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Legendary bars… and how to create them

29 March 2005 by

here was a time when your only chance of a competent cocktail was to visit a good hotel bar. If you were rich, well connected, or simply had a half-decent jacket and enough swagger to saunter past the concierge, you could see a French or, more usually, Italian barman shake some serious stuff.

This became a distinct advantage as cocktail culture began to re-emerge in the UK. But when the Atlantic Bar & Grill opened 10 years ago in a back street off London's Piccadilly Circus, things really began to stir. This venerable venue spawned a hundred lounge bars in the capital, and now it's relatively easy to get a decent drink without pretending to be Viscount Lindley.

Hotel bars recognised the shift to a more "loungey" atmosphere - in fact, some of them pioneered it - but it did mean that there was suddenly a lot more competition, and the difference between an upmarket style bar and a hotel bar became difficult to spot. For example, on my first visit to the Zeta bar at London's Hilton, I had no idea it was part of a hotel.

"Good. That was the whole idea," says Robbie Bargh of the Gorgeous Group, the hospitality consultant that helped create the Zeta concept. "Zeta was part of that early movement in hotel bars that had separate entrances, profiles and positions. Most hotels have now realised that they cannot survive on rack rate, conferences and banqueting alone. A successful bar can really add a great deal to the bottom line."

But how do you make the bar successful? Is it the design? The staff? The ability to identify Viscount Lindley? In the first instance, at least, Bargh believes it's the concept.

"People often think the design is the most important element," he says, "but what makes the design work is the concept - which is the people, the product and what we call the party or theatre. At Gorgeous Group, we have a training module that is called the Party Theory. This is all about taking the world of design, look and feel and adding the people, the product and the theatre - by doing this to the bar, the space comes to life."

Bargh defines the product as the individual elements that create the whole bar package, whether this be the cocktail menu, the wine list or the bar snacks. "Even the glassware tells the guests a great deal about the experience," he adds. "Quality, value and choice are what it is about."

And, of course, one of the major parts of creating your concept is targeting the customers you want in the bar. As Niall Cowan, food and beverage manager for the American Bar at London's Savoy, puts it: "A hotel bar has a wider range of guests to cater for than the average lounge bar. They come from every part of the world and the whole spectrum of society. You have to be prepared to welcome and cater to them all."

Gemma Bell, PR manager for the Long Bar at the Sanderson hotel in London, believes the hotel guests must come first. "Our hotel patrons have the priority," she says, "but we aim to attract a similar crowd for casual drinking. You need to get the focus right, as there's no point targeting a young, stylish crowd if your hotel caters for a traditional guest."

So, you've identified the need to balance the mix of hotel guests and visiting customers, you have a basic concept for the look and feel you want to project; now, what are the parts of the bar you really need to get right from the beginning?

"I think a bar needs to have a ‘wow' factor, especially in the incredibly competitive London market," Bell says, "and this is often delivered by the design. It has to look good and it must be comfortable, inviting and luxurious, enticing guests back after their first visit." Considering that she presides over the Long Bar's decadent design interior, created by Philippe Starck, her view is understandable, but what if you haven't got deep enough pockets to employ the latest ber-designer and indulge his whims?

"Well, the cocktail menu remains probably the single most important factor in making the bar credible," she adds. "It must be comprehensive, innovative and stylish if the aims are to attract the right crowd and compete with other leading bars. It's no longer good enough to list the same classic cocktails, such as a Mojito or Manhattan."

Jamie Stephenson, bar manager for Manchester's latest hotel style bar, Obsidian at the Arora International, firmly agrees. "We have not put any classic cocktails on our drinks list," he says. "Obviously, if a guest requests one we will be happy to make it, but we want to challenge our customers to try new drinks using new products and flavours. This also provokes an interaction with staff, as people discuss the merits of particular cocktails."

This ability to interact successfully with the customers is next in the tick-list if you want to create the perfect bar. Just ask Roger Benham, bar manager at the Light Bar in London's St Martin's Lane hotel. "Customer service and customer recognition is the most important point for me," he says. "As a manager I ‘work the room', making new contacts and recognising regulars. I ‘touch tables' to ensure our guests are happy, and I am often on first-name terms with our customers."

Alan B Cook, bar manager at the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz, in London, also believes hotels have the advantages over stand-alone venues in respect of customer service. "A hotel bar has greater resources for staff training," he says, "and this usually results in higher staff retention. It is important to us that employees of the Ritz feel pride and enthusiasm about working here. We personally welcome guests at the door of the hotel and bar, escort them to their tables, orders are taken - and guest name usage is encouraged."

Great customer service works when people have actually got to the bar, but is it important to use PR to get them through the door in the first place? "Budgeting for marketing is essential," Bargh says. "Once you've created a fantastic product, you need to shout it to the world. However, hire only PR agencies who you believe really understand the product. You need to give them a specific brief with key objectives and goals, then manage them effectively and evaluate their success. I would look for key individuals rather than big PR agencies."

Cowan from the Savoy agrees about the importance of PR. "These days," he says, "it's a vital tool in bringing a bar to the public's attention. Getting it featured in the right publications establishes it as a ‘destination venue', somewhere that will make an evening really special. It's like starting a whispering campaign. Attracting the odd celebrity doesn't hurt."

So, you've got Jodie Kidd and Kate Moss (preferably sans boyfriends) sipping Martinis at the bar, and a good crowd of regulars pretending to ignore them. But what happens when those fickle fashionistas move on to the Next Big Thing?

