The American Hotel Bar
is Back on Top

american hotel bars

They say a great hotel feels like a home away from home. Frankly I expect it to be an idealized version of my home. That is to say, clean, organized and well stocked, but with better sheets and those heavy, cut-crystal glasses I keep meaning to buy, but haven’t.

When checking into a luxury hotel, one expects it to have good taste. Champagne by the glass, rare whiskies, bespoke beverage service? Yes. In a top-notch hotel, we expect all fine things to be stocked and waiting, just in case we want them.

The gracious and highly trained staff is prepared, and most importantly willing and waiting, to take care of us. Ask and it shall be delivered! As Starwood’s W Hotels’ mantra proclaims, Whatever/Whenever® Service.

My perfect hotel creates the illusion that somewhere, hiding behind that tasseled drapery tie-back, is a super-human made of equal parts doting grandmother (the one who knows how you like your tea, brings it to you in the morning and then lets you enjoy it in peace in your room) and major-domo, with a little MacGyver and Phillippe Stark thrown in, in case of a duck tape or décor emergency.

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s data for 2012, there are now almost five million hotel rooms in the United States, surrounding over 52,000 lobbies. That’s quite a jump from the original 74-room City Hotel, the first building specifically designed to be a hotel, with public spaces for dining, dancing, shopping and gathering, in addition to room and board. Opened in New York City in 1794 (the same year Congress changed the U.S. flag to 15 stars and 15 stripes), the City Hotel soon became an important gathering spot for the growing metropolis and its 30,000 residents. Americans were becoming mobile and the hotel lobby created a resting place for weary travelers in need of reviving, extravagant surrounding for locals in search of reveling, or an elegant place to gather and conduct commerce of all kinds.

algonquin hotel

Other East Coast cities followed, and the hotel lobby quickly evolved into a carefully designed magnet for the wealthy. These hotel lobbies were elaborate stage productions, that put on display the splendor of the local culture or a collectively imagined exotic and far-flung culture, creating a sense of glamorous adventure.

Adventure. That’s what travel is all about for me and my intrepid pack of omnivores. We pack our forks and flasks along with our extra pairs of socks and are willing to dig into any and all local cuisines. One look at our photo galleries will reveal plate after plate of local delicacies, our fattened faces beaming. Oh, yeah, here’s a picture of the Eiffel tower — but would you look at those macarons!

However, even culinary adventures can stretch the limits of the most intrepid among us. So, at the end of a day spent exploring and indulging, I am ready for the respite of the familiar. I want to slip into the bar and straight into the comfortable hug of my favorite nightcap, a single malt Scotch. If that single malt can be enjoyed in an exquisitely overstuffed chair in a romantically cozy bar, just steps from my room, then all the better.

The hotel bar as a dramatic or romantic setting is legendary. Numerous locations have played a starring role for decades in film and literary circles. Manhattan’s historic Algonquin Hotel and the Blue Bar within, was the meeting place of a group of local writers, journalists and actors calling themselves the “Algonquin Round Table.” The regulars — including Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Robert Benchley and The New Yorker magazine founder, Harold Ross — met almost daily at the bar throughout the 1920s.

blue bar - algonquin hotel

Equally iconic are the drinks. The list of well-known cocktails created in hotel bars is impressive. The Tom Collins, Dry Martini, Bloody Mary, Vieux Carre, Singapore Sling, Piña Colada, Margarita, Cosmopolitan and the Mimosa, for starters, were all invented in hotel bars.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are nearly as well known for their imbibing habits as they are for their literary works. The duo famously frequented The Ritz Bar in Paris (now known as the Bar Hemingway), as well as Harry’s New York Bar.

And who could forget Stanley Kubrick’s version of the hotel bar, as tended to by Lloyd, the omnipresent bartender of the ghostly Gold Room at the Overlook Hotel. You know — the one who smiles coolly through the increasingly horrifying psychological meltdown of Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining.”

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, drinking her vodka and tonic against the backdrop of Tokyo from the 52nd floor at the Park Hyatt Hotel in the Bill Murray movie, “Lost in Translation,” has become the top iconic hotel bar image for me, replacing the fictional Taft Hotel lobby bar (actually the famed Ambassador Hotel), where a bemused Mrs. Robinson doled out tryst tips to a very nervous Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.”

A sense of adventure creates a willingness to try new things. Couple that with wanting to pack up a few experiences to share with friends and co-workers, and you can understand how these heretofore unknown cocktail recipes were carried home by travelers and eventually, slowly entered the repertoire of bartenders around the world.

Today, hotel lobbies are evolving into great social and public rooms where form can take second fiddle to function. The bar has become the heart of the hotel through which its lifeblood pulses. No pool, no gym, no room service? It’ll live. No hotel bar with free Wi-Fi? Houston, we’ve got a problem.

“We used to hide the bar,” says JP Etcheberrigaray, vice president of Food & Beverage, Americas for InterContinental Hotels Group. “Now, we feature it.” It’s easy to understand why when you consider that bars account for about 15 percent of a hotel’s F&B revenue, on average — more revenue than restaurants, in-room dining and amenity programs combined.

A one-size-fits-one principle of individualized guest service is part of the formula of the high-end hotel, but it is also the formula beverage suppliers must use when designing beverage promotions for hotels.

“The hotel channel is far more complex than other channels. Hotel volume is typically spread over several different departments. Programs and placements can require multiple decision-makers in each department, and the hotel decision cycle is typically much longer than that of an independent restaurant,” explains Donna Frederick, senior manager, National Accounts On-Premise for Beam Global. “The hotel business is best built by making the brand relevant and successful in the bar and restaurants, before proceeding to banquets and catering and finally to in-room dining.”

bar hemingway

“A promotion has to fit in with the concept. Hotels are less P.O.S-focused, and whatever is used has to be simple and low-key but compelling,” says Frederick. Her focus on premium brown spirits pairs well with the luxury hotel image.

