Promo Playbook: Your Guide to Creating Eye-popping, Money-making Promotions

Your Guide to Creating Eye-popping, Money-making Promotions

Crowded bar

Promotions are the lifeblood of any nightclub or bar. A well-planned and executed promo program draws in customers and gets them spending. Savvy operators capture as much information and insights about those guests as possible — all the better to entice them back through the doors again and again. Great promotions take careful planning, so we tapped various experts for their two cents on what it takes to pull off money-making programs, events, contests and more. Read on for important dos and don’ts, as well as some inspiration to spark your next great promotion.

Sports Seasons/Events

Not a sports bar? It doesn’t matter. Sporting events are critical to a bar’s success. “Sports are one of the biggest opportunities we have during the year. It impacts all of us, from hotel bars to local bars and everywhere else,” says Jon Taffer, president of Taffer Dynamics and the Nightclub & Bar Media Group. “A guy who can master sports promotion can increase his revenue by 30 to 40 percent.” But how?

Sporting tips

• If you’re looking to attract a crowd on game day, first identify your target, Taffer says. Do you want patrons for a one-time event, like a UFC fight or the Indy 500, or are you looking for a continual season crowd, like NFL fans? For a single-night event, plan it similar to how you’d plan any promotion, but for an entire season, start promoting the event two to three weeks before the start of the season. “People choose where they’re going to spend their football season at the beginning of that season,” Taffer explains. “Once you’re past the first weekend, your chance of changing their place to go to has diminished greatly.”

• Develop “planks” on which to build your promotion, including food, beverage, entertainment and contests/giveaways — but offer something special rather than just discounting. Taffer recommends renaming chicken wings “barbells” for a fight night and offering them at a special price. “I’d rather see you change your chicken wings’ names and offer them at a lower price than take your regular chicken wings and discount them because then it doesn’t appear as if you’re discounting if [the wings have] a new name.”

• Start your own fan club. Located in a town with a popular pro sports team? Well, pick another team — or a few! If you’re located in Chicago, rather than being a Bears bar, become the official headquarters for the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers — whatever teams have a large fan base in your area. Divide your bar into various sections decorated in that team’s colors and feature servers wearing that team’s jersey. Your guests will feel at home in your bar and will come back for every game that season.

• Do something different. “Everybody in America does Monday Night Football promotions, and everybody’s watching the same game, and it’s on TV at home.” How can you stand out? Taffer suggests his always-popular “I Hate Football Mondays,” with specials marketed toward women. The trick: Keep the game on, so guys can come watch too and bask in the beauty of the women who showed up because they hate football.

• Get social. Use social media sites to find and market to fans of the team or event you’re promoting.

• Though marketing is crucial, a promotion won’t work unless it’s a truly clever idea. “Don’t leave the drawing board before it’s compelling,” he says.

Contests & Sweepstakes

Looking to pull off a stellar contest at your bar? The first step, says Annie Akin, executive vice president of Stafford, Texas-based Patrick Henry Creative Promotions (PHCP), is to make sure it is legal; you might even consider hiring a lawyer to help create the rules. Vito Finizio, promotional consultant with Vacation Adventures International, warns against tying a contest to the number of drinks purchased, due to potential legal ramifications. Additionally, he notes: “You’re going to get the townspeople up in arms, and you’re going to put up a flashing light for the police department to come sit outside your place at the end of the night.”

Once you’re clear on legalities, consider these other tips of the trade:

• Offer a prize that’s relevant to your audience such as tickets for a chick flick movie premiere at a female-focused bar or a barbecue grill at a neighborhood pub, Akin says. “Matching the prize with your guests will get your guests to come back in or visit your website again and again in hopes of winning the prize.”

• Your bartenders, busboys and barbacks are in constant contact with guests, so they know what guests want — ask them for contest ideas, Finizio suggests.

• While you’re at it, have them promote for you. Finizio recommends giving everyone on staff his or her own business cards that promote an event to pass out to guests; when event time comes, guests turn in the business cards and the staff member with the most cards turned in wins a prize.

• Pinpoint exactly what you want the contest to achieve — increase repeat business? capture personal information for marketing? promote a product? — then build your promotion around that, Akin says.

