Flash back to 1967. LBJ is in the White House. Bell-bottoms are a fashion statement. The Monkees dominate the Top 40 (on AM radio), and a rocket-scientist-turned-lawyer who has joined Maker's Mark, his family's tiny distillery in Kentucky, has been given an assignment that has him baffled.
"At the time, we were getting 95 percent of our business, such as it was, from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana," recalls T. William "Bill" Samuels Jr. "There were two huge national distributors outside that area who could do us a lot of good if they would take on our product. Dad wanted me to host them for the weekend. I didn't have a clue about what to do. I am not by nature a social person."
Samuels doesn't remember much about that weekend except that he played semicompetent tour guide, showing his guests all the sights of Louisville, and that the two days were filled with more long silences than he would have liked.
Flash forward to today.
Dressed in a white disco suit that would embarrass even John Travolta, Samuels will host some 1,500 people in an annual event that will probably receive international media attention. Good Morning America once televised its opening from Samuels's Derby-readied house. (See " The Itinerary".)
How did Samuels get from where he started to here? And how exactly do you host a perfect weekend for your key customers -- not to mention people you'd like to become your key customers?
Those are not insignificant questions. You already know that entertaining is part of your job. But you hope that even if you do it badly, it won't cost you business. You'd like to think that quality, service, and price will outweigh the question of whether your customers enjoy your company -- in both senses of the word. But customers do more business with businesspeople they like. And your customers are bound to like you more if you show them a good time.
So how do you do it?
For advice, we turned to Samuels, whose party on the Thursday before Saturday's running of the Kentucky Derby has become legendary. But he does more than throw a nice one-night shindig. Samuels has invited some 60 people to continue celebrating through the race itself. It's clear he knows something about hosting a long weekend.
"It's second nature for me to try to create situations where the mountain comes to Muhammad," he explains. "Our company is not big enough to scream and yell to get everyone's attention. We need to create an environment where people want to do business with us." Or, in this case, an environment people want to be in for the weekend.
So the choice to host the weekend is a business decision that's handled like every other business decision at Maker's Mark. Samuels, the company's president, starts by figuring out how the weekend fits into his company's overall strategy. Specifically, he picks a theme (this year it will be the 1970s) and a tone (disco and tacky) for the event, and then he leaves it to his 60 employees to make it happen.
"We have never used a party planner, and I don't think we ever will," he says. "Getting this done is a real team-building exercise. Everyone in the company works on this in addition to their regular jobs, so the result is, employees who don't normally work together end up being side by side." (See "Party Tricks".)
There are other internal benefits as well. For one thing, something generally goes wrong -- for example, when Maker's installed a new computer system, the list of invitees from previous years somehow disappeared -- so that planning for the weekend is an ongoing exercise in crisis management. And knowing that the festivities always begin on the Thursday before the first Saturday in May provides inflexible deadlines for such tasks as an extra-thorough cleaning of the distillery -- which the guests will be invited to visit.
But important as the internal benefits are, the real focus is external -- trying to raise brand awareness and buzz and, by extension, sales. After all, Samuels isn't spending $250,000 of the company's money just to have a party.
"Can I prove there is a good ROI on this?" he asks. "Are you kidding? There's no way. But this is all about buzz, and I've got to think that having things such as a national morning-news show broadcasting from the house, as happened a couple of years ago, has got to help."
Sales of Maker's Mark, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of London's Allied Domecq, seem to bear out that assessment. Sales of most "brown liquors," such as bourbon, are basically flat, but Maker's Mark sales have been steadily climbing 11 percent a year, Samuels says. And the sales-territory diversification his father hoped for has come to pass: only 15 percent of the company's sales now come from Kentucky and Indiana.
Maker's Mark's annual Derby Weekend blowout creates more buzz about the brand than anything else the company does, Samuels says. It certainly has evolved into something better than he could ever have dreamed of. People nowadays actually lobby for invitations.
"We have a major monster on our hands," says Samuels, "just like we do with the whiskey."
Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 12 books and a frequent contributor to Inc.
If you're invited to Bill Samuels's annual Derby event, get some rest before you go.
Dinner and entertainment at the Samuels spread. Bill and Nancy Samuels's home is on 14 acres overlooking the Ohio River, but their property is not big enough to accommodate the cars of the 1,500 attendees. (Don't tell anyone, but this year -- in keeping with the 1970s theme -- KC and the Sunshine Band are performing.) Samuels's neighbors are allowing guests to park on the lawns surrounding their old Kentucky homes.
Friday morning, early
Maker's Mark distillery tour. Yes, the party broke up only hours ago. Still, bright and early you pile on to buses and ride 60 miles to the distillery. A six-hour brunch follows.
Downtime. Samuels has discovered that people need to recover from Thursday night and Friday morning.
Dinner at the local (gourmet) steak house. This is the only chance you have during the weekend to talk to someone in depth.
Brunch near Churchill Downs. Buses, accompanied by a police escort, take you to the front of the racetrack, bypassing the other 100,000 to 150,000 people who are attending. Although "Run for the Roses" is the penultimate race of the day, you arrive at Churchill Downs much earlier. That's good, because in the past everyone from the governor to the owners of the horses has stopped by Samuels's box to offer betting tips.
Dinner and dancing at the country club.
The trip home to get some sleep and start your diet.
Bill Samuels has been hosting Derby Weekend for 35 years. Here are the 10 most important things he's learned along the way.
1. Stuffy is bad. Everything from Samuels's tacky costumes to his choice of entertainment is selected with one thought in mind: making sure his guests feel comfortable and relaxed. "The whole idea is to create an environment where people will talk to people they don't know," he says.
2. Set the tone from the outset. This is an event. The only thing that is expected from guests is that they have a good time. That expectation is communicated many times, starting with the invitation.
3. Track the RSVPs. It's important to know who's coming. Samuels wants to make sure not only that he has enough food and drink, tickets, and accommodations but also that the guest list doesn't include too many sourpusses. All his hard work goes out the window if he ends up hosting a disproportionate number of stiffs.
4. Sweat the details. People won't have a good time if there aren't enough bathrooms, if they're wearing the wrong shoes, or if they have to worry about anything. Samuels sets up his outdoor tents a week in advance to make sure the ground won't be soggy from any pre-event rain. And he has (prepaid) taxis standing by after the Thursday party in case anyone needs one.
5. Include a glamour component. Mingling with -- or at least ogling -- celebrities is fun. Samuels's guest list always includes a handful of actors, athletes, and musicians.
6. Build in downtime. Only people under the age of four can operate at full tilt from early morning to late at night. Build in time when people can read a book or nap if they want. Samuels keeps the Friday afternoon of his Thursday-through-Sunday weekends unscheduled.
7. Diversity is good. Everyone looking like everyone else and sounding like everyone else and sharing the same worldview creates the potential for a very dull gathering.
8. Liquor helps. As a seventh-generation distiller, Samuels is quick to say, "You need to respect the beverage." Soft drinks abound. However, if you want something harder, it's available. The Maker's Mark-based mint juleps are always a favorite.
9. The host needs to have fun. Hosts can't be charming if they've left any details to the last minute. Bill and Nancy Samuels get absolutely everything done ahead of time so they can enjoy themselves.
10. Don't plan on talking shop. That isn't the purpose of the gathering, is it? However, feel free when talking with guests to set up a time after the party's over for taking out the order book.