Benefit from Face Time

Hosting Special Events

Technology can’t replace the enduring appeal of connecting with people face-to-face. For that reason, hosting special events remains a powerful, time-tested way to attract new customers and increase loyalty from your existing client base.

Vines-Riverbend Wine Merchants, a specialty wine and spirit boutique in Edmonton, takes the idea of event hosting to heart. Owner David Gummer explains, “It’s a huge part of what we do. It garners a lot of loyalty when you educate your clientele.” He and his partners – and a knowledgeable staff of sommeliers and International Sommelier Guild (ISG) diploma graduates – believe in sharing their passion and expertise in wine and spirits. The store hosts in-store seminars and tastings, and partners with charities to host signature, high-profile events.

Seven years ago, Vines-Riverbend Wine Merchants joined with the MS Society of Canada to launch the Edmonton Whisky Festival, which attracts whisky distillers, experts, and master blenders from around the world. “We capped out at 600 people the last three years, and poured 175 different whiskies. It’s the premiere whisky event in Edmonton,” Gummer enthuses. Last year, the festival raised $50,000 for the MS Society. It also raised the profile and prestige of Vines-Riverbend as presenting sponsor. It’s an ideal tie-in for a store that is strong on sales of single malt Scotch.

Hosting special events offers opportunities to stand out from the competition. Gummer notes, “We have a lot of mammoth big box stores in our backyard.” To differentiate themselves, Vines-Riverbend hosts international tastings with coveted winemakers. This year, the store held a Pinot Noir tasting with Oregon’s Bethel Heights Vineyards, welcomed owners from Italy’s Tommasi Wines, and hosted the Tuck Beckstoffer, proprietor of Tuck Beckstoffer Wines from California, which Gummer calls “a crazy big deal”.

Open houses are held three times a year – at Christmas, in the spring, and during the store’s fall anniversary. Top agents and importers attend and the store typically pours about 30 different small lot wines. The open houses are standing room only. Gummer confirms, “They’re our biggest days of the year. People like them a lot.”

Vines-Riverbend staff rely on an opt-in email list of 8,000 customers to get the word out about their special events, and rarely receive unsubscribe requests – an indication that interest among customers is high. “People want to come in and interact. And this kind of experience you don’t get online.” After 11 years of setting up chairs and tables and taking them down after tastings, the store is expanding in January and adding a permanent tasting area to accommodate in-store events.
At family-owned Bottega Wines and Spirits in Calgary, brothers Michael and Gianmarco Gloria opened their downtown store just 18 months ago, and are already hosting in-store events and tastings for their clients. “It definitely promotes loyalty and brings new people in when they hear you’re pouring a type of scotch or wine and come in to try it,” Michael explains. With a customer base ranging in age from 28 to 65, the store’s approach is informal, with invitations to tastings posted on Twitter and sent by email every few months on a random basis. On Halloween, Bottega invited customers in for chocolates and candies, and opened a few bottles of Scotch for tasting. Michael stresses, “It’s a way for us to get to know our customers and to give them a taste of what they like and don’t like. Once a customer becomes more like a friend, they come to you because they trust you and your opinion.”

The brothers are poised to open a new 3,000 sq ft tasting area in 2016 that will accommodate more than 100 people. The new tasting room will provide options for hosting events with charities, bringing in guest winemakers, and creating a more formal tasting schedule. Michael stresses, “Special events and tastings help develop a community with you, your store, and your different clients. They’re a huge part of business and show loyalty to your customers as much as they show loyalty to you.”

In the smaller market of Sylvan Lake, Bottoms Up Cold Beer & Liquor Store hosts special promotional events in partnership with popular brands. The store’s customer base changes with the seasons, from mostly locals in the winter to a summer boom of tourists and cottagers. To attract both crowds, the store holds contests. Manager Raven Sterne describes, “We do draws with the companies, and this year the prizes were a bike, speakers, and a patio set.” The promotional event worked. Sterne confirms that “A lot of people came in for the draw and to buy product.”

Wine Cavern in Lethbridge holds popular Ladies’ Nights six times a year. It’s an opportunity to showcase an impressive wine and spirits selection, along with its collection of Waterford crystal and Riedel giftware. The store pours 18 to 20 different wines, serves food, and finishes up with a fortified Shiraz, flavoured vodka or dessert wine, served with dessert from the local Crazy Cakes bakery. The $40 to $50 ticket price includes a gift. Guests were pleasantly surprised at the last event. “We charged $50 and gave them four Waterford glasses that retail for $80. They thought they were only getting one,” Owner Shaun Peacock recalls. The Ladies’ Nights typically attract 25 to 35 women out to have fun. “It gets new people in the store and we give them glassware that many of them collect and can only get in one place,” he describes.

Wine Cavern regularly tweets and posts on Facebook about upcoming events to pique customer interest and draw them into the store for tastings of seasonal and specialty products, including an attention-getting fall beer tasting of New Belgium Pumpkick and Clown Shoes Chocolate Sombrero.

Specific Alberta Gaming & Liquor Commission (AGLC) rules apply to special events hosted by licensed liquor stores. Gummer of Vines-Riverbend Wine Merchants comments, “You need to be careful of some things when hosting events with food when you’re not a licensed restaurant. Serving a bit of cheese, bread and charcuterie is not an issue.”

For more on AGLC special event guidelines, go to Section 8.1 Product Promotions at