Did what every effective promotion should do: It tapped into an industry trend and influenced customer behavior. After all, who doesn't enjoy a good drink now and then?

In a time when most Americans are drinking less, Marriott had to find creative ways to encourage customers to "trade up" to premium brands to help build the bottom line. The Final Challenge, a 90-day promotion and incentive program planned by Donald L. Billings of Incentive Marketing Inc. (www.incentivemarketinginc.com) had a dual objective: First, the company educated customers and staff about participating products, which included Samuel Adams, Skyy Vodka, and Ocean Spray. The idea was that increased product knowledge would help to build loyalty to the participating brands. Second, individual staff people were recognized, based on their personal involvement in the promotion(s). Bartenders were given a special challenge sponsored by Ocean Spray cranberries: the opportunity to invent a signature drink to be offered at Marriott properties during the week of the Ryder Cup. The grand prize: a cranberry-red (naturally) 1999 Volkswagen Beetle.

How It Worked Wait staff were offered training about specific targeted brands and drink recipes incorporating those brands. They also earned points for selling targeted drinks. An additional contest was developed for hotel chefs, who created recipes using participating brands, with the winner earning an opportunity to serve his or her creation at the Ryder Cup awards banquet.

The participating hotels, ranked by sales and size, were awarded points for monthly beverage sales figures and individual promotions, the latter requiring submission of a description and photographs. The promotion's grand travel reward for the winning general managers or food and beverage directors was a trip to Boston and admission to the 33rd Ryder Cup international tournament in Brookline, Mass., in 1999. Highlights of the trip included a tour and clambake at the Boston Beer Co., which makes Samuel Adams beer, and a visit to the Ocean Spray headquarters and cranberry bogs, where they participated in a cranberry harvest.

Hotel food and beverage directors received kits with participating brands' merchandise, promotional items and displays, custom glassware, and swizzle sticks, all using the golf theme, like Samuel Adams' golf-ball-shaped coasters with golf trivia.

A Bigger Strategy The Final Challenge was an offshoot of a strategic corporatewide program at Marriott known as the Gold Standard Brands program. Its goal is to capitalize on the trend of "drinking less but better" by promoting premium-brand alcoholic beverages. Rob Gillette, food and beverage manager at Marriott's River Center and Riverwalk properties in Austin, Texas (rob.gillette@marriott.com), designed the program when he was senior director of beverage development for Marriott International, and his predecessor, Brian Yost, VP, Marriott lodging food and beverage (brian.yost@marriott.com) now manages it.

The Gold Standard Brands program uses training, quality assurance audits (auditors visit hotels anonymously), an intranet Web site, and promotional campaigns for the approximately 500 properties worldwide under Marriott management, including the Marriott, Renaissance, and Ritz-Carlton names. Franchise properties are also encouraged to participate.

Although the Gold Standard Brands program is successful, Rob Gillette and Billings agreed that it didn't reach far enough - to where the drinks were being served to customers. They needed a way to drive the program all the way down to the wait staff and bartenders, and this was how The Final Challenge was born.

Billings fondly describes his friend and colleague Rob Gillette as a golf fanatic, and it was Rob who suggested a golf theme for the promotion. When research revealed that the targeted age group (24 - 65 years old) was a demographic including some 33 million golfers, they knew they had found the right approach.

As Gillette wrote to his colleagues in the promotional literature, "Beverage is one of the most profitable areas for sales and operational fun in your hotel. Incremental revenue opportunities exist every time your guests order beverages; capitalize on them. Your guests will note the extra measure of service, and you and your associates will reap the rewards."

And reap the rewards the company has. The efforts of Billings and his team at Incentive Marketing earned the company the prestigious SITE Crystal Award in 2000 for Creative Use of an Incentive Program to Achieve a Marketing Objective.

As for Billings' client, Marriott, The Final Challenge increased beverage department sales by a dramatic 35 percent, the highest increase ever recorded. Perhaps one reason Samuel Adams is smiling on the labels is the 1 million bottles of beer sold during the 90-day promotion - yet another record. Those are numbers worth raising a glass to.

- The Final Challenge winners received roundtrip air; three nights and four days in Boston; a VIP pass for the 33rd Ryder Cub international golf match; a tour of the Ocean Spray plant (and participation in the cranberry harvest); a tour of the Samuel Adams brewery, the Boston Beer Co., with a clambake dinner; and tickets to a Red Sox game.

- Participants were food and beverage managers and associates from Marriott-managed hotels.

- The general manager and food and beverage director at each winning hotel determined which associates won.

- Hotels were awarded points based on sales volume and promotional activity and enthusiasm. The hotels with the greatest overall points by category won.