There must be times working for a major wine merchants when you feel you’ve left the core job you started out with well behind you and turned into all singing, dancing events organiser such are the opportunities now to get involved in sourcing and providing wine from everything from rock concerts, major sporting events, to finding the right wines for an around the world cruise. Olivia Marsh, Merchant Sales Manager at Corney & Barrow speaks to Richard Siddle at The Buyer.
There is little room for shrinking violets in the world of corporate hospitality, events and wine tastings when as the organiser it is often up to you to be also the host with the most, says Corney & Barrow’s Olivia Marsh. “You’ve got to be a bit of a chameleon to do this job,” is how Olivia Marsh explains her wide and varied role as contract and hospitality sales manager at Corney & Barrow. A job that one minute might have her tip toeing through one of the most exclusive, historical and private buildings in London, to keeping the hordes of customers happy at a major rock festival or sporting event. If an event, business or rock concert needs wine to get things going then Marsh and her team at C&B have to be ready to supply them.
“This job really varies so much. But that’s what makes it such an interesting part of the business. Every customer has their own unique needs and requirements and it’s up to us to be able to deliver them,” she explains.
That might mean working hand-in-hand and dealing with the intricacies of a chief executive of some of the oldest, most established institutions in the country, to working out how you are going to keep a bar chilled and constantly stocked in a field in the middle of a major food, drinks or rock festival.
“We have many customers, particularly in the City of London, who see choosing the wine for their functions and events as a key part of their job. They have been very loyal to Corney & Barrow for a long period of time and that is really important to us,” she explains. “Being seen as the City’s wine merchant is something we take very seriously.” But equally C&B is also happily picking up businesses with some of the more cooler social media companies, like Amazon and Facebook, where you will struggle to find anyone “wearing a suit”. “It’s such a contrast. It’s fascinating,” she adds.
Marsh joined C&B six years ago after being part of the graduate training scheme at Majestic Wines. Whilst she enjoyed her time at Majestic she saw C&B as an opportunity to widen her experiences and try new things. Not that she realised it would involve quite the diversity of tasks she is now expected to do on a weekly basis.
Marsh came into C&B in a sales support role to the main corporate team, before moving up to a sales executive, that these days has the grander title of account manager, as sales manager. It was here that she started working with James Franklin, now head of merchant sales, and what has developed into a far more comprehensive role looking after events, hospitality and contract catering. The three of which, in themselves, cover a whole range of businesses and services. “That side of the business has really grown over the last six years,” says Marsh.
It has also seen what Marsh calls the development of a “younger dynamic in the team” each with different skills they can bring to the table – or often a pop-up stand. Skills they often did not realise they even had when starting out in a career in wine. Like having to act like a stand-up comedian when holding corporate tastings and events. Particularly for the more hipster customers.
“We do all sorts of different wine tastings and have to find the right style for the right event. For example, we do a lot more less traditional wine tastings, which are designed to be like a fun night out,” she says. Here it’s as much about being able to think on your feet, deliver a witty line, handle a cheeky heckle, than it is knowing the acidity-tannin ratio on a wine from Burgundy. When it does come to the wine then guests are more likely to be interested in an off-the-beat wine from Peru or Romania than they are tasting yet another Sancerre or Chablis. “They are going out to taste something new. They want to be taken out of their comfort zone and discover wines they did not know were even there.”
She adds: “It’s certainly not what I thought I would be doing when I first joined C&B six years ago. Which it makes such a great job to have. You just have to be so much more flexible in your approach and not just go in with a pre-determined way of doing a tasting. That is not going to work.” Getting that tone right is often difficult, but a key part of planning for any tasting event, says Marsh, “be it for four people or 400”. “We all sit down and work out what is going to be the right approach. Every tasting is and needs to be bespoke based on the needs of the event. It determines everything from what canapés and food they are going to have as well.” Not that it all goes to plan.
“I’ve had a few hairy moments so you have to be prepared for that. After all you can be standing up in front of 60 to 80 people who don’t always want to be talked to. You have to find ways to deal with that,” she explains. It also gives Marsh and her team the rare chance of working in some of the grandest, historic and unusual buildings and settings around the country.
As the C&B’s events and hospitality team and business has grown as has the demand on the overall wine buying team to make sure it has the right wines in the range to suit the type of events it is looking to hold and manage. Marsh says even that is very much a team effort. “We work very closely with the buyers, right down to the tastings, labelling and blending. It helps us have a real personal affinity with the list when we are talking to our customers. It makes is so much easier for us to be able to then sell those wines,” says Marsh. “The fact we are all able to work together and taste together is really important.”
But she says it is the diversity of the C&B wine range, and the skills of its buyers, driven by Rebecca Palmer, to go out and find different, new, exciting, but also classic wines that has gone hand in hand in how the wine events and catering team has been able to grow.
Equally as the events team is by nature the one out there talking on the front line to both its customers and consumers it is able to then feed back direct comments about different wines and how they are performing.“Our portfolio, particularly over the last two to three years, has really given us the tools to be able to do our job so much better. Be it having a premium Sauvignon Blanc alongside a Right Bank claret,” she says.
This flexible and more diverse approach has also helped over the last two years with the drop in sterling and bad harvests around the world. It has allowed C&B to seamlessly introduce wines from more diverse and obscure countries and regions with no complaints from customers. It’s also been a key factor, she says, in C&B winning a number of new accounts to work with major cruise liners and airlines, a part of the business that has really grown under James Franklin and the merchant team.
Equally on the contract catering side of things has been C&B’s ability to work with both the largest players in the market, like its longstanding relationship with Compass, but also increasingly being fleet of foot enough to work with the smallest players too. As the number of different types of events, pop-up shows and festivals have grown, covering everything from half a day to a full week, then so have the contract businesses tasked with servicing with them. It means C&B has to be able to scale up, or down, depending on the demands of the job, says Marsh.
The big change Marsh has seen in what customers want, need and expect is a better, all round service. The competition for business is such that anyone operating in the events space has to make good service their number one objective. “There is now so much more focus on the personal touch. It means, at times, you have to be available 24 hours a day. You have to be on top of every little detail, particularly what is important to your customer,” explains Marsh. It makes for quite a challenging Christmas and festive season.
“I have had to send out Uber deliveries with boots full of Prosecco at the last minute. But that’s all part of providing a full service,” she adds. “We have to do whatever we can. But we also have to be strong enough not to be afraid to say no when we are not going to be able to do something. There is nothing worse than over promising and under delivering.”
Creating those personal relationships with customers is also important when recommending them wine. If for whatever reason a particular wine is deemed too expensive, particularly from the major Old World regions, or simply not available then the C&B events team can step in to offer something different.
“That’s when those personal touches do help in being able to offer them alternatives to some of the classic wines they might have been used to having,” she says. Forging those close ties is also important in building new business out of existing customers. “It’s important that we can help them understand we are not just a traditional wine merchant business and can get involved in so many more aspects of their business. It’s also a case of finding new ways to work together.” Which, for Marsh, makes working at C&B such an eventful place to be.