St Andrews: a whisky fiasco

It was the 150th anniversary of the Golf Open at St Andrews. We came, we saw, and we were utterly conquered.

We may well go down in history as the hosts of the best, most well-organised, well-promoted, best-stocked and WORST-attended whisky tastings of all time.

And we have some very fine and expensive whisky left over to give to you, if you can explain to us what went wrong. We may know our drams (at least, to a respectable standard) and we may be a well-oiled machine when it comes to making sure that the venue, the food, the glassware and the accessories are all in place – but it turns out that events promotion may not be our strong suit, and we want your help.

The planning

All the ingredients were right: a major golfing event in a Scottish town, tens of thousands of wealthy tourists from around the world, business executives darting about in helicopters, a magnificent selection of malts, and a town hall free for booking. We’d done hours of research and preparation, created beautiful presentations, printed tasting note sheets, bought dozens of Glencairn whisky tasting glasses, secured amazing local cheeses and oatcakes, as well as shortbread and bottled water – and had everything in place.

The radio said 300,000 visitors to St Andrews for the golf open this weekend. We figured we should be able to convince a few dozen to pop along to a tasting of twelve of the finest whiskies about over two consecutive nights.

The logistics and marketing were planned down to fractions of a unit. No fewer than 3000 glossy flyers were individually handed to people that looked like they might be up for an evening of the kind of Scottish culture that exceeds 40% alcohol by volume.

The publicity machine

What really fooled us was the enthusiasm. We chatted with literally hundreds of people all day, every day for the past three days – in and around the town, at the golf, in pubs and bars – and in torrential rain, howling wind and, occasionally, in the sunshine.

We shook hands, exchanged names, discussed how great the whiskies were and explained exactly where to go. People took flyers. Some asked for extras.

We talked about it at length online. Our 1,000+ followers on Twhisky had repeated invitations and reminders. Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s master blender and celebrity whisky personality put the call out to his 7,000 followers. Golf blogger Andy Brown circulated the message to his substantial mailing list.

The Scottish Tourism Board got involved, as did major Scottish newspapers. The tourism information centre were actively promoting us, and we even had insiders in the corporate hospitality tents encouraging their fellow VIPs to attend.

In all, we personally collected around 400 excited and genuinely keen promises to attend with gusto, as well as with friends and family members in tow. We needed just 30 to make good on those promises over two nights to break even.

The turnout

Competition winner Stuart Maclaughlin enjoys a dram

The first night, three came. Two of them had won their tickets in an online competition. The other was virtually dragged off the street – and in the end, we didn’t have the heart to charge him the entry fee. We closed the doors, had a dram or three, and a magnificent time with a terribly small but fantastic group of people – and then went home dejected.

We doubled our efforts the next day – determined to personally carry people into the building on our shoulders if necessary. Everyone was friendly and everyone was enthusiastic. We had cast iron guarantees of attendance from at least 40 people.

Not one came. Not one. WTF.

The explanation

We have theories. Something about the weather, the starting time or possibly the venue. None of these theories are very good – and certainly none explain a total washout. Poor attendance maybe, but not an absolutely zero turnout.

The price was £39 a head. Steep for your usual night out, admittedly – but given the circumstances and the clientele, it wasn’t outrageous. The feedback we had was that for six drams of bottles this great over the course of an evening, it was not an issue – but it is something we’re prepared to review.

The whisky itself was, of course, a massive drawcard. These are, it has to be said, some of the finest drams we’ve ever encountered. But even that was not enough to get people to actually walk through the doors.

Since we opened one of each bottle in preparation for our attendees each night, we’ve had our own tasting, and we’re very glad we did. Had the whole debacle not been a financial catastrophe for a couple of blokes who could ill afford it, then that alone would have been more than enough compensation for our battered egos.

We’ll post the tasting notes from each of the fine whiskies we’ve tasted (yes, just us, alone in a town hall) here on the blog over the next couple of days.

In the meantime – we want to hear what you think. What could we have done differently? Your positive advice and helpful suggestions would be most welcome. In fact, we’re so keen to get this right in future, we have a complete set of the three new Jura expressions we were tasting on the night to give away.

