Take 5: Gary Gruver of Marriott International

An in the Mix Feature Interview

By Mallory Ambrose | May 03, 2024

Gary Gruver

Director of Global Beverage Operations, Marriott International

An accomplished F&B leader with over 20 years of trade experience in operations, education, and hospitality, Gary Gruver, Director of Global Beverage Operations, Marriott International, has a proven track record of creating world-class beverage programs and driving brand perception. In this in the Mix Take 5 interview, Gary touches on the success he has seen throughout his career and sheds light on his innovative approach to beverage on a national/global platform.

Mallory Ambrose: Hi Gary, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. With over 20 years of experience in the restaurant, beverage, and alcohol industry, can you share a bit about your background overall and your journey into the beverage and hospitality industry? What inspired you to pursue a career in this industry?

Gary Gruver: I started out behind the bar washing dishes, but I always wanted to get into beverage. As a young kid I guess you could say I always interested in hospitality whether that was serving ice cream or busing tables. I would say it wasn’t until I got into my last role as a bartender that I really seemed to find my stride with competing. My involvement in the competition circuit is what pushed me into professional hospitality.

I was a competing bartender for five or six years and I won a few national titles which ultimately put me on the corporate map. While working behind the bar making drinks five days a week, I somehow landed a dream job at Southern Glazer’s as their Director of Mixology which was where my career really took off.

Once I stopped competing, I moved into spirits education and began judging cocktail competitions from a high level. I eventually got into national accounts and started traveling the country sharing how to go about creating beverage programs.

I had been with Southern for three years when Marriott called me and said, “Hey, we got your name and would love to speak to you.” Of course, I jumped on it.

I came on to the Marriott team leaving Southern Glazer’s and Kentucky, my hometown, to move to DC. I made this move with little experience working in a hotel, but I knew the business of beverage and that’s where I started honing my skills with Marriott. Now all I talk about is hotels all day every day, but at the end of the day, it really is all about liquid and getting people to enjoy the overall beverage experience more. It really is getting people excited about beverage.

“Gary came in not knowing hotels but knowing beverage, and over the last seven years, I’ve seen Marriott take beverage to a whole new level and it’s because of Gary’s expertise and drive. Now we have the president of Marriott asking what Gary is doing because that’s how big beverage has become,” said Heather Baker, Director of Accounts, IMI Agency.

MA: You notably rolled out a custom Gin & Tonic program to 130+ AC Hotels nationwide that was specifically designed in partnership with Bacardi USA, Bombay Sapphire, and Nigel Barker. Referring to your recognized strategy when it comes to planning and process design, how did you approach developing a customized National beverage program such as this?

GG: This was one of the first projects that I built for AC Hotels, whom we acquired shortly after I had joined the Marriott team. There was a great emphasis on the brand’s Spanish heritage and overall DNA when it comes to design which allowed me to lean into the narrative of Gin Tonic’s popularity in Spain. When you travel to Spain you are guaranteed to see Gin Tonic’s served in big balloon-like glasses at every bar and they are a big deal amongst patrons. So of course, our DNA of AC had to be a signature gin and tonic.

My long-time friend, Gary Hayward and I put our heads together and came up with the fact that there really was no true gin and tonic glass. With a plethora of identifiable beverage glassware shapes, take a Pilsner glass or Beaujolais glass for example, there still wasn’t one for the gin and tonic.

While there was the balloon wine glass which is similar to a Bordeaux glass, we went down the rabbit hole asking ourselves things like, “What does it actually mean to have a gin and tonic?” “What are you looking for?” “What could this glass look like?”

We went to speak with the Maryland University’s Scientific Department to discuss what carbonation does in certain vessels and how it boils off In different vessels. We got geeky about it. Our research gave us the data to examine aspects of the balloon glass and we quickly discovered that important components like flavor and carbonation, two of the most important things with a gin and tonic, were escaping.

We decided to make this a program project and spoke with Nigel Barker, fashion photographer and in-house advocate for AC, about his past experiences with gin and tonics. Our conversation brought back the nostalgic memories of his father fixing himself a gin and tonic at the end of the day.

With the help of Nigel’s artistic vision and Gary and I’s scientific research, we partnered with Bacardi and Bombay Sapphire to create the glass. We designed the glass and custom gin and tonic syrup that we then paired with Bombay Sapphire East gin to successfully embody AC’s signature gin and tonic narrative.