• Make sure the event won’t offend the community or cause a controversy, Finizio warns. “This will undermine all the hard work you have done so far in establishing a name for yourself.” A good idea: hold a contest to raise money for a local organization or charity, where the biggest fundraiser wins a prize. It’s a win-win!

• Start planning promotions three months out, and then heavily market two to three weeks out, Finizio suggests. “Planning, planning and more planning, that’s it!”


How do you convince guests to try something beyond their go-to beer or Vodka Tonic? Offer something they won’t want to miss out on! Remember, stick to your roots — a fruity, umbrella-garnished drink won’t go over well in a male-dominated sports bar, while a shooter special won’t work for a cocktail-driven crowd, no matter how great the deal.

Dos and Don'ts:

• Do create and promote a signature drink that appeals to your guests. Try a collection of beer cocktails for a neighborhood pub or a glow-in-the-dark drink featuring a glow stick or glowing cube at a dark nightclub, suggests PHCP’s Akin. “This eye-catcher is sure to garner sales and is worth the investment in glow cubes or sticks to secure the extra sales,” she says.

• Do offer value but don’t drop the price. Price your drink so you’ll make money, and present it so guests want to buy it. Akin says serving oversized drinks, such as a 22-ounce pilsner or “more-than-ones” (cocktails with extra beverage in a shaker or carafe) are profitable options, allowing guests to pour more than one drink into their glass.

• Do use pictures in table tents, menus and other marketing materials for the promotion. People drink with their eyes.

• Do set a goal and then go after it. Want to attract women for happy hour? Offer lower-calorie cocktails with fun, flirty names like the Red Stiletto or the Little Bitty Bikini, Akin suggests.

• Don’t forget to train employees. “The best POS is a well-trained staff,” Akin says. “Make sure you have provided your staff with a script for selling the drink or features, make sure they have tasted it and can talk about it with relish and gusto.”

Food & Beverage

Let’s face it: Sometimes — well, all of the time — guests need to subsist off something more than just drinks. What’s more, selling food also can keep people in your place longer and can minimize the risk of over-consumption. The real beauty lies in the fact that effective promotion of food items can allow you to maintain drink margins.

For starters…

• Show — don’t just tell — guests your specials. “A chalkboard with the special out front is a good start, but a menu insert or table tent with an attractive photo will sell up to 25 percent more,” says Mark Vidano, vice president of operations for the Mission Viejo, Calif.-based sales promotion agency MarkeTeam Inc. One tip: Make sure you use high-resolution photography so the graphic is high quality.

• Real sales come from staff recommendations. Have staff taste all the promotional items — food and drink — before each shift, and encourage them to promote the specials, says Brad Horner, manager of premier accounts and corporate mixologist for MarkeTeam.

• Use familiar brands, even though they can cost more, Vidano says. It provides value and comfort to the guests, and it’s something they’re willing to pay for. “A drink selling for $5 at a 20 percent cost provides $4 contribution, and a drink at $7 at a 40 percent cost still gives you $4.20,” he explains. It all adds up, especially when you add a special food order to that total.

• Offer sales incentives and competitions. “An incentive helps make the shift go by faster, and it becomes fun for the staff,” Vidano notes. Create teams for the contest — including your back-of-the-house staff in some way — to create camaraderie.

• Don’t fear small plates during happy hour or late-night. “The operators that are doing a good job with this are finding increased visits and either a flat or increased average check because they don’t have to do a lot of beverage discounting,” Vidano says.

• Offer happy hour on more days or start it mid-afternoon to build an early crowd sampling your food and beverages.


You have huge amounts of beers on tap and even more in bottles, but how can you get them moving through the tap lines or out of the cooler? Offer variety, says MarkeTeam’s Horner. “There are tons of beer brands out there that will fit your concept. Make sure you end up with a healthy selection that will appeal to different tastes,” rather than offering five kinds of a similar-style beer, he says.

Some Other Dos and Don’ts:

• Do organize a “Mug Club” for your loyal guests in which regulars get discounts, awards or recognition, says MarkeTeam’s Vidano. “Reinforce this ‘community’ through golf tournaments, softball games and Mug-Club-only events,” he suggests.

