With an unpredictable economy, many independent bars and clubs are struggling to stay afloat. Not only do you, as an owner, have to work hard to keep loyal guests on the barstools, you have to attract new clientele as well. It certainly isn’t easy; many businesses are left floundering. Yet, even as times get tougher, owners and community leaders are getting smarter. Local co-op marketing events, such as pub crawls, contests and musical concerts, that involve several bars, clubs and restaurants in one communal area create a persuasive incentive for patrons to try new places, rewarding bars and clubs with higher traffic and profits in the process.
While it may sound counterintuitive — why should we help promote bars other than our own? — creating a public event that engages other restaurants, bars and clubs in your area can be advantageous if the event is both unique and creates value in your community. The goal is to grow a fan base for your neighborhood, which ultimately helps local establishments gain traction and brings sought-after demographics to the area.
“You’re creating more of a community, and that community can share in it,” explains Tyson Yirak, vice president of operations at Fizz, a word-of-mouth marketing agency based in Atlanta. When putting on events that require the participation of multiple businesses, success is determined by “what the story is,” continues Ted Wright, CEO at Fizz. “It has to be interesting, relevant and authentic.”
Hunter Wilson takes this to heart. As executive director/owner of CarolinaNightlife.com, a nightlife resource guide that is part of The Nightlife Network, Hunter puts on bar and club events in the Charlotte, N.C., region, such as the popular Where’s Waldo Bar Crawl. Attendees dress up as Waldo and Wanda —characters from the popular children’s book series, “Where’s Waldo?” — and try to break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed as the “Where’s Waldo?” clan. Held at the EpiCentre, Charlotte’s entertainment complex, the bar crawl drew more than 892 people last year. Wilson says this creates value for businesses because it offers participants not only a unique incentive — breaking a world record — but also good deals on drinks and food.
Community events, such as the Where’s Waldo Bar Crawl in Charlotte, N.C., create repeat business because of unique value incentives.
“People are looking for deals and specials. Working with neighborhood bars and businesses around you adds greater value to customers — one particular venue couldn’t do it alone,” he says.
The real benefit, he adds, is that most bar owners experience higher profits not only during co-op marketing events, but also they see those guests coming back for repeat business, resulting in continuously higher profits.
A city staple in Billings, Mont., the annual Fat Tuesday Pub Crawl combines the fun of Mardi Gras with a good cause: Pub-crawl proceeds are donated to a local Billings charity or an individual in need. Andy Gregory is bar manager at Rowdy’s, one of the event’s participating bars that is geared toward a college-aged crowd. New to the Billings bar scene, Rowdy’s is less than a year old; the bar’s participation in the pub crawl was a smart way to introduce the establishment to the local clientele. Plus, the event allowed him to get to know and work with his competitors.
“The community involvement is kind of a big deal. Everyone knows everyone, and we all take care of each other,” he says of the relationships among the bars in the area. “We fight against each other, too, but when it comes to the pub crawl and helping other people out and stimulating other people and the economy, it seems to work out better to put our differences aside and work together."
Co-op Marketing Pays Off
When bars line the streets, the idea of cooperative marketing and working with competitors can be tenuous. However, the close-knit neighborhood feel pervasive in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb 10 miles west of downtown Cleveland, actually helps everyone’s business. Shawn Juris, owner of property and casualty insurance company The Juris Agency and a member of the Pillars of Lakewood, a division of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce, believed the town was in a need of a signature event, so he created the Lakewood Wing Crawl six years ago.
Bar owners pay $100 to participate, “an entry fee that isn’t essential but shows a level of commitment,” Juris says, and sponsorships from Pinnacle Vodka and Magic Hat Brewing Company helped curb expenses during last August’s one-day-only event. For $15 to $20 (price varies for early bird vs. day-of registration), attendees receive four wings at each establishment, two featuring Buffalo wing sauce and two doused in a flavor of the establishment’s choice; however, drinks are bought separately, though “beer and shots [from sponsors Magic Hat and Pinnacle Vodka] are a consistent price for everybody,” Juris explains.
