There is obviously a brand-awareness piece to sponsorship, but we are in a unique situation. We’re a business-to-business company; we are not brand owners, but we do represent all the great wine, spirits and beer brands in the market. For [Wirtz], it was more about supporting the market and what’s happening Downtown, supporting the “new Las Vegas,” so to speak. … We really believe in the Life Is Beautiful mission, in the Downtown Project and what’s happening Downtown, and for us to be able to bring the brands we represent to the festival, to bring their brand experiences to life to the consumer and ultimately put together a beverage program that helps make the festival that much better—that was our contribution to the festival.
What do you think about what’s going on Downtown?
Even outside of just the festival, something exciting is happening Downtown; there is a fresh, new and innovative spirit in a part of town that probably lacked that for a long time. … I’ve been going to Las Vegas my whole life; my dad has been going there since 1977 when we first entered the market, and obviously Las Vegas was very different back then and has reinvented itself probably three or four times during that time. As the next generation of our family gets involved in Las Vegas, clearly what is happening in Downtown is like the next evolution with the market, and that’s what the city is all about. It’s very inspiring for us.
What takeaway has there been from Wirtz’s involvement in the first two years of the festival?
In general, the [festival] consumer is a probably more discerning. It’s not necessarily about quantity; it’s about quality. The beverage program is about the experience as much as it is about liquid going into a cup: exploration of beers; experiences with the brands; learning about wine. The receptiveness of the consumer to spend some time and explore the beverage [instead of] it just being a commodity—that part of the festival experience is very different from the festivals I’m used to.
What about the festival excites you this year?
First of all, I am excited for it to be a little bit earlier. The different layout; each year seems to get a little bit better in terms of flow. I’m selfishly excited about how the beverage program comes to life. And then obviously the lineup. It is so diverse. I am definitely excited to see Future Islands, Royal Blood, Best Coast, Major Lazer, Chance the Rapper—Chicago! Obviously, the headliners are great: Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar. I am pretty all over the place when it comes to my musical taste.
People seem apt to sample from many genres. The same goes for their beverage choices; there’s a certain curiosity or “promiscuity.”
Absolutely. I believe it’s more by the occasion. So maybe earlier in the day, it’s going to be all about something refreshing, and maybe later in the day it’s something a little heavier. Depending on people’s moods and where they are, they’re going to explore beverage like they explore the music scene.
Since taking over the day-to-day leadership of Wirtz Beverage Group in March, what has surprised you?
How things are changing so fast. The brand-building process used to take 10 years. Now there are hot and flashy things coming out that can get people consuming them faster just because of the way in which people are communicating. And how do we as a company stay on top of that? It’s really a focus around—and actually this probably ties into the festival— the role of the wholesaler in not just the selling process, but this idea of activation. Whether that is through a cocktail program, an event, a promotion—more than just the sell-in (as we call it in our industry), we need to spend more time on the sell-through and the sell-out. That takes a greater understanding of the consumer.
What beverage trends excite you right now?
The broad and almost mainstream acceptance of great quality cocktail creation and spirits. It is no longer like this privileged, niche experience to have a fresh cocktail made with fresh juice and great spirits at a great cocktail bar. You can go to an airport, a chain hotel or a music festival and have a great cocktail or spirit experience. It took a lot of work to get there and sometimes you take it for granted that you can have a fresh margarita at Life Is Beautiful, but for a long time that was not the norm. The brands coming to market are really exciting: a lot of innovative craft spirit and craft beer producers, this idea of selection and variety. We’re in an exciting time in beverage.
How do you balance between the needs of an established macro brand and the needs of a new craft brand?
It’s probably a little bit more of an art than a science. You have to never lose sight of your largest partners, the foundation of your business. At the same time, you have to continue to innovate and bring those smaller brands to market in a effective way. We’ve made specific decisions to bring in brands that we believe in. … We don’t just take in any brand off the street just because we want to have everything. There are still a lot of brands out there that we don’t represent. We really curate our portfolio.
Were you responsible for bringing craft products—beer and spirits—under the Wirtz umbrella?
I don’t know if I can take full responsibility, but I know it is a passion of mine. I live in downtown Chicago, and it was exciting to see the emergence of craft beer and craft spirits around me, and how the trade was responding to it. It was important as a company to have a position [in craft], and important that we found the right way to be a part of that emerging community of brands.
What was your first craft brand that you got on board?
Death’s Door was maybe one of the first times where I saw a quirky [gin] with a funny name or a name that kind of caught my eye sitting right next to Tanqueray and Hendrick’s. It seems like it came out of nowhere, but it was at the right places and that’s when I got to know [owner] Brian Ellison and got to understand the story behind Death’s Door Spirits from Wisconsin. Once you start to understand the story, heritage and ethos of that brand, like a lot of craft brands, it becomes very appealing. Shortly after those conversations, we were able to bring the brand into our portfolio in Illinois, and since then it has been very successful for us in our market.
Where would you like to see the craft industries go?
While growth and expansion of the craft space is exciting for spirits, we also have to make sure that quality would remain true. In the race to create brands, let’s not forget that, at the end of the day, you have to put great product out there. There are massive brands that have been perfected over hundreds of years—Scotches such as Balvenie, tequila such as Herradura. They may be mainstream in the grand scheme of things, but have histories of really understanding the art of distillation and have been consistent over a long period of time. I hope that with the new stuff coming out there is that commitment to that quality.
In a parallel universe where your last name is Wilson in a family of, say, doctors, where do you think you’d be today?
I would be involved with brands in some way. I have a love for consumer brands in all sectors. I worked in music, but the music really morphed into marketing and experiential marketing. When I reached that point in my career where I was able to transition into our industry was a dream come true, there is so much energy, excitement and personality behind brands in this industry. I would have probably gravitated to this, whether I liked it or not.
After graduating from Boston College, you spent a summer on tour with the industrial metal band Ministry. What was that like?
An experience to say the least.
Did you learn a lot about branding?
I did, because I was in charge of the backstage beer. [Laughs] I had to make sure that the band was fully loaded with their Heinekens. And I believe Bushmills was the spirit of choice at the time. I got to see what life was like on the road and realized that I probably don’t want to be living out of a bus for my career. But it was a pretty cool summer vacation.
Among the Wirtz Corporation’s many holdings are the Chicago Blackhawks. On Twitter you describe yourself as a lifelong “puck head.” What do you think of the prospect of the NHL coming to Las Vegas?
I believe it is going to happen. The effort and the response from the local and business communities have been just overwhelming. Las Vegas has performed really well, and it’s exciting to think about. It’s a different market than other NHL cities, but what a great platform for the sport of hockey to be in an entertainment mecca like Las Vegas, to expose the sport to a different audience and also, probably, present the sport in a different way.
Did you play hockey as a child?
Unlike the alcoholic beverage industry—something I couldn’t get involved with when I was young—the Blackhawks, and going to the hockey games with our family, was just part of growing up. Yeah, I caught the fever pretty early as a fan and then as a young player. I probably started learning how to skate at maybe 3 or 4, and then I played fairly competitively through high school. It’s an amazing sport to watch and to play. I caught that bug pretty early and still hold on to it today.