Digital Event Strategist Spotlight: Maria Dempsey, Wine Educator, Director of Hospitality and Events, Gen7 Wines


Wine, digital events and the hospitality industry – normally not a mixture you would find but as it turns out, it is a true recipe for success. Maria Dempsey, CMM, DES, CSW, Wine Educator and Director of Hospitality and Events for Gen7 Wines recently completed the Digital Events Strategist course, offered by PCMA. Here is her story.

Tell us a little bit about what you do and what made you pursue DES in the first place.

For the past 25 years, I have been in the hospitality industry. Before March 2020, I was handling groups and events for a hotel in San Francisco as a senior sales manager.

A few years ago, I got involved in the wine industry as a side business. I became interested in wines by wining and dining with clients, meeting sommeliers, traveling the world to other wine regions and going to Napa/Sonoma/Central Coast for the past 20 to 25 years. I started learning it from the ground up and became a wine educator. My husband and I have visited a lot of wine regions around the world and this fascination with wine has always been there.

Last summer, I was laid off from the hotel. I have always been a lifelong learner and started working on upskilling, learning a new industry, and earning credentials – one being the Digital Event Strategist certification and the other being CSW — Certified Specialist of Wine.

Hospitality, wine and digital events — so where do all of these come together? Last fall, I started working at a winery that I had worked for in the past three and a half years. They wanted to engage me in doing virtual events, so I helped them start up their virtual event platforms. They offered seven or eight events, and I helped with marketing and reviewing these events from a customer’s perspective.

I thought to myself, there were some critical tools that I’d need, and one of them was the DES designation. Regardless, if I come back into the hotel industry after the pandemic or continue to produce virtual events for wineries, I was going to need this tool to stay ahead of the game. I aspire to be a leader and resource to my clients, speak their language, and have the tools to understand hybrid events/virtual events.

Congratulations on pivoting to a new industry and marrying your previous expertise in hospitality and passion for wine!

I was basically working for three wineries last year, trying to piece it together to have a full-time job. When two of those wineries heard that I was going to do the DES course, they were all very supportive. Gen7 — one of the wineries that I currently work for — then promoted me in December to Director of Hospitality and Events from initially a Wine Educator. Now they really wanted me to help them produce virtual events for wine. They were so inspired that I was going for this designation and my dedication to understanding virtual events.

Wine events tend to be very sensory experiences that involve things like observing the color of the wine, smelling it and then tasting it. How do you create the same experience in a different medium that is digital?

I could think of four things that are important to make a virtual wine event a success.

First, it has to be experiential which means participants need the product. We just did the first event for this winery past weekend. We had reached out to all the wine club members and corporate event planners before launching the event, and then we sent out the wine in advance to make sure they have the product.

Second, you have to have a very engaging, interactive speaker to keep it fun.

Additionally, have high production value and standards. We not only did a pre-event rehearsal but also engaged a production specialist who gave valuable insights on camera angles, sound, etc. As the event was a wine and cooking demonstration, I advised that we needed not only the right camera angles but to have a multi-cam setup. The production specialist gave us valuable pointers in that regard, and all of this was possible because of what I learned in the DES course.

Lastly, put your customers first. Before the event took place, we engaged with a select group of customers. Through various meetings and conference calls, we were able to get a good understanding of what they thought a successful event looked like. With the recipe in hand, we were able to incorporate their feedback into our event successfully.

During the event, we also gave a lot of attention to each attendee to make sure personalization and interaction were front and center. We would ask things like, “How are you doing, Pat?”, “How are you coming along with that recipe?” and “You’re on the tomatoes now. Great. How about you, John?”

You’re spot on about personalization and making it about them. A successful digital event should not be just a passive viewing experience. The feeling of being together and hearing your own name called out at an event really makes a huge difference.

What key learnings from the DES course have you implemented in the event(s) you’ve worked on or the ones you’re working on?

Platforms — I learned a lot about how to evaluate different virtual event platforms. In addition to my role at the winery, I’m also an active member of the PCMA North California chapter. I’m on the board of the chapter and last year I was honored to be awarded as the Member of the Year. I’m heading up sponsorship for the second year. In this position, I’m looking at what strategic partners we need for our digital events. I now sit in demos to see how different solutions can strategically align with one of our key programs this year. The knowledge from the DES course not only helps me as a wine event producer but will also help me on the board of the chapter.

Hiring a production staff — How important that is! Production staff think outside of the box, things that you might not be thinking about, and they know how to piece it together. It’s critical, especially for bigger events.

Engagement — Engagement is so important. I attended many sessions about virtual events at Convening Leaders this year, and a few of them were so inspiring to me because of the engagement element they touched on.

Rehearsals — I will make sure it’s a bigger piece that we must do in advance in all our events going forward.

Camera, lighting, Wi-Fi connections — Small things that make a huge difference.

Marketing virtual events — I now work closely with our marketing person on what’s needed for the next event and how we work together better.

If a friend or colleague is on the fence about taking DES, what would you say to nudge them?

I’ve been talking about the DES course in many places. I chair a committee and have shared with them in one of our calls how I learned all about all these technology tools and marketing, and one of my colleagues on the committee is currently pursuing their DES certification. The other day, I was on a call with some suppliers when I told them about this certification, and one of them asked me right away how they could get this education. It’s a tool that we would all want to have in our toolbox.

We need to stay ahead of the curve and have the same level of understanding of communications tools as our corporate meeting and event customers. Coming from a supplier’s standpoint, we need to be aware of the pivot our customers have had to take to do virtual events, their needs and what can we do to make their job easier and make them look good.

Having been involved in meetings, events, conferences, experiences, it is critically important to learn about digital events. From an outside perspective, we might be telling ourselves that we’ll come back to in-person events soon enough. But at the same time, digital events can help us engage with our customers in many aspects that will continue even after in-person events come back.

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The Digital Event Strategist Spotlight series features Digital Event Strategists and how they are making impact in their work through digital and hybrid events.

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