• Don’t just promote cheap beer — offer value. Have an upscale or craft-beer-focused spot? Try a beer pairing dinner with information from a local brewer or the bar manager on why each beer pairs well with each style of food.

• At the same time, do know your audience. If you’re not a serious beer bar, then your best bet is to offer discounts on beer, Vidano says. “A place that’s not really known for having a wide selection of beer or having a beer-centric concept probably won’t get credit or noticed for doing something [creative] around beer.” For those who are, though, drive traffic through interesting monthly features or by offering rare styles of beer.

• Do create something beyond the beer itself, like beer cocktails, and highlight them on the menu, the chalkboard, through bartender suggestion and in promotional programs.

• Don’t forget about your distributor. “They can coordinate getting a brewer in for a special event, POP to help promote and even help start your promo with some of their employees attending,” explains Vidano.

Wines By the Glass

It’s no easy task getting your guests out of their wine comfort zones, which is exactly why wine-by-the-glass promotions are so critical to your business: They get patrons trying different, more expensive varietals they normally wouldn’t purchase. David Pennachetti, president of Wine Guru Services LLC, says a trained staff, a knowledge of wines and smart pricing are the keys to a successful wine promotion.

• Do your homework and know what wines are selling well. The most successful promotions are ones that offer premium and super-premium wines that guests would otherwise not order. “With any promotion, you’re always trying to sell more glasses overall or higher priced glasses than your current average price,” he says.

• Think seasonal. Run promotions on lighter wines in the summer/spring and heartier wines in the fall/winter.

• Stick with your bar/restaurant’s theme. If you serve Italian fare, promote wines from Italy; if you’re a seafood spot, promote Cabernet Sauvignon. Offer steak? Promote red blends.

• Pair wine specials with specific dishes; wine sells food and food sells wine. Train service staff to explain the rationale behind the promoted pairings.

• Plan ahead about a month to get all the marketing tools in place and run the promotion for four to six weeks. Another suggestion to get more bang for your buck: Run red and white wine promotions at the same time.

• Your staff is your most important marketing tool. Train them to understand the wine they’re selling. Have them carry the promoted wine to the table, giving guests a visual of what’s being offered.

• Don’t promote wines that are hard to pronounce, unless you can really focus on proper pronunciation in your training. The server won’t be confident selling it, and your guest will hesitate to order it.


Nothing keeps the energy up at a nightclub or bar like the music playing on the sound system, so give guests what they want. Jeffrey Yarbrough, CEO of PR/marketing firm bigInk and partner in Naga Thai Kitchen and Bar, both in Dallas, and Mike Esterman, CEO of celebrity booking agency Esterman Entertainment, both say music promotions are a boon for business — as long as you understand your market.

• Think big. Big name artists can bring publicity and hype to your venue, which means new guests as well as previous patrons who haven’t been in lately will turn out, Yarbrough explains.

• Look to trends, like hiring female DJs to spin at your club. Esterman says you can bring in a great female DJ for $1,500 and pack your club “not only for the meet and greet aspect but for a great DJ performance.”

• “Don’t oversell the event. Make sure there is room for everyone who purchased a ticket. Crowded is good, but dangerously overcrowded shows will cost you more in the end,” Yarbrough says.

• Turn a one-nighter into a two-night event. Yarbrough remembers his successful Rock Cocktails promotion: On one night, 20 musicians put their names in a bowl and split into five bands. Also that night, the bands drew song selections, and then reconvened to show off their music skills the next week. In this way, Yarbrough says, the bar brought in guests for both the drawing and the following show.

• Size doesn’t matter. Esterman says a club doesn’t have to be big to land a great musical act. Look to sponsors to help pay for fees, and use booking agents, who will guarantee a musician must perform for a set amount of time.

• Market, market, market. Yarbrough suggests pushing the event early and often, but especially the day of, as many people don’t set plans until the last minute.

• Hire a PR person who can talk to media outlets and bloggers, creating free publicity for your promotional event.

