‘Tis The Season?

‘Tis The Season?

Mike Sherer


The holidays are over. The relatives have gone home. The decorations have been put in storage for another year. We can finally give our stomachs and wallets a rest. Time to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Not so fast. The holiday period is generally the time of year when business is at its best, a time when you don’t have to do much in the way of promotion to keep happy customers coming through the door. Now that January has arrived, you may be happy to have a chance to catch your breath. But this is the time to plan seasonal promotions that will bring customers out of hibernation and your business out of a potentially dangerous case of winter doldrums.

“We’re real aggressive in January, February and March because there’s not much to do around here during those months,” said Russ Kelly, owner of Muldoon’s, Omaha, NE. “Except go to bars, of course.”

There are holidays, sporting events and other happenings to take advantage of during any season. Coming up in short order are Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA “March Madness,” to name a few. How do you pick your spots and leverage holidays or events that help your operation the most?

Object Lessons

First and foremost, decide what you want to accomplish. Promotions, by their nature, are designed to motivate consumers to try your product. That means driving traffic through the door, Beyond that, however, are myriad goals a promotion can help you achieve. You may want to draw attention to a particular aspect of your operation — a new bar menu or signature beverages, for example. You may want to build business on a traditionally slow night of the week. Or you may want to attract a new type of clientele.

“Our outlook is long term, not short term,” said Dale Wilson, managing partner of Trophy’s, San Diego. “A promotion is not successful just from the cash register receipts that day. We look at it as long-term apple polishing. We ask ourselves if we’ll get good credibility by association with the event, if there’s good weight behind the event and will it make us look good. How much more we can make that day is less important than how it makes us look.”

Poor Billy’s, Woodbridge, NJ, looks for promotions that help sell product. After all, that’s what promotions are for. But manager Gilbert Quesada said he tries to pick and choose promotions that help generate a crowd earlier in the evening, for example.

“We look for increased traffic and frequency from most promotions,” said Stephanie Steil, director of marketing at Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc., Louisville, CO, operator of Rock Bottom Breweries and Old Chicago Pasta & Pizza restaurants. “But we usually look at how we can increase frequency among medium users.”

Make sure the promotion has both short and long-term benefits to your operation. “We always look at promotions as a way of creating traffic and excitement,” said Kelly, “not about making money that night.”

Season’s Greetings

With so many holidays and events to choose from, it’s easy to overextend yourslef and your staff. Pick promotions that make sense from an operational and philosophical sense. The promotion has to fit your budget and the personality of your operation.

Rather than try to schedule promotions around several individual holidays, for example, Red Robin keys in on three or four seasonal promotions each year. The chain goes all out, creating new food and beverage items for the menu to create excitement in the restaurants. Last fall’s “Lotta Hotta,” for example, featured four new margarita-type drinks and new glassware. “As we get more comfortable with our big promotions, we’ll add more seasonal promotions,” said Neil Culbertson, vice president of marketing, Red Robin International, Englewood, CO.

“Our culture is about beer, so our promotions are about beer,” said Tracy Finklang, Rock Bottom’s corporate beverage director. “We’ve tried liquor promotions, but people come to see us for beer. For holidays like Mardi Gras or Valentine’s Day, the brewmasters at Rock Bottom will come up with funky recipes like chocolate-raspberry beer. At Old Chicago, we’re more likely to tie into sports events.” In winter, the chain often gives away lift tickets to ski resorts during promotions.

Start by investigating what’s already out there. There aren’t too many holidays and events that beer and spirits companies haven’t found a way to tie into. In many cases, suppliers are eager to find promotional partners to help sell their products. Call your wholesalers to find out what promotions are being offered and see if any of them sound like a good fit.

“Our vendors bring us promotional ideas constantly,” said Wilson. “We look at everything on individual merit. We don’t do promotions for promotions’ sake. We’re also careful of promotions that veer too sharply into the testosterone zone. We try to pick sports events like the Olympics that are more gender-friendly. We have to be careful not to send out a message that this is a place where women and families aren’t welcome.”

As a result of that philosophy, Trophy’s has done promotions tied to things like television’s “Ally McBeal” and the Academy Awards show.

Consider, too, whether a particular promotion will appeal to your customers. Though sports-oriented operations like Trophy’s and Champps Americana have worked hard to attract a family clientele, they recognize that couples who often frequent their establishments are more likely to go out to a white tablecloth restaurant on Valentine’s Day. The holiday is a low-key, in-house affair at Trophy’s; every woman who walks in gets a long-stemmed rose. Many Champps units have fun with the holiday by running “Dating Game” contests for singles.

Have You Heard?

When you decide which promotions are likely to be most successful for you, put them on your schedule as far in advance as possible. While it sometimes works to your advantage to offer a spur-of-the-moment event, most good promotions require thorough planning.

“I’m not a big fan of the cookie-cutter approach,” said Sharon Banta, director of marketing for Champps Americana. “The biggest part of a promotion is planning and communicating with general managers to see if it is operationally feasible and fiscally sound. You may be able to do a quick promotion for something like the Subway Series, but I think you should plan at least 90 days out and keep a promotion on the radar screen a year out. The hardest part is going from putting Out the fires of today to planning ahead”

More and more operators rely these days on suppliers to provide and help execute promotions. Despite the extra help, you still need to put together a plan that notes all the details of who does what. Take into account any operational difficulties you might have making the promotion work and how you’re going to track results. Create a checklist of all the components that are going into the promotion — food, beverage(s), point-of-sale materials, games/contests/events, prizes, staff/training, media plan, decorations, etc. — and assign responsibility for each area.

