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Everything You (Probably Didn't) Need to Know About Those Free Sign of the Whale Happy Hours

It's a time-honored tradition that's pretty damn easy to win. And yet, sometimes people "scream and cry like they just won for the first time and it's the lottery," a manager says.

Maybe this has popped up in your e-mail inbox before...

SUBJECT LINE: Congrats! Sign of the Whale Happy Hour!

... In fact, if you've ever frequented any of the rambunctious bars in that particular area of Dupont Circle, chances are pretty good you've seen the subject line.

The Sign of the Whale has more than 20,000 e-mails in their contest database, and winning a SOTW happy hour is sort of a time-honored tradition among young D.C. residents at this point, says Kristin Kaloyanides the bar's director of marketing and events. The contest is in its fifth year of operation. Each week, entrants are selected at random to win a free happy hour at SOTW ( the way, you can say ‘no' to a free happy hour, Kaloyanides says).

The contest is quite simple: At the bar, promo girls with clipboards collect names and email addresses. Each entry qualifies for a free happy hour. Wait a few weeks —maybe a month or two — and you could be a winner, Kaloyanides says.

The bar, known by some as just "The Whale," tends to skew early 20-something. College night is on Thursdays. The DJ lights up the dance floor on Fridays. Scantily clad servers pass around shots on trays most weekends. In D.C. bar geography, SOTW sits anchored near the corner of M and 19th Street, NW, smack dab in the middle of the so-called Herpes Triangle.

Regardless of your feelings about that particular bar, win a happy hour and that means a few carefree hours of free booze, plus discounted drinks for your friends. The more people that show up the better. If 10 friends commit, you'll be poppin' a bottle of free champagne; bring 15 friends and your $50 bar tab is covered.

And while the contest may be responsible for a plethora of Facebook event invites, along the lines of this, this or this, Kaloyanides says the promotion is often-imitated, but never replicated by competitor bars.

"It's our free happy hour raffle," she says.

Eater's always been oddly fascinated by this particular contest. Kaloyanides indulged us; read on to see what it's like to be the "host with the most" and party like its Wednesday night at The Whale.

When did this first start? And what's the basic concept?
We bought this place five years ago and when we took it over, the idea was to target an older than college crowd, young professional in the workplace. The idea is people sign-up to win a raffle, and it goes into a database that spits out random names. You get to drink for free and your friends get discounted happy hour drinks. The idea is that everyone likes to drink for free and getting people in the door. There's also an incentive. If you bring 10 or more people you get a bottle of free champagne, if 15 or more you get a $50 bar tab.

What does a winner look like?
It's typically a young professional in their early 20s.

How can you win a Sign of the Whale happy hour?
Our promo girls work Wednesday through Saturday. Their job is to talk to customers and get them signed up for the raffle. Once they're signed up, it's all typed up and put through the backend of our system and from there it's a random selection.

Obviously this is a great marketing tool if it's been in place for five years.
It started off with just one segment for one day a week, then it built to Friday and Saturday, then it was Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It helped to build word of mouth and got people in the door. People quickly realize that we're fun; we have fun bartenders and drink specials. Now, it's every Wednesday to Saturday. We do a lot of it based on when you've come in before. We can target based off the age range of the night. For instance, Thursday is college night. So I'm trying to target the demographic that meets the day.

What happens when you win?
You receive a call from me telling you that you won. Then, the person says ‘yes,' ‘no' or ‘maybe.' If they say ‘yes' they get emailed with all the details. If they say ‘maybe,' I send them an email with the basic concept, or they can reschedule for another drawing. The number of winners totally depends. We try to hit different numbers for each night. Sometimes I go way over that because more people say yes. And, other nights it can be slower. The optimum is picking about 10 winners.

Are there any memorable cases?
We've been doing this for a while. I know these people. Some have won multiple times. Others scream and cry like they just won for the first time, and it's the lottery.

Then, we have people who come in for one happy hour, and they're back every Friday and Saturday and know me by name. It's weird too because I know their name. I know their email... Normally I check all the emails to see if someone has won recently, so people don't win every week. Usually, I wait about three to four months before I contact a winner again. And, when the names go out, I always check to see if they've won before.

In all of your years doing this, what has this taught you?
What has this taught me [laughter]? People love free things. And, people go crazy for those $50 bar tabs too. They'll compulsively check to see if they've hit the 15-person mark. And, it can get competitive too — some people cheat. They try to get people in the bar to say they're friends with them, but our bouncers know. We can tell if you've been in the bar and are coming back to the door to sign-up for a random person.

But, we've found that this is a great way to get new people in the door. This past Saturday a girl brought in 42 people. We've had a few groups push it beyond 60... If people have a birthday or an office party and want to celebrate, they'll bring in a big group in. For the people who bring in the most, we also do a "host with the most" party, where they can compete for $150.

How long have you been doing this?
I have been in my manager position for about a year-and-a-half, but I started as a promo girl. And, then took on an assistant's position.

What's it like to be a promo girl?
It's actually a lot of fun. You get paid to party. You get to meet a lot of people and hang out. You seriously talk to every person in this bar. It's a great way to learn sales. This is it. You have to learn to interact with people. Basically, you're selling a product.

If you had to count, what's the size of your e-mail database?
I want to say we're at like somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 e-mails. If you think about how many people come in and out of the door it makes sense. Your email never expires, but someone who just came in, like last weekend, won't be eligible for at least a month or two months. We want to give them a little break, so they come back again.

You see it on Facebook a lot — you know, the people who post an event about their Sign of the Whale happy hour.
Oh, definitely. There's a whole Facebook group that's dedicated to who has a happy hour at The Whale. It's funny because they word is out there. But, people will do that.

Are there other bars that do this?
I know that are a few bars around here that kind of took our marketing and ran with it. But, we definitely started it first. It's our free happy hour raffle. But, this is not as easy as it looks. It takes up a lot of time and my week. It can run from Tuesday through Saturday organizing it.

Sign of the Whale

1825 M Street Northwest, , DC 20036 (202) 964-6200 Visit Website