Lighting — Make sure your guests can see our faces! There’s nothing more awkward than hosting an event and not being able to see the face of the speaker. In one of my first events, I realized that the view from my camera had a slight shadow. I invested in a basic light kit for the office. It made all the difference.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bottigliero of Bottles Nation.
Michael Bottigliero is founder, president and lead sommelier of Bottles Nation, a team of sommeliers, cicerones and mixologists focused on delivering immersive, fun and expert one-hour tasting and education events nationwide for both corporate and in-home gatherings of all sizes.
Michael grew up in a traditional, Italian-American household on the southside of Chicago. His earliest memories of wine involve a bottle of Chianti on the family table.
After serving in the military, he returned to Chicago to attend University of Illinois at Chicago campus for a bachelor’s degree in history while working in the hospitality industry. His love of wine, beer, spirits and food led him to train as a sommelier and from there his formal career in the wine industry began.
Michael’s work in the hospitality field includes experience in many high-end Chicago establishments. He helped create award-winning wine lists as a sommelier at the Intercontinental Hotel Chicago and as the lead sommelier and beverage director for the Tasting Room on Randolph.
For the last decade, Michael was at the helm of Windy City Wine Guy, a consultancy focused on private wine events for individuals and corporations, before changing to the international brand of Bottles Nation. Michael also served as the Illinois Brand Ambassador for Franciacorta, Italy’s only World Class sparkling wine producing region.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
From the time I can first remember, we enjoyed family Sunday dinners consisting of a full spread, and there was always some wine on the table. Growing up in this manner always made me appreciate sharing good food and drink with friends and family.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I grew up learning good table manners, how to eat a fine meal. When I served in the U.S. Navy, I watched the movie “Cocktail” and wanted to live that life. After my time served, I put myself through college by bartending. I found that I loved the bar/restaurant service industry so much that I sought out ways to stay, even after I achieved a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I began studying in restaurants under amazing sommeliers, like Belinda Chang and Michael Muser, taking certification classes and, eventually, I obtained a position as a sommelier at the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A guest came into the Intercontinental Hotel and ordered a bottle of 1982 Chateau Margaux. The cork was just shot. It started to crumble as I put my wine key into it — my first time dealing with such a brittle cork. I definitely did not know how to handle it. I was going to use a candle underneath, so I could make sure the sediment did not pass into the wine. I made do by excusing myself from the table and then finished opening the bottle in the wine cellar.
I was so embarrassed, but I was able to learn a lot and recover by getting most of the cork out, then straining it through a cheesecloth into a decanter. Later, I learned it is acceptable to open wine away from the table as long as you are still in view of the guest, which I was via our glass paneled wine cellar.
This resonates because it is a point of fine service, to take care of guests no matter what, while retaining the credibility of your product. There are many ways to do this, but staying in view and giving the guest what they want is key.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Without a doubt, the movie “Rocky.” First, I love the story and what it took to make it. Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay and had a clear vision for how he wanted the main character to be portrayed. I respect his devotion to the craft and seeing it through. In regard to Bottles Nation and our vision, I can relate. When we started taking our tastings online, we had a lot of pushback and questions, such as, “Will it work?” or “Would people want to actually participate in this?” I’m thankful that we listened to our gut and moved forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t Assume. It only makes an ASS out of U and ME.” This is very important and I learned this in boot camp during my time in the military. I have seen so many people make mistakes by making assumptions. So many problems can be avoided by making everything clear and transparent with others and not jumping the gun.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
I have been in the bar/restaurant industry since 1995 and have learned at each stop in my career what it takes to entertain a group. I took all that knowledge to Bottles Nation when I started it in 2009, hosting events in offices, hotels, arboretums, on the beach and boats, the top of the Hancock Building and Sears Tower (no one calls it that other name!), and more.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
In the spring of 2020, I started hosting virtual wine events. Soon thereafter, I also incorporated craft beer, whiskey and cocktails into events. It was slow at first, but word of mouth spread quickly and I was overloaded. My wife, Blagica, had her own marketing consulting business and I convinced her to come on full time to help. I also reached out to other sommeliers, cicerones and mixologists to help with the events. We ended up hosting more than 800 virtual events last year. We’ve done everything from corporate gatherings to charity fundraisers to bachelorette parties — good times mixed in with a little craziness.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
We have had our heads down with Bottles Nation and I haven’t had much time to look at anything else. I think that’s the GenX in us. We had to completely shift our business into something viable. Since March 2020, we’ve focused on making the experience more seamless for clients. I am impressed at how we are able to bring a combination of beverage knowledge and energy to our groups, keeping them engaged and talking. This is supposed to be social, not a boring classroom.
