A welcome-reception drink is often your first opportunity to make an impression on meeting attendees. Yet, increasingly, beverage service — particularly beer, wine and cocktails — is more than just an icebreaker. An innovative bar can generate interest and a positive buzz and make your meeting more of an experience, according to Lou Trope, Marriott International’s vice president of restaurant, bars and events operations.
Trope and his team challenge themselves to continually come up with presentations, offerings and services that are unique, consistent and flavorful and to give guests something to talk about. Meetings Imagined caught up with Trope for an in-depth conversation on how beverages can enhance the event experience.
Q: What role does beverage service — especially cocktails, beer, wine, etc. — play in the event experience?
I think it really gives the host the opportunity to put a stamp on the event. People love beer and wine and food. So for example, if you’re having a corporate event, you can do crowdsourcing prior to your event to decide what featured cocktail you want to serve. Then you can batch the [chosen] cocktail and have it as part of the event almost immediately. You need probably a half an hour lead time.
You’re seeing more unique things with barrel-aged cocktails and unique wines in the event space. So your beverage program can really become a talking point. And as we know with the new Gen-Y traveler, they’re really looking for those talking points on what’s interesting. So rather than go to a banquet bar — and it’s the same old six beers that I see everywhere — maybe there’s a couple of beers that stand out, maybe a couple of micro/local beers that are really interesting to me. Maybe there’s a great cocktail on tap. Or there’s one station that’s dedicated to a fantastic mixologist.
You want people to share your event on social media and talk about it. If you can do that through your beverage experience, you’re miles ahead of where you would be just having a basic banquet bar.
Q: What trends in beverage service are you seeing right now?
First of all, you’re still seeing the craft-beer movement; that’s been a key for quite a few years, and it continues to rise. You’re also seeing artisan spirits starting to show up in the market, which brings a unique opportunity to bring a micro/local product into the event space and do something unique with it. You’re also seeing singular cocktail stations. For example, you’ll see a Manhattan station, a mojito station, a margarita station. They’re using high-end products and adding different twists to create a unique experience. You’re also seeing the rise of tap wines, giving the guests an opportunity to experience a higher-end, quality wine as intended by the winemaker. I always refer to it as a barrel tasting, and it enables the bar to move a lot quicker, so your guests can be serviced a lot faster.
Q: How does the emphasis on healthy eating and drinking dovetail with these trends? Are you seeing guests looking for healthy alternatives?
We’re seeing people being more conscious of [health], and first and foremost it comes down to having a fresh juice program. So artificial juices are never part of a good mixology program. You want to have fresh lime, fresh lemon — where possible, fresh and unique fruit juices local to that region. You want to have natural sweeteners, so you should hand mix a simple syrup or use agave syrup and things of that sort to keep things real.
We’ve also seen the influence of pomegranate and some of the superfruits coming into mixology…. And I think people are always a little bit more conscious about the health benefits of drinking wine. Of course, we want people to consume in a responsible manner, but the more freshness and seasonal products that we can introduce into the event space, particularly in beverage, the better off we are.
Q: Sounds like you’re constantly innovating. What are some of the more unique beverage services you’ve offered recently?
We’ve recently looked to be a little more interactive. For example, we had an event several months ago, where we did an interactive mojito station. It wasn’t for a large group, but what we did was set up a muddling station, where the guests got to choose from six or seven different varieties of fruit; we had six or seven different flavors of rum, and we had our classic mojito recipe. By using the base mojito recipe and transitioning out the fruit or the rum flavor, you will always have a fantastic mojito. We got the guests involved muddling their drinks, and then the bartender would finish it. The guests really got a kick out of it.
Another one we did was a Manhattan three different ways. So we did a white Manhattan using a white whiskey; we did a classic Manhattan that we aged in oak barrels and had a smoky flavor with great big ice cubes; then we did a flavored Manhattan using a flavored bourbon. That was very interactive.
We also did one with Old Fashioneds and mules, where we did several different mules and we had guests vote through social media on which one was their favorite. The same thing with different Old Fashioneds from different parts of the world. That interactive, crowdsourcing element gets the guests involved in the experience; it’s a benefit to everyone.
Q: What are some common misconceptions meeting planners have when it comes to serving food and drink at a meeting?
When you think about the way we eat today, people are eating more and more seasonal and regional cuisine. As a meeting planner, you should be asking, “What are the seasonal products that are in-house?” You should not just check the box for the bar. You should have the same level of conversation about the nuances of the bar as you do about your food, because that’s really an opportunity. That’s the first impression that you’re going to put in the guest’s hand as soon as they walk in the [meeting] space to really start creating that unique experience for your guests right off the bat.
In addition, paying the same amount of attention to all of your food and beverage programming is very, very important. Even on a simple coffee break, there’s an opportunity to make it a unique experience for the guests by bringing in some fresh products, some seasonal products, some unique soft drinks, some unique teas to differentiate your meeting from others that your attendees have been to in the past.
Q: You’ve mentioned fresh and seasonal ingredients several times. Are you seeing the “locavore” movement at events?
It comes up more and more, and as we’ve seen the booking window get shorter, that conversation can happen easily now. So in the past, when the booking window may have been 60-plus days, now in some cases you’re looking at as few as 30 days or less. So when you’re less than 30 days out, it’s easy to have that conversation. Most of our hotels have relationships with local farmers, where they can make those connections and can reach out to that farm and say, “I have a large group and I need X amount of clustered tomatoes. Can you supply me that? I need some donut peaches. Can you supply me them?” Those conversations happen every day, and as an event planner — whether it’s a social event or a business meeting — you have the opportunity to ask those questions, if you feel your group would enjoy it.
Q: With the continuing rise in consumption and the growing interest in wine (particularly in the United States), can you share some specific ideas on how to work wine into a business event?
We’re definitely seeing the interest in wine is growing, and I think one of the reasons for that is that the generation right now that is new to the drinking age is still exploring their likes and dislikes. This generation grew up with coffee drinks, with stronger flavor profiles. So they’re getting deeper into the varietals faster than previous generations. In the past, you may have seen the white zinfandels rule the day. What I’m pleased to see right now is there’s sort of an underground surge in proper rosés. And the wines are more approachable right now. They’re at better price points, where you don’t have to spend $60 for a great bottle of wine. You can spend half of that and get a great bottle of wine. The consumer is much better educated. Product is much more available. The wines are definitely more balanced.
Q: Are there strategies for making wine less intimidating for the non-enthusiast or casual wine drinker?
When you talk about wine in general, it’s very easy to get wrapped around the geek-speak. How many months in what type of barrel? What was the appellation? And that’s important and interesting to a select minority of your guests. At the end of the day, however, what we ask our servers and our managers to do is find the wines that they like. Find the stories behind those wines and talk to me about those wines like I’m a real human being.
Q: Any other advice for meeting planners?
I would challenge meeting planners to think about the traditional meals differently. “Do I need three meals a day? Can I get away with a grazing strategy throughout the day? How do I keep my attendees active through the day and eating the right things to keep them motivated? How do I keep my guests fueled through the day if I’m in a long meeting? I don’t need to do a heavy lunch every time. I can do lighter lunches that are more interactive.” So really thinking about the purpose of the meeting is really crucial to the menu planning and what they want to accomplish.