They say the best things in life are free, and that has certainly been the case at Four Points by Sheraton, as it has leveraged its complimentary weekly manager’s reception, Best Brews & BBQ, to raise guest satisfaction scores while tapping into group sales and recovering lost business. The program successfully incorporates the brand’s popular Best Brews initiative, which offers up taste tests of local craft beers, and beefs up results by adding barbecue-themed appetizers and key staff members connecting with guests in a low-key, no-pressure environment.
In 2011, Starwood sought to increase guest scores and conducted market and consumer research to find out what supports guest loyalty in each of its brands. Four Points found that high scores in the bar experience category disproportionately impacted higher scores in overall guest satisfaction. “With the bar experience as a key driver of delight, we thought, ‘How can we reinvigorate and build on that in a way that’s coherent for franchisees and guests?’” recalls Jeremy Cooper, director of global guest initiatives for Starwood’s Specialty Select brands. “We knew if we could nail this area, we could make up for other potential shortcomings.”
Barbecue seemed a natural fit for the target Four Points guest and the already established beer program, while promising flexibility and a backyard-fun feel. Guests’ quest for value and comfort drove the idea of a weekly reception, and in 2012, a dozen city, suburban, airport, and tertiary properties piloted the Best Brews & BBQ program over a 12-week period.
“We learned a great deal from the pilot in terms of hours of operation, what types of items we needed, and how to streamline food, beverage, and labor to yield maximum results at minimal cost for franchisees,” says Cooper.
The program was launched in January 2013 at all North American locations as a 90-minute reception every Wednesday to raise Guest Experience Index (GEI) scores in terms of percentage of guests who labeled the bar experience “much better than expected.” In 2012, this figure lulled in the low 20s, but by the end of 2013, properties soared to the desired 25% mark, leading to a “multiplier effect in overall satisfaction,” says Cooper, who expects further increases for 2014. “Now, two years in, we see from the guest satisfaction side that the program continues to boost the bar experience, introduce guests to our bars, engage, and deliver local authenticity.”
With an average of 130 to 140 rooms per location, Four Points is a limited-service brand with bare-bones staff, restricted space, and no complimentary breakfast. Hence, the team wanted to hone in on a program that would best serve guests, staff, and the brand. “This weekly, high-touch experience was designed to double-down on the basics and reinforce core brand programming around F&B,” rather than muddy its focus with additional programs, says Cooper.
In addition, Cooper feels, sometimes “free” can denote “substandard,” so the reception had to fortify the brand’s reputation for high quality. In years past, Four Points had offered a weekly manager’s reception in Canadian locations, but for Gold or Platinum Starwood Preferred Guests only, and the practice eventually waned. Cooper’s vision was to instead enact a way for staff to engage with all guests. “Bringing in something on a weekly basis that could touch the core business traveler mid-week, en masse, was money well spent to improve guest loyalty,” he says.
The Full Experience
The Best Brews & BBQ program offers a minimum of two complimentary appetizers, beer, and soft drinks, with internal costs of $2.50 to $4 per guest and an average of 20 to 45 attendees weekly. As part of the greater Four Points Experience Program, also launched in 2013, franchisees pay a few hundred dollars per month for a turnkey package that supports Best Brews & BBQ, including signage and logoed swag that ties into Four Points’ sporty focus (think beer koozies, footballs, and gloves).
The Starwood design team also updated the existing Best Brews logo with “BBQ” for a fun pop of color on white aprons sent for staff. “When we had snowstorms, Starwood even sent us logoed scarves and toboggans,” recalls Amberle Bryant, director of sales at Four Points by Sheraton Asheville Downtown (North Carolina).
Last year, the company expanded the Experience Program to public space and décor, creating a series of reclaimed-wood crates designed to resemble deconstructed Christmas trees in lobbies. Going forward, Four Points seeks to tackle the business facet of its tagline, “Business, meet pleasure,” by extending into meetings with custom-made cases that provide boardroom necessities such as a wireless mouse, keyboard, and speakers, plus a clutter-free setup for water, cups, pens, and paper. An online menu and event planning system will roll out at the end of this year.
“We keep F&B at heart but want to grab onto other areas to drive this program,” explains Cooper. “Properties save money because we can design and ship centrally—and the investment is worth far more.”
