Hosting a drinks event where nobody feels out of place if they are not drinking
We spend a lot of time planning networking events, receptions and corporate parties. They are generally pretty stressful. But one area that is often overlooked is the range of drinks on offer for those not drinking alcohol. We live in an alco-centric society – by default, a lot of time is spent deciding the quality of the wine, and how craft the beer is, so it is not a surprise that we run out of steam when we get to the alcohol-free drinks. And then we just tick the boxes with the juice in – because that is what is normally served at these events.
Why does this matter
We don’t want you to stop thinking about the quality of the drinks at your event. Instead, we want to encourage you to spend just 10 minutes more thinking through the alcohol-free options. Why?
- At any event, at least 1 in 7 people won’t be drinking. That may be for many reasons. Pregnancy, driving, religious observance, it’s a weekday, living an alcohol-free lifestyle, on medication, on a diet, going to the gym in the morning, or even being vegan (not all wines and beers are vegan).
- They may also be trying to reduce their drinking – 1 in 4 people have this as a goal. Club Soda members tell us that one of the things that often breaks their resolve is work and networking events, where the poor alcohol-free options nudge them towards ‘fitting in’ with a glass of wine.
- You want people to actually stay and network. You can plan a fantastic event, but it all means nothing if there aren’t people in the room. When we don’t cater to the needs of our guests, we alienate them. People looking to drink less often, or not at all for religious reasons won’t stay long or won’t come at all. If you are avoiding alcohol for your health, the easiest way to keep to your plan is to avoid the event or leave early. People’s expectations of what is normally on offer at receptions for non-drinkers are so low that they would have planned their early exit days before.
- You want to extend the same attention to detail to all your guests. This sounds like a no-brainer, but if you are not drinking, the level of thought put into your attendance at a drinks reception is really obvious – a 50p carton of orange juice concentrate screams ‘we don’t really care if you stay or not’. You cater for vegetarians with your food options, why not do the same for those not drinking that today?
What you are looking to do is to give people permission to stay at your networking event with the drinks options you serve, rather than deter them.
By providing choice – from full strength wine and beer to lower abv products as well as alcohol-free drinks – you are giving people permission to make the right decision for them. Most importantly you are creating an environment where they can refuse alcohol without feeling embarrassed or ashamed about it.
We have often observed that when a good alcohol-free option is on the menu, the number of people opting to drink it is much higher – it is the drink in the hand that is important not how much alcohol is in it.
Sugar and ‘healthy’ options
We have noticed that often when event organisers begin to look at the alcohol-free choices, they see these as needing to be ‘healthy’ – which is why juices tend to become the default option.
But we need to be clear here, almost anything you provide will be healthier than alcohol. When it comes to an evening event, drinks with sugar in are an acceptable option (the evening is all about moderation right?).
What is most important is that the drink is designed for an adult palate (like a shrub, kombucha or elderflower fizz), to hold and sip rather than refresh (this is a reception, not a gym workout). If you dismiss these out of hand as being ‘unhealthy’, then you are already limiting the choices of non-drinkers and setting them a higher bar of healthy behaviour than for those that are drinking alcohol. Choice is key.
Saying that we do know that those not drinking alcohol are often looking for drinks that are lower in calories and sugar. So consider this: an alcohol-free beer has no added sugar and is usually under 60 calories per bottle. Can you see how it suddenly becomes a great ‘upgrade’ from a coke or lemonade, rather than a ‘downgrade’ from an alcoholic beer?
Water is for everyone, especially those drinking alcohol. It is not an acceptable alcohol-free option – even if it is fizzy!
It is not breakfast, your guests are not 5 years old, and it is not 1980. Don’t do it. Even if it is cranberry!
What is the gold standard?
First step? Make sure there is as much non-alcoholic choice as there is alcoholic. Serving beer, wine, and champagne? Then find three equally nice choices for your non-drinking guests.
Wine and fizz
There are loads of no and low-alcohol versions of the staples of wine and beer, as well as a great range of alternatives. For wine, why not try making up some jugs of posh cordial with chilled water? A nettle cordial has a hint of Sauvignon Blanc about it, Urban Cordials do amazing adult flavours, or just serve an elderflower fizz (you can buy it premixed, or as a good quality cordial diluted with fizzy water).
Beer and cider
When it comes to beers, the choice is moving so fast that soon you will be able to find a low (under 3% abv) and no (under 0.5%) that is brewed locally to you. There is certainly no problem finding them in the supermarket. Stowford Press do a 0.5% cider that is available in Tesco.
Rather than try and design your own alcohol-free cocktails (which themselves can end up very sweet and need lots of expensive ingredients), why not go for a craft soda. This also works well for anyone who is not drinking for religious reasons, as they may want to avoid all de-alcoholised drinks and those that feel like an alcoholic one. Square Root’s seasonal offerings mean that you have a supplier that can take you from the summer get together to the Christmas party. Nix and Kix have a little kick of cayenne. All are lower in sugar and designed for grown-ups.
Don’t forget to ‘dress to impress’ and garnish them as you would an alcohol-free cocktail.
