It’s a Friday fall night at Hooligans Saloon in Soldotna. Summer crowds have come and gone, and the locals need a little incentive to spend some time, and money, at the bar. It’s up to bar manager Molly Blakeley-Poland to give it to them, by dreaming up contests, themed events and other promotions that make a bar stool far more enticing than the couch at home.
“In the wintertime (you need promotions) because people are tight on money and because it’s not summer anymore. Summer is easy because the tourists are here and it’s just a no-brainer. We don’t do any promotions in the summer because people are coming no matter what. Plus, I think it’s important to keep everything young and fun for the area,” she said.
The weekend before included a wet T-shirt contest. This Friday night would be a foam party, with crowds in swimwear dancing to a live band in a room covered with plastic sheeting and filled with chest-high bubbles from a special foam-making machine Blakeley-Poland ordered for the occasion.
A phone rings. It’s one of the bartenders, asking if he can get into the spirit of the evening by wearing a thong.
“I don’t care. But make sure to shave,” she tells him.
She wasn’t talking about his face.
So it goes for Blakeley-Poland, the life of the party.
“I love doing promotions because it’s just like you’re a party planner constantly,” she said. “The crappy part of the job is when people are down on you, but my new theme in the bar is ‘be happy or be gone,’ for everybody — customers and employees.”
Blakeley-Poland has helped with promotions at Hooligans since she moved back to the area from California in 1996. Her mother, Sal Hoskins, owns Hooligans, so Blakeley-Poland pitched in to help. She’s had her own business ventures in the area, including Sassafras and the roller rink, but these days she’s even more involved at Hooligans, since she accepted a promotion to bar manager at the end of the summer.
It gives her an outlet for the party-planning skills she acquired in California. She worked for Party Land in the Del Mar area, which gets hired to put on parties for the well-to-do, like creating balloon arches for the San Diego Chargers.
“I’m a certified balloonist. That’s something I’m sure I’ll use for the rest of my life,” Blakeley-Poland quipped.
Creativity and an open mind are necessities of the job, and the bar promotions job is a necessary one, since bars in Alaska can’t do drink specials, which is an easy customer draw in the Lower 48.
“We’re not allowed to do specials on drinks unless we do them always, so we just have to be innovative about how to do things,” she said.
“I just research promotions for bars and pick out my favorite stuff. It’s kind of actually really easy, but I don’t want to give away all our tricks,” she said.
When planning a promotion, it’s important to know what will appeal to people. Around here, there are a couple of sure-fire options.
“If it involves skin,” Blakeley-Poland said, which explains the foam party.
“And everybody loves a contest. It doesn’t matter what kind of contest it is,” she said.
She’s got a couple lined up for the winter, including a karaoke contest Wednesday nights where the winner gets $50 and entered into another contest to play and sing with an actual band. There’s an eight-ball pool tournament Thursdays, where the top three finishers get a chance at $10,000 if they make an eight-ball break. On Sundays and Mondays for football season, patrons get a ticket with every drink, even water, with tickets drawn for prizes and the chance at $25,000 on Super Bowl Sunday.
Themed events also do well.
“We had a huge bachelorette party for all women — married women, single women, it didn’t matter. If you were a woman, we had a bachelorette party,” Blakeley-Poland said. “All women, and even some men, were wearing veils and all the accessories that normally go with a bachelorette party. People had a blast.”
Blakeley-Poland said she’s planning some big acts in 2009. Hooligans is now a sister bar to Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage, so Soldotna has a chance to book whatever shows come to Koots. That’s how the bar got the rock band White Lion, which will perform Oct. 18.
There are some challenges to putting on a good bar party. People having too good a time can ruin it, especially if the police have to stop by. Having to coordinate with other bars is important so two aren’t holding an event the same night.
“It’s a small community, but I think if we all work together I think we can do just fine,” Blakeley-Poland said.
Hooligans went through a period of noise complaints from people living in the trailer park behind the bar, but that hasn’t been an issue lately, she said.
And the business of hyping wet T-shirt contests and general drunkenness runs the risks of drawing complaints of another nature.
“I’m on the radio all the time for this stuff, so I’m kind of surprised I don’t run into more of that, but I really don’t. I’m in for this stuff every once in a while and think, ‘OK, I’m going to get in trouble.’ And, nope. It’s a small community. There’s just as many bars and churches, so, you know,” she said.
At the end of the day, or night, it all comes down to having a good time.
“Our customers are faithful, and that’s what’s really cool really. They want to come out every weekend and have fun and not cause problems. They’re awesome.”