Las Vegas icon and pioneering Bartenders’ Guild president Kristen Schaefer makes a career out of cocktails and charisma.

By Xania V. Woodman

Growing up in a military family is not a prerequisite for leading the Las Vegas chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild to its largest membership year on record. Still, says chapter president and self-proclaimed military brat Kristen Schaefer, it helps.

“Both of my parents were extraordinary leaders,” she says. “They always told me, ‘Be the leader who always gets down and does the pushups with your troops — no matter what.’ Never think that you’re above them. That’s how I approach this.”

That attitude that has carried Schaefer, 33, through her two-year term as president, and now, as winter’s elections draw near, she’s compelled to look at what has made her tenure unique among those since the chapter was founded in 2001, besides the fact she was its first female chief.

Today, nearly 450 Las Vegans rely on the Guild for spirits education, professional enrichment and industry networking. Members are beverage professionals ranging from bartenders and beverage managers to suppliers and brand ambassadors like Schaefer, who is a representative for Absolut Elyx in Las Vegas. A single week of activity might include an in-depth category tasting of luxury cognac, a brand immersion with an exciting new vodka, a new-member mixer and fundraiser for a charitable cause, bartending technique class, making wine as group at Grape Expectations and — because Vegas — a pool party. No two weeks are ever the same.

Such education and mentorship create a better and more consistent guest experience at bars and restaurants through the city. A member since 2009, Schaefer has benefitted from the organization’s stewardship along the way as she worked her way up from lead bartender at Rhumbar in The Mirage to general manager of three bars in the Cosmopolitan when it opened in 2010.

When Schaefer took the chapter reins in January 2015, the group comprised 251 members. Thanks to a laser-focus on growth that included the appointment of social media and recruitment chairs, membership swelled to 436 by year’s end, eclipsing New York City and making Las Vegas the largest chapter within the national organization that began in California in 1948 as an offshoot of the International Bartenders Association.

But this is no math problem for Schaefer.

“The numbers don’t really matter of the people aren’t engaged,” she says. “I wanted to be the largest chapter that’s actually active; that was my main goal.”

Attendance at events continue to be the envy of other chapters as engagement and visibility are at an all-time high. Other goals Schaefer met during her term have included the creation of a monthly membership roundtable; a yearlong charitable initiative to support the Shade Tree women’s shelter; chapter website launch; and, soon, a partnership with rideshare app Uber to encourage responsible drinking among the members. In September, the Las Vegas chapter will celebrate its 15th anniversary with the reveal of a new logo, and the installment of a time capsule at a local restaurant that won’t be opened again until 2032, when USBGLV turns 30.

While she is honored to be the chapter’s first female president (she also served two years as secretary from 2013-14), and will soon preside over officer elections at the same time as the U.S. considers its first female nominee for president, Schaefer doesn’t linger on that detail.

“I’m just trying to be the best president I can be for our chapter — whether I’m female or not,” she says. In a city where hiring notices for bartenders routinely exclude men in favor of female “model/bartenders,” Schaefer vies to keep the focus on the work done, not the gender of the person who did it. In her time, Schaefers has seen barbacks become bartenders, bartenders promoted to property mixologists and sales reps step into entrepreneurship.

Schaefer adds some practical advice for her successor. “This is going to take a little bit more work that you probably imagined,” she says. “But when you think that you are at your wit’s end, and you want to scream, think about all of the people you’re helping. Think about the community you’re building. Think about why you ran for president in the first place. Pick one member in your mind, the one who walked up to you one random day and said, ‘Thank you for doing this’ — that’s what should drive you. At the end of the day, if you can change one bartender’s life by doing this, then it was all worth it.” >

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