We launched the project at every AC hotel. Today, all AC Hotel’s craft their signature gin and tonic with the syrup we created and serve the cocktail to patrons in the glass that we designed. The Gin and Tonic glasses are available for purchase at all AC Hotels. What started with two guys geeking out over a glass, turned into this really cool project involving all arms of our departments and marketing brand leaders.

2018 AC Hotels Custom Gin and Tonic Launch at the AC Times Square

MA: You have quite an impressive discography in organizing large-scale events like Food & Wine, Tales of the Cocktail, Cayman Cookout, and Marriott’s Global Operators Summit & Global Design Summit. Can you share a bit about what goes into organizing large events of this nature?

GG: A lot of planning and detail goes into all beverage aspects of these large scale conferences or Food & Wine weeks.

JW brand hosted a gathering which started out as an actual Food & Wine event in Venice, Italy. I was responsible for creating all of the beverage experiences. When planning for events like this, it’s really about looking for engaging activities that make sense in the area that you’re in.

In Italy and in Venice specifically, it was all about the spritz. We did a lot of activations and education revolved around spritzes and aperitivos. With the popularity of Aperol Spritz in the US, this all fell together at the perfect time.I’ve also hosted several seminars, most recently at the Cayman Cookout. Locality played into the planning of this, and I decided to take my skill set and put a tropical spin on it. I had the pleasure of hosting the seminar alongside one of my mentors in the industry, Bridget Albert.

We showcased our seminar together on stage discussing tropical cocktails and fun riffs of classic cocktails to enjoy on the beach while also demonstrating how to craft them at home.

To summarize, it’s all about the locale and how you can use the setting to make these events fun and interesting while also incorporating some level of education. People are coming to events like these not just the food and wine, but for the experience. Guests come to Aspen knowing they will be in the mountains, naturally they are looking for a rooftop view experience. Same thing when they go to the Cayman Islands, they want to be on the beach sipping on a tropical blue drink.

When it comes to food and wine style events, we show demos that teach people how to drink elegantly. On the other side, Tales of the Cocktail is a little grittier so to speak. It’s an event made up of beverage professionals, mostly bartenders, but you know everyone attending the conference, from an aspiring bartender to a brand lead to VP of Bacardi or Hennessy, events like Tales are great because you get to connect with the actual people working on the front lines. It’s a great stage for us to highlight the people behind our bars and restaurants, giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills.

As a young bartender I remember going to the Tales of the Cocktail and being enamored seeing someone behind that bar, they must have done something right to be representing this brand on the largest scale for the cocktail industry, I wanted that for our people. It’s about highlighting Marriott and what Marriott’s doing in beverage. It’s really inspiring to the people that are selling our partner products at the hotels.

2019 Venice Italy Food and Wine hosted by JW Marriott Hotels at the JW Marriott Venice

2019 Venice Italy Food and Wine hosted by JW Marriott Hotels at the JW Marriott Venice

MA: What do you and your team look for when tasting and identifying liquor, wine, and beer selections when developing a program?

GG: Well, a few things. I would say marketability. It’s not like we take our own taste into account because if we did there would only be bourbon and whiskey on all programs. It’s important to put yourself into multiple personas of those who walk in your door.

For example, I always think about my sister-in-law walking into a bar because she’s one of the most basic drinkers I know which represents a segment of consumers vs always defaulting to an experienced palate.

We look for balance when it comes to what goes into the programs. There’s DEI information that we look at as well. If it doesn’t taste good you know that’s probably the first checkpoint, but the taste is the bare minimum (gets you to the table). There could be 1,000 products behind a bar that taste great but if you can’t get them off the back shelf into someone’s hands it just sits there, you lose the marketability of it and that does no one a favor.

One thing that’s very important when playing the different personas of your customers is perception of value. The aficionados are going to pay a higher price for a curated allocated product such as a sought out 12 year old Kentucky bourbon while others would be less inclined to pay more for these higher marks. However, they would pay a lower price for a great bourbon that’s 4 years old and 100 proof. We still need products like these in our program.

That goes into a lot of decision making and partnerships. We have great partners that are active in moving the needle on their side. We know if we have a great partner, we have great market penetration.

Sometimes we take a chance with a new partner and mentor them, helping them find creative ways to make their brand pop and ultimately keep it in the program rather than just give it two years and say goodbye. That’s how the little fish get discovered.

MA: I think you’ve already mentioned at least 50 achievements you’ve had throughout your career, but what are some challenges that you have experienced throughout your career? What has been your most meaningful accomplishment so far, besides landing this interview of course.

