July 24th, 2008

Tales – the reckoning

Funeral march for Sour Apple Martini - Tales

No doubt you’ve gleaned from my previous posts that I had a blast at Tales of the Cocktail this year. I mean, running around the Hotel Monteleone with a “Presenter” badge, getting into any session or tasting room I wanted, plus getting invited to parties and other special events around town — how could I not have fun?

That said, as everyone who was at Tales this year knows, there were some, uh, issues. Attendance at many, if not most, of the panels was overflowing. That this event has become so popular is great, but the unpreparedness for the crowds that turned up this year was woeful. Many sessions did not have enough seats, drink samples or servers. The brandies for the Cognac and Armagnac session were delivered to the room late, some as much as an hour into the tasting. The second cocktail featured in the Three Amigos session didn’t get delivered to the row of tables I was sitting in. Paul Pacult’s scotch-tasting seminar had far too few samples for the crowd that showed up. The Tales Apprentices, who were tasked with batching all of the cocktails — including squeezing fresh citrus — for five days’ worth of events, were far too few in number and far too overworked as a result. (“Apprentice” is a misnomer — these people included many of the nation’s best young bartenders and were overseen by Phil Ward of Death & Co. in New York). And so on.

International House party at Tales in New Orleans

(I know what some of you are thinking: ‘It’s a cocktail conference for chrissakes.’ Well, I was there last year, and things went pretty smoothly despite the constant presence of alcohol.)

Look, I have no intel yet on the reasons behind the unpreparedness, and for all I know there are some legitimate explanations. But I couldn’t help but ask myself: How would I feel if I had actually bought tickets for the event? Would I ever want to go to Tales again? I talked to one Boston couple who said that, despite the glitches, they would go back. The reason was that they loved New Orleans, and Tales week is a good time to go … But they also said they would attend fewer sessions in the future.

And so, I have a request for any ticket-buying Tales attendee who reads this: Please leave a comment about your experiences last week. Was it fun? Was it worth it? Would you go back?

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12 Responses to “Tales – the reckoning”

  1. eas

    Rightly bold to call out the Intl House party, arguably the best among the event! and it surely was.

  2. Ian Osmond

    For all the glitches, and there were plenty, I had a blast and would go back if vacation time and finances permitted it.

    I could point to other things — the Tiki party running out of alcohol before we got there, the Vieu Carre room appeared to be cursed — probably because it required TWO elevators to get product up to it, the fact that you had panels on the second floor, and the fifteenth and sixteenth floors.

    Again, even with that, my main complaint with Tales is that I am a human being and had to go to sleep every night, rather than spending twenty-four hours every day learning and hanging out with great people.

    But . . . here in Boston, we have a few volunteer-run science fiction conventions which have been running for twenty years. I’d like to see the people from Tales coming up to Boston to talk to the people running Arisia about what they’ve learned institutionally in the past two decades.

    Organizationally, Tales is most like a big science fiction con. It’s fun, it’s boisterous, it’s got lots of industry people mingling with lots of enthusiasts, it’s run by amateurs. It’s run on passion and love more than on money.

    Those are good things, from my perspective. But it requires a group of experienced people to pull it off. Tales doesn’t have the experienced people, because Tales is only, what, five, six years old? So Tales should contact other groups who’ve been through the same growing pains and learn from them.

    I recognize all the problems you mention. But I went to a dozen fantastic panels, and met hundreds of wonderful people, bought books, drank cocktails, and spent time in New Orleans. Even in panels where everything went haywire, I still had a good time.

    The trick is going to be to get everything organized better and running smoothly without losing the fun and joy. And it can be done.

  3. ljclark

    Ian, many thanks for your understanding and constructive input. It was great to see so many Boston-area cocktail enthusiasts there.

    For those confused by eas’ “bold” comment: the Int’l House party was un “unsanctioned” event — not officially part of the Tales agenda. Nonetheless, it attracted probably the largest gathering of top bartenders and other spirits industry people that anyone there had ever seen. It was quite a party.

