Edmund Weil reflects on the carousel of global travel events that used to characterise the industry – and wonders if it will ever return to its glory days.
In 19 November 2020, Nightjar reached its 10th anniversary. In the middle of lockdown, we celebrated by inviting some of our favourite musicians in to play a socially distanced livestream, sending out cocktail packs to our ‘guests’, and broadcasting cocktail masterclasses. We enjoyed putting the event together, and felt deeply touched and honoured by how many people tuned in, but couldn’t escape a twinge of melancholy at the end of it all. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
The original plan for celebrating 10 years of Nightjar had been a more lavish affair altogether: a pop-up world tour, visiting 10 bars across the globe for guest shifts and seminars, culminating in the party of the decade at Nightjar itself during London Cocktail Week. It came complete with big brand support, media partners, a chunky five-figure budget, and an itinerary featuring dozens of international flights ferrying our bartenders between some of the world’s most acclaimed bars. It would have been one hell of a trip.
For 18 months now, we’ve largely been without this rarefied stratum of the bar industry – the bar shows, the takeovers, the seminars, the international startenders. I miss it. I miss the thrill of flying to a place I’ve never visited before, knowing that because of the industry I work in, someone is going to show me round the best spots in town, and if I want to, there’ll probably be at least one person willing to pull an all-nighter. I miss the feeling of international community, the back-slapping, the presumption of friendship. I miss the travel itself – the thrill of an unexpected upgrade, the bird’s-eye views of countless cities, even the hotel breakfasts. Nightjar’s 10-year tour would have given me my fill of all this.
Returning recently to look over the brief and planning document for the tour, I noticed it was last edited on 9 March 2020. I imagine myself tapping away happily at the keyboard, still blissfully ignorant of the fact that, within two weeks, the world as we knew it would be turned upside down. Picking over the bones of that unborn dream – the marketing brief, partnership pitch, outline itineraries – I experienced an odd sensation.
Back in early 2020 this project had been a chief focus of mine – we had invested many hours in planning and pitching, liaising with bars from Athens to New York to Tokyo, and it had all seemed so important. Yet now – sitting in front of my keyboard at my kitchen table, pushing my deadline on a Friday night – the whole thing seems so frivolous. So grandiose. So phony. The hospitality industry was about to change forever, and there was I, waffling on about “the evolution of the guest shift”.
Of course, looking back through the lens of the pandemic, it’s all too easy to find fault with the way things were. So much time, so much energy, so many resources, were dedicated to these fleeting moments. People bragged openly on Instagram about the number of flights they had taken in a month – often for one-night-stand guest shifts or seminars.
One well-known, highly-lauded bar had a whole second team whose role was to travel the world, showcasing their drinks and hospitality to eager guests wherever the next bar show was. It was becoming a truism that if you wanted a shot at 50 Best Bars, you had not only to host the decision makers, but to visit them too. Of course, there is nothing wrong with competing to be at the top of your industry, but after a time of such hardship, uncertainty and angst for bars, it’s impossible not to question the cost-benefit of such frippery.
As I write, it appears the apparatus of the international drinks industry merry-go-round is creaking slowly back into life. Real, live bar shows are in the works once more, and the more inveterate itinerant startenders are already popping up in exotic locations, sharing the love and the selfies with their envious followers. Probably in time the carousel will return to its full, neon-lit fairground glory. But perhaps not. Perhaps too many of us have been forced into close and unavoidable confrontation with what really matters – our families, our regulars, our staff, our survival – to queue for the ride.
The brand pitches I am currently writing are about the here and now. They’re aimed at creating work for the musicians who have graced our stages for 10 years, and getting bums on seats in my own bars in London, not someone else’s in Singapore. Don’t get me wrong. I very much look forward to my next bar-focused trip abroad. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I will be sure to savour it, because they will be fewer and farther between.