Hotels & Resorts have always faced the challenge of targeting the needs of a hotel guest for a place to relax at the end of a long business or travel day – and yet still be able to pull non-hotel guests into their bar/restaurant venues.
It’s Not a Restaurant/Bar Strategy Any Longer – Its Bar/Restaurant?
There are plenty of success stories in the Hotel/Resort F&B world where world class destination restaurants and or high volume active lounge venues are pulling the majority of their customers out of local non hotel guest markets. There are operators who execute those business venues/models very effectively – such as Sbe, Noble House, Kimpton, Sage and others. But the vast majority of hotels and resorts are missing the business wave which comes when your bar is a living room bar.
I regularly tour the country doing Assessments at Hotel / Resorts. This gets me deep into the local property numbers and parked in F&B Venues in observation mode during key bar business windows. A recent visit to a property that shall remain nameless yielded an all too familiar experience. The lobby bar was adjacent to a concept restaurant being managed by the hotel. The restaurant had an identity, but the bar did not. Through an entire evening the restaurant remained almost empty in spite of a focused amenity marketing program. But the bar was full of folks eating and drinking. The food numbers were pretty good, likely masking results since the bar was part of the restaurant. This hotel had a great living room bar. And the hotel guests were choosing not to go sit down and have dinner, but rather to hang in the bar, watch TV, get some work done and eat and drink over an extended period.
For a restaurant operator the check times would seem brutally long. Table turns not being tracked would be blasphemy. No reservation process, just walk in and find a place to hang – is a precursor to anarchy. And even the menu for a celebrity chef, would look like a disaster. In this case the F&B director was focusing almost entirely on how to get the restaurant going? But my advice was not to work in that direction. Destination restaurants are simply one of many in most markets. Unless you can firmly detach the restaurant venue from the hotel – you are fighting against preconceived notions that are hard to change. Yes a lot of money was spent to build the concept. Yes you have to have a restaurant concept to offer hotel guests breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Yes you need to serve quality food. But the bottom line is when it comes to be 5pm, the bird in hand – the living room bar – is proving to be a winner both with hotel and non hotel guests. What those that recognize the trend are doing is to look at their F&B operation as a bar/restaurant – not a restaurant/bar. To recognize that the experience your guests want, is what you deliver in your bar, not what you deliver in your restaurant.
What Does The Hotel Guest Want?
It’s pretty easy to recognize the needs of a hotel guest. After a long business or travel day – hotel guests walk into the lobby, and hopefully there it is in plain view – a living room bar. They make their decision right then and there – am I coming back down to hang, get some work done and enjoy some food and cocktails? Or am I going to go out for dinner and or just stay in the room. Oftentimes that guest is part of a group. The same decision is made to gather back down in the bar to connect and relax or not. And it has nothing to do with how busy it is at that moment. Is your bar going to be a place I can comfortably set up and work or huddle with friends and associates? Is your bar a place where I will feel pressure to have my dinner experience or is it a place I can just hang for a few hours. Am I going to feel okay being alone? Are their TV’s to watch and community tables or a comfortable bar where I can park and eat bar bites and share a conversation without feeling stupid or under pressure. And a Living Room bar does not mean living room furniture. Big comfy couches and long coffee tables are not inviting – they are discouraging. No one is going to sit on a couch by themselves or setup a laptop on a coffee table leaning over to try and work. Yes a few couch huddle spots sprinkled around the bar are okay but it needs to be community tables and or high cocktail tables with stools that allow me to sit up and work, eat, or just watch TV. But also allow large groups to gather (Some sitting some standing) and have a place to drop drinks and bar bites orders while hanging with my crew.
So you got me. I run up to the room, drop my stuff, freshen up and head down for the bar. And then the next moment of truth comes. I grab a spot to park and if there is no such place I go back to the room or perhaps give up and go sit down in the restaurant for dinner. I sometimes wonder in my observation sessions how many of the restaurant guests would rather have eaten in the bar – when I see there are no good park spots left in the bar? So you have to have lots of park options. Even a crowded bar if the furniture strategy is right will seem to have room for one more and the crowd just extends into the lobby seating area if it gets that busy – how is that bad for business?
So I find my spot at the bar or at a community table or a small cocktail table or even edge counter area and then the next moment of truth….
Someone connects with me within 30 seconds
Consider any guests who parks anywhere in your bar as no different then someone who sat down at the bar. When a guest sits down at the bar, great bartenders are greeting them and offering to get them a beverage or menu within 30 seconds. Your bar servers are mobile bartenders. Working their area no differently then a bartender works the bar, connecting and continuing to connect so I feel welcome. You have to set up your service strategy to support that experience. Servers stay in their areas. Use Food runners to bring the food if you can. Your service well has to rock in terms of filling orders. Servers can’t get stacked up waiting for their drink orders.