  4. Herbie

    Tales was awesome! Having gone to Tulane for undergrad, seeing a bunch of great people from the cocktail culture show up to the sweltering heat of New Orleans in mid July warmed my belly like a nice 1972 Macallan would. It was my first time at Tales. I am a producer of Pisco from Peru and I went with my biz partner who produces several small batch artisan spirits in Tampa Florida. I gotta say we were bnoth impressed by the fact that there were NO SUITS!!! no big booze reps anywhere to be found…it was great!

    We did it a bit more local though than the Tales schedule. I was happy to see Spirited dinners going on all over the place, but I didnt see too much action to try and get people out of the touristy French Quarter. I took my buddy all over the city to experience some home cookin Uptown, some drinkin at a local lounge in Mid City and he couldnt ask for anything more.

    I will definitely go back for this and jazzfest, my other passion!

    I do encourage anyone else who really appreciates the cocktail culture and is not one of these suits trying to push their latest big name shite brand on the public to attend. It really feels like its all the people who really enjoy the culture.

    New Orleans 2009…obviously!

    Cheers.

  5. Stephen

    i had fun at tales. i did notice a lot of glitches in the seminars especially with the drinks… drinks were served out of the order described by presenters… the wrong drinks were topped with champagne… little imperfections here and there, i’m pretty sure the recipes on quite a few cards were miss printed, and wondered if all drinks were measured based on how they tasted, etc… anyhow i wish i could have helped. i noticed that most of the volunteer help came from the NYC crews who did amazing jobs at quite a few seminars… the egg drink seminar really stood out. next year i would be available if anyone wants to get some work out of me…

    i will say that i mainly had fun meeting people (quite a lot of fun!). the cultures among industry people between cities is quite different… unfortunately boston doesn’t seem like it comes out on top… boston seems to lack the numbers, and from conversation supportive restaurant / bar owners relative to the other cities (NYC, chicago, san fransisco, LA, miami)… boston has some really cool places but it seems like the average of quality is moving up faster elsewhere just based on the enthusiasm
    and energy of the bartenders i met… hopefully we don’t retrogress. it was surprising to see how many ex bostonians are doing great work in other cities… a couple notable people were former line cooks.

    meeting other really passionate people did make the tales a great event, but one thing i did want to see was some more advanced seminars… i could have went to a week of nano distilling seminars. i would love to see a seminar on current cocktail avant garde…

    i would go back.

  6. Nishla

    Before I say anything negative, I want to emphasize that we had a fantastic time at our first Tales. We really enjoyed the city, the food, meeting lots of new friends, and many of the events at Tales.
    However, I suspected we might experience some organizational troubles about a week before Tales started. We had registered for several seminars, and they changed one session to a different day without notifying us. When I called to ask about switching seminars, no one had any clue what to do. For one of the seminars, the room was so crowded we had to stand in the back, and did not get to taste any of the samples. Since I could have just walked in without paying, I wondered why I had paid $40.
    I think a few simple changes could make a big difference in preventing some of the major issues (although, what the hell do I know?). For example, letting paying guests enter ahead of walk-ins shouldn’t take that much effort. Setting some caps on seminar size and a reasonable deadline for signing up might be helpful too. I understand that the behind-the-scenes team got totally overwhelmed since so many more people showed up than expected. Considering how much lime juice those guys had to produce, I think they did a remarkable job.
    In any case, we will definitely be back. I mean, how often do you get to hang out with hoardes of other cocktail nerds?

  7. laura

    there was a reasonable deadline online but tickets could be purchased at the hotel monteleone. i think there were too many people with media passes which allowed them everywhere they were like the paparazzi. yeah i understand tales reps need to start talking to other people who come to city for big conventions to see how they pull it off.yeah i feel like ann needs a 100 member team to pull this off smoothly next year. as a new orleanian i enjoy meeting all the people from around the world who comes for tales and showing them our great city.

  8. Gabriel

    I agree that they need to better manage the paying vs. non-paying media load on the seminars. I gave up my seat to a paying customer on more than one occasion and I was a little dismayed that so few media folks seemed willing to do so when asked.

