Raising the bar

Life in the event bars sector might seem like one big party—but there’s much more to it than that

With the memories of dry January beginning to fade and an event-packed summer peeking over the horizon, Access thought it was high time we spoke to the UK’s bar providers.

When the conversation turns to event bars, it’s tempting to think festivals, but bar providers work on a hugely diverse range of events across the UK and internationally. Anywhere there’s an event with thirsty visitors, there will be a bar provider.

From sporting events and stadium functions to pop-up markets and brand activations, there’s never been a more exciting time to be working in the bars sector.

Alongside a diverse range of events and occasions, demands from customers have similarly diversified, going far beyond just serving a pint
of cold lager (though naturally that’s still an important element). Cocktails, along with a wider selection of wines and beers, have become mainstays at even the smallest events, as visitor tastes shift towards a more mature and varied drinks selection.

“In a very short time we’ve seen a seismic shift when it comes to people’s expectations for what they eat and drink,” says Peppermint Bars director and founder Adam Hempenstall. “By and large, the premiumisation of the food and drink industry has been the biggest change in recent years. It’s no longer enough for event organisers to offer a beer and a burger; there has to be value and a story behind every product or brand.”

Clients themselves are also looking to bar providers to move beyond a basic set-up and provide a unique experience and look that fits in seamlessly with the story and theme of each event. Bars are no longer just seen as somewhere to buy a drink; instead they are reflective of the events at which they appear.

“We have noticed that clients now look to hire a bar that stands out from the crowd and they appreciate a bar experience that has been planned down to the smallest details, professionally managed and visually appealing,” Dan Gardner, event manager at Arribar!, tells Access. “The sector has certainly become more creative. It’s not just about how many different types of drinks are in the fridge. Providing a themed and stylish bar with a limited but inventive menu often makes for a more striking experience for your guests.”

While in previous years, bar suppliers might have prepared for an event by packing up the equipment and hopping into a lorry, modern bar providers are keen to offer a more long-term service for clients.

“Preparation is key for us in the build-up to
a major event,” explains Mark Ellis, director of Vintage Bus Bar, a company that provides bar
and catering services from converted Routemaster buses. “We work with the event organiser or venue on locations for the bars.

“We try and gain a good insight into the event and the expected attendance and customer flow in order to form a projection for volumes and the correct mix of product required for that particular event. Logistics is also key for us in moving our bus bars and support vehicles around the UK.”

It’s also vital, adds Gardner, to make sure that you and your staff are in the zone when it comes to the event itself.

“Showing enthusiasm for all elements, both behind and in front of the bar, will ensure that the punters are given a memorable and distinctive experience,” he says.

One such element, one that has been threatening to explode into the UK market for several years, is RFID technology. Standon Calling requires festivalgoers to use RFID wristbands to pay for food, drinks and souvenirs, but it is one of the few events in the UK to make the leap.

“RFID has been promising to change our world for many years now,” says Hempenstall. “For the most part, however, this still hasn’t happened. Interestingly, uptake at many festivals in mainland Europe has been much higher than in the UK outdoor and festival market. There is still reluctance from promoters and organisers
to make the investment into new technologies, which is predominantly down to the perceived cost of the various systems on the market.

“From a retailer’s perspective, we are very supportive of RFID technology as it helps us drive efficiencies across our operation; however, it’s generally not our decision to implement these systems. It’s our clients that make the call.”

When it comes to the clients, bar providers
are eager to make event organisers aware of the full range of products and services they can offer, along with the work that goes into supplying bars.

“Many organisers think we just show up with a truck full of beer, a few tents, and a load of bar staff — life is one big party,” laughs Hempenstall. “The reality is that we spend enormous amounts of time and resources analysing historical trading data, spends, stock, staffing and infrastructure
so that we can accurately forecast how our bars, ATMs and other services will perform on the day.”

Staying up-to-date and relevant is one of the biggest challenges faced by most professionals working in the events industry. Being on top of audiences’ tastes and continuing to provide an innovative service is vital for bar providers to succeed in a highly competitive market.

“With food and drink trends changing at such a fast pace it is important that we continue to grab people’s attention by coming up with fresh and innovative cocktail recipes and bar designs,” says Gardner. “The team at Arribar! loves working
at festivals, large and small. Not only are these events held in the summer (the perfect season for a pop-up bar) but the crowds that we attract know how to appreciate a good cocktail when they see one.”

When it comes to festivals, adds Hempenstall, both event organisers and suppliers need to ensure that UK festivals can continue to compete with events in Europe and further afield.

“The biggest challenge we face in terms of the outdoor market is probably the rise of European festivals,” he says. “They can offer the same line- up, but in a warmer climate and for half the price of a UK event.”

One of the ways that Peppermint has tackled this potential issue is to introduce a new click- and-collect service, one which Hempenstall hopes will mark a change in the traditional festival bar experience.

“Our new service allows festivalgoers to pre- order their campsite booze via an app and then collect when they arrive at their campsite,” he explains. “Hopefully the days of having to lug warm slabs of beer across afield are numbered.”

To conclude our chat with the bar providers, Access asks what makes the sector such a great one to work in.

“Being part of some of the country’s biggest events,” says Ellis. “The unique atmosphere at each of them makes all the hard work so worthwhile and enjoyable.”

“As clichéd as it sounds, it would have to be the variety of events we work on,” agrees Hempenstall. “British Summer Time in Hyde Park is probably the stand out for us because it’s considered the industry benchmark for production, in terms of city-based festivals.

“AEG spares no expense when it comes
to delivering what we think is one of the best customer experiences money can buy. Plus, owning the keys to the cellar always makes you very popular on site!”

When it comes to hard work, adds Gardner, part of the joy is in experimenting and constantly surprising visitors and exciting clients.

“We love inventing new and exciting beverages,” he enthuses. “Delegates love our imaginative array of cocktails, which are often bespoke for a specific event. For example, guests at the Henley Royal Regatta could indulge in
a rowing-inspired ‘Champagne finish’ cocktail served in a rowing boat, all made on site by our top-class mixologists. Our mixologists don their inventor’s hats at a wide range of events to conjure a selection of eye-catching beverages.”

From creative cocktails to fundamentally changing how customers buy their drinks, it’s clear that those providing beverages to the events industry are far from resting on their laurels. Instead, as Access has discovered, they are continually striving to (ahem) raise the bar.