Bringing Back the Bar

With a Clear Vision and a Plan, Marriott Reinvents the Hotel Bar

Think of a time when the hotel bar reigned supreme: hotel guests and after-work crowds mingle in the stylishly appointed lounge while a bartender diligently crafts cocktails, taking care to use only the freshest ingredients.

While some might imagine the 1940s and ’50s, in reality, that time is now, as today’s hotel operators place more and more attention on the bar as a revenue generator and a vital factor in a property’s ability to step ahead of the competition. The resurgence of the hotel bar comes with an increased emphasis on fresh cocktails, ramped up technology and functional yet attractive bar design.

Leading the chain hotel world in bringing the bar back is Marriott International. Given that the Bethesda, Md.-based company owns and operates more than 3,200 hotels worldwide, the impact of its initiative on hotel bar design and operation, as well as guest perceptions and expectations of hotel bars, is sure to be substantial.

Crafting Quality
Marriott’s revamped beverage concept began in 2007 with its inception of the BarArts program, developed among Marriott bartenders from around the world as well as top-echelon mixology consultants including Dale DeGroff. The program focuses on intelligent bar design, high-quality products and exemplary execution. All juices used in cocktails are fresh, and each Marriott property is equipped with standard recipes from the BarArts program and guidelines to create property-specific concoctions, based off a secretive “universal formula,” according to Matthew Von Ertfelda, vice president of restaurants and bars at Marriott.

“We noticed the trend among independents, both independent bars and boutique hotels with well-run bar operations, that fresh, hand-crafted cocktails were very de rigueur and no one in the [chain] hotel segment was recognizing that at the time,” he says.

Marriott introduced the BarArts program and quickly made it a brand standard throughout its Marriott Hotels & Resorts, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts and Renaissance Hotels & Resorts brands; Renaissance then built on BarArts with the introduction of its Cocktail Culture program, which was developed by London-based consulting firm the Gorgeous Group and further focuses on the cocktail craft. Meeting the BarArts brand standard not only requires implementation of fresh juices and core recipes, but also demands extensive bartender training, including daily pour tests, mixology courses and an online certification program.

“They need to warm up before they take the field,” explains Jack Rutigliano, food and beverage director for the Boston Marriott Copley Place and its newly opened Champions Sports Bar & Restaurant. At Champions Boston, which is part of a Marriott sports bar concept with 33 operations open worldwide, bartenders went through about a week of training with Orlando, Fla.-based Bar Starz before opening in June.

The training has honed the bartenders’ skills — they can free pour “within 1/16 of an ounce,” Rutigliano boasts — and also their sense of worth as employees. “They feel valued because we spent that amount of time and money putting them through this training. It’s not the typical training that bartenders get when they start a job,” he notes.

But while high-quality, well-made drinks can keep patrons for a while, it’s the bar’s design that draws them in — and perhaps keeps them longer. What’s more, a bar that’s well-designed from the operational standpoint ensures that bartenders can churn out such cocktails consistently while also delivering top-notch customer service, so Marriott kept both form and function in mind while implementing the BarArts program.

Creating the Experience
“There was an opportunity to create a beverage program with fresh-juice-based, hand-crafted cocktails prepared with absolute consistency throughout every hotel,” Von Ertfelda explains of the program’s inception. “And it also was to be a program that spoke to the overall experience and how to craft an appropriate bar experience.”

Developing that bar experience included a focus on both functional and ergonomic design for the bartenders as well as aesthetic design for patrons, from ideal lighting to guest interaction.

After working with Marriott bartenders, DeGroff and the Gorgeous Group — a consulting firm that specializes in bar operations, including design and conception, drink development and bartender training — Marriott settled on brand-specific beverage programs and bar design direction that would support high-end mixology, Von Ertfelda explains. That meant allowing adequate space for equipment and glassware as well as vital elements of a cocktail bar like spirits, juices and syrups — plus having it all in the right place.