That’s around £180 worth of premium whisky for your best explanation or critique of the Dubber & Clutch St Andrews Golf Open Whisky Fiasco 2010.



Dubber and Clutch on Twitter:

@davidjmclare Some good ones in that pic. Give the Highland Park a go. Very drinkable… 
 
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16 Comments

  1. Alan

    Wow, that’s a real surprise, sorry to hear it didn’t work out. I’d have been along myself if I could have managed it but wasn’t in the area. My thoughts on the lack of turnout: firstly, the price to me would be a bit off-putting maybe. Given that a lot of people at St Andrews will already be spending a fair bit of money over the course of the tournament for accommodation, entry fees, food, etc, another £39 on top might just be a stretch, particularly if it’s for a couple and therefore double the price. Would selling advance tickets have been a good idea? The folk you interacted with during the days could have purchased their entry there and then, and you could have offered something like buy one, get one free if they did so? Maybe combining the event with something else (a live folk band or something like that?) would help make it more appealing to outlay the £39.

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Get the Proclaimers to play, Probably

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Liz

    Wow, sorry to hear it went so badly :(

    The trouble with us lot on Twitter is that we’re a bit too spread out. I’m based down near London so even if I hadn’t been drowning in deadlines this weekend, I probably couldn’t have made it to the event. Which is a shame as it sounds as though it should have been epic rather than epic fail.

    You should probably have tried to sell advance tickets while you were out and about. I ended up buying tickets for a local event recently that were X on the door or 20% less if you buy them right here, right now from the nice guy with the leaflets and the t-shirt. Not only am I far more likely to turn up having handed money over but as far as the organisers are concerned – even though they’ve cut their profits a bit – they know in advance that they have at least some money, regardless of what other distractions or weather conditions emerge on the day.

    Advance sales also have the chance of word of mouth sales as people will quite likely tell their friends ‘I bought tickets for this event on Friday night’, start a conversation about it and hopefully reach out to more people than even you guys could have spoken to during your promotion efforts ;p

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Jez Collins

    That’s a shame. I think perhaps price and venue were the issue here. Price: £40 is a lot of money on the street. Advance tickets or, perhaps better, having an organisation such as corporate hospitality company or finding out which companies send guests to the event, hold the event at which you are the experts/hosts would work better. You have to think that if people don’t know you why would they shell out £40? If you had, say BCU holding an event for their guests/clients with you providing the whiskey and charging the company rather than the individual I think that would work.
    Venue: Hard without knowing the Town Hall, but looking at the picture it doesn’t look a very appealing venue. Better to take over a pub/distillery or a so people who don’t want to try the whiskey can drink other alcohol. This way you can charge for just the whiskey tasting while the venue will still get bar takings. Keep it to 2 hrs and then people will drink after the tasting as well. This is what I did at my wine and whiskey tasting events at the bar and everyone wins.
    Don’t know if this helps…

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  5. Dad

    I’m not quite sure what the aim of the project was. If it was to sell whisky, then you failed Basic Marketing 101: Get the punters in. Free admission. A couple of drams and their sales resistance evaporates. Supermarkets don’t charge admission, why should you? If the project was to educate the drinking public, then the venue was wrong. Upstairs or back bar of a pub would have been a better bet. Hope you’ve learnt something from this. At least the whisky doesn’t go off. Next time you’re in St Andrews stick to golf.

    Posted July 17, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink
  6. We weren’t selling whisky – just hosting a tasting. We’re not retailers… and it wasn’t supposed to be an educational event as such – just an evening of entertainment and Scottish culture.

    Presales would have really helped… but we had some difficulties with the licence that meant our dates were only confirmed a couple of days before we came up to St Andrews.

    Still… We did get an adventure and a story out of it – and even saw a bit of the golf.

    Beautiful town too…

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  7. Mike Tanner

    Hi guys – that’s such a shame, though I kinda get how it could happen.

    But the first thing to say is that you did so much right, and you should be applauded for your enterprise and the lengths you went to in order to make it work. From the point of view of the distilleries, you’ve done some great promotional work at no real cost to them. If I was doing a corporate event, I’d get you guys along to host a tasting. You’re obviously good at the storytelling side of things, and you know your stuff.