Bottle Service

Bottle service promotions can dictate a guest’s experience and, more importantly, determine if they’ll come back to your venue. It’s your job to make their bottle service experience stand out. After all, even when bottles are part of promotions, these patrons are paying good money to be treated like VIPs. Rob Casillas, president/founder of the Monsoon Group of Las Vegas, says planning a truly unique bottle service promotion takes anywhere from 30-45 days, but it can also be pulled off in a couple weeks, if demand is there.

• Create a bottle service area. “The only reason people purchase bottle service is for the experience. They want to stand out and be noticed,” Casillas explains.

• Coordinate with alcohol brand reps and distributors for sponsorship support. They can help with promotional materials and products.

• Make bottle service exclusive and in-demand: add roses or other flourishes as decoration or light candles for ambiance, and feature promoted bottles on high-quality menus, Casillas recommends. Also, be sure to have security personnel in the area; this avoids “crashers” and ramps up the exclusive feel.

• Special events such as DJs and celebrity appearances bring bottle service clients to a venue, but other promotions work just as well. Casillas suggests bottle service packages for bachelorette and bachelor parties or birthdays, for example.

• Know your demographic and what they’re drinking. “Country bars can promote Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and tequilas, whereas in dance and electronic music venues [you should] showcase vodkas,” Casillas says.
n Don’t be afraid to comp. “If I comp a bottle of vodka to bring in a group of 10, how fast will it go [before they buy another]? And what do you think those 10 people will be talking about on Facebook all week or month?”


Not everyone wants an alcohol beverage on a night out, so it’s important to offer alcohol-free alternatives. But don’t skimp on taste or style. Bob Hager, vice president of marketing at Monin Gourmet Flavorings, says
appealing and high-quality alcohol-free beverages will entice customers into paying premium prices, as long as you make those options visible through a commitment to server training and clever promotions.

• Know the lingo. “Alcohol-free is the phrase of the day,” says Robert Plotkin, author, trade writer, beverage consultant for BarMedia and He advises against using the word “non-alcoholic,” an antiquated term that suggests a drink is missing an integral ingredient.

• Look beyond the typical ingredients stocked behind the bar and use innovative and trendy flavors like acai, mango, papaya, kiwi, etc.

• If you’re making alcohol-free drinks that are fresh and unique, then make sure your staff knows how to sell them. Showcasing a high-quality alcohol-free drink that just happens to be on a special promotion raises check averages — always a good thing for your business.

• Bundle your promotions. George Kish Sr., marketing manager for Coca-Cola Foodservice, suggests coupling alcohol-free beverage promotions with designated driver promotions in which you discount alcohol-free drinks for the driver. Or, he says, you can create a late-night package deal, serving food alongside a specialty drink. “The advantages of the package are threefold: the operator increases the value of the consumer experience, it’s socially responsible and it increases the operators’ check averages.”

• Market alcohol-free drinks as skinny, low-cal alternatives.

• Check out innovative alcohol-free recipes on page 8.

Parties & Events

Yarbrough of bigInk PR, Esterman of Esterman Entertainment and Jennifer Cox, president of RealityRox and Take 5 Productions, agree: Everyone loves a party. Once you know what type of party your patrons want, your nightclub or bar can pull off some of the best events in the area. One tip: Make sure you have enough time to plan the event — Yarbrough suggests starting 90 days out — and then you’ll pack in patrons and bring in revenue to your establishment.

• Beware of scams. Esterman and Cox have seen many nightclub and bar operators be scammed out of money by working with promoters who don’t know what they’re doing. “Be wary of agents that want to e-mail or text rather than speak to you over the phone, and walk away if they [do],” Cox says.

• “Never, under any circumstances, do an event promotion without a [written] contract,” Cox says.

• Use celebrities, especially red hot reality stars. They are a cost effective and a low maintenance promotional tool for your venue. The casts of “Real Housewives,”  “Jersey Shore” and “Dancing with the Stars” currently are big draws for clubs.

• Brainstorm ideas with staff — and guests. Esterman suggests getting your patrons involved by having a hostess walk around asking guests about what or whom they want to see at your venue.

• “Throw parties that fit the season,” Yarbrough says. He suggests throwing a Mojito Madness rum tasting with a sponsored brand in the summer. It teaches your guests about the product, they have a great time and vendor support helps with educational and marketing material costs. NCB

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