Remember that scene in the movie Lost in Translation, 52 floors above Tokyo at the now-famous Park Hyatt Hotel? Have you ever enjoyed a Singapore Sling in the majestic Raffles Hotel bar in Singapore? Or followed in Hemmingway’s footsteps and enjoyed a drink at The Ritz in Paris? Some hotel bars have achieved legendary status—literary, cinematic and otherwise—becoming destinations in their own right.
Yet all too many hotel bars remain empty and sometimes sleepy, as they were strictly designed as an amenity for hotel guests. We’ve all seen examples of these bars: places where the drinks are weak and so are the crowds. While the former stigma about hotel bars has gradually worn off, many hotels still suffer from slow bar traffic and others count on the bar crowd for revenue. Innovative hotel companies like Kimpton Hotels, Renaissance Resorts and hip boutiques like the hot, new Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Berkeley, Calif—some of which I consult with—are reshaping hotel bars and turning them into haute spots.
Scene and Be Seen
While the debonair hotel bars of the 1930s and 1940s might be a thing of the past, new hotels with unique bars attract locals and hotel guests alike. A destination bar can increase revenue for both the hotel and restaurant. Just imagine how many tourists go to the Raffles Hotel every year to try one of their famous Singapore Slings. The drink, the destination and the story behind it are one of the quintessential experiences of Singapore. The appeal lies in far more than just the tropical garden setting. If your bars strive to launch a signature drink that can make history, they too might become iconic destinations. But we’re not saying this is easy!
Contemporary hotel bars can build prestige by catering to locals as well as their guests. Choose operating hours and fine tune the menu to reflect the needs and desires of the locals. For example, if your hotel is located in a downtown area, create a happy hour to encourage professionals to stop in and make it their hangout.
Or find a niche and go after it. The Hotel Solamar in the historical Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego—a thriving military, college and generally young city—is a great example of a boutique hotel that created a destination bar. The Solamar Terrace on the rooftop pool deck is packed day and night with locals, partiers and hotel guests. The dramatic setting includes a central pool, private cabanas, fire pits, the “Sun, Sea and Moon” Roof Deck and LOUNGEsix, a bar serving up cocktails and food draw in the crowds.
In San Francisco, the posh bar at the Fifth Floor in the Hotel Palomar, with its clubby lounge décor and friendly service, makes you feel like you’re at a cocktail party in someone’s home. The bar introduced a custom-designed tableside Martini cart, which has earned its own fan club. Guests come in simply to enjoy the space and discover new versions of old cocktails. With a new cocktail menu by Kimpton mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout and a specially designed bar menu by chef Jennie Lorenzo, the sales have soared with a 16 percent increase in alcohol sales in the last year. Across town at the Grand Cafe at Hotel Monaco, the bar is also a destination unto itself. A separate bar menu features Parisian delights, such as a new make–your-own Flammenkuche, a French-style pizza. Locals, theater-goers, guests and people out and about downtown all appreciate the fun menu, the dramatic setting and the boisterous atmosphere.
In general, guests are attracted to the casual and comfortable design and the hip, young, urban vibe these bars project. Even those who aren’t staying at the hotels are curious to come in for a peek, stay for a cocktail and recommend the hotels to future visitors.
Even if your hotels can’t afford or accommodate dramatic designs or don’t have a storied history, your bars can still cultivate local flavor by offering unique style and services. Developing a separate identity for the bar is a must and the first step in the right direction. Here are a few tips that may help to do this:
Choose a name for the bar that is independent from the name of the hotel. Giving your bar its own name also gives it a distinct identity. Do away with branded hotel uniforms or nametags. It can make the bar look corporate and uninspired, like an extension of the hotel rather than a bar in its own right.
If the bar can designate its own street entrance this is extremely helpful. The entrance for the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco is downhill and around the corner from the grand hotel entrance. You’d never know the famous tiki bar was in one of the city’s most elegant hotels. With its own identity it has become an independent destination for locals and visitors alike.
Find yourself a great bartender with a big personality and a bigger following. Consider bringing in a consulting mixologist to help create unique, concept-driven cocktails. Attract local interest by hiring a locally respected mixologist to create a unique cocktail menu. When the historic Westin St. Francis in San Francisco wanted to open a new bar in their lobby, they turned to Marco Dionysos, one of the city’s seminal mixologists, to design their beverage menu. By bringing in local talent, you’ll also bring in their fans and followers—and revenue.
Selling Your Story
Create a separate marketing plan for your bar and fill it with events and promotions that will appeal to locals first. Get the buzz going and then the hotel guests will come. Not only will local revenue be a more consistent source of profits, but the lively, consistent vibe the locals provide will attract the visitors.
Design and implement promotions that capitalize on the unique attributes of your location. Are you located near an art school or a college campus? If so, you can consider events that bring in local artists and celebrate their talents or host events for the professors. Partner with local charities to raise money, host their events and support their cause.
Consider theme nights, happy hours (where legal), musical guests, flight programs and seasonal cocktail offerings to keep your bars hopping. The Aterra Lounge in the Del Mar Marriott in San Diego hosts “Entice” Sunday pool parties, capitalizing on the beautiful year-round weather and providing locals a place to cool down. The popularity of the place keeps their business popping.
Bar Pleaidas at The Surrey Hotel in New York made waves when it opened with dramatic stylized décor, a celebrity chef-driven menu under the realm of Café Boulud and the renowned mixologist, Cameron Bogue, overseeing the beverage program. They then added an extremely creative in-room cocktail cart with room service offerings. Guests drawn to these hot bars will surely be drawn to the hotels that house them and the added perks of taking the elevators upstairs after a night of cocktailing in style.
As was true in the classy days of the past, savvy guests seek the convenience and perks of staying in a hotel that has a happening bar and restaurant, bustling with energy, people and events. Think of the bar as a freestanding business with the luxury of 400 rooms attached to it. Of course, the hotel guests should always receive VIP treatment.