The Complimentary Wine Conundrum

You finally did it. You listed your Airbnb property or room online and you are excited. You begin going about the details, adding sheets and towels and little amenities such as soaps and flowers in the room. Then you have the idea of adding a complimentary bottle of wine to the room. You think perhaps that will win the guests over and they will write a glowing review. Let me stop you there. The concept of the complimentary (“free”) bottle of wine or alcohol with a room night is nice, but it is also illegal if you do not have a liquor license. The question of the alcohol amenity comes up frequently in online Airbnb and Bed and Breakfast discussion boards. The legality of alcohol in a lodging even comes up with seasoned Innkeepers. When I first started innkeeping, I had a guest that asked when I put out the complimentary sherry in the afternoon. Apparently, the last owner did that. There was, at one time, a very casual approach to alcohol in the Bed and Breakfasts and Inns. Some Innkeepers even to this day leave wine around for guests on the honor system. This casual approach is dangerous. It is dangerous not only because it opens you up for liability but it is also dangerous to be so casual about your business plan. Experienced Innkeepers have worked the alcohol amenity into packages and have found responsible ways to incorporate romantic bubbly into selling room nights.  I will explain.

When I first thought about writing about the casual uses of alcohol in Inns and Airbnb’s I decided to call the State of Maine Division of Liquor Licensing and Enforcement to ask if I understood the laws for lodgings. My question to the nice State agency man was, If I give a complimentary bottle of wine in my Airbnb when someone stays a night, do I need a liquor license. He said Yes. I asked him if it had to do with the room rental. He said Yes. If you advertise that you receive a complimentary bottle of wine or a drink with a room rental, and you receive money for the room rental, then you are also receiving money for the alcohol, hence you need a license. He said if you untie it to the room, and you state that you have complimentary wine at your property then anyone can come in and drink wine and not stay the night. Once you tie free or complimentary alcohol to the room rental, then you need a Bed and Breakfast liquor license. It costs around $550.00. And there it is, the complimentary bottle of wine not only costs you at the store, but there is a fee to have the privilege to give a bottle of wine. This is where the business plan comes in. Experienced Innkeepers know that sometimes you need to sweeten the deal when trying to sell a room in a saturated market. The ability to create packages can set you apart from competitors. It is also nice to have wine on hand if someone announces that they just got engaged at your Inn or that they just got married and are on honeymoon. If you plan to incorporate the complimentary bottle into any of your day to day activities, you should get a liquor license.

What good things happen when you get a liquor license?

The best thing that happens when you get a liquor license is that you can purchase wine at wholesale pricing. You also don’t have to pay tax until you sell that wine. Buying wine at wholesale prices makes giving that wine away a lot cheaper. You could sell the wine at a profit, but for the purpose of this post, the complimentary bottle, it is important to see that a liquor license means cheaper upfront cost for you. If you create adult packages with great content and pictures, you could leverage the temptation of alcohol in your direction to sell a room. You could also score that great review. A guest could write about how thoughtful you were by giving them a special gift. In the sales world, having something in your back pocket to close a deal is great and can make your job easier.

What bad things could happen when you get a liquor license?

There are lots of bad things that can happen with liquor regardless if you have a license or not. You need to understand that alcohol is a controlled substance and it comes with a responsibility. For this post, the bad things I am referring to are the costs and work associated with having a liquor license. You will have to report to your insurance carrier that you have a license. This may increase your insurance costs. Once you get a few boxes of wholesale wine, you will quickly realize that the wine will have to be stored properly and accounted for. In addition to the storing, caring for and accounting of the wine, you will have to keep track of and report sales for taxes. In addition to the license fee, if you plan to get a more sophisticated liquor license, you should also look into getting Safe Serve license. There is also some liquor licenses that require you to have food available if someone is drinking. For those licenses, you will need a food license in addition to the liquor license. Once you figure all the State documents and requirements, then it’s on to your local town requirements.  There may be additional town fees. I addition to the all the fees you have to be careful with assumptions and setting expectations. You should not assume all people enjoy alcohol, some have bitter histories with the substance. Also, if you plan to reward honeymooners with a bottle of wine, you should be ready to reward all honeymooners with wine. Once a review is written about how generous you are, others will expect the same.

My advice is unless you have a solid marketing strategy and business plan in place to deal with alcohol, you should just forget it. Making a good impression with a guest can be achieved by other means. A nice box of chocolate, a note card or a kind smile can go a long way. If you are a small lodging or an Airbnb, focus on your core business, a clean and comfortable room.

You are welcome to continue the discussion on the MidCoast Maine Airbnb Facebook Group.


Kristen Bifulco

About Kristen Bifulco

Kristen is the owner of SuiteRev. SuiteRev is a consulting agency for Bed and Breakfasts, Airbnb's, Inns and Small Hotels. Kristen is motivated to help small lodgings uncover revenue and become sustainable.