Helen McGinn Interviews Anna Sebastian

Helen McGinn is an author, drinks writer and presenter. After spending a decade as a supermarket wine buyer, she founded wine blog The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club, now a best-selling wine book. She co-chairs the International Wine Challenge, is the drinks writer for the Daily Mail’s Femail Magazine and regularly appears on television as a wine expert on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen and ITV’s This Morning. Helen’s first two fiction novels were published earlier this year and she’s currently working on her third.  

Anna Sebastian is the Head of Brand at Served Drinks, a hard seltzer owned by singer/songwriter Ellie Goulding.  She spent over a decade working in the hotel industry including the re-opening of the Savoy in 2010 and more recently managing the Artesian Bar at The Langham.  Anna is a team leader for the non-profit organisation Under One Sky, launching an emergency appeal in lockdown to help the homeless.  

What challenges have you faced to get where you are in the industry?  

I think the two biggest challenges in this industry have been, firstly, how unsustainable hospitality is when it comes to having a healthy work/life balance.  For so long it’s been accepted that working a 70-hour week is a good thing, often even glorified. Luckily, things are changing. More companies are putting measures in place to improve the situation but it’s down to all of us to help push for change. 

The other challenge is that as a woman I feel I’ve always had to fight that little bit harder than my male co-workers. I’ve been paid that little bit less and always had to speak a little louder to be heard. Whilst there have been a lot of positive changes in recent years, there’s still a way to go. I often found myself being labelled as emotional when I spoke out, whereas my male colleagues were labelled as opinionated. Whilst frustrating, it’s our collective responsibility to continue to speak out, question and challenge to make a difference. 

How has Covid affected your job/business? 

I was on furlough for the best part of the year. As with so many in our industry, furlough was based on our base salary without service charge, so I had to adapt quickly to make things work financially. I grabbed the opportunity to work with Under One Sky and also hustled like crazy to get my freelance work off the ground.  I emailed every database I had, contacted every journalist I knew, connected with people on Instagram and was constantly looking for new opportunities. I helped small brands with strategy and did lots of wine and spirit tastings, sitting up until 5am packing boxes some days. I learnt a lot, especially about courier companies and deliveries! But most importantly I learnt that to get things done, any ego or shame needs to be left at the door. 

Anna is a team leader for the non-profit organisation Under One Sky, launching an emergency appeal in lockdown to help the homeless

Did it affect your wellbeing? 

Honestly, I had a great 2020. It changed my life in a really positive way. I had such a unique lockdown, being out on the streets helping the homeless and forming a new family with the other volunteers was amazing.  This year has been much tougher; I found myself questioning my purpose in life, who I was. One of the biggest factors behind this having to go through the redundancy process. I felt that I’d failed. I presented so many options and fought to save our team as much as I could but unfortunately it was just the way it was. It’s a brutal process to go through alone as a leader, especially when you’re all so close as a team.  

What are your ambitions?  

Making a difference to how we create our experiences for our colleagues when they come to work. We talk a lot about the guest experience but very little about what we can do for our colleagues to help them shape their personal and professional lives. And I want to keep creating exciting activations with Served and like-minded people, brands and venues. The category is incredibly exciting – and it’s only just the beginning! 

Is there anything you’d do differently if you could do it again?  

I would perhaps be less hot headed in some situations; I react very quickly which isn’t always the best or most effective way to get my point across, especially in the heat of the moment. I would also remind myself it’s much better to work towards a purpose or a mission than attach yourself to a place. It’s the only way to be truly happy with what you do. 

What kind of people do you look for when it comes to your business?  

You want people to become your tribe, aligned with you and your business. People that are kind and compassionate, people with integrity who’ll do the right thing when no one is looking. I also want people that will always challenge and seek for a better tomorrow.   

“I had to adapt quickly to make things work financially.

 I grabbed the opportunity to work with Under One Sky and also hustled like crazy to get my freelance work off the ground.”

How do you work with customers to help achieve success?  

Firstly, it’s about the positive impact you can have on someone. To do this, you need to find out what they value the most, what’s important to them. Once you know, it’s easy to align your actions and make a genuine impact on them and their experience in dealing with you. This can be in a bar, hotel, or restaurant, or in sales, marketing, PR - wherever.  A lot of the time you’re not selling a product or a service. You’re selling a feeling, a status, an emotion.   

What’s your biggest takeaway from the last 18 months?  

Arrogantly I thought I knew all about hospitality, however through my volunteering work during lockdown I realised it’s much harder to give hospitality when things are stripped back. When you’re surrounded by beautiful decor, support systems and a nice warm environment, it’s far easier. Sitting on a cold street making tea with people that are vulnerable is much harder: reading what people want in a potentially volatile situation, dealing with the rain, snow, heatwaves…that’s when you realise the only tool you have is yourself so what you do counts more than ever. Ultimately, you are what makes hospitality what it is, not where you are or what you have. 

Favourite cocktail?  

Margarita or Vodka Martini, super dry with no garnish. 

Favourite bar?  

So many! Blue Bar at The Berkeley, Artesian, El Camion and my local pub in southwest London. 

Desert Island meal including drinks?   

Buffalo Chicken wings and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1996. Having said that one of my favourite meals ever was sitting on a beach in Goa eating fish we’d just caught, cooked in garlic butter and chilli and washed down with Kingfisher beer in that hazy golden hour light. 

“You want people to become your tribe, aligned with you and your business. People that are kind and compassionate, people with integrity who’ll do the right thing when no one is looking.”