Function and Flexibility
Best Brews & BBQ encourages experimentation from chefs, with regional styles coming to the forefront in beloved barbecue states such as Tennessee, while Canadian franchisees may dive into Indian-style tandoori, giving each property a unique story to tell guests through F&B. In Asheville, local beers and meats rule the receptions, and festivities are supported with trivia and giveaways. Local brewers are quick to highlight their unique offerings too; some participate with giveaways or send a brewmaster to advise on food pairings.
During the pilot, Anheuser-Busch, Goose Island, and Samuel Adams offered sets of recipes and ideas for beer-based barbecue items. But even laid-back basics can work well—shrimp skewers with barbecue sauce, pulled-pork sliders, or cornbread—and the setup accommodates the local and seasonal. Next, the brand will incorporate more seasonal beers, rolling out winter or summer ales. And the ever-adaptable program receives tweaks as feedback from franchisees and guests accumulates, both in terms of GEI scores and direct guest comments.
Flexibility also carries over to operational logistics. Properties can supply a series of small plates at the bar, set up a lobby buffet or display, or offer a canapé-style butler pass. Those with outdoor spaces move receptions outside when weather permits, but they typically take place in the lobby or bar area. Once a month, sales reps may invite local clients for site visits with an openhouse feel; these can host nearly 100 attendees.
For staffing, Cooper reports that typically a GM and/or sales manager assumes a hands-on role, while two additional associates bus and serve. In Asheville, a sales rep and assistant or coordinator work the room. Lately, a catering manager has helped build relationships with corporate clients and generate leads. The chef, bartender, and restaurant manager pitch in to help, but for equipment, only two chafing dishes and a table are required. Local breweries often donate glasses.
“We communicate to guests that this is available at all Four Points locations,” says Bryant. “It helps with brand identification, and we’re able to refer them to other cities, keeping business within the brand.”
In Meriden, Connecticut, Four Points’ weekly employee presence may include sales reps, the office manager, the F&B director, and/or a general manager, who personally pour beers. GM Yvonne deAngeli-Fontanez believes the informal environment offers guests the chance to comfortably socialize with staff away from the front desk, enticing them to share their likes and dislikes. Positive comments regarding Brews& BBQ are racking up, and the reception has secured small-scale, but specific, wins—luring business travelers from a nearby competitor or spurring them to rearrange plans just to experience the reception. “It’s become a great sales tool and offers bonding time with guests,” deAngeli-Fontanez asserts.
Indeed, chatting with guests is crucial, engaging them to find out what Four Points can improve upon, pinpointing additional business opportunities, and introducing the hotel team. Meanwhile, guests in Meriden discover what the hotel offers, so they’re more likely to segue from the reception to the onsite sports bar and grill.
DeAngeli-Fontanez advertises the program through invitations in key packets, then brands the event with koozies, buttons, coasters, glasses, and aprons. In Asheville, Best Brews is advertised through PowerPoint presentations on two TV screens in the lobby, a popup banner at the front desk, and staff communication. “Everyone’s eyes get huge when they hear about it; they love getting a taste of Asheville right here,” says Bryant. “And most guests prefer free beer to breakfast any day.”
At Four Points by Sheraton Manhattan Chelsea in New York, first-timers appreciate feeling welcomed in a big-city environment, while return travelers enjoy F&B freebies without having to leave the hotel, says GM Lee Berthelsen-Leon. He attends the receptions, serving guests personally, and F&B is supplied by a third-party operator.
“It’s more costly, but worth it for what we get: more time with guests,” Berthelsen-Leon says. “We learn how to do better, find more business, and create conversation in a more meaningful way. It’s a nice surprise and a major goodwill opportunity.”
Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.
1. Being present and engaging is critical, especially in small hotels where everyone wears so many hats. For 90 minutes, talk to guests and pinpoint opportunities.
2. Listen, don’t just talk. What are your guests looking for? A once-a-week reception isn’t a chore for staff, and the team plays together; guests notice the good vibes.
3. Start with an open-ended question: “What brought you to our neighborhood?” Then listen to their stories and follow up with questions: “Have you experienced Best Brews elsewhere?”
4. Don’t leave stations unattended. By personally serving guests, you have the chance to start a conversation.
5. Make interactions genuine, not structured and transactional. Welcome guests; ask if they’ve been there before; speak in a natural and engaging way.
6. Have a story to tell about your beer or food. These are your guests—invite them in and take care of them!