Marriott Hotels’ Bourbon Program Showcases the Spirit of Bourbon

BETHESDA, MD—From classic drinks to innovative cocktails, Marriott Hotels’ new program is bringing the deeply American and casual spirit of bourbon to its guests. Bourbon is trending among younger and older generations alike, with a soulful history and legacy of expert craftsmanship to go along with it.

As Marriott International undergoes a major shift—the brand is set to acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.—that encompasses design, guest experience, new marketing and ways to evolve the workforce, it was the perfect time to bring forth the Marriott Hotels Bourbon Program, according to Matthew Carroll, VP of global brand management, Marriott Hotels, the flagship brand of Marriott International.

Taking it one step further, Marriott Hotels has teamed up with Maker’s Mark to offer an exclusive and customized house bourbon, the Griffin Gate Marriott Maker’s Mark bourbon, at the Griffin Gate Marriott in Lexington, KY. The property also served as the launch pad for the new program, which is a short distance from the Bourbon Trail, featuring seven distilleries for the bourbon enthusiast.

“We wanted to create something that is engaging, compelling and activating our lobby bar concept and great room. It led us to bourbon. The Marriott Hotels Bourbon Program is part of the bigger brand transformation and how we create this experience for our customers where they like to gather, collaborate, eat and drink. We found this great opportunity with bourbon and we’ve been running with it,” Carroll said.

Each bourbon brand has a story to tell, from the maker’s inspiration to how long it’s been aged and how origin influences the flavor. There’s also flexibility in the way the drink is consumed—cocktails, exclusive pours or, simply, on the rocks or neat—making it accessible to novices and intriguing to hard-core bourbon fans.

“Over the past decade, there’s been 40% growth in sales of bourbon and Tennessee whisky. With bourbon, we have the ability across the brand to create a very engaging experience and not do the same thing that is everywhere. It feels approachable. You can go as deep or shallow as you’d like. There are people super passionate about bourbon and they follow distilleries, while others just want to enjoy a bourbon-based cocktail,” Carroll said.

The partnership is across multiple bourbon brands, including Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and special barrel programs, to name a few. Marriott is working closely with these partners to zero in on the latest trends and understand the evolution of the beverage as they seek to give guests an unforgettable experience when they belly up to the bar.

Marriott bartenders at 250 hotels work with a core base program, which is built around classic cocktails such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, special pours and bourbon flights. From there, each property’s bartender can shake things up with various ingredients and show their artistry or storytelling skills through the making of the drink.

“Bartenders really embrace the opportunity to put a twist on it. For example, our property in Calgary does a twist on the Old Fashioned by making a smoked black walnut Old Fashioned. The bartenders and hotel team are proud of that. It’s a fun thing for the brand, hotels and our guests,” Carroll said.

Marriott spent about six months getting the bourbon program just right, providing training to hotel staff to ensure a seamless adoption and execution. The brand trained 750 Marriott bartenders to date and put together a comprehensive program training on-property and online. Each bartender went through a certification to be considered qualified.

“The key component is crafting a great cocktail, which includes understanding the history, training around the storytelling, creating the experience and putting your own spin on it. Our customer base are travelers that are looking to do something creative and make their mark on the world, that’s our workforce as well. It’s not just about crafting the Manhattan, it’s about creating a great story and experience for the guests,” Carroll said.

The result is an enticing and engaging moment at the bar where a guest may order a creative cocktail, and as it’s being made, another guest will ask about it and the bartender gets to share the story of the bourbon drink, according to Carroll.

“In talking with hotels and via interactions with guests, the response has been fantastic. My observation is there is a bit of theater with how these cocktails are made. Our guests love that extra level of engagement and we’ve been happy with the results. We’ve seen higher sales of bourbon across the brand,” he said. “From a revenue perspective, the Marriott Hotels Bourbon Program showed a 6.5% increase year over year, compared to less than a 1% increase for comparable properties without the program.”

Marriott kicked off the program in Lexington, a city known among enthusiasts for its bourbon, with a Bourbon Battles competition comprised of Marriott employees and bartenders from around the country. Additional Bourbon Battles are planned for Portland, OR; Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and Boston, with the finals slated for National Bourbon Day on June 14 in Brooklyn, NY. Winner gets bragging rights, entrance into a national bourbon battle and the opportunity to showcase his or her skills on a broader stage.

“The Bourbon Battle is an innovative way to share the story with our guests and introduce them to bourbon in a fun way, so we are really pleased with the reaction to the first one in Lexington. What better place to do a kickoff than Kentucky?” he said. “The Marriott Hotels Bourbon Program is part of the broader brand transformation and it’s one element in our journey to evolve the Marriott Hotels brand. We really think that creating engaging experiences with our customers in our activated public spaces where people gather is going to be important.”

—Corris Little