If I were going to give anyone advice, that would be the main piece — just bring it!
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think a common mistake is not bringing enough lively energy to the live virtual event. Getting people enthused about the subject and keeping them engaged is important. Many of our guests have been stuck at home since the start of the pandemic, lack socialization outside of work and are looking forward to seeing coworkers, family and friends, while also having a good time. If you are going to explain wine and sit back and wait for guests to ask questions, you are doing it wrong.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
I’ve used WebEx by Cisco, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, RingCentral, Skype, Amazon Chime, but Zoom beats them all. The product is so easy to use, and, for the most part, you can see and interact with everyone at the same time. The other platforms can have issues with hearing, seeing and logging in, but I’ve never had those issues with Zoom. Also, screen sharing is very easy to do — you don’t even need a tutorial. The interface is very user-friendly.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
There’s a whole host of great tools out there designed to streamline the event planning process. Many offer a combination of event registration and ticketing software and some also provide tools such as mobile event app and audience response software. I recommend giving several a try to determine what works best for your specific needs. I like the event management software Zoho Backstage.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lighting — Make sure your guests can see our faces! There’s nothing more awkward than hosting an event and not being able to see the face of the speaker. In one of my first events, I realized that the view from my camera had a slight shadow. I invested in a basic light kit for the office. It made all the difference.
- Background — Thanks to Room Rater, we’re seeing a lot of lovely book and picture collections in the backgrounds of video calls. I love it! Of course, there are built-in images you can use for backgrounds, but I personally do not like to use them. I prefer real settings. My office has a five-piece art set that looks like I’m in a wine cellar. I get compliments from clients all the time.
- Personality — Every guest or client is different. It’s important to match the style and tone of what your guest is looking for. Soon into one event I hosted, with a very energetic group of recent college grads, I realized that I needed to elevate my energy and approach to the tasting. I instantly noticed a difference in the group’s reception when my energy picked up. I fed off their energy and the hour flew by. Reading a room applies to virtual events, just like in person.
- Internet Speed — A frozen screen is not a fun experience. I highly suggest having your computer plugged directly into your home internet connection. I have found that the best experiences in hosting events is when I use my direct broadband connection. WiFi does work and I use it in a pinch, but I make sure that I don’t have any walls or barriers between my computer and the main internet connection.
- Be Prepared — I love wine and take pride in being able to talk about it for hours. The same goes for my team of amazing experts. I do, however, always come prepared with notes and talking points for my guests. I never approach a virtual event without a cheat sheet or items to reference. When a client books an event, they expect the same level of professionalism that they would receive in person — sometimes even more.
During one event, we were discussing a set of wines that I’ve used in the past and one guest came back to seek more information about a particular wine. Had I had the information at my fingertips, I could have given the client that information immediately, instead of waiting until after the event.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
For putting together your own virtual live event, I’d start with getting your friends, family, co-workers and clients onboard with a date/time. Then start planning the beverages. Determine what kind of tasting you’d like to do: craft beer, wine, whiskey or cocktails. After you’ve finalized the beverage list, make sure everyone has the list and the link to join in.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love to show everyone that if we sit down, look each other in the eye, have a drink and just talk, we will see that we are not much different from one another. We all love our families; we love what this country stands for and want to preserve that — freedom and equality for all.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Barack Obama. Seeing him over the years, he just has such a presence and expresses so much joy, especially when people talk to him. Children, working Americans, men, women — he can relate to anyone, no matter what their politics are. If you look at him impartially, it’s easy to see that. Plus, we’re both Chicago guys. I’d love to chat over a beer or two.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.