Elevating the Lounge Experience to Build Loyal Customers
If you want to deliver a premium lounge experience, you need to provide your customer with a level of comfort and convenience that most lounges do not or will not take the time to do. We take a closer look at: Water, Cleanliness, Menu, Billing, Standard Experience, Décor, Lighting, Sound, and Hose Segregation. Why take these into consideration? You are not selling shisha tobacco or renting hookahs, what your providing is an experience. Anyone can buy a hookah, watch some YouTube and produce some good clouds and flavor at home. What they pay you for is the total experience of all the things they cannot reproduce at home. That is the environment, variety of flavors and your expertise as a hookah chef and lounge operator.
1. Access to Water in a Hookah Lounge
Please for the love of all that is holy, give your customers easy access to water. We find that some of the best lounges will have a public water station with cups available for customers to serve themselves. Please have water for sale as well, people love to pay for water in a bottle, but when smoking hookah people will get dehydrated, or worse, a bout of hookah headache or sickness. Keeping our guests hydrated will go a long way, and customers will greatly appreciate your consideration.
2. Cleanliness in a Hookah Lounge
Oh boy, I gotta start here, because I have been guilty of this myself, and seen some real horror stories in person and in the customer reviews of way too many hookah bars. You have to keep your lounge clean, clean and even cleaner. What does that mean when you literally have business that sells smoke and ash all over? Here are a few areas to focus on if you don’t want your hookah lounge reviews to end up in the “Hall of Shame.”
In order of importance:
Bathrooms: We cannot stress this enough. You must have clean bathrooms, especially for the ladies who come to your establishment. Having a separate facility for women is ideal, but if you building is not set up that way, you need to treat your bathroom with respect. Women will judge and entire establishment by the cleanliness of the bathroom. If you water closet looks like a scene from the movie “Hostel” I guarantee that the women who come to your lounge will not become regulars. By satisfying this key demographic, you will see the overall traffic in your lounge increase. Make bathroom cleanliness checks a required hourly duty and do not let your staff turn off your paying customers because they don’t want to keep it clean.
Want to score additional points? Add some décor to the bathroom, like a small end table, an oil stick diffuser and pleasant air freshener. These small touches can elevate a women’s comfort level for an 8 to an 11 out of 10.
The Initial Walk In: How do you feel when you go to a restaurant and see half of the tables covered in trash and unclean tables? Immediately, you have subconsciously downgraded your whole experience regardless of how good the food is. Your lounge is the exact same. You absolutely cannot leave old dead hookahs on the tables, with cups, trash and dirty ashes on the table. You have a staff and you have to make sure they keep your lounge in spotless condition. Sure, it’s more work for them, but that’s what you are paying them for. I have been to too many lounges with the staff on their phones or smoking at a customer’s hookah while the lounge looks like a disaster. First impressions go a long way, so don’t miss the opportunity to impress new guests with a clean, professional environment.
Hookahs: Clean your hookahs and change the water. This is another short cut we see in too many lounges that just kills the whole experience. It takes minimum effort to dump the old base water and add fresh pour. It’s only a few seconds more to run water through the stem, take a shaft brush give each hookah a quick scrub from the top and bottom and rinse any residue from the interior of the hookah stem. We consider this level of cleanliness the bare minimum for all hookah lounges, even in busy times. Each night, hookah hoses should be rinsed and cleaned, so as your crowd dies down, begin the “Closing Checklist” with hose cleaning as you close out the last round of customers for the night. If you are segregating your hose flavors, this step is even more effective and your customers will notice the significant difference in the flavor experience in your lounge vs. the same flavor in other hookah bars.
3. Décor in a Hookah Lounge
Does your lounge look like you had a theme in mind, but you maxed out your $150 decorating budget and tried to spread your vibe too thin? Or maybe it looks kinda funky over here, with some Arabic pillows over there, and some graffiti over there, and a lot of blank wall space over there….you know what I mean. Pick a theme and go with it. Customers will spend more money for the same items in a well themed environment. That is another element that your customers cannot reproduce at home, so sell out and go all the way. Give your lounge walls a lot of visual interest that customers can get lost in. Too much dead wall space will give your lounge a DIY, low budget feel. It’s the accessories that make the outfit…and the room. Hey, if eclectic knick-knacks aren’t your thing, cool artwork, video screens, murals or even shiplap (thanks Joanna and Chip) can create a vibe that makes your lounge unique and an experience worth paying for.