    The price was not an issue. There were plenty of people at the open who would not have blinked at a £60 price tag, let alone £40. What messed you up were two things that appear to be opposites but are just two sides of the same coin. The first is short attention span. The other is prior arrangements.

    There are two main types of people at an event like this. The first are the people that are at a loose end in the evening and looking for things to do, but when the time comes, they’ll just do whatever’s right in front of them, or whatever’s convenient. If there’s a bar handy, or a nice place for dinner – normally they’ll just head there. For these guys, it’s not about the things they do, but the people they’re with. They’ll hang out for the craic, and don’t need to be entertained. If you get them where they are, or can grab them and walk them en masse into your event, then fine – otherwise, the next shiny thing that attracts their attention will lead them elsewhere.

    The other type of people are the ones who like to have control over what they do. They don’t like the unexpected, and won’t make a decision on the spot. These people book stuff in advance. Way in advance. They might have happily coughed up for a whisky tasting if they were presented with the opportunity while booking their travel and accommodation – but they’re pretty sales resistant on the spur of the moment – and besides, they’ve already got things sorted out.

    People fall between those two extremes on a spectrum, but to successfully market an event like this you have to accommodate one or the other (or both, if you’re clever). What you needed were people who were both available to make a decision, and able to stick with it till the end of the day once they had decided. Those people are rare.

    Couple of things I’d suggest: first, I’d agree with “Dad” above – lower their sales resistance. I know you don’t sell whisky – but you should start. Even if you’re just taking orders on behalf of a retailer on the night and taking a cut. Get them in, give them a dram and then start the sales pitch.

    Jez is right too – two hours is good. Six drams is too many to get through. Start later – once people have had dinner – and go with four.

    If the distilleries won’t pay you to host their tasting events (they probably should, but that’s another story), I’d approach a brand, a shop or a magazine. Get them to pay for it – do a co-sponsored deal. A golfing magazine or similar might have worked in this case. You can do something well in advance in a golf magazine – and take bookings (and money) in advance.

    Ultimately – what you did was great. All that time flyering, tweeting, blogging and evangelising on behalf of these whisky companies was priceless coverage at a premium event – and who knows what might come of it? I take it you put your website address on the flyer so people can find you. There were plenty of corporate events organisers floating about. You may have given them an idea – and don’t be surprised if someone gets in touch to put on a tasting for them.

    The only downside, of course, is that you guys are out of pocket. That’s the real shame here. If you take my advice above, you should be able to make sure you cover costs before you even set off on the road to St Andrews.

    The other shame is the fact that all those people missed out on what look to be some amazing whiskies. I have to say, I’m jealous of some of the stuff you’ve ended up with. I’m not so into the peaty malts, but I’m a real fan of Jura (hint hint) and I’d love to get to try that 30 year-old some day.

    Hope this experience doesn’t put you off. If at first you don’t succeed… etc. Only – with a few lessons learned along the way. And I’m glad you enjoyed St Andrews. I met my wife there. It’s a very special place.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  8. I am the son of a brewer, mainly beer, but my Dad was Head Brewer in a company that eventually incorporated all kinds of spirits and from my early teens developed a taste for all kinds of booze, of which we had lavish, free, quantities at home. I even became a sort of mini beer-taster for my Dad. So I should be of some help/use in this. Unfortunately, on my 21st birthday, I had so many whiskey chasers on top of beer that I developed a strong resistance to the former stuff. Even brandy is too close. Frankly, even the smell of it makes me want to retch. Bit of a problem in that my wife is half Scots – you can imagine the difficulty in declining a ‘wee dram’ to her relatives north of the border. So can’t be much help on that aspect. Which, clearly, isn’t the issue anyway.

    Neither would I venture to comment on the marketing/promotional/venue aspects of why this was a glorious, even heroic, failure which you’ve had the balls to go public on and not to ‘spin’ it. Or wallow in self-pity. Or blame the punters. I often tell my students: “you only learn from your failures”.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Dubber

    Thanks, Richard – that means a lot.

