Vance Henderson is the U.S. National Brand Ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin, the deliciously super premium gin for which he travels the world inspiring bartenders, consumers and spirits enthusiasts alike. An award-winning, veteran ambassador and gifted bartender, Vance has held various positions over his 20-year career in the industry. He cultivated his craft and learned all aspects of the business by running top beverage programs in Washington, DC. Vance’s experience and expertise led him to launch Flavor Ink, a full-service catering company; and Supperwhere?, an underground dining collective. The consummate host, Vance brings an incredible amount of passion, charisma, and creativity in everything he does.
Based on your experience, what would you say are three of your top tips for building relationships when working with influential accounts?
Vance Henderson: I would say the first thing is to recognize that it’s not about you. It’s not about you and it’s not personal. As an ambassador, we are charged, blessed, and privileged with the opportunity to be entrusted with a brand and to speak on behalf of and promote that brand, and to uplift it. When trusted with that, it’s a big responsibility. It’s an honor to be trusted with the investments made in these brands, regardless of their size. There are millions of dollars invested in these brands, and you become the voice and the embodiment of that brand. When someone sees you, they should see the brand and vice versa. Even in a brand name, you should feel the connection between you and the brand. When you engage with top accounts and bartenders, its essential to keep in mind that it’s not about you; it’s about them. It’s about finding that thread of connection between their brand and yours. When approaching or interacting with accounts, I’ve come to see my role as not just a host or someone on the microphone, but also as a connector. I want to connect, uplift, and help push the accounts I work with even further. When I talk to younger ambassadors, it’s essential for them to understand it’s about the accounts and finding that connection between their brand and ours. How can we create magic by blending those two ingredients together? After that, we focus on uplifting, pushing, and taking both brands further. In the end, it all comes down to the individual ambassador being at the forefront. While we all desire the spotlight and limelight, there’s a time and place for that. When we peel back the layers of what we’re doing, we realize that our role is representation. We represent a brand, and if we’re working in partnership, we also represent our partner in the account. So, the first thing I would say is to understand that it’s not about you. After that, it’s about finding the connection between your brand and their brand and then representing both brands in a phenomenal way to create magic together.
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When you’re creating that magic, what would you say is an approach that you find most effective approach that’s most effective.
Vance Henderson: I think it’s like a two-way street. For me, over the years, I have built equity within our industry. And when I say that, I mean people know that if I come and ask to partner with them, I’ve got something going on at Tiki by the Sea or Tales of the Cocktail, or I’m involved in BCB, San Diego Bartenders Weekend, Arizona Cocktail Weekend, or whatever it may be. They already know that whatever I’m touching or working on behind the scenes is going to be exceptional, over the top, and of high quality. They know there will be something talked about, and that comes with being a true owner of your craft.
I know my lane, I know what I’m capable of handling in my job, and I consider myself a master of that. This level of expertise is trusted because people have seen the proof. The proof is not in the pudding; the proof is in the tasting, in the person viewing and experiencing it. People have witnessed the work that has already been done. So, when you bring that track record to the table, there’s a trust from the account, bartenders, or bar team that whatever they get involved with will be exceptional, hot, and top-notch. They want the best because they are doing great things and being extraordinarily creative, and they want that to be acknowledged.
There are many ways to go about gaining recognition, right? People are doing pop-ups now, and having guest chefs is the hot trend, which is fantastic. In the past, there were write-ups in magazines and PR efforts, and those are still valuable, but pop-ups are currently a popular and easy way to gain exposure. If you can secure sponsorship and work out the logistics, it’s an effective approach, especially if you’re not already in that inner circle or realm where articles and discussions naturally happen. However, even if you are not getting that level of media attention, you can still create magic. The easiest way to do that is to reach out and ask for partnerships. You can either approach us or let us come to you, and again, it’s all about trust. Just like a brand ambassador would say, “I would love to partner with you. Would you like to partner with us?” It’s about mutual trust, and if I’m reaching out to you, it means I trust what you represent and produce, and if you accept, you’re showing the same trust in return.
What would you say are some common mistakes to avoid when working with them?
Vance Henderson: Coming across as salesy.
If you want to deal with top accounts and engage with them, it’s all about the relationship. Everything should revolve around building relationships in our industry. It’s an industry built on engagement, partnerships, and trust. When someone comes into the bar, and you’re preparing a cocktail with alcohol, something that’s not entirely healthy and can be dangerous if misused, they are placing their trust in you. So, above all else, we must protect that trust. One thing I would emphasize is to avoid being salesy when working with good accounts. Leave the sales pitch for the appropriate times when it’s actually about sales. But when you’re aiming for a genuine partnership, long-term engagement, and the magic of building something together, which is what I love, that’s how we create lasting relationships.
What are some strategies that you have to build those long-term partnerships?
Vance Henderson: The answer lies partly in the words “long term.” It’s not a one-off thing. From a sales perspective, sometimes you have to stand your ground because, as brand ambassadors, we are in marketing, and our role is different from a one-size-fits-all approach. Personally, I believe that William Grant’s brand ambassador role truly embodies what a brand ambassador should be, as our focus isn’t on sales. We are fortunate that it’s not our primary goal. There are commercial teams that handle sales, and there are people on the ground who focus on that aspect. As brand ambassadors, we can come in and add value, concentrate on representing the brand, giving it voice and energy, rather than just pushing sales. This approach makes it easier for us to create magic together with our partners, rather than simply approaching them with a sales pitch like, “Let’s do this event, and I want to promote our brand all over the place and get menu placements or features.” Personally, I’ve never asked for a menu placement, even when I was heavily involved in sales and marketing. My focus has always been on building long-term relationships.
