stay. It now has its own ‘experience hub’ and is looking for what it calls ‘Experience Hosts” in cities across the world who can offer guests and their local communities memorable events and things to do. Be it hosting a pop up restaurant in your home, taking people on a tour of the local aquarium, putting on a poetry recital, anything and everything that is not the norm.
It’s the same when we go out to eat and drink. We are now being invited to special theme nights at restaurants and bars. Given the chance to help cook our own meal, learn how to make a cocktail, be shown how to dance a waltz, watch a full burlesque variety show.
Lights, camera, spittoons
Wine tastings are also being given the Hollywood treatment. We might once have been quite happy with a few slices of cheese or salami to go along with our samples of wine. Now we might expect to see an authentic fire pit outside making fresh breads and grilling meats to accompany a specialist Greek wine tasting.
Themed wine tastings are becoming big business. Take Revel in Australia that puts on shows like Game of Rhones, that attracts hordes of people all dressed up as their favourite Game of Thrones characters. Its founder, Dan Sims, has this vision for the future of wine and food events. “It should be fun first, facts second, engaging and inspiring and never the tired old take on wine education and tastings. We live to create remarkable experiences that people love and learn from. Our mission is to the change the way wine (and food) is experienced and communicated on a global scale.”
It’s all happening in the US as well with events like Wine Riot that are also out to revolutionise wine tastings and make wine hip and happening to all wine drinkers. Here’s how it describes its approach: “Think of us as your cool older cousin that bought you your first drink, your personal spirit guide into the exciting world of wine. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy wine but don’t you wish someone told you to skip the wine coolers and go straight to rosé.”
Wine tasting meets night club
Which for Wine Riot means tasting wine in more of a nightclub environment where you can dress up, mess around in fancy dress photo booths, and go home with a fake wine themed tattoo. Here’s its elevator pitch: “We’re two parts education and one part revolution, Wine Riot has reinvented ‘wine tasting’ for the thirsty and curious. Grab a glass and hit the floor.”
Closer to home consumer wine events have been given their own cortisone injection with all sorts of events packing out venues up and down the country. Specialist wine retailers have been able to tap in to a huge demand from their loyal customers to attend their growing roadshows around the country. For the likes of The Wine Society, Naked Wines, Majestic Wines and Oddbins hosting such events are a much more important part of their marketing and advertising spend than ever before.
Then there are the “you’ve seen us on TV” style tastings where you get the chance to meet and taste wine with wine celebrities (if there can be such a thing) like The Three Wine Men roadshows featuring Oz Clarke and Olly Smith and Tim Atkin MW from Saturday Morning Kitchen. In another city near you there might be The Wine Gang, made up of wine writers who each have columns in the national press.
More in keeping with what is happening in the US and Australia are pop up events like Tapas Fantasticas and other similar consumer events from Wines from Rioja. Major Spanish wine brand, Campo Viejo, has taken over London’s South Bank for its Streets of Spain wine and food extravaganza where you could take part in experience zones and see how the same wine tastes in different coloured rooms, as well as enjoy local Spanish food.
All the big street food festivals, like Foodies and Taste of London and the pop-up street food markets, like Dinerama, also feature a large wine element such is its appeal to their target audiences.
But as quickly as these events have appeared, the harder it has become to stand out and be seen as genuinely new, different and interesting.
Ask Andrew Maidment, the UK head of Wines of Argentina, who has been responsible over the last few years for putting together a series of breakthrough consumer wine tastings nights that are like being whisked off to the streets of Buenos Aires.
He first created ‘Cambalache’ which gave guests the chance to taste wine, but also learn how to be an Argentine gaucho, spray graffiti paint Argentine-style, or learn how to dance the tango. That then evolved in to a £100 a night Michelin-starred Argentine dinner, served canteen style over wooden bench tables. Before this year becoming a stripped back event that started out as a traditional tasting before being transformed in to a full blown rave with Shoreditch House DJs.
Maidment says the bar for what people now expect from a night out, is being set higher and higher. “Five years ago we sold out our Cambalache events within hours. It was very different. No-one was doing a wine event like this. This year it has been a lot harder. There is so much competition now and you have to work far harder to stand out and offer an experience that people want,” he explains.
Ultimately you would like to think it would be down to the wines themselves to be the main attraction at a wine tasting. But unless you have the rarest, most expensive wines known to man, which would be an experience in itself to taste, you have to work a lot harder than just bringing a corkscrew and a wheel of stilton with you.
It means, though, we are all in for plenty of good times ahead. No spittoon required.
- This article was first published by Fiona Beckett on Matching Food and Wine.