    And cheers, Mike. That’s incredibly helpful. I suspect we’ll be following your advice pretty closely.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Lads, sorry to hear it was a dud. A couple of thoughts, well 12, from my end:

    0) Sorry to be so critical but your flyer is terrible. I’m assuming there was stuff on the back but if not, here’s what is wrong with it – though it looks lovely:
    a) It tells you nothing about what whiskies are being tasted. Is it W&M Special? For £40? Beat it.
    b) It tells me nothing about you. What makes you whisky experts? You look just like two normal blokes.
    c) No website details, no Twitter details, no phone number or online booking details. Where is the town hall? (I know St Andrews and I know it’s easy to find but don’t assume that for others)
    d) No details of what I’m getting for my £40.
    e) The most basic error though: NO START TIME. For all you know people turned up earlier in the day.
    f) Did you do a version in Chinese? Huge whisky drinkers and golf fans.

    That flyer should have had details of the whiskies, lots of detail about you, quotes from credible references about how you are THE guys for whisky tasting. When designing a flyer assume that the person knows nothing and you have this little piece of A5 to tell them everything – Who, What, Where, When, Why.

    1) The late approval really, really hosed you. This really needed four weeks – two minumum – to get a good run at selling out.
    2) Pre-sale of tickets should have been essential, even perhaps an early bird discount. Even just selling the tix on the day instead of waiting for people on the night
    3) You should have offered some tix as a competition to the local paper and also online to golf sites
    4) Never any harm in inviting local bloggers on first night
    5) The venue doesn’t look the best (a minor thing)
    6) As Mike said, people will have planned in advance, so this should have been flagged up to the golf groups on LinkedIn and to secretary sites (“is your boss going to the Open, does he like whisky…”)
    7) On the other hand whisky is under-appreciated in Scotland
    8) Next time in your pre-event mingle, take a bottle out with you and let people sample a good dram. The more senses you engage the more people will want to be involved with your product (in this case, your event)
    9) Keep one of the most expensive bottle/bottles as a competition prize. Ticket might have cost £40 but if I can win a £300 bottle that might help get me in.
    10) I know Mike said six drams is too many but I disagree as that’s the number I use for the W&M/Jura tasting events and they get the 25-30 bods that they need OK.
    11) I know they were all good whiskies on show – or I’m assuming so as you have good taste :-) – but a rare hook would have been handy too.
    12) Did the people giving you whisky, cheese, water, glasses and so on promote it internally? Did you ask them to? “For anyone heading along to the golf…”

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink
  11. Dubber

    Thanks for that Craig. You’re absolutely right – there was a lot of information on the back of the flyer, and it covered almost all of that stuff.

    Looking like normal blokes is sort of our thing. For a start, sadly, that’s just what we look like. But one of the things we’re really keen to do is demonstrate that it’s not just a drink for high court judges and cravatted eccentrics. We’re going for relatable and approachable.

    We did run a competition through the St Andrews golf blog (Andy Brown) though I’m aware there are others we could certainly have included.

    Neither of us speaks Chinese, unfortunately… and there were surprisingly few Asian tourists in town. Most seemed to be American, Canadian, Dutch and German.

    I think we have a consensus on the selling discounted tickets as we give out flyers on the day. That would have been sensible – though offering sample drams as we did it would have broken the law a little bit…

    There was a prize on the second night – the 30 year-old – and while it wasn’t on the flyer, it was something we said to everyone we handed the flyer to. Again, this was something we coordinated too late.

    Linked In is something we’ll definitely use next time.

    The people who gave us the whisky, cheese, etc were all very supportive (and massively appreciated) – though I don’t know the extent of the internal promotion that went on. Every one of the local stores that helped us out carried flyers…

    As for the start time, venue, whiskies, web details, etc – that was all on the flyer, on the website and the Eventbrite page.

    Appreciate the pointers, Craig. Cheers for that.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  12. Jimco

    The good to come from the experience is that you now have a better understanding of
    what the “Open” at St. Andrews is. You will glean help from all comments and hopefully can return to the next “Open” in Scotland. ( Would it work elsewhere ?).

    Short of being invited to host a tasting for a thhird party ( Distiller, Bottler, Hotel, Tour Company, Corporate or Private group) ther will always be risk of financial loss.