4. Lighting in a Hookah Lounge
If you have bright overhead florescent lighting, close your lounge immediately and go buy some lamps right now. Most lounges are going for a environment that encourages socializing and relaxation. Soft lighting, sconces, lamps and warm glow are best for providing an intimate experience. Whether your lounge is a traditional Moroccan tea house or a modern Euro-style lounge, bright lights are a mood killer and will give your lounge a sterile feel. Make it cozy and intimate so your customers feel like they are in their own private world while still being out and about in a fun, social environment. Not too dark, not to bright and not too psychedelic with frantic with strobe lights and other gimmicky lighting. Find that Goldielocks zone and it’s smooth sailing from there.
5. Sound in a Hookah Lounge
“WHAT??? WHAT DID YOU SAY? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Turn your music down please! Again, read the reviews of hookah lounges and you will see one of the biggest turn offs in hookah bars is the music being way too loud. Be careful of guest DJ’s and live music. You think it might bring in more traffic, but when they blow out the eardrums of your new or occasional customers caught in the audio crossfire, you won’t be seeing them again.
What type of music? That will depend on your vibe, and there is no right or wrong answer here, but be intentional with the sound you pump through the speakers. It is a huge part of the experience and customers are there to socialize so make sure the sound is enhancing the experience, and not a nuisance to customers who come to hookah and chill.
6. Menu Presentation in a Hookah Bar
First of all, having a nice menu with clear pricing on laminated card stock is just the minimum. We know you are the expert at what the best-selling flavors are, and we don’t expect anyone to constantly reprint menus every time a new flavor is released, so what can you do to showcase new flavors without constantly changing your menu? Do what all the big bars and restaurants do. They have a small menu insert that feature seasonal and new menu items. Only when one of your new featured flavors becomes a top seller do you move it to your permanent menu. At that point you can expand the menu or delete one of your slow movers to keep your inventory tight with only the best sellers.
7. Billing in a Hookah Bar
How are you billing customers? All Cash up front? Pay at the end? Can they use debit cards? We find that most lounges are charging for their hookahs all up front. Seems fine, get the money in case they try to run off…Well, not so fast. You just reduced your chance for upsells on drinks and hookah refills dramatically. Why do bars and restaurants let you pay at the end? Because it’s a lot easier to add extra drinks and food when the tab is still open and they can pay for everything at the end. Experiment with a “pay at the end” system and include a tip line for your servers. 2 things will happen, your customers will order more, and your staff will deliver even better service to earn tips from their customers. Your patrons will be happy to hook up their servers if they deliver a premium experience and that is something they can’t replicate at home. They are in your lounge to be hookah royalty for an hour or two…treat them that way and you won’t regret it.
8. Standard Experience of your Hookah Bar
Have you read Yelp reviews of your competitors lounges lately… “great place awesome service” followed by “Horrible place, we sat there for 20 minutes and no one ever talked to us so we left.” How do you expect to build a large, loyal customer base, when every guest gets treated differently.
What is the standard experience at your lounge? Creating a standard level of service is essential to building a brand and devoted customer clientele. Why is that? If customers get a consistent experience, it builds trust and a set of expectations that customers use to judge the value of your hookah lounge’s total experience.
What do we mean by a standard experience? Here are some of the touch points that successful lounge operators use to make sure every guest has the same great experience.
- Does every customer get greeted as soon as they come in the door?
- Does every customer get flavor recommendations or updated on what’s new in your lounge menu?
- How long does every customer wait for a bowl? Do you have a max allowed wait period that you can achieve 95% of the time?
- Does the manager visit every group personally at least once, to check in on their experience?
- How many coal refills and how often does your staff check on your customers hookah, test their hookah, ask for any additional drinks or refill bowls?
- When your customers leave, is your staff thanking every customer and inviting them back with a specific flavor recommendation for the next visit?
9. Hose Segregation in a Hookah Bar
Flavor ghosting occurs when customers smoke a strong flavor like Double Apple or Pan Rasna and then the next customer orders peach, but the flavor is tainted with a “ghost” flavor from the previous bowl. Even with washable hoses and a thorough cleaning, some flavors are almost impossible to remove. When we travel to lounges, we notice a distinct increase in flavor purity and potency when lounges segregate their hoses by flavor.
This doesn’t have to be an exact 1 to 1 hose to flavor ration, but having a group of hoses for minty flavors, a group for fruity flavors, a group for coffee and spices and a group for double apple will go a long way. Your customers will love the increased flavor intensity and will get a more delicious experience and longer session before their hookah devolves into a generic “hookah lounge flavor” with a muddled flavor.
As always, we would love to hear your feedback and any additional ideas or methods that have been successful in your hookah lounge. Thanks for reading and please leave us a comment!