University marketing 101

Marina's Pizzeria has been open for five years in the small town of Poughkeepsie, located in upstate New York. The Bronx-raised owner, Luigi Colicci, has made college marketing the basis of his business.

Marina's has become the sole Italian food sponsor and supplier for the Marist College athletic program, which is just across the street from the restaurant.

Most of the 3,500 students who attend this school come from upper middle class families. The school's staff is also a wide customer base for Luigi, as he caters many of their events and provides delivery orders to different departments on a weekly basis.

Sports Marketing

Luigi knew that when he began his business in Poughkeepsie he had to do something big to beat out the competition of four other local pizzerias.

"When I first moved into this store, I only had ads in newspapers and calendars," Luigi says. "So, I approached the athletic director and made him an offer on sponsoring the teams. We settled on a budget made up of half cash and half trade (of Marina's food for the teams). They listed us as the official Italian food supplier for athletic programs."

As part of the agreement with the athletic department, Luigi receives signage in the gymnasium. He gets two commercial hooks on the student radio station before each football, basketball and baseball game. He is the sponsor of the free-throw contest at half-time, where two members of the audience compete for a free two-topping pizza from Marina's. During the games every time a player makes a three-point shot a "Marist's 6th Man" T-shirt with the Marina's logo is thrown into the crowd.

"I'll go to a basketball game and see everyone wearing these T-shirts and people are assuming everyone's from Marina's," Luigi says. "Everything about the games is beneficial to my business – the signage, radio commercials on the student station, everything is good exposure."

One of the major benefits of sponsoring the athletic teams is that the school tells other teams that come in about Marina's. Then the other teams order sandwiches and pizzas for the road, Luigi says.

A Marina's coupon also appears on the back of the game tickets for all athletic team events. The basketball tickets usually have a coupon offering two free toppings.

I asked Luigi if he was seeing a good redemption rate on the ticket coupon. He said it has not been as high as he hoped. He attributed this to the fact that most of the athletic supporters are students, and students get in free so they don't necessarily need a ticket.

Upping the Profit Margin with New Technology

Luigi tapped into a growing trend in college spending plans for students earlier this year. The school has a program where students have a debit card that also acts as the student identification card. The card is attached to an account with a certain amount of money in it. The card was previously available for use only on the college campus

"I was interested in doing this gift card called Marina Dollars where $20 or so was applied toward an account so customers wouldn't have to pay in cash. The school found out about what I wanted to do and approached me about using the Marist Money."

The acceptance of Marist Money requires a six-month lease on the equipment used to process the debits. This equipment operates in the same way a credit card terminal works.

The school monitors all the transactions from the Marist Money. At the end of the month, the school deducts their percentage from the total sales charged to its account from Marina's and sends Luigi a check for the difference. Luigi has to pay the school about 5 percent of the purchase. This has not been a problem for him because he has to pay a similar percentage to the credit card companies.

"The card and where it is accepted is advertised on the college homepage, and new students are being told about it," Luigi says. "It's an offer I can't refuse. I haven't had any problems with it, and sales have increased 10 percent since the program began about two months ago."

Marketing to Bar Hoppers

Luigi offers a "Late Night at Marina's" every Friday while school is in session. He used to have his pizza sold at a local bar, but lost the business when the owner decided to make the food himself and reap all the profits. Luigi got started with this late night idea when he was younger and just beginning in business.

"I was 26, and sometimes frequented this bar to socialize with my customers," Luigi says. "Some of the kids told me that – we'd love to have a slice of your pizza right now.'"

So, Luigi approached the bar owner about renting out his unused kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights to heat and sell his pizza. The owner of the bar said he would not charge him rent, and instead just let him sell his pizza slices. He figured this would be a way to increase bar sales. Luigi sold his slices at a discounted price as a way to market his new business.

After a while, the bar owner decided to give the pizza making a go himself, leaving Luigi without the Friday and Saturday bar business. He talked to his customers to see if they would like to do the same thing at his place.

"The students said they would come here after the bars closed, so we decided to stay open late once a week," Luigi said. "Every Friday night is very busy. We do very well. In the four extra hours we're open on Fridays, we probably sell 200 slices of pizza.

"The bar thing was fun while it lasted, but I feel it's even better that the students can come to my place, sit down for a while, eat, sober up and go home instead of drinking more. They can either come in on a $1 taxi ride or we will deliver it to them."

Luigi also pointed out that staying open later has allowed for other business besides students. We have a hospital right across the street, and for the people working late, this is a great place for them to get food when nothing else is open."

Luigi says he would like to expand Late Night at Marina's to three nights a week, eventually.

Making His Name Known-For Free!

Luigi has taken advantage of his location across from Marist in more ways than one. He even uses the students as a means of marketing. One way was getting his story out to PMQ through a public relations campaign prepared for him by a student.

"I had a girl who worked for me as a counter girl during the summer," Luigi says. "She was trying to get an internship in New York City, and was having trouble. She approached me about doing some work for me. She had a friend that came to me to see if I would become a sponsor for interns.

