We're taking a quick break from conspiracy theories and recipe tips because I want to get an idea I had in my days as a marketeer* out of my brain where it's been taking up valuable space I could be using for extra digits in the Pi sequence. Apologies, this one is going to read like an expo keynote, let's just all get through it and bang back 2 glasses of wine at the networking bit. What's that, you do business development for Vodafone - sounds electric, mate.
I was working on a contract for a small boutique restaurant chain who were finding it hard to nail down consistently good service when it came to their beer range. They had rich history of silliness to draw on as it had been set up with a mandate to be fun.
The team itself was full of kids with 1000 watt personalities but they'd had nothing in the way of formal training when it came to their beer. For a few key team members beer was their life and they spent their free time travelling the world to understand more but this didn't manifest in a robust training structure. the company itself had also failed to create a clear business plan, meaning there was a high level of scepticism when it came to any new initiative.
Previously the only formal way these guys were tested was via a series of multiple choice questions and it was clear that although this was an important part, there was more to it than recalling an index of information at will. They needed to be confident, engaging and passionate which hadn't previously been a major part of the culture.
My idea to save the day was The Trials of St. Veronus. The aim of which was to establish a training regime for our staff which made them sell more beer but also delivered a service experience which was unique to the brand.
In The Trials, our trainees would become players and take the role of St. Veronus, the patron saint of brewers on his quest to enlightenment. Along the way he'd face a series of trials set by a collection of challengers - each one would be designed to help the trainee develop a rounded skill set which would allow them to sell beer confidently and effectively.
The challenges themselves would be based on a mixture of knowledge, practical competency and presentational skills. The view was that these skills are interdependent and all equally important if you're looking for memorable service. The trick would be establishing a structure in which to train and test these qualities that was fun, exciting and not an overly daunting prospect for a new employee. By turning these training modules into a game, with role play elements, a hint of Dungeons & Dragons and as much good humour as the brand would allow then we'd be able to train our teams.
The structure of the path to enlightenment would be split into 3 sections. The aim of the first section would be to educate them on our beer range so that when talking to customers they could effectively talk about each of the beers with confidence. The second tier would look at the art of brewing in more detail to give their knowledge a more substantial grounding. Maybe this section was a bit arse-backwards but we figured that if we were selling a bottle of Vedett then it would be more beneficial for them to reel off it's selling points rather than the science behind how it was brewed. The final tier of the training program would be positioned as a master class of sorts which would bring together their previous training to host a tasting session for the public as well as taking up their position as a team trainer, by which they could support those starting out on their journey.
One of the initial challengers would be from the Bear King. He wears a crown and loves nothing more than giving out multiple choice quizzes. Once defeated you'd progress to the next stage of the trials and he would later return in your quest with incrementally harder quizzes.
Another of the proposed trials was St. Veronus and the Dying Carp. While out walking Saint V would come across a fish flopping and floundering in the dirt. In order to save him he'd tell you to complete the Dying Carp field visit form which would involve visiting a local brewery and talking to them about their range. The aim of this module would be to get our trainees out into the world and engage with other people, thereby building their confidence to speak to strangers about something they love. Once completed they'd return to HQ, save the Carp and unlock the associated badge which would help them along to the next stage.
The execution wouldn't take itself too seriously and would be split into chapters, St. Veronus versus each of his foes. the character would be introduced along with a breakdown of what would be required to pass the module. In a dream world this would have been illustrated by an artist like Isabel Greenberg who beautiful at world building.
The Trials would also have been a great way to establish a culture of beer and this could have manifested in weekly tasting outings and rewards for recognition such as brewery sponsored site visits for those who show the most dedication. It would also have been supported with a bottom-up reform of our training and recruitment programmes. Rather than recruiting for "Waiter, 3 years experience" we'd run advertisements asking if you're passionate about beer and great service - recruiting for attitude, not skills. You can teach people how to open a bottle of beer but it's a hell of a lot harder to encourage them to do it with a smile on their face.
The aim with it all would be to eventually take these processes which had traditionally been carried out behind closed doors with a view to making them public facing eventually. As team member knowledge developed they could teach customers at taating sessions.
There were so many reasons why this was a horrific idea at the time. Firstly, it'd need resource which would be coordinated across several departments and at this specific time in the company's history this was not realistic for a lot of reasons. Secondly, there's a chance that turning training into a big elaborate game could potentially come across as patronising if not pitched exactly right.
In terms of approach it would have been written in a very different way to all previous materials. I can't tell you how often I see brands which are meant to be vibrant and outgoing undermine it all by talking to their teams in the overly complex corporate jargon. I think the conclusion I reached after my time in hospitality was that it's meant to be a fun job. An operations manager summed his love of the industry up for me when he said that the feeling of a full restaurant at 9pm on a Saturday evening is electric and it's a great feeling to know you've created a great night for your customers. In that sense I think it's quite similar to stand up. The best restaurant manager's always seemed to establish a theatrical atmosphere which made their customers feel like part of an experience, rather than just ordering food from a menu.
I get the impression that within the hospitality sector there are only a handful of real brands. Sure, you can't move for chain restaurants nowadays but if you take away their logo and the fact they serve, food I think you'd struggle to name what makes their experience unique. I reckon there's a lot of high level strategy meeting where branding agencies click through slides with words like 'contemporary-vintage', 'London' and 'Social Butterflies' written on them and applaud a job well done.
*Think musketeer only swap courage and swordsmanship for blue sky sound bites and a River Island wardrobe.