For instance, when I was working on Monkey Shoulder, it was known for its after parties, and at Tales of the Cocktail, I threw epic after parties like Beach Monkey and Frozen Monkey. When I wanted to partner with Three Dots and a Dash from Chicago, one of the best Tiki bars in the world, it wasn’t about just getting short-term sales in Chicago. It was about creating a long-term relationship built on trust and shared values. I wanted to work with them because Monkey Shoulder was all about using scotch whiskey in cocktails, breaking the rules, and having a fun approach. So, I reached out to Three Dots and a Dash, expressing my desire to throw a beach party in New Orleans, painting a tropical beach vibe, and creating delicious tropical cocktails using scotch whiskey. The goal was to create magic and a lasting partnership, not just a one-time deal for sales.
I followed up with them and partnered again the next year, despite some people in sales questioning the decision. The focus was always on building the relationship and creating something memorable together. The same approach applies to other partnerships. It wasn’t until later, in 2022 or 2023, that we saw some commercial wins in the account. The sales team might have loved it earlier, but true long-term relationships take time and effort. The goal is to foster lasting partnerships built on trust and collaboration.
In terms of staying updated on emerging trends and generating fresh, creative ideas?
Vance Henderson: When it comes to creative ideas and activations, it’s all about imagination. From my perspective, I’m an imaginative person, but I’m also a producer at heart. I love connecting the dots, bringing people together, and creating spaces and environments that uplift and energize, leaving a truly magical and memorable experience. If someone were to interview those who know me or have attended events I’ve worked on, they would likely mention Beach Monkey, Frozen Monkey, Drambuie Modern Classics, Hendricks Expedition Cocktail, Hendricks Grand Garden Games, or other distinct and unique projects. I always strive to differentiate and truly understand the brand’s goals, personality, and DNA, bringing them to life in a remarkably unique way.
Additionally, collaborating with accounts and partners that further enhance and add credibility to our creative endeavors is essential. Hendrick stands strong on its own, and over time, I’ve built a mold where I can confidently put my name on something and people know what to expect. By partnering with bar partners and accounts that are experts in various realms and subject matters, we can present a unified message. Whether it’s Frozen Monkey, Beach Monkey, Fire Monkey, Expedition Cocktail, or any other project, it’s like finding the Midas touch – thoughtfully considering the best way, the perfect fit, and the ideal puzzle pieces to make the project truly shine.
Do you ever use social media to engage with any of the accounts?
Vance Henderson: I primarily use social media for memories and flashbacks because, let’s face it, everything is social today, and it’s hard to keep up. My focus is on creating magic in real-time, so I may not be the best at instant updates. For me, social media serves more as a platform for sharing flashbacks and reminding my followers on platforms like Instagram about events we were involved in, people who attended, and the bartenders who took part. Whether it’s a thank-you post two or three days later after an event like the Grand Garden Game in Chicago, sharing photos and showcasing the bar teams and people involved, or looking back to previous events like getting ready for Hendricks Expedition Cocktail 2023 while posting a throwback from the 2022 event in Miami, it’s all about strategic promotion, acknowledgement, and reminders. The process is quite layered and involves a lot of thinking, but it’s all part of the social media experience.
Living in a social world means everything is immediate, and social media offers a valuable tool for connecting with potential partners or accounts without the need for personal relationships or telephone numbers. You can simply reach out through Instagram, whether it’s from your own account or the brand’s account, and they can get a glimpse of your feed and vice versa. This gives them a sense of who you are and what you represent. Similarly, if you’re interested in partnering with a specific bar like Bar Mordecai in Toronto, you can check out their Instagram to get a feel for their vibe before approaching them or even while you’re visiting the city. Social media opens up so many possibilities and opportunities.
Do you think that there are any cool emerging cocktail trends that you’re trying to keep a pulse on right now?
Vance Henderson: It’s interesting from the gin side to see how martinis have made a comeback. It’s interesting because I feel like we were in a space in the late 2000s, mid to late 2010s, where our industry and bartenders were super sticklers about stirred drinks, like the rule was that if it’s all booze, you have to stir it; if it’s sour citrus, you have to shake it, blah blah. We had to be reminded and reflect on the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re making drinks, and it’s about how the guest wants it. So if I want a martini that’s shaken, then I want a martini that’s shaken, even though the traditional rule might be that Martinis should be stirred.
Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of people in the consumer space have furthered their cocktail knowledge. Now, we’re in a place where it’s all about just enjoying the cocktail the way you want it. And I think it’s been cool to see martinis make a comeback, both in the classic all-booze stirred realm and also in the shaken, sour realm reminiscent of the 1990s with drinks like lemon drops, melon balls, and teas. So, not necessarily being all spirit-forward, but including juice and almost elevating the ’90s style. It’s fascinating to see the blending of classic styles with modern twists.
(Note: The transcript has been revised for grammar and clarity while preserving the original content.)