Work far enough in advance that you can stay on top of details. Not all promotions require 90 days to plan and execute, but even small ones deserve two weeks or more.

The closer the promotion gets, the more important it is to let customers know what you have planned. Create some buzz and generate excitement for the promotion by spreading the word any way you can. When you partner with a supplier, often they’ll pick up the tab for print and radio advertising as well as the cost of in-house flyers, posters, tabletents and wait staff buttons. Champps has its deejays make in-house announcements. Muldoon’s uses a 12-foot lighted message board to promote events. Some operations use a closed circuit channel on the house television monitors to list upcoming promotions. Poor Billy’s does a lot of promotion on its website.

Tool Belts

The most successful promotions are usually the ones that are the most straightforward.

“We have really busy bars,” said Finklang, “so a promotion bas to be easy to execute. It’s the keep-it-simple-stupid way of looking at it.”

No matter how simple the promotion is, the first thing to do is get buy-in from both managers and staff. “If managers look at me like I’ve got two heads when I tell them about a promotion, I know they won’t get behind it,” said Banta. Promotions should be easy to understand and execute for staff, and easy to communicate to customers.

Your staff can help communicate and execute the promotion, but only if they’re behind it and have been trained what to do. Remember that they’re already busy selling and serving customers, so the easier it is to explain the promotion to a customer, the more readily they’ll participate.

“You have to have a staff that gets deeply involved in making promotions succeed,” Kelly said. “Some employees are better than others at different things, though, so go with your strengths. Use your staff to help.”

Make sure that promotions are not only relevant to your customers, but to staff as well. Include them in on the fun. “We want fun promotions that give customers something cool,” Finklang said, “but make sure the staff gets something cool, too. They should get an incentive.”

“Give managers the tools that make it easy to execute, whether it be flyers, costumes or whatever,” said Banta. “Who you have as an emcee or deejay also makes a big difference in the success of a promotion. Little things the guest sometimes doesn’t even notice are important like lighting, costumes, buttons. It all matters.”

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

Thoughtful planning and flawless execution will make a promotion work the way it’s supposed to. Ultimately, though, a promotion’s success depends on its ability to pull people through the door.

“There has to be a payoff for attendees — prizes, drink special, something,” Wilson said. “There has to be something to make the consumer want to come to the event. Even the event itself could be the draw. Just to have a dollar off a drink is done by so many people, it’s just not worth it to us.”

That payoff can be just about anything, and it varies from market to market, and even night to night. There is no magic bullet, except, perhaps, creativity.

“Some promotions are a long-term investment,” said Banta. “For example, building a single night’s business over time. Others, like Valentine’s Day, are just to do something different from everybody else, to give people a reason to come back if for nothing else than to see what else is going on that’s new and exciting.”

Promotions are about keeping the business fresh, injecting new ideas into an established concept. At some operations, like Old Chicago, customers have come to expect cool, hip payoffs like adventure trips to place like Bali or a trip to Germany along with a Volkswagen. At Muldoon’s in Omaha, sometimes sampling a local microbrewer’s wares and offering its T-shirts at a discount can he just as effective a payoff in drawing customers.

The point is to make it fun, make it relevant, make it exciting and they will come.

Spring Promotions

Of all the restaurant promotions, the most widespread may be those supplied by the beer companies. Here’s a look at a few you can expect to head your way over the next few promotion-heavy months.


* Boddington’s Bartender Appreciation Month. POS kits that encourage patrons to tip their favorite bartenders more than usual.

* Corona “Remember Your First Lime.” Valentine’s Day POS materials.

* Amstel Light Lift Six promotion. Sponsorship of Warren Miller ski film and apres ski events at accounts in ski resort areas.

* Guinness Toast. POS promoting annual attempt to set a world’s record for the world’s largest toast, on February 23.

* Miller Lite Mardi Gras promotion. POS and Mardi Gras merchandise (masks, necklaces, buttons, T-shirts) to support on-premise parties.

* Heineken Mardi Gras promotion. Joint Heineken and Amstel Light promotion with a full range of POS materials.

* Miller Genuine Draft Hooptopia. On-line trivia quiz tie-in with CBS Sportsline with a chance to win prizes. Supported with full range of POS. Runs through March.


* Miller “Show Your Irish” promotion. Full range of POS materials with Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft and Icehouse logos. Merchandise includes glassware, rugby shirts, hats, glow buttons, garters and “hidden message” wristbands.

* Guinness “Unlock The Gates.” Consumer sweepstakes featuring on-premise ambassadors who quiz patrons; correct answers win chance at keys to Guinness brewery in Dublin. Other merchandise prizes include glassware, backpacks, shirts, hats, pen sets and more.

* Corona St. Patrick’s Day. “Kiss Me. I’m Irish” POS materials.


* Labatt Blue Hockey. Kit containing pennants, hockey jerseys, banners, hats and more that turns on-premise accounts into the “Blue Zone.” Runs through June.

* Play The Amstel Light Tour. Sweepstakes in which consumers can win the chance to play in a pro-am tournament at a PGA Tour event.

* Rolling Rock Town Fair 2.0. National tour of 20 markets leading up to summer rock festival kicks oft in April. Bar nights will feature ticket giveaways and will be supported with banners, posters, T- shirts, CD music samplers and more.

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