Tell your guests
Many people who don’t want to drink will plan to avoid or leave a drinks reception early because their expectations are already low. Make sure you include on any invites and conference and event details the fact that there is a drink reception with a range of alcoholic and low and alcohol-free drinks available. They won’t know unless you tell them.
Make them visible and equal
Just because it has the word ‘soft drink’ on the label, it does not need to be served in a tumbler. Serve the non-alcoholic drinks for adults, rather than treating your guests like they are the kid at the party. Use a wine glass for a fizzy cordial, wine or soda. Chilled bottles or half pints for the beers and craft sodas. Don’t tell people off for using the ‘wrong glass’* – I am sure your guests can decide for themselves. Some of them may be trying to fly under the radar and avoid difficult questions about why they are not drinking.
*Yes this happens a lot!
Don’t hide the alcohol-free drinks at the end of the long table of alcohol where no one can find them or feel embarrassed for asking for them. Give them equal billing. Do label them as alcohol-free, especially if they are products people may not have seen before, or if they look like the full strength thing – just like you would label the vegetarian food on the buffet! No one can choose them if they are not sure.
If you have staff serving the alcoholic drinks, make sure they are also serving the non-alcoholic ones, rather than leaving those guests to self-serve, again making them feel like the guests you didn’t want to invite.
If you have tray service on entry and staff topping up drinks around the room, make sure there are alcohol-free drinks on the tray from the start of the event, and offer alcohol-free top-ups as well.
A word about budgets
We often hear the excuse that there is not enough budget for nice alcohol-free drinks as well. This is nonsense.
Most drinks you could provide cost less and, yes, you probably don’t need to order quite as many servings as with alcohol. You could order less alcohol to balance the budget. Which is worse: some of the drunker guests running out of wine later in the evening, or the non-drinking guests having nothing to drink from the start?
Drinks tend to be bottled and won’t go off for a while, so you can save them for the next event.
Dealing with catering contractors
Often the sticking point is the in-house catering contractor. We feel your pain.
They tell us they can provide whatever you want, but when it comes down to it they often use a single wholesaler, and those guys are still behind the times and list very few alcohol-free drinks. So what can you do?
Have a conversation with your caterers early on, and rather than asking them to provide ‘healthy alcohol-free alternatives’ and leaving it to them, be specific on what you expect and want.
Ask them for the wholesalers list so that you can pick what you would like, just like you would for wine and beer. If what you want is not there, talk to them about ordering in stock from another supplier, or direct from the producer. It is not impossible, but they made need some more time.
You could also ask that, until they can sort their supply situation out, they allow you to order your own alcohol-free options, and pay them a small supplement/corkage for serving it (it will all work out about the same price wise).
When your catering contract is up for renewal, as well as stipulating that healthy meals should be available, add in a clause about choice and range of alcohol-free drinks. The more we make this an issue for tendering, the quicker change will happen, both with caterers and wholesalers.
Going completely alcohol-free?
Some people worry that not having any alcohol will deter people from staying at all. The expectation is that after any event there will be alcohol. It is a legitimate fear regardless of type of event – we know this has been an issue for a history of temperance conference. Another organiser has been challenged over an alcohol-free bar and the suggestion is ‘people just won’t come to the whole event!’.
Their answer is to treat the alcoholic drinks in the way alcohol-free is treated. A bottle of cheap plonk hidden at the end of the table for self-serve.
Being this tongue in cheek may not be an option for you.
If you want to go totally alcohol-free, then making sure you are serving products which people are curious about is important – people really do want to try them (more so than if it was alcohol because we mostly drink that for the effect).
When it comes to alcohol-free drinks people want to find something new that tastes nice with a flavour profile designed for adults, not kids. but if it ends up being a Becks Blue and a ginger beer there is nothing new or exciting. Use it as a way to surprise and wow people at your event (after all, no one changed anyone’s behaviour by showing them the worst of what an alternative has to offer!)
Go for Seedlip, Borrago and Rocktails, fizzy wines and infusions that pop and craft beers as well as brand named lagers. Put drinks that shift flavour high up the agenda like Shrb (the prohibition soda), Gusto, Real Kombucha, Lurvills. All beautiful drinks. Make sure the staff can answer questions about them.
People are only as excited about things as you make them. Tell people about it, let them know the drinks you will have at the end by brand, and joke that this will be one networking event where they will remember to hand out the business card! Have confidence.
You could go low and no
We don’t necessarily think you should go totally alcohol-free. We advocate choice. But you could think about low as well as no alcohol. You can look at the new wave of beers between 1% and 3% and Radlers at 2.5% and some 8% wines.
Track what happens
Still worried? Run an experiment and see what actually happens. Track numbers and drinks consumed before a change and then do the same after you have made some changes to treat all your guests equally!
Tell us what you are doing
- If you have a great contractor with top choices, then let us know – we want to celebrate them.
- Have a great lineup of drinks at your event? Then tweet us @joinclubsoda.
- Adding drinks into your tendering process? We want to write about it.
- Want to become one of our first Good Workplaces for Mindful Drinkers? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.