To hear Don Stanczak tell it, what breeds success in such a far-flung empire as the Interstate Hotel group is partnerships: with suppliers, with promotional firms and with employees.
Stanczak, vice president of food and beverage for the 130-plus unit Interstate hotel management company, which includes operations from Hawaii to Moscow, West Virginia and Manhattan, says the group may have de-emphasized their bar and restaurant performance over the years, but that those days are over.
“We’ve been guilty of neglecting our bars in the past, but we’ve realized what we have here and are improving things all the time,” he says. The halo effect from the popularity of the stylish hotel bars in the burgeoning W chain and the various bars created by Rande Gerber for boutique hotels have given Interstate a chance to raise the lodging bar itself.
With few dedicated theme-style bars and restaurants in the company’s portfolio, concepts change from unit to unit. In some cases, Interstate goes outside for help; the NY-based Myriad Group of Drew Neiporent and Michael Bonadies has come up with about eight bar/restaurant projects for Interstate.
Recent innovations that have enhanced the profile of the Pittsburgh-based hotel group’s beverage programs include increased supplier-backed promotions, colorful cocktail menus and a greater emphasis on better quality bar food. To come will be a greater focus on training, especially at the bartender level.
DOWN TO THE CORE
It’s initiatives like these that helped Interstate win the Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence in the hotel category last year.
One of the largest independent hotel management companies in the United States, Interstate now operates approximately 135 hotels with more than 27,000 rooms in 38 states in the U.S., as well as Canada, the Caribbean and Russia.
Even though Interstate runs a diversified portfolio of hotels including multiple major brands as well as independent properties, the challenge in creating beverage lists and programs doesn’t lie in maintaining various hotel concept standards, but rather making sure food and beverage operations work in various regions and markets, says Stanczak.
“In our major market hotels in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the hotel bar business is resurging and the bars need to match that. In smaller markets like Memphis or Charlotte, the standards may be different.”
Interstate sticks to a core spirit, wine and beer list that changes based on whether the hotels are part of the Interstate unit, which primarily operates luxury and upscale hotels, or the Crossroads unit, which primarily operates mid-scale, upper economy and budget hotels, and what are called limited service operations.
At the Interstate line, for instance, Beefeater is the well gin, Dewar’s the well Scotch and Hennessy VS the well brandy; their counterparts at Crossroads units will be Kamchatka or Gilbey’s gin, Claymore Scotch and Korbel brandy.
Price point is more of an issue in the smaller market or budget-minded Crossroads units, like a Holiday Inn in Beckley, West Virginia, Stanczak says. But he sees little pressure at the Interstate units for prices to come down or for ultra-premium brands to retreat from the gains achieved in the 1990s.
He says hotels have probably been better protected from the recession than chain restaurants. “My opinion is that if you walk into a hotel bar and did a survey of 20 guests, 18 of them wouldn’t know what their drink costs and wouldn’t care.”
However, he has seen some slack in wine sales by the bottle, and after-dinner drinks may have slowed somewhat.
Making the core lists to satisfy a worldwide clientele isn’t difficult, says Stanczak, but does involve making sure that trends are addressed. The 20 vodkas on the core Interstate list, for instance, are considerably more than five years ago, and should provide enough options for even the fussiest drinker.
What’s important to Stanczak and Interstate is the willingness of suppliers to work with Interstate on a variety of promotions and marketing efforts, he says. “Many of the brands are on the core list due to what the suppliers do who work with us over the years.”
Interstate works closely with Houston-based Patrick Henry Creative Promotions (PHCP) on both marketing and training issues. Recently, the two teamed up to create two new menus: “Cocktails,” an open-ended menu meant for a variety of properties; and “Libations and Concoctions,” for the four upscale Regatta Bar & Grill nautical-themed restaurants. (The Regatta concept is what Stanczak calls “our Houston’s.”)
As part of their own partnership-seeking methods, PHCP brought in Rémy Amérique to create signature cocktails as well as promote and sell its Mount Gay-branded clothing and accessories on the back page of the Regatta B&G menu. It’s a fitting team-up, as Mount Gay marketers have long associated the brand with sailors and yachters.
The Regatta menu also incorporates 17 wines by the glass, and offers such upscale fare (especially for hotels outside of major markets) as seared Ahi tuna cocktails with seaweed salad and wasabi soy dipping sauce. “We don’t want to be cutting edge when it comes to bar food, but we must be competitive with current styles.”
The four Regatta Bar & Grills also benefit from little touches PHCP helped create, like providing guests with complimentary postage-paid postcards with nautical themes.
Promotions are not limited to the Regatta concept. Other PHCP/Interstate efforts last year included “Jewel of the Sun” cocktail program, bringing together Allied Domecq, Guinness/UDV, Bacardi and Skyy Spirits to help increase sales and atmosphere within Interstate restaurants and poolside operations.
The “Jewel” menu promoted special drinks the Emerald Sun, made with peach schnapps, Malibu rum, Midori and pineapple juice; the Sapphire Lemonade made with Skyy Citrus vodka, Hiram Walker blue cura