It’s Time To Be Late – Ned Barker

Ned Barker - Late Night Happy Hour Strategies

Other than convenience, are there compelling reasons to visit your hotel bar after 9:00 p.m.

For freestanding operators, convenience is not enough. Their customers don’t arrive by elevator. I hope you’re trend-mining your freestanding competitors for great ideas. One idea that’s growing in popularity is a late-night happy hour.

I’ll bet you offer a regular happy hour. Happy hour is a pre-dinner occasion for hotel guests and probably an after-work occasion for locals.

So, if pre-dinner represents an occasion-basis for hotel guests to visit your bar, why not after-dinner? And if after-work is an occasion for locals to visit your bar, what about after-(pick any: dinner, theatre, movie, shopping, etc.). In other words, why not a late-night happy hour?

I’ve asked hotel clients this very question many times. The answers are always considered, and range from “we’ve tried it; it didn’t work” to “why discount existing business,” to “this is a hotel; we don’t want a lot of noise late at night.” Often I don’t argue the point, as there are larger issues to pursue.

So I’d like to use the occasion of this column to make my argument, although I will stipulate that “we’re usually packed after 9:00 p.m.” is one reason I won’t ever challenge. First let’s digress a moment with a related issue: how late is your hotel bar open?

Answers vary, and in fact they often vary within a given hotel. A common answer is “we’re supposed to be open until ____, but we close when there are no customers.” A better answer is “our posted closing time is ____, and we never close before that. But if the bar is busy at ____, we’ll check with a manager before closing.”

What is your closing hour strategy? You’ve probably considered factors such as restaurant hours, kitchen hours, guest needs and expectations, and labor scheduling. But your freestanding competitor is thinking “my rent is fixed, my utilities are minimal after the kitchen closes, and my bartender covers her wage rate if she sells just two drinks each hour.”

Late Night Happy Hour StrategiesMy point – my recommendation – is that you set your hours strategically, communicate your closing time, and then stick to it. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to look (or re-look) at a late-night happy hour.

And what are your freestanding competitors thinking? More and more they’re looking at the 9 p.m.-11 p.m. (or 10-midnight) slot as having more potential, especially in the bar. And they’re doing something about it. For example, the three chains below have clear strategies beginning with branding the time period.

•  Kona Grill has featured its well-known and successful Reverse Happy Hour for years, from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. in most locations. They have a specific Reverse Happy Hour menu that is available only in the bar.

•  Morton’s Power Hour is available at most locations late night, Sunday through Thursday, usually 9:00 p.m. to “close.” They have special prices on specific items.

•  McCormick & Schmick’s touts their Famous $1.95 Bar Menu for their happy hour – the menu’s prices at most locations run to $4.95. It’s typically offered from 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. until midnight or “close,” depending on the location. This offering is available just three nights a week, Tuesday through Thursday.

In all three cases, the offer is subject to local market conditions and regulations, and the chains advise customers to contact their local venue for offering details. All three offer an afternoon happy hour as well.

Earlier I cited some legitimate objections to the late-night happy hour concept. Here are some ideas you might consider.

1. If you‘ve “tried it before,” look at the reach of your marketing. Did you use social media or email? Outdoor signage? I’ve seen this marketed in the bar itself before, and that’s the wrong location. If that’s all you did, you really are discounting existing business.

2. Speaking of discounting, do you have to? What might work well for late-night? How about a $1 dessert menu (mini-portions)? May not even require the kitchen. But my all-time favorite late-night promotion occurs nightly at Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House. It packs the small bar/gastropub consistently without discounting anything. Here’s how their web site describes it: Each night, 24 exquisite, double patty cheeseburgers are assembled on house-made buns and served alongside hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup, mustard and pickles—only 24. Some nights they sell out in under a minute. The thought behind the minimal number and the 10:00 serving is not a gimmick; it’s just the opposite. A handcrafted burger takes a lot of time to prepare correctly.

3. As for “too much late night noise,” that’s an understandable issue for some hotels, but it can be managed. Your marketing, your offering, and your atmosphere will enable you to manage the crowd (i.e., music type, music level, menu offering, and pricing).

Finally, if you’re on the fence – and even if you’re not – try it just one night a week. Late happy hours are busiest on the weekends, but you’ll want to examine your own traffic patterns before putting your foot in the water. It’s not too late to decide.