Aliya is responsible for strategizing and creating food and beverage experiences. She oversees food and beverage cost control, programming and activation, and F&B transitions. Aliya joined the team as a member of the Corporate Food & Beverage team, working on projects such as The Gwen Chicago, EnVue Hotel in Weehawken, and the recent launch of Mar Monte, Unbound Collection in Santa Barbara.
ITM: First off, thanks for having this interview with us. Can you give our readers an overview of your vision for HEI’s cocktail program?
AK: Thank you so much! And absolutely! Our beverage program within HEI has truly come to life over the past few years. Under the leadership of our COO, Rachel Moniz, we made the decision to separate our beverage program into two. This has allowed us to curate meaningful and bespoke programs for all of our unique 90+ hotels. As a company, we are extremely focused on training, beverage trends and cocktail innovation. Our goal is to create annual programs that are executable and approachable, but also allows our on-property teams the creativity to bring their beverage program to life.
ITM: You are utilizing quite a few programs to help you run your business. One of them is IMI’s iManage software. How has this helped you?
AK: We are big fans of iManage! We launched this a few years ago as a training tool. Very quickly we learned our teams really took to the platform and embraced the internal communication guides, recipes and information. Since then, we have only expanded the functionality! The IMI team has been great to work with to build something special just for our teams. We have added programs, new techniques such as unique ways to bottle your cocktail, cocktails to go, activations and fun Easter eggs planted throughout the site to keep our teams engaged. We’re very excited to launch the next version of iManage — training is a top priority for HEI and we’ve loved using this platform as a way to communicate with our teams and make those training moments a little less monotonous.
ITM: Compliance is a big subject with you. This must make your suppliers happy?
AK: Compliance is our number one priority! We truly look at everyone in our program as partners; and having a good partnership requires both parties to participate. By simplifying our beverage program and allowing our hotel teams to be a part of the conversation when it comes to creating their beverage menus, we’ve hit new levels of success with compliance. That, coupled with regular onsite audits as well as tools like Fintech and strong communication, has helped us get to the compliance levels we are at today.
ITM: HEI National Days Marketing Programs — what is an example of one of your most successful “National Days” marketing programs that your teams have executed?
AK: For us, it’s more than just a marketing program. It’s a way for us for to engage with our guests, inspire creativity from our bar teams, schedule new trainings with our supplier partners, and keep the conversation going on social media — not to mention to drive compliance. The good news is there is always something to celebrate! Our partners have been great supporting our National Day efforts, really allowing us to grow the program. We definitely had some fun with National Tequila Day, having yoga-rita classes across multiple hotels. Yes, that’s yoga paired with margaritas! This year our teams have enjoyed using this program to give back, with activations such as Hoppy Hour for National Beer Lover’s Day in September benefiting those impacted by the Haiti earthquake, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month cocktails, happy hours, and dinners benefiting breast cancer research. Each year we challenge ourselves and our property teams to grow and create new national days. It’s been a lot of fun!
ITM: Can you give us an idea of your core values for the HEI program?
AK: Integrity, partnership, creativity and, of course, fun! We stand by our program, our partners and brands. We believe that our program is best in class, and a lot of that is thanks to our supplier and distributor partners as well as HEI. We also focus on active programming as opposed to passive selling, and we rely on our supplier partners to collaboratively ideate and innovate new ideas, trends and activations to help create the program we have today. Our program heavily focuses on creating new beverage programs. For example, a restaurant in Denver launched an on-property bottling program using local ingredients such as honey produced by bees on their roof. Another instance is a cigar bar that has an infused-smoke cocktail menu, each complimenting cigars available in the bar. At the end of the day, we want our teams to love our beverage program and to feel like they are a part of our success!
ITM: How do you challenge your beverage program strategy throughout the years to be best in class?
AK: That is a great question! Trends move so quickly in this industry, especially in each market. What is happening in New York City and Los Angeles is far different from what’s happening in Chicago or Dallas. We work internally each year to determine our top priorities but aren’t afraid to pivot during the year. We want to always stay ahead of what’s happening; and thanks to insights from our partners, we are able to do just that. HEI regularly reviews data and uses those product mix reports, trends and statistics to help make strategic changes for our following year’s program.
ITM: What does the growth and future strategy of HEI look like?
AK: We are very much looking forward to the future. HEI is continuing to grow — seven new hotels have joined our portfolio in 2021 alone! Coming into 2022, we are thrilled to see bar business level return, but we will also continue strategies that have worked so well over the last two years. HEI is getting ready to launch our new program, including a few fun new categories that we are particularly excited about. And, of course, compliance — continuing to be best in class is extremely important to us.
ITM: Let’s talk about a few of your spectacular properties. The Hotel Contessa on the Riverwalk in San Antonio is truly unique. The Ambler Texas Kitchen and Cocktails drink menu is really put together nicely and features a nice selection of Tequila drinks. How was this menu put together?
AK: This was absolutely a labor of love for our Beverage Director, David Miller. He did such an amazing job marrying the two Texas staples of agave spirits and Bourbon. We spent time in farmers markets, local hidden gems and with the team, to put together a thoughtful menu and fun glassware. We have a great barrel-aged Oaxaca Old Fashioned made with Corralejo Reposado, and signature margaritas served in a traditional cantarito. We even have an Ambler Old Fashioned served in a branded flask. It’s always nerve-wracking to see how the guests will react, but we were thrilled with the response from our hotel guests and local community. What’s fun about this program is we are constantly adding new agave spirits to our back bar so our regulars always have something fun to try. We also have weekly Tequila tastings for our guests hosted by amazing distillers to educate guests about the Tequila-making process, differences in Tequilas and to introduce new agave spirits.
ITM: The Mar Monte Hotel in Santa Barbara is a spectacular beachfront property and features the Italian-influenced costa Kitchen and Bar inside. Does the local bar team create the cocktails? They have such unusual names!
AK: It is such a fun menu! We partnered with the Los Angeles-based firm New School on this project. We worked alongside our bar team and New School to create this menu. Our goal was to bring something new to Santa Barbara — a little taste of the Los Angeles cocktail scene to this amazing beach town. I particularly love the Gucci Old Fashioned, a twist on the original made with Bogart’s bitters and demerara syrup, and the Drunken Botanist because who doesn’t love green chartreuse!
ITM: Kudos to using plenty of Santa Barbara wines on the list. I’m sure the guests appreciate trying the local wine.
AK: Yes, it’s so important to us to support the local winemakers and introduce our guests to all that Santa Barbara has to offer. We love working with these winemakers for wine classes, dinners and tastings. Pink Ash is an amazing Rosé, and a portion of its sales proceeds go to support the Santa Barbara community. The label was actually designed by Billy Zane. He created a piece of art using the ashes from the 2017 California wildfire and that was used to create the label. The actual artwork hangs in the winery and is beautiful!