Von Ertfelda explains Marriott’s initial bar design plan as first mapping out the functional aspects, such as jockey boxes, refrigeration units and glassware space, then checking that the back bar can accommodate the spirit selection and “deliver your beverage program.” The plan’s last step is making sure the bar works aesthetically, adding artifacts or lighting as the final (yet still crucial) touch.

“Something that really irks us is when the aesthetics are not balanced with the functional needs,” Von Ertfelda says. “For example, we’re very tuned in to where glassware storage should be, so we ensure that it’s not [placed] in prime real estate on the back bar; we’ll provide a dedicated shelf on the back bar so it doesn’t detract from the back bar display.”

Maximum Impact
The back bar display is a key component of each Marriott bar, whether it serves as an opportunity to draw patrons in to the venue, a way to anchor a lobby or a talking point for visitors.

Some of the Marriott venues serve three meals per day, so a spirits display is not exactly appropriate for breakfast. To compensate, rotating display units (RDUs) are installed in many venues. During breakfast, the back bar is obscured by panels displaying appropriate images; during the afternoon, the units turn to reveal the spirits bottles.

The Boston Champions uses the RDUs to highlight the spirits later in the day, while a curved wall of LED lighting also changes as the day progresses to set the mood of the venue, according to Jim Stanislaski, senior architect at architecture and interior design firm Gensler, headquartered in San Francisco. During a public space overhaul expected to be completed by January 2010, Gensler redesigned Champions, the front desk area and the meeting rooms, moving Champions from the first floor to the second to take advantage of the pedestrian thoroughfare at Copley Place Mall and the Shops at the Prudential Center, and shifting the original second-floor lobby to the first floor.

But perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of the back bar is Champions’ use of televisions: In front of the LED wall hang nine of the venue’s more than 40 flat-screen TVs.

The high-definition TVs and sports focus created a theme, which is vital to Marriott bars. “We spend a lot of time underlining the importance of concept, personality and identity of our restaurants and bars, so just to have a [typical] watering hole is unacceptable,” Von Ertfelda says.

“Boston is known for its sports teams,  also for higher education and technology, so we wanted to combine the two,” explains Alex Fernandez, senior associate with Gensler.

And so went the design: down came the memorabilia that adorned the downstairs location; up went plasma televisions and a 12-foot-by-24-foot viewing screen that can show up to six games at once, which Rutigliano calls the “hook to get people to look into the space.”

As for the bar itself, Gensler designed a semi-circular bar and worked with bar consultants to ensure the equipment was properly placed and fit correctly behind the bar. The curved bar provides a unique setup for both guest and bartender. “The semi-circular shape of the bar lends itself to a sense of privacy for the patrons — a sense of their own space — but it also gives a sense of openness and gives the bartender space,” Stanislaski explains.

At a new sports bar concept from Marriott, High Velocity at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the goal of designers was to make a “contemporary, gender-neutral” sports bar, Von Ertfelda explains, a goal that resonates throughout the Marriott sports bar realm as a means to increase traffic.

The bar, the first of its kind from Marriott, took the place of the Champions concept at the hotel. Gone was the dark, wood-heavy area with memorabilia hanging on the walls and small TVs above the center bar, replaced by a light, open area with projection screens, flat-screen TVs and cozy viewing areas. Liz Neiswander, principal and hospitality interior leader for Atlanta-based tvsdesign, explains, “It was concepted more as a media bar, a high-energy place where you could come together to watch everything from the Super Bowl to the Academy Awards.”

High Velocity came to the Atlanta Marriott as part of a public space redesign by tvsdesign that involved two more brand-new concepts: Sear, the hotel’s three day part restaurant and fine-dining venue, and Pulse, the lobby bar.

Sear needed to have a functional yet upscale feel, Neiswander explains. Located next to Pulse (to take advantage of a shared kitchen), Sear features an intimate bar and a vast wine collection, so wine display became a major element of the area’s design.

And just outside of Sear lays the “heart” of the hotel, Pulse. Building upon the original atrium design by John Portman, Neiswander and her team developed an illuminated bar structure resembling a sail that can change color or even serve as a projection screen for TV or other images. Because it stands in the center of the atrium and can be approached by guests on all sides, proper and clean bar design was critical. “Nothing is hidden, so everything needed to be thought through,” Neiswander says.

