Tales of the Cocktail Q & A: How to Staff Your Event with Great Volunteers

For eight years Tales of the Cocktail® has been bringing cocktail lovers from around the world to New Orleans. What began as a small gathering of cocktail lovers has grown to become the premier cocktail festival, serving as an annual meeting place for the world’s most influential professionals. Michelle Dunnick is an event manager on the Tales team and a member of MPI, Hospitality Event Networking Association, and the United States Bartender’s Guild. She talked to us about how to get top volunteers for your event.

How do you get the word out to great volunteers?

Advertise everywhere that is affordable! We advertise in our weekly newsletter, on our website. This year, we also reached out to a local group, the Young Leadership Council, which has a volunteer committee. In the past we have also reached out to local social groups, like Mardi Gras krewes. I also think retired couples tend to volunteer to earn free tickets to local events, my mother included.

What has worked well for you in the past?

Host a small informational meeting prior to the event.  This is the opportunity to explain what our expectations are, but also give them the tools to succeed.  We explain to them what situations they may encounter, what to expect and always try to say yes to our guests. Acting out these situations are always fun for silly prizes.

How do you handle dress code?

In 2009, we had them wear khakis and white shirts. Well that got dirty fast and if someone was volunteering multiple days, it was hard to wash and be ready for the next day. So this year, we asked that they wear jeans and provided an apron with tons of pockets, our logo and “volunteer” on it. This way sponsors could easily recognize who was a volunteer, in case they needed something. These were very popular—attendees were actually asking where they could buy them. Maybe next year. This was a success, so we will continue to do this with our partner. It also gave the volunteers a take home gift after the event.

Do you comp tickets or offer a discount for volunteers?

Yes, we do both. We have a reward system in place- work 2 shifts and earn a ticket ($50 value), work 4 shifts earn another ticket ($100 value), etc. Volunteers then have the option to attend one or a few of our big night events, Cocktail Hour, USBG Competition, Bar Room Brawl, or our Saturday Night Party. They usually work more than 2 shifts as they want to have 2 tickets to the same event. We also offer a discount code for 20% in case they would like to purchase a ticket for a friend.

Do you have one person to coordinate all volunteer efforts?

Since 2008, we have had a volunteer coordinator. Jessica Harrington joined in us 2009 and is responsible for soliciting volunteers, reviewing their application,  scheduling, on-site check in and off-site follow up. She is in charge of all tickets allocated for volunteers. I think this position is very important to a successful volunteer program, especially if your event depends on the extra help. You need to make your volunteers feel as special as possible, so they will come back and promote your event through word of mouth. Every volunteer has a place.

What are some common mistakes when using volunteers?

Don’t mistake a volunteer position with a paid position. I run registration and in 2009, I had 2 to 3 volunteers help me at registration each shift. Some were helpful, but some were not cut out. All I can say is, don’t cross out a name with a black Sharpie. If you have important duties, hire someone for that event that you trust. You can’t hold your volunteer to the same standard as your paid staffer. Again, when selling merchandise, don’t give your volunteer the duty of taking money, when you need accurate counts. Your volunteer may change every 3 hours. Pay someone to take this duty on and be responsible for the end result. Correctly evaluate your volunteers’ duties and capabilities. Don’t have the older volunteer lifting heavy trays as they are perfect for greeters or ticket takers.

General Tips?

  • You can’t thank them enough.
  • You can never have too may volunteers scheduled.
  • Set a reward system in place prior to scheduling shifts.
  • Give them something with your brand on it to take away—free PR.
  • Educate them properly so they can make their own decisions.
Some of our best volunteers have become seasonal staffers and part-time staff.