Beam Global created a unique signature cocktail program for Autograph Collection Hotels, including the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which pairs each property with a signature cocktail made with Jim Beam bourbons. The results are inviting, understated, custom and innovative.

“It can be more difficult to create a single program that fits the philosophy of the brand and works for all properties in that brand. Not all properties are created equally,” agrees Mo Kennedy, director, Global Accounts, Hotels at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Participating in and supporting national programs and educational initiatives, as well as local events, creates great partnerships, and it builds from there. “It can take years to grow the relationship, but that can put you at the right place at the right time when an opportunity arises,” says Kennedy.

After a guest survey revealed a willingness to pay more (up to $13.00 on average) for a premium glass of wine, Sheraton Hotel’s Hoyt Harper developed The Social Hour program with wine experts and the brand’s global food and beverage team, to offer guests the better quality wines they desired.

All the wines selected for this premium by-the-glass program are rated above 85 points and at least four Sheraton Selects offerings will be rated 90+ by Wine Spectator and are produced at renowned wineries such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Northstar, Columbia Crest, Antinori, Col Solare and Eroica. Participating hotels have seen an average 20 percent increase in beverage revenue at the lobby bar.

According to Jason Deville, the director of F&B at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta Hotel, most IHG properties do more dinner covers in the bars than in the restaurants. “We know that our guests are looking for conversational bartenders who are able to entertain and inform the guest about the city — people who strive to be ‘in the know’ and readily share information with the guests.”

“You can have a hotel without a restaurant, but I don’t think you can have a successful F&B program without a bar. The bar is a necessity. You can create ‘wow’ experiences through the bar that add value to the overall guest experience, through entertainment in the lounge, tastings, private label spirits like our Single Barrel Four Roses Bourbon, and menus, such as the custom leather-bound “Bourbon Bible” Bar Book that IMI helped us create. These are not necessarily revenue generating, but they are an avenue to conversations that can tell the story of the property.”

bourbon bar atlanta

Meeting the needs of every guest is a complex undertaking. Whether it is in casual dining, quick-serve or at a five-star hotel, the business of providing great hospitality is never routine, even if every guest wanted the same thing at the same time and there were never any special requests, needs or people. Unlike the stand-alone restaurant, which communicates the relative limits of its offerings through posted hours and menus that most people accept, hotels have to be all things to all people — usually large numbers of very diverse groups of people from all over the world, simultaneously. How does that impact Food & Beverage and how does a hotel team prepare for that?

“Be an expert at something,” suggests JP. “Armagnac, bourbon, Cognac, Bloody Marys, whatever it is — create a signature around that. Educate everyone on it. If your approach starts with quality, it will be successful. Share that information with the entire property, so that all staff members get the story and can easily communicate it to the guests.”

Deborah Hutton, National On-Premise Director at Moët Hennessy USA, suggests that “Even when using global luxury brands like Moët & Chandon, which have a huge amount of guest loyalty already, programs with property-level flexibility drive buy-in and participation.”

The brands, or at least an anchor brand, may be set, with flexibility in the promotion details left up to the property’s F&B team. Moët has numerous supporting pieces for its “Moët & Chandon by the Glass” program and properties can select the ones that work best for them.

Melissa Davis, the director of Beverage Category Management for Marriott agrees, “One size does not always fit all. There are often multiple bar and restaurant outlets within a Marriott property and a desire to give guests a unique experience within each of those outlets. We have to consider if a promotion matches the tone of voice and vibe across multiple outlets. For instance, the Renaissance Soul of Sake summer promotion was upbeat and fun, with quirky cocktail names. For that promotion, we focused on the main lobby bar and pool bar outlets. That same promotion would not have delivered on guest expectations in a fine dining setting.”

Westin Hotels created an award-winning Mojito program with the help of Mixologist Francesco Lafranconi, where alongside the classic Mojito made with Bacardi Superior rum, each property could select up to six additional super-foods-inspired mojitos, such as the Brazilian Cure Mojito made with rum and VeeV Açaí Spirit.

This win confirms it: American hotel bars are back on top. Many of the world’s foremost bartenders work in them currently or got their start in them. Some worthy ones to check out, when you check in are: in Miami, Joey Scorza at the InterContinental Hotel’s Indigo Bar; in Atlanta, Mike Jones at the W Hotel Buckhead, Nate Shuman at the Proof & Provision in the Georgian Terrace Hotel, and Clay Livingston at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta; Joyce Garrison at Trace in the W Hotel Austin; Abigail Gullo, at the French Quarter W Hotel and Lu Brow at the Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, in New Orleans. Also in the French Quarter, be sure to stop in to see bartender Marvin Allen at the famous Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. The actual bar (home of the Vieux Carre) does truly rotate and is the axis of the annual bartender gathering, Tales of the Cocktail, as well as a favorite of bartenders around the world.

Next time you are looking for the perfect perch from which to imbibe, dine or learn about the city you are in, you may need to look no farther than the lobby.

bourbon bar buckhead

SIDE NOTE – Beginning in 2009, Tales of the Cocktail began awarding the World’s Best Hotel Bar as a separate category. 2013 was the first year an American hotel, The NoMad Hotel of New York City, won the award, finally taking it away from London after three years of back-to-back wins by The Connaught Bar, The Savoy and Artesian at The Langham of London.