"The interns can earn up to six college credits while working about 30 hours a week for me during the semester. I had to evaluate them, and they had to turn in work logs and show examples of what they did for me."

Luigi has had his interns help him with marketing and PR work. He has had them enter customers email addresses into a database, send out emails, send out faxes with his specials on them, and other things in the store. He had them go out into the community to businesses and doctors' offices to make contact with them for caterings.

In the fall, the Marist communications department will give him copies of the applications for the internship credit program so that he can pick more interns.

Making it in the Slower Summer Months

Summers in Poughkeepsie are slower because most of the students are gone, but Luigi has found a way to battle this. Each year the school sponsors athletic camps conducted by the college coaches for local kids. He got this deal through his sponsorship of the athletic programs during the school year.

"We take care of their camps at a discounted price," Luigi says. "All the kids are told where the pizza comes from, and this leads to their parents coming in."

Luigi also has a few of other clever marketing ideas to get past the summer slumps. He sells 11 flavors of Italian ice, sends faxes out to businesses a couple days a week, caters to pharmaceutical companies who are doing business luncheons for the many area doctors and feeds the summer construction workers.

"The construction workers may come in three out of five days of the week for lunch," Luigi says. "I'll give them a free cannoli or something once in a while. The pharmaceutical company caterings help a lot because they do them frequently. I have my interns set up contact with the doctors' offices, so that when a pharmaceutical representative approaches the doctor about a lunch recommendation, they recommend Marina's."

Clever Email Marketing

Luigi offers a promotion called "Win 52 Pizzas for a Year". This word of mouth driven promotion is an idea Luigi used to build a customer base via computer.

"I wanted a way to get a lot of my customer's email addresses so I can send them coupons and specials," he says. "I had my wife create an entry form that included spaces for the customer's name and email address and birthday. I had my interns enter them into a database. I've created a birthday club from this."

Luigi did this promotion for the first time this year. He had about 250 people sign up, and the winner was chosen from a random drawing. He used this database to create a birthday club. He mails the people in the club a card and a gift certificate for a free pizza on their birthday.

Other Marketing Strategies

Some of the other marketing tools that Luigi uses are: "Win your office a free pizza!" and "Moving Targets". With the office promotion, he offers a different local business a free catered lunch so that he gains exposure. With this promotion, Luigi has a bowl set up inside the restaurant for people to drop their business card in. He draws a card every Monday, and gives a company a free large pizza and a two-liter bottle of soda.

"The people have to come in to put their card in anyway, but they always become repeat customers," Luigi says.

He targets new residents of Poughkeepsie and the surrounding area with the "Moving Targets." With this promotion, he offers a gift certificate for a large two-topping pizza to 30 new home owners in the area each month.

Luigi also uses the Val-Pack direct mail service to send mailers to people in the area around his pizzeria. He uses a four color coupon that offers specials like buy two subs, get the third free; get a free topping and soda and buy two dinner entrees and get free garlic bread. He sends out 10,000 coupons monthly with Val-Pack, and has had a 3 to 5 percent redemption rate in the past eight months.

On his pizza box, he has the Marina's name, logo, catering information, location, phone number and one coupon printed in black and white. His special with these coupons is for the customers to collect ten coupons and get a free pizza.

On His Own

Luigi has made a successful business for himself with Marina's without a lot of formal education. He said that he has learned everything he knows on his own.

"I learned a lot the stuff I know at pizza conventions," Luigi says. "In order to stay on top of the competition, you have to do stuff before everyone else. That's why I've been successful."

Luigi does not use an advertising agency to do his promotional materials. Like his business knowledge, he has learned to do this on his own.

"I do all my materials myself," he says. "My wife does all the graphics. I just go to the local copy place and get stuff run off."

About Marina's – the Operation

Marina's is a 1,200-foot full-service restaurant. There is no price limit on a delivery to anywhere in the five-mile delivery area. Luigi has about 10 employees who work for him mostly part-time. His menu features pastas, 20 different gourmet pizzas, salads, ten sandwiches, appetizers and desserts.

Sandwiches make up about 15 percent of sales each week. He makes nine hot sandwiches and one cold sandwich. The cold sandwich, known as the "Italian Combo" with ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone and balsamic vinaigrette dressing, is a best seller. A couple other top sellers are the "Grilled Chicken, Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil" and the "Chicken Marsala." These are served hot on homemade foccacia bread.

Luigi says that since he's introduced the foccacia, his sandwiches have really taken off. The sandwiches range in price from $4.95 to $5.50. He does not currently offer any sandwich combos, but he does offer pizza and pasta combos. For instance, all pastas come with a salad. He also has a pizza slice and drink combo.

The average pizza is about $11.50 per pie and a slice of pizza runs $1.50-$2.50. Luigi says pizza pies and slices make up about 60 percent of his business each week. Pasta dishes average $8 per plate and make up about 10 percent of the weekly sales. All foods are made to order. Everything Luigi serves at Marina's is made from scratch.