Events Manager Hilary Neville had been planning for a banner year of special events at Woods Hill Pier 4, a sustainable eatery with gigantic glass windows overlooking the harbor in Boston’s Seaport District. “When we first opened in November 2019, our holiday season was booming,” says Neville. “We had tons of large corporate events and several weddings on the books for 2020.” Designed specifically with private events in mind, Woods Hill Pier 4, the third restaurant from restaurateur Kristin Canty and executive fhef Charlie Foster, offered a dramatic backdrop and modular spaces for celebrations from 10 to 200 guests.
But when Boston’s lockdown measures were put in place in March, Neville scrambled to cancel dozens of booked engagements. Due to their high price point and elegant style of fine dining, the team decided setting up takeout or delivery would be more trouble than it was worth and opted to close down the restaurant. In a familiar scene across the country, all employees filed for unemployment and existing food reserves were pickled, frozen, or cooked down for staff family meals.
When Boston restaurants were allowed to re-open for indoor dining on June 22, the team got back to work serving their signature whole animal cuisine with ingredients sourced directly from Canty’s 260-acre farm in New Hampshire. Since indoor dining was still an uncomfortable prospect for many and total capacity inside was limited due to table spacing mandates, the restaurant seized on the opportunity to welcome diners back to their scenic patio in the warmth of a New England summer.
But just as inevitable as the arrival of Bill Belichick’s cutoff sweatshirt, the summer quickly turned to a colorful but chilly New England fall. Woods Hill Pier 4 was challenged with how to bring in revenue as patio season waned. The team started by exploring the possibility of tenting their entire outdoor space. “We were working with a local company with the hopes of having a tented, heated space that could go through the winter season,” says Neville. “But the cost was just too prohibitive for us to make any money by the time it was going to be set up.”
Provide a Smooth Booking Experience to Ensure Event Success
Noticing the clear igloo-like structures on the roof of the nearby Envoy Hotel, the team decided to give them a try instead. “We started by ordering just a few igloos to see how they went before going all in and investing more,” explains Neville. “It turns out they’ve been huge for us.”
Starting in mid-September, Woods Hill Pier 4 set up several heated, self-contained igloos on their patio for up to 6 guests at a time with mandatory food and beverage minimums. After some early success, Neville consulted with Resy restaurant success manager Vince D’Angelo to streamline the online booking experience through Resy’s revamped Events tool. “Vince was so helpful in listening to what we wanted and needed, and then creating a perfect setup for us. His positivity and responsiveness made such a difference,” says Neville.
Having worked in the industry for years, Neville stresses the value of having an online booking option for something as popular as the igloos. “Without Resy, I would have just been completely crazed. Although you’ll always have the people that want to call and email you, it’s so much easier and clearer for me to send people to the website to either book or at least get more information.”
Find New Revenue Streams You Can Rely On
Although the igloos were certainly a risk, Woods Hill Pier 4 is very happy with the return on their investment. “We didn't know if they were going to blow away,” jokes Neville, “Or if guests were going to understand the experience or appreciate it as much as we have found they have.”
After weeks of increasing bookings for their nightly “Dining Under the Stars” experience, the team added a weekend “Waterfront Igloo Brunch” option for those who prefer sunny skies to starry nights as their dining backdrop. Adding the igloos has allowed the team to increase sales by 20%. This is an additional stream of revenue that had never crossed the minds of the team prior to the pandemic and is now essential to the survival of the business as winter draws near.
“As it gets colder, the igloo revenue is becoming a bigger percentage of our overall revenue,” says Neville. “On a slow Tuesday night, we could have 50% or more of the restaurant’s revenue in those tables.”
Surprise and Delight Your Diners
For restaurants looking to create their own unique dining experiences, Neville stresses the importance of giving diners an opportunity to have a good time, especially when moments of joy have been scarce. "It has been really tough for people to find a way to celebrate anything during these times, particularly now as it is getting colder. Doing something creative like our igloos has been very successful for people that are looking for a festive experience."
You can hear the glee in Neville’s voice when she speaks animatedly about the in-person experience. “It's so fun to walk people into the igloo when they arrive,” she exclaims. “You open the door for them and they're just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool and it’s so warm in here!’” While all the igloos come with string lighting and colored candles, the team plans to level up the charm for the holidays with Christmas tree patio planters and birch wood for a more festive touch.
Neville also stresses that because the unique dining atmosphere creates a jovial environment, people are happy to spend a little bit more. “We're finding that people are often celebrating when they come, so they’re going way over what they might spend on a normal dinner. Because people aren’t going out as much, they have a little bit more disposable income to spend on a nice night out.”
Communicate Your Offerings Loudly and Often
To get the word out, Woods Hill Pier 4 sent email blasts to their loyal customers and posted updates on their Instagram account. But the novelty of the structures also brought in a lot of organic attention. “We have gotten so much media through them,” says Neville. “Although we have a great PR team, a lot of it just came naturally.”
Because of their remote location with no passing roads, Neville emphasizes how important it was for them to have outbound messaging about their offerings. “Unless you're walking down on the pier, you would never know that this experience is here. And there are so many restaurants like us that are being creative with their setups, but they need to ensure they’re getting the word out. Otherwise people won’t know about their efforts and they won’t be able to stay alive and be successful.”
Resy’s new city-based Event pages are another way Woods Hill Pier 4 has been able to drive more traffic. These are hubs where all the events happening in a given city are aggregated so diners looking for experiences can easily see what’s available. You can see the Boston events page here.
Make Safety a Priority
Another reason Neville believes the igloos have been so successful is due to the lingering question of the safety of indoor dining during the pandemic. “People that really don't want to eat inside are much more comfortable coming into these little areas with their family and their small trusted group.”
In addition to limiting the amount of time that restaurant staff are inside the enclosed areas, Woods Hill Pier 4 has been working with an epidemiologist to ensure the spaces are properly sanitized between bookings and as safe as possible for all parties. While diners are eager to go back to restaurants, maintaining the trust and safety of guests is paramount to the success of any restaurant moving forward in a post Covid-19 world.
Neville’s final word of advice is to stay positive even as the future remains uncertain. “Your staff wants to be working and to have a good team. Creating this unique experience has brought good energy and positivity to everyday life here.”
You can find more information about how to set up events for your restaurant here. You can sign up for our weekly webinar "Event Creation and Management", taking place every Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, here.