The bar itself “anchors the space,” in Von Ertfelda’s words. “It’s a very distinctive design. It’s a beacon, and I think it’s a good example of where we want to go in terms of our lobby design: always being distinctive and relevant.”

The inception of the BarArts initiative, with its fresh cocktails, improved bartender service and renewed bar design, has prompted a notable increase in sales and traffic across all Marriott properties, Von Ertfelda says, citing “numerable instances” where revenue and profits have exceeded corporate expectations. “The level of activity in our public spaces has increased dramatically, and the GSS (guest satisfaction scores) have gone up substantially, both in terms of quality of food and beverage offering as well as service and overall atmosphere,” he explains. And sales — particularly with beverages — have been up significantly at Champions Boston since its opening, according to Rutigliano.

So far, it seems the team at Marriott has succeeded in achieving its goals: to “activate public space and to drive guest satisfaction by providing guests with exciting drinking options on property,” according to Von Ertfelda.

“There was a time when hotels only offered the staid, quiet, soulless lobby bars that were very ordinary in design,” he said. “They ensured that our lobbies were really just transient points versus spaces were you would linger and enjoy the company of friends, colleagues and other guests.”

Luckily, at Marriott properties, those days are gone. NCB

Hotel Bar Hopping

A number of cutting-edge hotel companies are implementing new bar concepts and plans designed to drive traffic, sales and guest satisfaction.

Desires Hotels
Boutique hotel company Desires Hotels, headquartered in Miami with 10 properties around the country, initiated its “Select Your Altitude to Accommodate Your Attitude” program this summer where guests choose the level at which they’d like to party (lounging, dining, listening to live music or dancing in a club) and the place they’d like to do it (terrace lounges, restaurants or rooftop bars).

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
Always an F&B innovator, San Francisco-based Kimpton, which operates more than 50 restaurants and nearly 50 hotels in North America, presents its newest venture: NIOS, a regional American restaurant and wine bar located adjacent to The Muse New York in the Big Apple. The venue’s wine program is directed by Master Sommelier Emily Wines, and Puccini Group redesigned the restaurant. The 52-seat eatery features a marble-topped bar, offset with beveled mirrors to resemble subway tiles. The video art pulls from the restaurant’s namesake of the nine muses of Greek mythology by embodying modern-day muses in New York, like a violinist on the Brooklyn Bridge or an artist in front of the Flatiron building. Even the bathrooms have a quirky, Kimpton-esque twist: Each of the six unisex restrooms features a “pick your personality” theme that illustrates a vice: glam, vanity, rebel, macho, lust and envy.

NYLO Hotels
All three NYLO properties (Warwick, R.I., and Plano and Las Colinas, Texas) feature hip bar scenes at The Loft. Located on the first floor, each Loft features a restaurant, bar, game room and more, with designer couches, a custom bar and original artwork that speaks to the locale. Its most recent opening, NYLO Dallas/Las Colinas, offers a sleek Texan vibe, with black chandeliers shaped like longhorns and star-covered carpeting, tipping its hat to the Lone Star State.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide
One of the newest brands filling the 966-hotel portfolio of White Plains, N.Y.’s Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is Aloft Hotels. Each property features the w xyz bar, where signature cocktails, house-made infused spirits and evening events make the bar a hotspot — especially its happy hour, twilight @ w xyz. Every night at 5 p.m., as the venue changes from daytime to evening, an oversized video wall displays rotating sunsets and colorful carriages behind the bar open up to reveal a backlit back bar. Twilight @ w xyz features different signature cocktails each weeknight.

Wyndham Worldwide
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, a brand under Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Worldwide, which offers 7,024 hotels and 11 hotel brands around the world, soon will roll out its new core wine and spirits menu focusing on organic options. Also, Wyndham is taking advantage of the trend of lobby spaces becoming more communal: Its new Eat. Refresh. Live. program involves a combination café, barista and food mart, and the café transforms from a coffee bar by day to a cocktail bar at night.


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