Why free swag in bars and hotels is so important for brands

Chances are if you’ve been to a nice restaurant, bar, or hotel, you’ve grabbed a coaster, matchbook, napkin, or key card. Memories like these are talismans that help us remember the fun experience we had.

You may hesitate before pocketing the loot, wondering if this is acceptable. Don’t worry: People in the hospitality industry say they’re thrilled when people feel compelled to pick one up as a souvenir. You might consider a return visit, they think, if you get that little reminder of your good times.

A collection of cocktail sticks from various places. Chances are if you’ve been to a nice restaurant, bar, or hotel, you’ve grabbed a coaster, matchbook, napkin, or key card. Memories like these help us remember a fun experience. (Elaine Markoutsas via AP)

“It’s nice to hold a physical object and feel transported into an experience that could have happened weeks or even years ago,” says Sean Wilkinson, chief and creative director of Might & Main, a studio for Portland, Maine, who works on branding for clients in the hospitality industry.

He says the feeling of impermanence is important. “If it’s something we’d like people to take, it should be pretty, but not too pretty, so you don’t feel bad about taking it.”

Chicago editor and editor Elaine Markoutsas came across cookie tins full of matchbooks and cocktail sticks while cleaning her mother’s house. They took her back to beloved family vacations and hotspots in Windy City and Florida.

She also appreciated the importance of design in these sulphurous little souvenirs, some of which date from the 1930s and 1940s.

“Like the old postcards, you could immediately spot the difference” between the different eras, she said.

“Older covers featured beautiful hand-colored line art with stunning detail. What struck me was the creative art of these small spaces. It was like mini-posters.

She has one from Mangam Castle outside of Chicago, where legendary fan dancer Sally Rand performed. Another comes from Math Igler’s Casino Restaurant, where a mushroom T-bone was $5 in 1950. And there’s Chez Paree, a nightclub that celebrated glamor from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Wilkinson says a memorable design is no less important today.

“We’ve noticed that items often appear in customers’ Instagram photos,” he says. “It’s a great way to bring a splash of color and a graphic representation of the brand into a composite photo of your hotel room or your plate of food.”

A suite of on-the-go items with different but complementary designs deepens an establishment’s identity and history, he said.

His company has designed collateral elements for restaurants like the Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, the Luna Rooftop Bar atop the resort city’s Canopy by Hilton hotel, and the Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York.

For the Adelphi, for example, they collaborated with the hotel’s interior designer, Glen Coben. The fabrics in the Victorian-era building are a rich navy blue, so Wilkinson’s team used that color, adding gold leaf and other complementary hues. Glass of water coasters feature a blind embossed damask pattern found in wallpaper and other accents throughout the hotel.

Might & Main’s design for Portland noodle shop Honey Paw features stationery and paper goods featuring a roaring bear and a series of wavy lines. The abstract line patterns represent both the noodles and the restaurant’s LP collection, which plays for customers.

“The name Honey Paw comes from an old anecdote about the mystical properties of the bear’s paw used to extract honey from beehives,” says Wilkinson. “So we knew there had to be a good ‘mascot’ and we wanted it to have a bit of swagger.”

At One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, Fla., general manager David Mariotti says guests often take tumblers, notepads, pens and key cards. The resort’s clean-lined, teal-on-white logo is on all of these. The card keys have photos of beach sunrises, with inspirational quotes on one side.

“We absolutely encourage guests to take home souvenirs from their stays with us,” says Mariotti, adding that the resort now also offers designer sunglasses.

To display these types of ephemera at home, you can mount them with removable putty or double-sided tape in an acrylic box for display on a wall or table. Add a magnet to the back of a coaster or menu and place it on the fridge. Or cut out paper treasures on the base of a serving tray, adding a layer of sealer.

You can purchase wooden cases and album covers specially sized for matchbooks.

Wilkinson himself keeps a few Eventide coasters on his desk.

And years after a memorable stay in New York, he keeps a gift.

“I still have the first key card I received at the Ace Hotel,” he says. “When I first stayed here over ten years ago, I remember being blown away by how you could create a hotel – how you could follow a hip but understated line, yet still benefit from excellent hospitality with little moments to discover.”

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Luz W. German