Sept 22nd, 2017 | By Lou Trope
As the old saying goes, “timing is everything,” and nothing could be truer when planning successful holiday cocktail promotions. If you are putting out your Halloween candy and have not finished your programs for the holidays and New Year’s, the window of opportunity may have already closed. The fall and winter holidays, from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, are great opportunities to drive revenue, attract new customers and get your name out in the social media space. However, it is a very crowded time with everyone pitching similar ideas, so how do you stand out and find success?
Clearly, it all starts with an idea. Although it sounds simple enough, it is far from easy. Hundreds of ideas come up year after year that all fall into the white noise of endless Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts. So the key is to do something so unique that you truly stand out from the pack.
Consider Derek Brown’s complete transformation of his three Washington, D.C. bars in 2016 into The Christmas Bar, serving all theme-inspired, master crafted cocktails. However, it wasn’t as clear-cut as it sounds. The first bar, Mockingbird Hill, was Chrimukkah; the second, Eat the Rich, was Stranger Things (yes, the Netflix series); and the third, Southern Efficiency, was a Christmas Carol all tied together under the auspices of The Christmas Bar. They received an incredible amount of local and national press for this unique and somewhat disruptive idea. This promotion was so successful that he has since followed it up in the spring with a Super Mario/Cherry Blossom pop-up and, most recently, with a “Game of Thrones”-inspired venue. All these ideas were greeted with lines of customers around the block and an avalanche of media hits. So, clearly it is all about the idea, to start.
Now, we all can’t shut down our establishments and invest thousands of dollars to create a pop-up but there are certainly other avenues to explore. However, it is critical to set a plan in place and understand how the PR cycle operates. The simple rule of thumb is to be prepared with all documents at least one quarter ahead of the event. Knowing that the holidays are extremely active periods with multiple operators all pitching at the same space (e.g., Thanksgiving, Black Friday, holiday parties, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Day, and Valentine’s Day), it is extremely important to be fully prepared and differentiated, in order to get noticed. For winter holidays, it would be safe to assume that planning should start in early autumn, or at least four months out.
First and foremost, let’s concentrate on what’s in the glass in relation to the significance of the events that are being targeted. The usual holiday promotions feature Champagne, cider, Bourbon, Martinis or warm cocktails. These are all fine and can have great success, but is that enough?
The challenge is, how do you break away from the pack and create something that is truly unique, interesting and Instagram worthy? This starts with defining your purpose behind the promotion. Are you doing it to check off something on a to-do list that corporate gave you? Trying to drive revenue? Inspire new customers to try your establishment? Reaffirm your concept direction? Show off talent? Just get some media attention? All these are valid reasons. Maybe not the check-off-the-list one, but that’s a story for another time. If a promotion is engaged with passion, skill and to some extent a controlled recklessness, it is possible create something truly memorable.
When developing your ideas, it is imperative to embrace recklessness! Do not be passive about your ideas because, in truth, nobody cares about “easy” or “safe.” If you want to make an impact, you need to be bold and unapologetic about your ideas because that’s where great ideas live.
There are several paths to explore to inspire the creativity. One is by researching the legacy and origin of a place, cocktail or spirit and working that line to build a story. Others are exploring unique seasonal products that are only available for a certain time; curating a long-lost tradition that has special meaning for that time of year; or looking to pop culture for inspiration and connection. Do something completely contradictory and slightly disruptive. Some have had success with absolute indulgence, with thousand-dollar cocktails laced with luxury accouterments. Embrace or invent a luxury or celebratory ritual or experience. Curating a unique service experience that is both temporary and one-of-a-kind and limited can create buzz.
Regardless of the path chosen, there must be an underlying yet visible connection that ties back to your venue, brand, region or concept. If it is just putting something out there for the holidays because it will work for New Year’s Eve, but you cannot bring it back to connect to the essence of your establishment, then it is just a one-shot event for short term revenue but may not contribute to the long term strength and reputation of your brand.
Linking the story to the experience is what will get the public’s attention. As you are developing your drinks, simultaneously you should be crafting the story that articulates the relevance to the event and your venue. Ask hard questions like why anyone would care about this. Are your truly differentiated from your competitors or just doing a different version of the same thing? Can we connect it back to who we are as a concept? The key is to find separation from your competitors and stand out in a crowded market. Your story must be short and concise. Get right to the point and be ready to defend it in writing or in person. If it takes more than seven words to describe it before someone understands what you want to accomplish, you are not there yet. Being articulate and direct with a compelling story is the path to success.
Getting the attention of the right people in the PR world can be a very difficult task. It’s important to build relationships with key publications, bloggers and segment producers throughout the year. Branding and marketing expert Jayne Portnoy of JP Consulting recommends, “Crafting a smart relationship with local editors and segment producers can help take your brand from something they talk about once in a while to being their go-to expert in the field. So it is important to nurture the relationships year round.”
Needless to say, when pitching ideas to editors it is recommended to utilize a PR or marketing professional unless you have built strong personal relationships. Jayne suggests reaching out and finding who is the right editor to contact. Then call ahead to find out what their calendar is like and the process for being pitched. It is also good to know that you are reaching out to the right editor and that their publication is the right choice for your intended target market.
It goes without saying that before you start pitching ideas, the program must be fully vetted and finished. This must include high-resolution professional pictures, not those taken with an iPhone. Be prepared to share recipes that have been tested and are correct and formatted to match the promotion design style. All websites showcasing the promotion must be updated with correct information and ready to receive new customer information. If you will be sharing recipes and other information, your website must be designed to allow downloading of recipes by multiple devices. Unfortunately, these details are sometimes overlooked and can end up causing guest frustration, and having the exact opposite impact than is intended.
Property activation is where the rubber hits the road. Be prepared – if your promotion gets picked up, the first question a blogger or editor will ask is, “Where can we get this?” Above all, it is absolutely necessary that the property operators are fully trained and informed about the promotion. There is nothing worse than a travel writer coming into your establishment after you sold them hard on how great your holiday promotion is, and the bartender has no idea what they are talking about when they ask for it.
Again, it goes back to being fully prepared and having meticulous planning. All operations teams should be fully trained on any holiday promotion prior to its start. This includes conducting taste panels with new items, discussing the differentiating aspects of the program, ensuring that all items are available and ready, as well as testing bartenders on the new recipes for accuracy and quality. In addition, all menu revisions and/or collateral are at the property and POS systems have been updated and are in place. In cases of server incentives, ensure that all aspects have been clearly communicated and there is the ability to track results. The more the team is engaged and excited about the program, the better likelihood for success.
Creating holiday promotions and working with talented PR teams can be very rewarding, both professionally in providing an outlet for unbridled creativity as well as in bringing new clientele into your establishment. However, in spite of all the efforts of the team to create an amazing program, all that can be lost with poor timing and irrelevant messaging. It comes down to four basic ideas. First, embrace reckless creativity to develop something that is truly unique and will differentiate you in a crowded space. Second, understand the PR timing cycle – know who to pitch and when. Third, ensure your message is on point and will resonate not only to your target market but also to those editors, bloggers and segment producers you are trying to engage. Finally, make it happen! It’s all about execution and providing that amazing creative experience that you have promised to deliver.
Just remember: It’s never too early to start thinking about the next big thing and let creativity run wild!
Lou Trope is President of LJ Trope & Co. LLC, an independent consultant working with the hotel industry to provide innovative restaurant concepts, operational assessments and b2b beverage strategies.