Event Hydration: What You Need to Know

September 1, 2010

Feature BarPkgs

By Jamie Vollmer

It is a fact that humans require regular hydration. Survivalists will argue about how long we can live without some form of liquid, but what event planner wants to test these theories with his or her own guests? Beverage service, bars and bar packages are a regular part of events. As one delves into the intricacies of event hydration, we learn that every venue, caterer and city has its own unique quirks. Some catering companies, such as Catering St. Louis, incorporate bar pricing into their overall per person price. Many catering companies in Kansas City don’t even handle bar service. Instead, they outsource to companies such as 3 Blondes and a Martini to manage the bars at their events. In mid-Missouri, companies such as the Peachtree Catering and Banquet Center in Columbia shy away from package pricing altogether. Despite these idiosyncrasies, there are a few more common principles that can help planners navigate the process no matter where the event is held.

The Big Three
Across the industry there are typically three types of bar service options – open, consumption and cash bar. Open bar, sometimes referred to as a hosted bar, is where the host of the event pays a per person cost for bar service. The type of liquor available at the bar dictates cost. Prices range from as little as $10 per person and up to $30 or more for four hours of service. Gratuities and service fees may be included in the per person price. So read contracts and beverage menus carefully to determine the true cost. Consumption bars, also called hosted bars at some establishments, are where a host pays a pre-determined cost for each drink consumed by guests throughout the evening. Bartenders keep a tally through the night and hosts learn their final bar cost after the event. Ali Hamrah, owner of Peachtree Catering and Banquet Center in Columbia, Mo., supports consumption bars. He finds out what his clients want to spend on the bar throughout the evening and then gets his bartenders involved. “They keep the hosts informed about when they are close to reaching their budget and ask whether they want to continue or move to a lower level of liquor.” The final option is a cash bar. A cash bar is where guests pay for each drink consumed. Often hosts will still need to pay a service charge or bartender fee. Beware that cash bars can evoke a negative response from guests. “We try very hard to discourage clients from having cash bars at events,” said Kathy Costello, director of off-premise catering sales for Russo’s Gourmet Catering. “We advise clients of other ways to minimize costs.” Amanda Bradham, catering manager at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch, feels that at some events guest arrive with certain expectations about the bar, “More often than not, weddings have open bars. It is expected that you won’t have a cash bar.” At most nonprofit events where guests are paying a significant ticket price, Bradham sees the same expectation. Cash bars do not go over well. However, for corporate events, there is more flexibility. “Some do drink tickets and give each attendee one or two tickets and then it is a cash bar after that. Or they may do it on consumption.”

Top Shelf , Call , Well , Premium
The price a host or guest pays for beverages depends on the type or level of liquor consumed. Many companies start pricing with a basic option that refers to the liquor as house, standard, rail or well. This is the lowest and most inexpensive level of liquor. Typically, it includes brands that you may or may not recognize, but that are cost-effective for large-scale consumption. Costello warns to not overlook the house liquor option. Always ask what might be considered house liquor for your event. Occasionally companies can incorporate more popular and better known labels into this stock as prices fluctuate. The terms used for the next few levels of liquor vary by company. Common terms include premium, specialty, ultrapremium, call or top shelf. No matter what the name, the idea is the same. These levels of liquor are higher grade and more costly. They will include brands familiar to most guests and sought after by more selective drinkers. As you increase the level and cost of liquor, be sure you are not just paying for brand recognition. Katie Petterson, owner and operator of 3 Blondes and a Martini, explains the increase in cost. “Top shelf liquor is aged, and it is often distilled and doesn’t have as many impurities in it. Many have been distilled four or five times, creating liquor that is smooth and easier to drink even when not mixed.”

Keeping Costs Down
While the cost of bar service can be significant, there are numerous ways to limit your final tab. One of the easiest methods to cut costs is to limit your bar to beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages. Consumption bars are another source for savings. “People don’t always give consumption bars a chance,” says Bradham. “I think it is something to look at especially if you don’t have a heavy drinking crowd.” For Hamrah, consumption bars are the only way to go. He consistently sees the savings and feels that package pricing is a disadvantage for clients, so he doesn’t even offer it. When cost savings are really important, take time to work with your bar service provider. There are a number of ways to finesse packages, times and pricing to fit your crowd. One way is starting with a lower level of liquor but adding a couple specialty choices. Costello has found that most people who have a strong opinion about liquor brands typically only feel that way about one or two brands. “If it is only those and they don’t need the full line-up of premium or ultrapremium, then they can stay with the house brand line-up and add just one or two specialty items. This will be more cost-effective for them then going for the full line.” For Bradham, the number one way to save on bar costs is to close down the bar during dinner. This is especially common at weddings and nonprofit events. “Clients feel that it is worth it if they are doing a four-hour open bar. Then they have an extra hour for a cocktail hour at the beginning or extra time for dancing,” she says The key to any cost savings is to know your crowd. Bar service providers like to know about the history of your event, the age range of your guests, personal preferences of key attendees and what has or has not worked for the event in past years. All of this information can help them shape an option that will maximize guest satisfaction and minimize the pain in a client’s pocketbook.

Background Check
Before hiring a bar service provider, planners should ask a few important questions about the company and its bartenders. The first is about licenses and liability insurance. Petterson sets a good example with her company. “We are insured completely. I have liquor liability and insurance that covers the building and my employees no matter where they serve.” As for liquor licenses, each city and county has its own rules. Be sure that the vendor you work with is up-to-date on regulations where it is located and where your event will be held. The event venue’s license status can also impact the type of license a bar service provider will need. Bartender training is another important question. “There are several really good programs for bartender training,“ comments Costello. “If you are securing services with a caterer, you should be asking if its bartenders are professionally trained, and you should be asking what its policies are about alcohol service.” Those policies will dictate how bartenders will respond to the challenges of bar service, such as underage drinkers and guests who have overindulged. This policy, combined with professional bartender training, ensures that difficult situations are handled in a manner that keeps guests safe and the party going.   MM&E

(Jamie Vollmer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)

Katie Petterson, Owner and Operator
3 Blondes and a Martini

(816) 960-6666

Amanda Bradham. Catering Manager
Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch

(314) 342-4648

Kathy Costello, Off-Premise Catering Sales
Russo’s Gourmet Catering

(314) 427-6771 x.105

Ali Hamrah, Owner
Peachtree Catering and Banquet Center

(573) 875-6608

About the author

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