    On another note, though, it shouldn’t be assumed that all non-media were paying guests. My wife, who attended as non-media, only had her registration checked in one session. The other 6 she attended were just ‘open door’ and I’m nearly certain that not all of the people seated were paid registrants. I think a non-fascist method of checking registration and controlling the number or seating of media would be ideal.

  9. ljclark

    Everyone, these comments are most helpful and will I’m sure contribute to improvements in next year’s conference. Thanks.

  10. Adam

    I did have a good time at my first Tales, and do plan on returning, but I’m the type of soul that the issues really got to. (Hyper aware of things that could be done better/smoother/more efficiently when it comes to customer experience.)

    I understand the “It’s a cocktail conference, what did you expect?” point of view, but having spent significant money to get there, stay, attend and get home I expected more.

    To start, the online site was glitchy, cumbersome to navigate, and delayed days after the announced date.

    Also, I still have registration and payment issues that I’m waiting on for some large refunds promised me. Everyone involved has been SUPER nice and courteous but no one from the Tales side has taken ownership of getting this resolved. If I don’t press on it, and work with THEIR vendors instead of them, I feel like I’ll never get my money returned and it’s been months already.

    We had the same issue with sessions being moved without any notification. In fact my girlfriend’s session was moved to conflict with another session that she registered for and not only did no one say anything, she wasn’t refunded the money for the class she couldn’t attend due to the reschedule when we brought it up.

    (Having 11 year olds handing out packets, who couldn’t answer questions or address issues, didn’t help with first impressions either.)

    There wasn’t much constancy throughout the event either. Some sessions had strict attendance review, others seemed to have no restrictions on attendance regardless if you payed for the session or a pass. Some had cocktails and samples ready to go, others the cocktails weren’t even made (not run out of something due to over attendance, but that they were never prepared at all).

    The Riedel class (which was one of my favorites) was horrifically run. There were people packed into the hallway, blocking traffic and holding up staff, while the room was set up. Then a lot of yelling while there was disagreement on who got to go first, people who paid for the class specifically because they knew ahead of time they wanted it, or people who payed more money for a day or weekly pass.

    The “Tasting Like a Pro” class also pointed out some organizational issues as well. The person leading it indicated that he was told that he’d have 50 attendees and over 100 showed up. He had only brought enough books for 50 and he seemed quite bothered by the fact of not having enough – like it reflected on his individual lack of preparedness.

    I also think the event has outgrown the Monteleone in size and demand. Having all the event rooms in the same area of the hotel or more/faster elevators to shuttle people around would help immensely. The crowds around the registration desk were crazy. There was no room for people to wait on line without blocking the elevators and the hallway. It just didn’t come across as thought through.

    Was anyone else disappointed with the Carousel Bar staff? I’ve never heard so many people “downgrade” their cocktail orders so fast in my life when getting blank stares back from the bartender. I KNOW they were overwhelmed and I KNOW they were under a lot of pressure by having so many industry folks around, but couldn’t someone help train them on how to shake something with egg in it or teach them a few popular cocktails that weren’t on their menu? Perhaps buy them a recipe book (by the very authors who were there for Tales) so they could look stuff up?

    Listen, I think Tales is a great idea and a great event and the points above, although negative, are meant as feedback to help things going forward. With different expectations, I’m currently plan on going next year. I really look forward to some indicators that the issues from this year are being considered and addressed.

    Just as other folks above have said – I’m happy to help in whatever way I can to support and improve Tales going forward – just let me know :-).

  11. ljclark

    Adam, I was going to add the issues with the Carousel Bar to my list of grievances but figured I’d cut myself short lest I be completely blacklisted next year. So, thanks for bringing that up. All I could imagine over the course of the week was, ‘What if the amazing bartenders attending this conference took over this bar?’ Easy answer: no one would ever leave the Carousel to attend other events.

  12. Adam

    “lest I be completely blacklisted next year” – yeah, that’s my concern as well, honestly.

    I’m not normally this outspoken, but you asked. :-)

    I REALLY DO want it to continue and get better year after year and I believe that Ann does as well. Tales can’t fix what they don’t know about.

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