Interview: Lesley Townsend Duval, Manhattan Cocktail Classic

Posted in Interviews on April 3, 2013

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic returns to New York on May 17-21 this year, bringing over 100 special events and seminars, along with the much-anticipated opening night Gala at the New York Public Library. In addition to the wide-ranging public events, MCC is also hosting a crowd-sourced Industry Invitational, featuring programming geared specifically at those in the trade. It’s a comprehensive lineup with something, quite literally, for everyone. We spoke to MCC founder Lesley Townsend Duval about how the event has evolved since its launch and what it means to the local bar/restaurant economy here in New York.

In just a few short years, MCC has evolved into a widely known affair with some big-ticket events and participants. Can you give a quick chronology of how MCC has grown? We launched in 2009 with a two day “preview” of the festival, which was primarily intended to get this on the radar of key trade constituents. They’re the ones who lend credibility and authenticity to the festival, and it was critical that they buy into our concept from the get-go. After the preview (which was a great success, on all counts), we rolled out the first five-day festival in 2010, which began to target a specific slice of the enthusiast contingent as well. In the ensuing years, we’ve really been working to grow the consumer appeal of the festival to a broader audience – targeting not just the self-described cocktail enthusiasts, but other folks who might not yet identify themselves as such. Events like the Gala became our signature, as they appeal to anyone and everyone looking to have an epic night out on the town – thus we are able to bring cocktail culture to a bigger, broader demographic than the subject matter would normally dictate.

To what factors do you attribute the success and continued growth of MCC? In addition to everything I mentioned above, also the fact that we take a “crowd-sourcing” approach to the festival events and programming means that it’s a naturally evolving entity. We’re not dictating trends; we’re letting the trends dictate the festival.

Can you give some examples of how the MCC helps boost the economy of the local bar/restaurant scene in NYC? Again, our crowd-sourcing approach to the festival events and programing means that anyone – a bar, a restaurant, an independent event organizer – can pick up the reigns and make the festival a profitable enterprise for them and their business. We’re providing the platform, and opening up the festival’s marketing muscle to promote local businesses.

Has the economic benefit always been a mission for MCC or is it an unexpected, if welcome, side effect? I knew from the outset that I wanted to set this up in a way that allowed for greater social good, and the sharing of benefits by all who took part in it. And when I was setting up the company back in 2009, I thought long and hard about whether I should set it up as for-profit or non-profit entity. Having worked in the non-profit sector for many years, I was well versed in both the upshots and pitfalls of that model – and while there certainly are many, many tax benefits to going the non-profit route, I ultimately felt that setting up a mission-driven, socially-responsible for-profit business was more in line with both my own personal beliefs as well as the festival’s natural structure. The evolution of the “conscientious for-profit” over the past few years (for example, the newly established “B-Corp” status for for-profit entities) is something that gives me a lot of hope. I feel like we’ve become jaded by seeing so much rampant corporate greed and irresponsible behavior, that we’ve started to think that “for-profit” is synonymous with those descriptors. But indeed, I’m a firm believer that the for-profit model CAN contribute to the greater good, and that for-profit businesses CAN be structured in ways that benefit all of their constituents and not just their shareholders. I really have to believe that we can turn the tide on this, so I’m doing my bit to contribute how I can.

How do you conceptualize and execute programming? Do you use a crowd-sourcing method for both the public events and the Industry Invitational? The whole festival (with the exception of the Gala) is ultimately one big crowd-sourced project. The ticketed events (besides the Gala) are all independently conceptualized, organized, and produced by various brands, bars, and event producers; the seminars at the Industry Invitational follow the same model (though at the Invitational, obviously, we’re providing the venue and staffing/service infrastructure).

What are some of highlights of this year’s Industry Invitational? We’ve got some great seminars on some hitherto less popular libations: vermouths, aquavits, sherry, etc. I’m really excited to see these categories get some extra love. We have an incredible away of artisanal and new-to-market spirits doing product tastings; some of the penthouse suite sponsors are hosting *amazingly* cool activations (including a benefit dinner for Share Our Strength); and of course, the return of Brooklyn Day at the Invitational is something all of us resident Brooklynites are looking forward to! We’ll begin accepting applications next week (in April) so we heartily encourage folks working in the beverage and hospitality sectors to apply!

Finally, are there any recent cocktail trends you’ve been particularly fond of? The rise of aperitif cocktails over the past couple years is making me exceptionally happy. Ever since exiting my 20’s, my tolerance for alcohol took a shocking nose-dive – so these lower-alcohol libations mean that I can perhaps even enjoy more than one!