How Interstate Arrived at Destinations, Its Latest Beverage Menu Refresh
The biennial revamp is photo-centric and working.
It has a lot of moving parts, but they all arrive at the right destination. The newest all-encompassing corporate beverage program by Interstate Hotels & Resorts is mapped out to work with uniformity and local touches across multiple properties and brands—and last for two years. Launched on June 15, the theme of the management company's new drink books is "Destinations," and even in a few short months, it's already arrived.
“One year is not enough time to gain traction at the hotel,” says Hilary Leister, senior beverage coordinator at IMI Agency, which created the new program with Interstate. “In order to get hotels to really buy into it and prevent them from having too much work, two years is the sweet spot.”
Sometimes it may take up to 60 days to get new product settled into properties, and many times the hotels need to deplete some old inventory first, says Bradley Moore, VP, F&B operations at Interstate. “With the two-year program, we’ve found we get much better traction,” he says. “We use a third party to audit all our hotels’ beverage programs. We tend to be around 88% or 89%, which is quite an accomplishment when you look at how many products some of these tiers have.”
Then Came The Tiers
When he joined Interstate 26 years ago—at which time they had 12 hotels, all Marriotts—Moore says the company had one beverage tier and one cocktail menu. “Fast forward 26 years later, and, depending on the time of day, we have 540 hotels and eight different beverage tiers and different versions of the beverage menus for those tiers,” says Moore. “If you have a hotel that’s only going to do $100,000 in outlet sales, they don’t have to carry as much product as a hotel that’s going to do $4,500,000.”
The tier structure makes things much simpler for hotels under different brand flags, such as the Marriott Lancaster at Penn Square, which has its own Marriott brand standards to meet. “Interstate does a really good job of taking those brand standards and developing them into the different tiers. We don’t have to try to carry more stuff than we have to,” says Adam Shemas, assistant director of F&B at the Marriott Lancaster (Pennsylvania).
“Whenever a new hotel comes into our portfolio, they are slotted into one of those tiers, based on outlet revenue, source capacities, and ownership mandates and recommendations,” Leister says. “We had well over 200 products in our last program across all eight tiers, and we wanted to reduce that. We were getting feedback from hotels that didn’t have enough storage space or saw inventory dollars getting left on shelves. We reduced the total number of products by about 5% overall. That was tough, because as we got rid of items, because of trends and sales, there were several items we wanted to add as well.”
The category they altered the most was wine, Leister says. “Overall, we reduced by 15% the total number of wine mandates in the program.”
“It’s not a difficult process,” Shemas says, regarding the wine changes. “We get plenty of heads up, get our tier list, and go from there.”
Leister and her team also added new products that were trending that they thought were missing, such as a mezcal, a Japanese whiskey, and more brown spirits.
“We went from one rosé to two rosés—one domestic and one from Provence,” she adds. “And for the first time, we added several optional items to give the hotels more flexibility with cocktails based on regional and guest preferences.”
Destinations, Moore says, is the first Interstate menu to include a page dedicated to Scotch. “We never did Scotch cocktails before, but in the first three months of Destinations, they’ve been selling.”
Interstate hired Kim Hassarud of Liquid Architecture to develop the cocktails for Destinations, about 50% of which ultimately are different from the previous menu—changed based on trends and sales. “She helped us utilize the new products we added,” says Leister. “Aperol was not on our list before, and it’s the hottest cocktail in Italy, and that bitter trend is in the U.S. now.”
Interstate allowed the hotels to customize the names of several cocktails. “What we came up with is, if there are 10 drinks by spirit type, we allowed them to choose five,” Moore says. Of those five, the property is allowed to name three.
“If they are in Texas, they can name the Cable Car the ‘Austin Cable Car’ in order to make guests feel they are getting the local experience without having to go outside the hotel,” Leister says. In Lancaster, Shemas says it is important to feature plenty of options in local brews.
