Making Connections

Building a Community Drives Business and Goodwill

You may think your business is simply selling wine, beer and spirits. It may surprise you to realize that it’s actually about building a community, and then selling wine, beer and spirits. Your community, after all, represents not just the people who will buy your products, but everything your business stands for, from its target audience to its charitable endeavours. It’s what makes you stand out from the crowd.

“The competition in the hospitality business is just ferocious,” says Mike Mahony, General Manager of Mahony and Sons’ UBC location, and Director of Corporate Sponsorship and Marketing for all three locations of the pub. “I don’t think you can really do wrong giving back and helping people.”

There are ways, though, to connect effectively, getting the most value for the time and money you spend. As Leeann Froese, the Principal of marketing and communications agency Town Hall Brands, says, “At the end of the day, we all have the shared object of moving the bottles. Anything that gives value to the customer without costing the retailer is a win-win.”

Katie O’Kell and Judy Kingston of Serendipty

Katie O’Kell and Judy Kingston of Serendipty

Hello, Neighbour

Step one is identifying who your community is, or should be.

“When it comes down to it, for pubs and liquor retailers, their community is the community that is in their vicinity,” explains Froese. She recommends inviting staff from neighbouring businesses into your establishment, offering them a discount or a special deal, or even hosting an event for them. “There’s different ways of connecting to your community and getting to know who they are.”

For Mahony, UBC offers a built-in community of campus sports teams, clubs and fraternities. For some, he’ll offer sponsorship dollars and special discounts. For others, he’ll donate swag like gift cards, hats, t-shirts and totes, and he keeps a ready supply on hand in the hopes of building on those relationships. Mahony’s team reviews the pub’s relationships each year to see if they’re working well enough to continue. “It’s kind of like Air Miles for pubs,” he says with a laugh.

A bigger community for Mahony and Sons is sporting events across the city. In that light, Mahony helped put together the UBC Grand Prix bike race and is a major sponsor of events like the BMO Vancouver Marathon, KitsFest and cross-country runs, hosting VIP areas and providing food and drink for some events. “We really believe in a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “This is our backyard. We like to play in it.”

Winning over Customers

Once you’ve identified your community, how do you get them in the door? Just ask Froese.

Anything that gives value to the customer without costing the retailer is a win-win

Although she represents mainly wineries, she works closely with retailers to get her clients’ bottles into customer’s hands. “Retailers are really important partners for us,” she notes. She’ll send staff to a store, positioning them outside to call people in, enticing them with balloons and signage, and then have more staff inside pouring wine, leading tastings, offering giveaways, or organizing contests.

“It’s a one-on-one personal outreach,” she describes. “Once they get in the store, it is the retailer’s big opportunity to entice them.” A smart retailer will get those customers’ names into a database and invite them to events down the road. “Then the customers will get to know each other and become a sort of neighbourhood club,” she says.

Get Social

Connecting with customers IRL (in real life) is key of course, but don’t neglect your virtual options. Social media is a must for any business, but it’s not without its challenges. “Some do it well, some do not do it well, and some do not do it at all,” Froese says. She encourages everyone to get social, no matter how late they are to the game. It’s an effective way not just to get people in the door, but to retain their business through loyalty programs.

However, for social media to be effective, it has to be carefully targeted. Facebook, with its geo-targeted ads, is especially good for reaching customers near a business. In addition, social media has to be authentic because consumers–especially young consumers–are quickly turned off by what they see as cynical shilling. Social media also takes time, and it may not make sense for a small business to assign a staff person to post multiple times a day, or to pay for outsourcing it.

Most importantly, social media has to be, as the name suggests, social. “We try promoting all our partners as much as they are supporting us,” Mahony says. “We’re always piggy-backing on each other.”

Give and You Shall Receive

It may seem counter-intuitive to make money by giving it away, but philanthropic engagement is a good way to connect with your community in a truly meaningful−and ultimately profitable−way. Holding a fundraising event for an organization like the BC Hospitality Foundation, for instance, not only supports a worthy cause, but brings in business, and often repeat business.

“There’s immeasurable benefit, intangible benefit, to building your community,” Froese says. “It’s goodwill.”

Adds Mahony: “Building relationships with people in the community creates long-term benefits.” Besides, he says, “People are going to choose to support local business.

It’s a two-way street. We hope when people are going out, they’re going to bring friends and family into our place.”

He admits it can be hard for a small business to see a direct dollars-and-cents benefit from sponsoring sports teams or charities. “But it’s really seeing the small groups of people who keep coming over the years,” he says.

He advises anyone just beginning to build their own community to start small, and maybe consider volunteering before spending any money−it’s free and it’s a good way of building relationships.

And then, Froese says, “If you are good to your community, and they love you and come back to you, it will result in increased sales because you’ve built that loyalty.”