People are out shopping and traveling again, and small businesses everywhere are rejoicing! Our consumers are finally back — which means our tasting rooms are thriving. At least, that’s what we all hope.

For many distilleries, tasting room traffic and sales are better than they were these past two years, but not nearly as good as they were pre-pandemic. So, how can we realign our efforts to reclaim this lost revenue and exposure? By leveraging your community strategically.

As a small business owner, you already know how important community is for enduring success. Not only for your business, but for your own happiness and health. So, I’m not going to spend time convincing you that community is important, I trust you’re on board with that already. But just because we know the importance of it doesn’t mean we’re doing it well. Here are our top tips to leverage community in a way that will add real value for your brand and help drive traffic to your tasting room locally.

Community Events

Participate in community events as a brand. Keep an eye on the local events calendar and get to know event organizers. These events get your brand name out there and increase interest with the local community. It’s also a great way to meet people in a place they’re already planning to visit so they can try your product or receive an incentive to visit your tasting room later.

However, participation alone is not the end goal. You have to think about participation in community events strategically in order to drive real value for your brand. First, as with any good marketing initiative, events should be relevant to your target consumer and in line with your brand.

Second, make sure you have guidelines to help you consistently determine if each event is in line with your goals. Lastly, make sure you have clear success criteria and a way to measure them. These are business decisions, so even if participation has a feel-good element to it, there must be real value.

If participating in community events is a big part of your brand ethos, make sure to also think about ways to host community events at your tasting room. Encourage regular community events, like a softball league, to come by your tasting room after practice for a special incentive. Perhaps even sponsor the team. Also consider local meet-up groups, artist showcases, or  offering your space to support local fundraisers. Do the work to make every community event you participate in more tangible and valuable for your brand.

Just Add Yoga and Scratch Distillery in Edmonds, WA team up for a yoga session before distillery cocktails. Photo © Dawn Hood, owner of Just Add Yoga

Developing Community Partnerships

This is where things get fun! Instead of simply inserting yourself into something that already exists, you have an opportunity to create partnerships that excite you. Think of these partnerships as opportunities for reciprocal referrals.

While I know you may already feel like a lot of the local businesses know you and say they’ll send people your way, remember we’re being strategic here. This is about creating more structured partnerships with incentives on both ends and a clear way to measure success. There are three different types of community partnerships to consider: noncompetitive, competitive, and tourism related.

Noncompetitive Partnerships

For noncompetitive businesses, think broadly. Featuring little bites and samples from local shops and restaurants is a great way to remove the hassle of food preparation, as is hosting food trucks with clear co-promotion agreements. Or source glassware from a local shop and offer to do a tasting there so people can try out the glassware while getting introduced to your spirits. You’re offering them a showroom by featuring their glassware in your tasting room and sending guests their way to buy. In return, they can hand out cards to send people your way for a discount tasting or other benefit. People get tired when shopping and exploring. Giving local owners a way to thank customers for stopping in with an opportunity to check out a local craft maker and take a load off is a win-win-win.

Competitive Partnerships with Other Distilleries & Makers

Now let’s talk about those competitive businesses: other local alcohol businesses. You likely already know these community members since they’re in the same industry, so how can you take that relationship to the next level and grow both businesses? The key to doing this is to get out of the scarcity mindset. Sharing your consumers with other craft makers is in the best interest of the consumer to help them discover, learn, and become loyal to the brands they love. Yes, even if it ends up not being your brand. The fact that you graciously referred them and speak highly of those brands reflects positively, and often turns passive fans into active ones.

So, find those craft makers nearby whom you really love — maybe even are a little envious of — and find ways to turn your admiration into something productive. To get started, hold an event for local makers and their teams as an industry night. Let them try your spirits, have them bring theirs if possible, and break down those competitive walls. Get to know everyone, brainstorm ideas, hear what’s been successful for others, and gauge interest in partnering more seriously. People in your industry are the absolute best referral traffic you can get. So, nurture those relationships, set the competition aside, and put the consumer first.

Maybe you have a card everyone hands out to consumers that formalizes another craft maker sent them your way and gives them a special perk, like a bartender’s handshake that makes them feel part of an inner circle. Collaborate to create a cocktail featured at local bars that highlights multiple brands. Perhaps partner to create a passport program or whiskey walk that you all market together. Embrace the competition and hold a comparative tasting event to educate and introduce consumers to all of your brands at once. Get into the collaborative and out of the competitive mindset here.

Tourism-Related Partnerships

Lastly, we need to talk about tourism. This is especially important if you have or plan to have distribution beyond your local area. Get to know your tourism board, visitor’s bureau, chamber of commerce, concierges, hotel bar managers, tour guides, travel agents, and anyone else who helps guide tourists locally.

Throw a tasting event for anyone connected to tourism in your community. People are much more likely to recommend something they’ve experienced and enjoyed firsthand, especially when their livelihood depends on their guests being happy. This allows you to get to know everyone and learn from them in one fell swoop. Understanding who their guests are (do they overlap with your target consumer?), what their guests are looking for while in town, what they’re currently recommending, and what their thoughts or concerns are related to recommending your distillery can be hugely valuable.

Then, follow up afterward with clear action items. Maybe it’s postcards with a special offer to give out, a unique reservation code, or an exclusive offer for one partner. Make it easy for them to delight guests by sending them to your tasting room.

Thrive With the Help of Your Community

For all community partners and event organizers, add them to a segment of your mailing list specifically designed to help you deepen these relationships. Invite them to future events, share updates, and ensure they are aware of your products, events, and experiences. These are important people to develop relationships with for long-term value when it comes to driving tasting room traffic.

Your tasting room is a critical part of your business, and when done right, community partnerships can be one of the most sustainable, ongoing sources of growth. Give more than you take, be generous but focused, have clear objectives and success criteria, and watch your brand and local small business community flourish.