Between dealing with unruly drunks in pajamas and working through destructive hurricanes, life in a hotel bar isn’t always easy.
But in the end, the hotel bartender plays an important part in a traveler’s journey.
Hotel bars fill a rather unique role in the hospitality industry. The people that visit for drinks are, by and large, out-of-towners. They might be there on business. They might be there on vacation. And when they’re done with business, and when they’re done with vacation, they might just be stuck in town waiting out a hurricane on their way back home. The point is hotel bars typically don’t fill the role of the neighborhood haunt, like the namesake bar of the classic sitcom, Cheers–“the place where everybody knows your name.” Rather, hotel bars exist primarily for a more transient client base. The hotel bar is the place where nobody knows anybody.
As such, working at a hotel bar can be a lot different than working in a traditional bar environment. There are skills hotel bartenders and managers need to possess particular to their corner of the business, as well as particular challenges that are more pervasive. To help learn more about what it takes to thrive at a hotel bar–a hospitality business nestled within another hospitality business–we called up Becca June, hospitality industry vet with 18 years in the business. Her last last seven years have been spent in bars, and of those, she has spent the last four in hotel bars specifically, working in Portland, Oregon and New Orleans, Louisiana. Which is to say, she knows what it takes to make those on the road feel like they’re at home.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
What drew you to the hotel side of things as opposed to regular bars?
I’m a born and raised Oregonian. I was working in Portland and I applied on a whim to a job in New Orleans to work for a hotel bar down there called the Bourbon O bar–of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel–and I loved it. I worked there for two and a half years. I was the bar lead down there for quite some time.
What are some of the main differences between hotel bars and regular bars?
I really enjoyed working in the hotel bar, because your clientele is so different; you get to meet so many people from other places, especially in New Orleans because it’s such a travel hub. You get to meet so many people from different countries, different backgrounds, and they all come to you looking for advice on where to go, what should they do.
Are there any skills that hotel bar workers need that are unique to that corner of the industry?
You need to know that you are also a tour guide. You have to have the patience to balance out your ability to work, maintain and keep the bar crowd under control, and play a very patient, very loving tour guide. Because that’s a huge part of your job versus other bars where that may not be the case.
How can someone prepare for filling that role, if they’re coming in with bar experience but maybe without hotel bar experience?
I think mostly it’s a learning by doing thing. Guests, they’re looking for your favorite spots. I read a lot of articles when I moved to New Orleans. I read a lot about the city and I went out as much as possible.
In Portland, I tend to stay home a lot and tend to go to the same few places. So in Portland, working at the last hotel bar I worked at, it was a lot harder for me, because I didn’t go out as much and I was gone for two and a half years, so people are asking me questions I don’t necessarily have the answer to.
But, I also am willing to send people to my friends’ bars. I have a lot of friends in the community. So, I’d send them to bartenders and people I trust to take care of them. And, in New Orleans, I played tourist, so I’d go to all the little places I wanted to see. So, it was a lot easier for me. I think it’s a good idea to play tourist in your own city.
So, is your goal at a hotel bar to keep people there for another drink or is your goal to ensure they get out and explore and have the best time knowing they want to check out the area? And how do you balance those two things?
My goal is to make sure my guest is always happy. If they’re happy, they’re going to stay and have another drink. I do want them to go out and see the surrounding area. But I also want them to come back and tell me the story of how it was. So that’s kind of the turnabout. Go explore, but come back and tell me about it. And then stay for another. That’s usually how it happens if I did my job right.
Are there any challenges associated with that kind of client base where the people aren’t as familiar to you maybe?
Working at a hotel bar, people feel like they’re in their home and they’re entitled to behave within a different set of rules. Like, what do you mean I can’t bring in my own bottle of wine, my own food, my own this, my own that? They forget that they’re still walking into a business that serves food and serves wine. So, no, you can’t do any of that. You can’t wander around in your pajamas. You have to put on actual clothing to come in. We’re not their living room. We’re still a business.
Is that harder to explain that to people when they do have that mindset of being at home since they are living there for however long?
It is hard to explain. Especially to the people you have to cut off because they feel like they can drink themselves into a whole other dimension and they’re like, “Well, I’m staying at the hotel.” I’m like, “Yeah, but that doesn’t guarantee me you’re going to stay put in the hotel. I can’t keep serving you alcohol.” Those things are hard to explain to people who came and they booked a hotel room and they expect to be treated like they are God’s gift.
What are the biggest challenges of working a hotel bar that might not exist in regular bars, as far as business itself goes?
You are expected to show up to work no matter the weather. In New Orleans, the ‘canes are always a threat and, you know, people would be asked to volunteer to stay and they’d be put up at the hotel because that bar’s opening no matter what. You’ve got a captive audience and they’re going to need to go somewhere, because they can’t get anywhere either.
I stayed at the hotel once or twice in New Orleans just because I needed to open the bar. Here in Portland, at my hotel, we had massive snowstorms and I showed up to while most people couldn’t, because that hotel bar is going to open either way.
Would you have any advice for someone new to working at a hotel bar and is just discovering all these things?
These people are here to have an adventure in their lives. Help them on their adventure.
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