GG: Besides landing this and being here right now, this is a great question, but a really difficult one to answer. I mean the accomplishment of getting picked up for a job like this and being where I am in the middle of my career right now. The fact that I was even considered for the position gave me butterflies. I received a random e-mail from an executive at Marriott in DC saying, “Hey, we’ve heard of you and think that you’ll be great for this job.” So, I would say accomplishing something new like this, as vague as that sounds, has been a pretty big chapter in my life.

“Marriott holds taste panels which are typically a showcase of what culinary was working on to a board of directors and top level executives. They have since added beverage over the years, and in October, we were asked to do a beverage focused taste panel. Gary was presenting, and we had our Senior VP of Food and Beverage, the VP of Restaurants and Bars, our team. So, the three of them sat for an hour and a half while Gary presented all of the work that he’s doing. He had them taste some things. It ended up being such an engaging conversation where it wasn’t just Gary presenting, they’re asking questions like they want to know more and more and more. It ended with Gary and the President and CEO of Marriott International having a closed door behind a glass wall conversation which doesn’t happen often, but this person is just so impressed with what Gary’s doing.” said Heather Baker, Director of  Accounts, IMI Agency. “Additional projects have come out of that just because he’s seeing what Gary is doing in Beverage for this organization and he wants everyone to see it. He’s like, how do we make this more guest facing? How do we pull this into other pieces of our business? I mean, that’s a massive accomplishment.

2018 Marriott International HQ Innovation labs Summit

MA: You seem to be unafraid of failure, do you think that is why you’re able to dive headfirst into these things with such an open mind?

GG: I don’t mind trying things out and if they don’t work out, let’s try it again and make it better or let’s go a different direction. I would say that I don’t have a fear and Matthew Von Ertfelda (MVE) has been our Global Senior VP food & beverage for over 8 years now. Early on he taught us to never be afraid of failure, and that is something that I took to heart. It gave me the confidence to try and step out knowing that the people above me won’t be like whoa that didn’t work out and get rid of you for it. I would say that it is a really big attribute that I do keep in the back of my head when I look at stuff and think let’s try it out for sure.

MA: Looking into your crystal ball, what do you predict this summer’s go-to cocktail will be?

GG: I feel like last summer it was the Aperol spritz. This summer it’ll probably be something Agave based because tequila is going crazy. Agave in general, so mezcal and tequila. I do think light and refreshing is still the way to go, but when we cross over to spirit forward bourbon owns that. You’re probably going to see that on every menu beyond the Margarita because the Margarita still is #1 selling cocktail in the world. A drink that we step and repeat a lot is a Papaya Mango Paloma. It is mostly grapefruit, but it has just a little bit of that nuance of tropical flavors that really make it refreshing.

2017 Marriott Global Beverage Partners Conference

MA: Forecasting for 2024, what was your key take away from 2023 as far as the beverage landscape goes?

GG: We look at the data showing sales, depletions, what’s spiking, what’s not, and what flavors are really popping in 2023.

For the first time ever, we now have well mezcal spec in our select brand segments. Four years ago, some people probably would have been like “what’s mezcal?” So, you definitely see that that bleeding through. Now when you go into a Courtyard you can order a mezcal Margarita, which is pretty telling.

MA: Marriott is IMI Agency’s oldest client, based on your experience since joining the Marriott team, how has IMI helped Marriott Build Better Beverage Business?

GG: I want to thank the IMI team for all their hard work. If we didn’t have the expertise over at IMI, especially Heather, I don’t know how we would get it done, it really would be that gruesome. We wouldn’t have an innovative program I can tell you that right now.

Having their expertise to pull in all these different points of data from all over the place is invaluable. I mean you’re talking about pulling from this distribution from our own internal teams, systems, other stakeholders putting that all in one place for us to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions, it’s invaluable.

2017 Marriott International Global Operators Conference

MA: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?

GG: One thing I didn’t touch on is the opportunities that I get because of my career. For the past 8 years, I’ve had the opportunity to go to San Francisco every year to judge the top spirits in the in the world for the San Francisco Spirits awards.

I’ve learned a lot from my time on that committee being with those judges. They fly the top people from all over the world and there are only so few of us. I think it’s a really cool thing to talk about and touch on what they’ve done for me and my career working on my muscle which is my palate. We taste over 4,000 spirits a year, it’s pretty amazing.

Follow Gary Gruver on Instagram at @GaryGruver!