Q&A with USBG Executive Director Aaron Gregory Smith

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Aaron Gregory Smith, CAE, Executive Director of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), has worked in the service industry since the age of 18, starting with a graveyard shift position at his local coffee shop.

He has come a long way since then, especially in the ranks of the USBG, where he started as Vice President of the San Francisco Chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild starting in 2009. During his tenure, the chapter experienced a notable period of growth and productivity, which inclined then National Vice President David Nepove to ask him to join the organization at the National level.

In August 2010, Smith was elected National Vice President of the Guild, and he eventually stepped into the Treasurer position to assist the USBG in developing structural improvements to support its substantial growth. In September of 2013, the USBG announced its first-ever Executive Director and Aaron accepted the interim post while the Board of Directors interviewed a qualified candidate pool. Smith was formally offered the Executive Director position in November of that year.

Most recently, Smith earned the prestigious Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential from the American Society of Association Executives. The CAE is the highest professional credential in the association industry and is held by a small percentage of executives of nearly 100,000 registered associations in the United States.

To be designated as a Certified Association Executive, an applicant must have experience with nonprofit organization management, complete a minimum of 100 hours of specialized professional development, pass a stringent examination in association management, and pledge to uphold a code of ethics. To maintain the certification, individuals must undertake ongoing professional development and activities in association and nonprofit management.

Bar & Restaurant News recently chatted with Smith about the certification, the USBG, and the industry in general.


Bar & Restaurant: What does it mean for you to earn the Certified Association Executive credential? How will this help you in your role at the USBG?

Aaron Gregory Smith (AGS): Professional development is an important part of any association’s role in an industry, and the USBG is no different. I have been participating in professional development activities for association executives for a few years now, always with an eye to adapting association best practices to our hospitality industry in a way that is both beneficial and authentic. This credential signals to me, and to the outside business world, that the knowledge and capabilities I’ve acquired over the past 10 years in this role will be guiding the organization as we lead the charge towards a fresh view of bartending as a profession.

Additionally, this credentialing exercise has inspired my search to explore the bartending and bar management credentials available to professionals in our industry. Where there are gaps, the USBG intends to find and develop the programs that bartenders need to thrive professionally.


In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing bartenders today?

While customer behavior has changed significantly over the past several years, the big challenges for bartenders remain stubbornly the same as they have been:

  • A lack of quality leadership and management development through the workplace.
  • The dependable schedules and employment benefits that have become necessary for a thriving career in just about every sector of the economy outside of bars and restaurants.


Any advice for today’s bartenders?

usbg aaron gregory smith
(Photo: Valter Fabiano)

One of the best pieces of advice I received is from a former boss and mentor, chef Loretta Keller. I’m one of those people who finds it easy to get into “go mode” and power through a project or a task. She reminded me that even when I’m focusing on something important, I’m still making an impact on the people around me, so even when deeply focused on a project, to remember that the people working around me are an important part of the solution. It’s good advice I’d like to share; especially since as bartenders we work as teams.

Also, this job is fun, so don’t forget to look up and enjoy yourself with the people around you. Take the work seriously without taking yourself too seriously.


Why should bartenders/bar staff consider becoming USBG members? What are some of the biggest benefits?

One of the most tangible benefits is our Hospitality Assistance Program. This program is brought to bartending members through a partnership with Women of the Vine and Spirits and supported with a generous grant from Tito’s Handmade Vodka. The program offers mental health, financial and legal aid to those members who opt-in to enroll. It is a unique program for the bartending world, which is notorious for not having benefits. In other industries this set of services is offered by many medium and large employers, which, when offered through an employer, is called an employee assistance program.

The intangible benefit of building a community of peers has guided countless bartenders into meaningful careers. Members of the Guild learn how to navigate bartending with a professional mindset, connect with potential mentors and apprentices, and enjoy the opportunity to develop those leadership skills that are often overlooked or undervalued in the busy hospitality workplace.


Can you tell us more about the USBG’s 75th Diamond Jubilee?

We are so thrilled to celebrate this milestone of the USBG. Lasting 75 years with the vast majority of that time being 100% volunteer managed is an exceptional accomplishment. We are bringing together great presenters across advanced bartending, leadership, social responsibility, and industry innovations. We have outstanding partners who support our programs year round who have come together to support our mission and our members’ passion for thriving careers.

Our unofficial historian and former president Livio Lauro was commissioned to write a joyful account of our organization’s first 50 years titled Liquid Legacy. The book will go on presale at the 75th. We’ve also been working with a documentary film crew to document the growth and change of our organization over the past 25 years as the USBG grew from a single chapter in southern California to more than 40 chapters nationwide. We’ll be premiering the documentary on the opening night of the conference.


What’s next for you in your role as Executive Director at USBG?

We are currently upgrading several of our technological systems that were put on hold for the past few years. Once we’ve completed that transformation, our focus shifts to intentional workforce development through strategic partnerships and launching into legislative advocacy to help solve some of the more intractable industry challenges that face bartenders in the workplace.


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