Why work events are becoming a sober experience

Julia Phillips, a corporate events organiser, has noticed a change in clients’ requests for their pre-dinner activities: alcohol-free drinks.

Previously, a typical team-building session would involve a series of alcohol-based challenges. In a twist on the TV series The Great British Bake Off, for example, colleagues make a signature cocktail and compete in a technical round.
But while clients still like drinks-based events, they increasingly want to offer employees the opportunity to shake a mocktail too. “We [might] do something where the cocktail we’re creating is very lime heavy — [with the option] to include vodka,” says Ms Phillips, managing director at events agency Crescendo. Such requests have risen from about 10 per cent to 50 per cent of clients over the past 18 months, she adds.

In the past, employees would express a reason for not drinking, she says — for example, a drive at the end of a train commute, religious grounds or pregnancy. But younger workers tend not to bother. “Millennials just want to have something where they don’t drink — they don’t give a reason. It’s a generational difference.”

While there is no desire to ditch the cocktail shaker altogether, employees want more options. “People want to learn,” says Ms Phillips, “they like the experience of, say, learning about the history of rum.” There are parallels between this trend and flexitarians — people who are largely vegetarian but eat the odd piece of meat. “People will mix it up,” she adds.

Drinks companies have seized on such tastes — variously described as “sober curious” or “mindful drinkers”. Diageo, for example, has invested in Seedlip, a British company that makes non-alcoholic distilled drinks, while Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken have created no- and low-alcohol beers in recent years.

Greater health awareness is one driver, though other factors include changes in leisure, such as gaming. Social media, which can become a public forum to shame drunken mishaps, is another factor.

The #MeToo movement has also forced many companies to review their alcohol policies. Earlier this year, Lloyd’s of London, the insurance marketplace, announced that it would bar people who have been drinking or are under the influence of drugs from the premises. It followed sexual harassment complaints and a previous ban on daytime drinking.

But corporate entertainment — after-work drinks, networking events, award ceremonies and even incentives — are still dominated by alcohol. One public relations executive observes that it is impossible to get the “old guard to realise that giving out a bottle of cheap wine as a reward for good work needed not to be the norm any longer — that it was really ‘othering’ folks who didn’t drink.”



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