    To me the things that might have helped this year have already been been stated; time of tastings and pre-sales and publicity with tour operators etc.

    Someone said that sucess in anything is 90% in the preparation.

    A local business or individual as partner could have been of value to all concerned. ( a tasting in local whisky shop (with discount to ticket holders) possible ? )

    Please can twhisky return with some afforable whiskies and continue a tour round all of Scotland’s Distilleries plus some from around the world ( even England ) Six is a good number per tasting.

    Are there enough twhisky members in areas to invite our two “Worhies” to hold tastings in person ?

    SLAINTE

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  13. Dubber

    Thanks for all your comments and helpful, humbling and occasionally flattering responses. Congrats to Mike, who’s been sent a lovely parcel. Be sure you let us know what you make of them, Mike – and share it around… :)

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Hi guys that’s such a shame, though I kinda get how it could haeppn. But the first thing to say is that you did so much right, and you should be applauded for your enterprise and the lengths you went to in order to make it work. From the point of view of the distilleries, you’ve done some great promotional work at no real cost to them. If I was doing a corporate event, I’d get you guys along to host a tasting. You’re obviously good at the storytelling side of things, and you know your stuff.The price was not an issue. There were plenty of people at the open who would not have blinked at a a360 price tag, let alone a340. What messed you up were two things that appear to be opposites but are just two sides of the same coin. The first is short attention span. The other is prior arrangements.There are two main types of people at an event like this. The first are the people that are at a loose end in the evening and looking for things to do, but when the time comes, they’ll just do whatever’s right in front of them, or whatever’s convenient. If there’s a bar handy, or a nice place for dinner normally they’ll just head there. For these guys, it’s not about the things they do, but the people they’re with. They’ll hang out for the craic, and don’t need to be entertained. If you get them where they are, or can grab them and walk them en masse into your event, then fine otherwise, the next shiny thing that attracts their attention will lead them elsewhere.The other type of people are the ones who like to have control over what they do. They don’t like the unexpected, and won’t make a decision on the spot. These people book stuff in advance. Way in advance. They might have happily coughed up for a whisky tasting if they were presented with the opportunity while booking their travel and accommodation but they’re pretty sales resistant on the spur of the moment and besides, they’ve already got things sorted out.People fall between those two extremes on a spectrum, but to successfully market an event like this you have to accommodate one or the other (or both, if you’re clever). What you needed were people who were both available to make a decision, and able to stick with it till the end of the day once they had decided. Those people are rare.Couple of things I’d suggest: first, I’d agree with Dad above lower their sales resistance. I know you don’t sell whisky but you should start. Even if you’re just taking orders on behalf of a retailer on the night and taking a cut. Get them in, give them a dram and then start the sales pitch.Jez is right too two hours is good. Six drams is too many to get through. Start later once people have had dinner and go with four.If the distilleries won’t pay you to host their tasting events (they probably should, but that’s another story), I’d approach a brand, a shop or a magazine. Get them to pay for it do a co-sponsored deal. A golfing magazine or similar might have worked in this case. You can do something well in advance in a golf magazine and take bookings (and money) in advance.Ultimately what you did was great. All that time flyering, tweeting, blogging and evangelising on behalf of these whisky companies was priceless coverage at a premium event and who knows what might come of it? I take it you put your website address on the flyer so people can find you. There were plenty of corporate events organisers floating about. You may have given them an idea and don’t be surprised if someone gets in touch to put on a tasting for them.The only downside, of course, is that you guys are out of pocket. That’s the real shame here. If you take my advice above, you should be able to make sure you cover costs before you even set off on the road to St Andrews.The other shame is the fact that all those people missed out on what look to be some amazing whiskies. I have to say, I’m jealous of some of the stuff you’ve ended up with. I’m not so into the peaty malts, but I’m a real fan of Jura (hint hint) and I’d love to get to try that 30 year-old some day.Hope this experience doesn’t put you off. If at first you don’t succeed etc. Only with a few lessons learned along the way. And I’m glad you enjoyed St Andrews. I met my wife there. It’s a very special place.

    Posted December 10, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
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    Posted November 3, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

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