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Creative Cocktail Hours Raise the Bar for Networking Events

By Brittany Trevick

You walk into a cocktail hour expecting the usual scenario of events: mildly pleasant small talk, house wine and beer, and some sort of presentation. Not the case anymore—planners want something different, something experiential that clients will talk about until their next cocktail hour. 

Much of this, not surprisingly, can be attributed to social media. People see others’ amazing experiences and have that melancholy, anxiety-inducing feeling of FOMO. Social media also means that an event’s digital footprint will be around forever, so planners want to capitalize on that event’s success beyond the evening. 

Heather Brown, CMP, DMCP, senior national sales manager of AlliedPRA in Chicago, echoes that sentiment. “[Our clients] are always trying to outdo what they did before,” says Brown. “Social media is constantly raising the bar.”

Her company was tasked with planning an event for 100 guests tailored to that idea of an unexpected cocktail hour for a pharmaceutical company. The client wanted to incorporate team-building with an interactive twist. So, when attendees entered the venue, they were directed to one of 10 tabletops set with cocktail ingredients, garnishes, mixers, juices and various types of glassware. Each table was then instructed to come up with their own cocktail, poured by a preassigned bartender. After 20 minutes, a panel of the company’s leadership team judged the cocktails and voted for the top three, which were then served to the entire group. 

“As a DMC, we’re often tasked with coming up with something no one else has seen before,” says Brown. “It can be a challenge, but those events are always really exciting.”

In terms of cocktail hour-related trends, Brown notes that interactive components are a common ask from clients. People want to attend events at which something is actually going on—not just conversations with cocktails. She cites another event she worked on that included appetizers served on balloon trays that rose 10 feet in the air. Even something as simple as presenting food in unique ways can memorialize an event in attendees’ minds. 

For Michelle Castady Orlando, DMCP, general manager at 360 Destination Group in Chicago, unique cocktail events mean unexpected service elements. For example, at an event for an IT group, they served craft beer out of a Kegway (a beer keg Segway). It was a huge hit as the guests were very into beer and anything tech-related. 

Another event included smoked ondemand Old-Fashioneds featuring barrel-finished whiskey. “By incorporating a celebrity mixologist who handcrafted a spirit just for this event and personally smoked each drink while interacting with the attendees, we were able to offer an experience they couldn’t have had individually,” she says. 

Interestingly, Orlando is seeing more cocktail hours breaking the mold by offering mocktails, or cocktails without alcohol. The spirit-free cocktail is becoming ever popular, especially for daytime meeting breaks and luncheons, as an alternative to craft cocktails.

What about the future? Brown hints that murder mystery-style cocktail hours are on the horizon. She and her team have concocted an event based on the childhood classic “Clue” that has guests participating in a competitive game. Tying in interactive icebreakers during events will continue to evolve.

“People get really engaged,” says Brown. “They want that surprise and wow factor.” 

Trendy Chicago Cocktail Venues

ABA: Opened summer 2018 in the West Loop, this Mediterranean restaurant serves up classic cocktails with a twist, like the Mango G&T and the Green St. Manhattan. 773.645.1400

THE AVIARY: This Fulton Market favorite is part of The Alinea Group. 312.226.0868

BLIND DRAGON: Another new addition to the Chicago scene is this River North karaoke lounge in the basement of the Found Chicago hotel. 312.643.0449

PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: According to Brown, this River North addition has a craft cocktail program akin to that of high-end restaurants. 312.736.1778

THE ROYAL PALMS SHUFFLE BOARD CLUB: Come for the cocktails; stay for the shuffleboard. There’s nothing quite like it. 773.486.8682

THE VIOLET HOUR: This Wicker Park speakeasy has a cocktail menu that’s tough to compete with. 773.252.1500