"It's important to try to retain customers over time by maintaining a consistent quality across the whole operation of the bar," says Bell. "But it is inevitable that guests will move on, and that's where PR can play a big role in getting new customers in. Ways of doing this include targeting specific groups, getting mentions in the latest publications, and promoting DJs on different nights with music that will attract different crowds."

Sometimes, a more radical revamp is required, as was undertaken recently by the Met Bar in London. The bar, located at the Metropolitan hotel on Park Lane, has been a principal haunt for celebrities since it opened in 1997. It has attracted the kind of A-list talent Richard and Judy can only dream of. In a bid to maintain its popularity, a design makeover was ordered.

"Key elements such as the red bar remain," says general manager Thomas J Orchard, "but we have changed the lighting scheme, replaced the dark timber floor with a lighter look, and installed a new sound system. A fresh cocktail list has been created and the staff have been through a week-long training course and have new Armani uniforms."

The bar intends to focus on its core remit of being a members' venue that is open to hotel guests. Memberships cannot simply be bought, as applications to join must be accepted by the Met Bar committee. "Part of our drive to increase the value of the membership is to increase the activities we put on in the bar," Orchard adds. "These include comedy nights, celebrity DJs, live bands and exclusive parties."

Finally, now that we've asked some of the leading lights about what makes a perfect bar, have they any advice gleaned from the major mistakes that some operators make?

Bargh says: "Bar owners should avoid discounting, compromising on quality, or cutting the training or marketing budgets." Cowan suggests: "Never use untrained staff, and avoid overcrowding." Cook says: "We don't allow customers to stand with drinks at the bar - or anywhere in the room, for that matter - and we don't take bookings from more than eight people. This maintains the intimate atmosphere of the bar."

If you need any further advice, I'll be at the end of the hotel bar, toying with a cocktail and chatting to Viscount Lindley. n

BOXHEAD: So you want the perfect hotel bar?

BOXTEXT: Design details: If you can afford to employ Philippe Starck to provide a "wow" factor, fantastic, darling. If not, don't worry, as it's more important to get your concept right.

Customer recognition: Take time to speak to regulars and "work the room" to make new contacts. This is essential to maintaining a consistent customer base.

Reward loyalty: Be good to your regular customers, offer discounts or VIP added extras. It's much easier to retain guests than bringing in a new set of people.

Make changes: A venue must evolve or it will go stale. Drinks menus should change seasonally, and there should be regular promotions, incentives and offers. Design-wise, soft furnishings, paintwork, etc, should be updated every 18 months, with more serious adjustments every three or four years.

Be individual: The key to the most successful venues is that each is seen as a bar in its own right, rather than simply the hotel's bar. A separate entrance can be essential to providing this atmosphere.

Marketing moves: Part of any budget for creating the bar should be set aside for marketing it. However, employ a PR company only if you feel they really understand your concept.

Mixed messages: If your hotel guests are older, it's not a wise move to employ bangin' House DJs in the bar. Know your audience, and learn to mix the guests with the passing trade.

Cocktail creations: The central product that you are offering in the bar is the drinks, so make sure they reflect the quality of the venue.

A changing cocktail menu is essential, with a mix of accessible and challenging concoctions.

Top team: Invest in knowledgeable, capable and enthusiastic staff. These people are selling the bar and its concept for you.

Take inspiration: Take time to look at the latest bars, hotel or stand-alone, and adapt elements you like for your own venture.

BOXHEAD: Six of the best

BOXTEXT: The Long Bar

Location: Sanderson hotel, London

Notable features: 80ft-long onyx rectangle bar and terrace garden

What's so good? Consistent quality; manages the difficult mix of VIP guests and casual drinkers with ease

Current cocktail: Pear Blossom, £10 (vanilla vodka, poire William, elderflower water muddled with pear and ginger)

The Rivoli Bar

Location: The Ritz, London

Notable features: intimate, luxurious space - but don't forget your jacket

What's so good? All the trappings of traditional five-star service with innovative drinks

Current cocktail: Red Hot Mexican, £12 (Agavero liqueur, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, cranberry juice, Angostura Bitters)

The Light Bar

Location: St Martin's Lane hotel, London

Notable features: the large, cheeky photographs of Philippe Starck's relatives pulling faces

What's so good? Steady style; never quite as groovy as its sister hotel, the Sanderson, but not as prone to the fickleness of fashion either

Current cocktail: Raspassion Martini, £9 (raspberries, passion fruit, passion and raspberry vodka, crŠme de framboise)

American Bar

Location: The Savoy, London

Notable features: jazz pianist who actually adds to the atmosphere

What's so good? A traditional venue with an easy-going elegance

Current cocktail: Sleigh Bells in The Snow, £11.50 (vanilla vodka, Galliano, amaretto, Orgeat Syrup, cream, Cape gooseberry)

Obsidian

Location: Arora International hotel, Manchester

Notable features: 50ft frosted-glass neon-backlit bar

What's so good? Adds a touch of metropolitan class to the Manchester drinking scene

Current cocktail: French Rock ‘n' Roll, £8.50 (La Fe‚ Parisian absinthe, peach and pistachio)

Met Bar

Location: Metropolitan hotel, London

Notable features: Still a VIP hangout

What's so good? Created an ambience that made people want to fight to get in

Current cocktail: Cinematic, £10 (Stolichnaya Raspberry, Zubrowka, apple juice, lime juice, cinnamon, crŠme de framboise, raspberries)

CAPTION: The bar's the star… Left: the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz; this picture: the Long Bar at the Sanderson hotel; below, left: the Light Bar at the St Martin's Lane hotel

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