“Lancaster is the oldest inland city in the original 13 colonies and was a tobacco and brewery town,” he explains. “So, we have a lot of local breweries and distilleries. Playing off that is always popular. Usually our super-local stuff is in our rotating drafts. We don’t have enough tap handles—we only have eight—so to push all those local breweries would be hard on draft. But we have a huge bottle list for that.”
Other than that, the biggest sellers, Shemas says, mirror nationwide trends; for example, this summer, guests sought Moscow Mules for refreshment, as well as beer cocktails.
Leister says the program utilizes products from more than 38 beverage partners currently. Interstate shaved off seven or eight from before and added seven or eight new ones.
“Each year we get better and better at it,” Moore says. “For the last three years, we’ve had the benefit of having a beverage analyst. On the front end, Fintech tells us what each hotel is buying, and we can track that; on the point of sale, we can see what they are selling. We see if somebody is bringing something in and the reason behind it. Is there a need for an 18-year-old Scotch that we didn’t have in this beverage tier? As a company, we spend a lot of time looking at data that we didn’t have five years ago.”
They won’t do tweaks or product changes for another two years when the program changes. The only changes are every May, when they let the properties reprint beverage menus if any items have gone up in price. But then in May 2020 the program will be totally new with new menus.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Orders
To be sure, captivating photography by Tim Turner Studios has become a hallmark of Interstate’s menus. Along the way in his time at Interstate, Moore says, guests began migrating from the restaurant into the bar. Before, he says, they used the “traditional black leather book” but have now realized the impact photography can make in driving sales of both food and beverage.
“Some of the restaurants weren’t even open at night,” he says. “Based on the success of photography, we started putting together books, which began to take on a theme.” The last beverage book, for 2016 to 2018, was themed “The Bar Movement” and popped with images featuring action and movement behind the bar—such as wine being poured or an orange rind being lit on fire for an Old Fashioned—to echo the fact that Interstate’s lobbies were its most active areas. “Before that, we did Confessions of a Bartender, with little barisms written on cocktail napkins in the photography,” Moore says.
“The menus themselves are cool,” says Shemas. “Historically, Marriott doesn’t have menus with pictures. These are done tastefully, but you get a visual of the item. Many people want to take them home; that’s always a good sign. The menus have a classy look, and the photography is always good.”
Thematically, Destinations is “a nod to our traveling guests who are always on the road for business or pleasure,” says Leister. “The menus are a way to communicate that we want to enhance their trip and be a part of their journey.” Each property’s menu is customized with the latitude and longitude of the hotel.
IMI also merged the wine list and cocktail menu into one menu. “We’ve always had separate lists,” Leister notes, “but we combined them because it’s easier to hand the guest one menu when they’re sitting at the bar.”
Destinations menus include both food and drink, and in addition to customizing all of their pricing, naming some of their cocktails, and having their longitude and latitude coordinates coded onto each page, hotels got to choose which food items they wanted to feature on the background of their “Fare” pages. “We selected which food items to photograph based on the popularity and menu presence of items across all of our properties,” Leister says.
Interstate distributed a launch letter into the field in late April, then two weeks later held a mandatory launch webinar for all properties. The webinar covered the reasoning for product changes, an overview of the eight tiers and new products, and pricing strategies for each product. They also sent each hotel a pricing document allowing them to price wine, beer, spirits, and cocktails based on Interstate-mandated pricing. Further, hotels were given advice on ways to deplete current inventory and not leave dollars on the shelf. All of this fit into a timeline for implementation.
For all eight tiers they created a cocktail recipe deck with the help of Hassarud on how to craft each cocktail, best glassware to use, and substitute glassware. Interstate posted educational sheets on an internal F&B site. Beverage program audits began after Labor Day and will continue through November.
“Compliance is extremely important to us,” Leister says. “The passing score is 100%.”
Results And The Road Ahead
“Beverage sales are up as a company, but what I always like to look at is the food sales in the bar at night,” Moore says. “They can put a complete restaurant menu in these bar menus. We have artwork for up to six pages; they customize their own food page. That’s where I think the sales are double-digit. We’re not losing any business; we’re attracting it with the food. We’re getting more beverage sales, because the patron is sitting there longer.”