And if the service staffing level does not match the ordering volume, I’m okay getting up and walking up to the bar to order something, it’s a bar (that’s not something I can do in the restaurant). But I don’t want to have to work my way through a crowd and then have to lean over someone sitting at the bar, to order a drink at the bar. You have to have a walkup strategy – pull some barstools and create your walkup area. Make it near a bartender station so a bartender making a drink can connect with a guest hoping to order one – and make sure the POS terminal faces the customer side of the bar so the guest is never looking at someone with their back turned while they manage checks in the POS system. The customers will figure out where they need to que up to get a drink, and they will understand that you are busy if you set yourself up properly.
The menu is a bar menu and gives me the options I am looking for
The choice I will make to hang and stay or have a quick one and go, is driven by the menu. The difference is a $15 cover or a $60+ cover. I can’t remember the last time I parked in a living room bar and walked out with less then a $75 check and often it’s over $100. So what am I looking for? Small bites. The last thing I want to do is order a hamburger with a big pile of French fries. That’s all I can eat and when it comes I have to stop what I am doing – work or watching TV, and focus in on finishing my dinner. And then what – go back to the room? Give me lots of interesting small bite choices. Gourmet appetizers with small portions. And Salad is not an appetizer – it’s a dinner. Salad is not sharable when my associates or friends show up. Yes truffle fries are a small bite, as are meatballs, bruschetta, a fried and grilled calamari, shrimp, grilled asparagus, and tiny flatbreads. It does not need to just be cheeseballs and sliders. And two small sliders is better then a three large slider plate. The chef and other influencing forces will want to make great dinner plates, you have to force them look at everything on the menu as an appetizer serving. You can still have the dinner menu and offer it upon request, but the primary option you are selling is bar bites.
Look at your beverage menu. Do you have wine by the glass and cocktail ladders? When everything on the cocktail list is $12 it feels like McDonalds. The ladders have to start at reasonable levels so I know my friends and associates have choice. There has to be a red and white wine at $9 or less – even if it’s a non name brand, then walk the customer up through choices in each category in $3+ increments. It’s okay to have a $20 glass of wine as long as you have a few ladder rungs below it that I can also choose from. Price your cocktails based on the liquors which are in it. I understand and expect a Woodford recipe is going to cost more than a Bulleit recipe.
Happy Hour – An Unnecessary Gift
Whenever my visit coincides with a happy hour period, I consider it a lucky bonus. But I don’t time my bar visit based on these promotion periods. Usually when I walk into a hotel bar I’m not even aware of the happy hour program and get introduced to it at the bar. I’m happy for the special price and then unhappy later when it costs more. Or I along with everyone else empties out of the bar at the end of the promotion period – because after all you programmed me into that decision. Successful bars are transitioning to spotlight promotion strategies that put an end to every drink for $6 or bar bites for $6. These are margin destroyer happy hour programs. They position specific high volume, unique food and drink offerings in the venue at super special pricing all the time. It’s about discounting what you want folks to remember you for, come back for and recommend their friends come and try. It’s a $7 prime rib sandwich, a $4 plum tomato bruschetta or the $8 Jalapeno Margarita that is the kind of promotion which gets customers sharing their experience and pulling more non hotel guests into the venue. You give me a living room type bar experience and a spotlight item program and you create the kind of amenity I will want to come back for as a hotel guest and you give yourself a shot at the windfall potential of nonhotel guest business volume.
And Guess What – Non Hotel Guests Want the Same Experience
When you set up a great bar/restaurant situation, the magnetic appeal that venue will have with nonhotel guests will deliver increased customer counts if you have an effective digital marketing program. You are not competing for the party crowd or the destination restaurant crowd. When I am home and not traveling on business, I seek out Living Room bar venues, the same venues I enjoy when traveling. It’s too hard to organize a group dinner – with reservations and pressure to all be on time and ordering and getting the dinner over with in the eyes of the server and hostess. I would much rather meet at the Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara where I know we can find a corner somewhere relax and eat a small bite when hungry and have friends come and go as they need to. Celebrity chef restaurants and party bars can’t deliver that experience, but your living room bar can.
So there it is – the secret formula. Create a Living Room Bar experience and watch your hotel guest capture rate and revenues grow exponentially. Then deploy a Digital Marketing Strategy and fill your bar with non hotel guests as well. It’s truly amazing what is possible. Successful hotel F&B operations executing Living Room bar concepts and pulling hotel and non hotel guests into it, are hitting $2+Min F&B revenues out of their living room bar/restaurant.