At the last stop, patrons vote for the People’s Choice Buffalo-style and open flavor wings, while judges — usually local Cleveland celebrities — vote on the Judge’s Choice for best Buffalo and open flavor wings; winning establishments receive a plaque and bragging rights.
Juris provides businesses with postcards and uses social networking to get the word out, but most of the onus is on the participating bars. The word-of-mouth and grassroots marketing campaign garnered 850 attendees this year.
Wilson manages marketing for Charlotte’s Where’s Waldo Bar Crawl a bit differently: “We have [the bars] agree to split the marketing initiatives. One bar will do a radio spot, another bar will do an ad in print — everyone contributes to the greater good.” Plus, if a bar hosts its own associated promotion, such as the Sexiest Wanda Contest — in which contestants dressed as Waldo’s counterpart, Wanda, enter to see which costume is the sexiest — Wilson’s company will create additional marketing materials as needed and get sponsors to help with payment of those materials.
To ensure a profitable community bar crawl, Wilson says operators should market to people who don’t already frequent their establishment. “If [bars] partner with an event like this, yes, customers will go to one of your competitors, but they’ll go there anyway,” he says. “You’re still going to be introduced to new customers.”
For his part, Gregory depends on assistance from David Hobbs, Fat Tuesday Pub Crawl organizer and co-owner of American Rebel and Cool Blue Energy Drink as well as owner of parent company EEG Inc. and Energy Inc. Hobbs enlists liquor and beer sponsors for the event’s complimentary drinks, and he provides the marketing materials, including Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts.
“Everything we get is free from the sponsors,” Hobbs says. “The drink menus are done by the sponsors. Everything else the [bar owners] want to do, they’re on their own, but [our sponsor Budweiser] does provide posters. We put five in each location.” Hobbs also advocates that participating bars and clubs order their own marketing materials or hold their own promotions to earn more money for the charity and their establishments.
The Fat Tuesday Pub Crawl in Billings, Mont., donates proceeds to local charities or individuals in need.
Building Relationships Builds Profits
For Gregory, the Fat Tuesday Pub Crawl was his big marketing push to introduce people to Rowdy’s. “We might have lost money on it — I’m sure we did.” However, it paid off in the long run. “People did return to the bar. People saw the new place and thought it was cool and amazing. After the pub crawl, we were out-of-control busy. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
Dan Deagan, owner of Deagan’s Kitchen & Bar, participated in the Lakewood Wing Crawl for the first time this year. As a new
restaurant in the area, the built-in community marketing got the Deagan’s brand noticed by patrons from areas outside of Lakewood.
However, Deagan says, “the most difficult part about it was the logistics.” He didn’t know how many wings to order or how to set it up. “I actually called four other restaurants [in the area] that did it before, asking them what the best way was to get people in, get their wings and get them out.”
It’s this camaraderie with other local bars that makes the wing crawl such a financial success.
“The bars and restaurants in the area aren’t competing against each other,” Juris explains, “they’re competing against the [other Cleveland neighborhoods] and people drinking at home. Their competition isn’t the bar across the street. They should be working together.”
Gregory, too, is quick to pay his good fortune forward to other local businesses in Billings. “These pub crawls ... help people out,” he says. “We’re often competing [with other bars] for the same crowd, but the pub-crawl involvement is key for our relationship. Not only with other managers, but also our customers; they realize it’s not about us. It definitely helps our relationship [with them].”
Co-op marketing efforts show positive long-term effects for participating businesses and patrons. Customers are willing to pay for the value they get out of community-wide events, while owners and operators garner new clientele and an additional way to market their brand — and neighborhood — to people outside of the community. It seems that all it takes for bars and clubs to survive in this unpredictable economy is a little help from their friends. NCB