By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Thousands have embarked on a Cosmic journey with a McMenamins passport, which also includes rewards of merchandise, food, drink and fun experiences at all of the chain’s distinct Northwest locations. While some take years to earn their stamps, others raced through the challenge and are ready to complete it again. Either way, the idea has engaged customers in a unique fashion using a method that grew out of the DIY way patrons would use McMenamins brochures to check off locations they’ve visited.
“The idea was to get people to experience McMenamins,” said director of marketing Renee Rank Ignacio. “Along the way, an amazing community has grown out of it.”
There are now both official and unofficial pages on Facebook for the passport, which are the same size and color as the real deal. The number of stories of people forming friendships through the experience grows every year.
“I knew it was going to be a hit. I was surprised by the magnitude of people who embraced it,” said Ignacio.
Ignacio and designer Kevin Still spent years developing the passport. A primary concern was creating something that gave customers and staff the best experience possible. Additionally, the program needed to be manageable during crowded times.
“We had many different visions,” Ignacio said. An early prototype had a separate page for each stamp, which was too cumbersome. Finally, it started clicking. “The goal was to get people out to explore all our places and to enjoy the experience along the way,” said Ignacio. With that in mind, there are several experience pages with stamps for activities like attending a History Pub presentation or playing a round of golf.
The official passport launch date was Oct. 31, 2013 for employees and Nov. 5, 2013 for the public. “We want our employees to learn about all our locations. All our customers want to know about the history of our places and we want our employees to have that information,” said Ignacio.
The initial 10 customers and 10 employees to complete the passports received special prizes. Catherine Buck, who is now the Edgefield sales and events coordinator, was the first employee to finish. “It took some solid planning to make sure I could hit every McMenamins while it was open as fast as possible,” she said.
She started her adventure on a Friday when she got off work and planned to complete it that weekend. But a bad snowstorm on Mount Hood kept her from traveling to Bend. Instead, she headed south on I-5 to hit McMenamins locations in Salem, Corvallis, Eugene and Roseburg. The next Monday, she took I-84 to Highway 97 and made it to Bend’s Old St. Francis School.
“1,600 miles and four solid days later, I had every stamp but one,” she said. At that time, Bagdad Theater was closed for renovation until November. Determined to be the first in line when it opened, she decided to camp out Friday and Saturday before the official opening on Sunday. “I’m a very competitive person,” she said. The prize also proved to be a strong motivator: free admission to all concerts at the Crystal Ballroom and Lola’s Room for a year.
Scott Bassett, from Salem, was the first customer to finish and took his place in line at the Bagdad behind Buck. “It was cold and stormy on Hawthorne. I brought a heater and some propane and Catherine and her mom were kind enough to hold my place in line when I wasn’t there,” he said.
Bassett, a loyal McMenamins fan, learned about the passport and competition for first finishers four days after he retired from a career in state government. “I decided to go for it with encouragement from my wife,” Bassett said.
He headed out in his Prius for a quick tour of the Northwest. Bassett’s longest day started at the White Eagle at 6 a.m. He hit all the Washington locations, then headed to the coast by crossing the congested Lewis and Clark Bridge connecting Longview, Wash. to Highway 30 in Oregon. It was a race against the clock to get to the Pot Bunker Bar on the Gearhart property before driving to the Lighthouse Brewpub in Lincoln City and home to Salem 16 hours later. His prize was a $600 party at the Thompson Brewery & Public House that ended up doubling as a fundraiser for a nonprofit.
Bassett said, “I’ve traveled the kingdom four times and I’ve been lucky enough to go to four of the five Cosmic Tripster parties.”
Buck is thinking of completing another passport with her boyfriend. “But my plan for the next one is to do it slowly and enjoy the experience,” she said.
Since the passports were first “brewed” up, there have been five Cosmic Tripster parties. The first one was in the jail at Edgefield. “It’s the place where we store the artwork for our properties,” said Buck. “They cleaned it up, put the artwork out for display, and had tasting stations and food pairings in various parts of the building. There were about 500 of us at this event.”
The second was a pre-opening of the Anderson School in Bothell, Wash. With about 2,500 attendees. “It was an opportunity for our staff to practice and to get feedback and suggestions from a friendly crowd,” said Ignacio.
Impact on business has been tremendous, however, the program is costly as it includes giveaways. Since 2013, more than 5,000 people have become Cosmic Tripsters and Ignacio estimates about 80,000 passports have been sold.
“Because of its popularity, we’ve had to change our parameters,” she said. Originally she envisioned one party annually, but now plans them on an as-needed basis, trying to manage the attendance so people can still mingle. The limit for completed passports is two a year. And the passports are continually changing. If a new location opens, passport holders must get that stamp and “just-for-fun” stamps are always being added.
“We feel it’s a great value and connection to our customers that’s very special. We have three historians on staff. When we come into a place, we want to connect with the community,” said Ignacio. “And we want people to have fun. Those are the core values of Mike and Brian McMenamin.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.