COVID is Calling Our Bluff — To Go Cocktails, Online Sermons & Virtual Conferences

For a background on what we’re up to at Maxwell Social read more here.

I’ve started seeing signs around Manhattan trying to sell to-go cocktails. In an effort to give restaurants another source of business, many cities around the world have relaxed restrictions on selling alcohol and allowed these restaurants to sell cocktails to-go.

While I am sympathetic to the situation the restaurant is clearly in, I thought it was an interesting glitch in the matrix because of how it illustrated a misunderstanding of what a person pays for when they come to a restaurant or bar.

Alcohol margins are well-known to be up to 90% depending on the spot — your $25 cocktail is really $1–3 of alcohol with some mixer. A $6 beer might cost 1.50. I recognize that there are specialty bars that make insanely good cocktails, but most people are getting gin and tonics, rum and cokes and beer, not custom cocktails.

Alcohol is a proxy for what you are really buying — some combination of the vibe, the people watching, the people meeting.

That is why you pay the markup. If you wanted to drink by yourself you’d go to a liquor shop.

So the idea that you’d pay 700-1000% more to take away a cocktail that in all likelihood is a 5–10% improvement on what you could mix yourself almost seems absurd.

Now, I bet most of these restaurant/bar owners realize this on some gut level (and don’t get me wrong I admire the hustle in these trying times), but it still exposes the purchase as a proxy for something we sometimes don’t like to admit or talk about — we buy expensive drinks at bars and restaurants because we’re seeking connection.

Conferences: Networking >>> Programming

There has been a similar “the emperor has no clothes” moment when it comes to conferences — conferences are going full virtual, and being forced to reconcile an uneasy truth — the thing they were selling all these years, the amazing panelists by thought leaders, never really were the reason people were showing up.

There has been an “unconference” movement for 10+ years. The most enlightened conference series have been moving in this direction for a while — the pitch of Summit’s Mountain and Summit at Sea is more about the people you’ll meet than the speakers who will talk at you. Mai Tai Global was run by Suzy Mai and Bill Tai and was essentially a kite boarding trip in beautiful locations with entrepreneurs and very minimal programming. F.ounders had some minimal programming but the main allure that people wrote up in article after article was the pub crawl around Dublin with Bono.

The most extreme of these examples throw out the speakers all together, like 50 Kings and just focus on the activities.

As conferences come online, to their credit, most of them actually seem to understand this as I see many of them providing the digital conference for free — on some level they’ve maybe always known this but just haven’t been able to make the jump — after all, most of them make the content free online after the conference.

I remember speaking to my friend Francisco who threw 50Kings for years and was as close to a pure unconference as you could get (one year we had a water balloon fight on a catamaran, another we raced through the panama jungle on ATVs. Every year there were zero panelists), and he said something interesting — his attendees had on more than one occasion begged him to include even a few hours of programming so they could point to it in order to expense it and let their boss know that it was a “serious” event.

It didn’t matter that having drinks with that CEO instead of seeing that CEO on stage at a panel was exponentially more valuable for your business, it seemed, well . . . fun, and that couldn’t possibly be expensed, it would just look bad.

The most famous example is perhaps TED. Attending the conference? $10,000 for the standard package. Streaming it? $100.

TED places a 100x premium on showing up in person to their conference

I’m curious if COVID liberates conference planners to focus on the thing we now can all admit we were ACTUALLY paying for.

Religion

We linked to this article in our last “Something to Look Forward To” newsletter about the decline of religion. I won’t spend much time on this as frankly, as an Atheist, I’m not an expert, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that a large reason why many people join and/or stick with their religion is because of community. I think many people enjoy church at least partly because of the serendipitous interactions they get from community members every Sunday. I doubt it’s because of the sermons.

I saw this amazing quote, ironically in a Politico article about Elizabeth Warren:

“You join the cult because you identify with the cult members. When someone asks why you joined, you point to scripture.”

I’m curious if this leads to any decline in religion in our society as people realize that they never really cared about scripture, but about being able to identify with the other church goers.

Bringing It Full Circle: Your Social Life

This all reminded me of a discussion I have with people a lot about what we’re up to at Maxwell.

Maxwell is building a social club, but a novel one, one that is more of a shared living room than an actual social club, and doesn’t include the traditional amenities you might associate with a social club, like a bar, restaurant, yoga studio, pool, hotel, etc. You can read more here.

I’ve often had to field the question of “why would I pay for that when I could pay for Soho House” and I’ll reframe the question to them by asking them why they pay for Soho House in the first place when there are tons of equally well designed bars/restaurants that they could enter for free, and here is a whole list of rooftop pools. They often stutter and insist that it’s for the amenities. I’ll point out the exact same list of amenities exist at many other spots around the city.

The “amenities” are the scripture of social clubs. But everyone is actually joining because they identify with the other members. To echo our announcement article, “it’s the people, stupid.”

Many people seem unable to admit to themselves that this is really what they are paying for.

Our view is that a social club that is 600 people (the Maxwell limit) is better able to execute on that people promise than one that is 5,000. But I digress . . .

The point is that as we get deeper into our social isolation I think it’s forcing us to recognize these excuses we’ve been telling ourself for why we go out (for the cocktails!), why we go to conferences (for the content!), why we go to church (for the god!).

You go out because you’ve always run into good people at that place. It’s because there are always cute girls there. It’s because it’s the stomping ground for your particular demographic. It’s because you like the vibe and hope a guy hits on you.

In short it’s about the people, and COVID is calling our bluff.

David Litwak

Read our announcement post here on what we’re up to at Maxwell, Signup at maxwellsocial.com, signup for our substack newsletter, and follow us on Instagram or Facebook.

Founder & CEO of Maxwell Social

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