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Fri 17th Aug 2012 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Alcohol culture, Marketing check-list, charting a new course at Atmosphere
Authors: Dr John Foster, Ann Elliott and Paul Harbottle

The health costs of alcohol culture by Dr John Foster

I read the reply to my article on alcohol addiction and education by CPL Training’s Paul Chase with a certain amount of sadness. Whilst accusing me of lumping “the industry” together (I don’t and he should read some of my other work around home drinking) he makes the same mistake in relation to the public health community, whom he appears to believe are all pushing a temperance message. There are some people who have a temperance agenda I am not one of them. I have written in support of the British pub. My view is this: what disturbs me is the amount of alcohol that is now consumed at home and the main change I would like to see is greater use of the British pub. I am not miles apart from Tim Martin. (See Friday Opinion, 10 August 2012). To be explicit, we appear to have reached a point whereby alcohol consumption for those 40 and above remains stable or is increasing and this is the group that is likely to place increasing demands on health services. At the same time, the British electorate has lost sight of the link between having good services and being prepared to pay for them. Furthermore, the population is ageing and it is expected that by 2030 there will be 30 per cent increase in those over 65. This is a situation that cannot be sustained and something has to give. There has to be a balance between acknowledging the economic contribution of the alcohol industry and introducing effective checks and balances that reduce consumption levels in those who will, in time, place greater demand on health services. All I am asking for is effective checks and balances, which I acknowledge is not always a popular message.

Now to turn to some of the points raised by Mr Chase in relation to education. He accuses me of wanting to push “propaganda.” I am at a loss to understand what he means here. I assume he thinks that I espouse a “Just Say No” campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. I called for evidence-based education, this means education that is age appropriate and couched within making lifestyle choices, of which alcohol is just one. I am not familiar with the “Smashed” programme but I suspect it is based on similar principles that I have just outlined. However there is a point where I depart from Mr Chase. Any claims I would have for education is that, at best, it makes a small difference- I would not make claims of 90 per cent success rates. 

I did attempt to find some information about the “Smashed” programme; in particular, how it was evaluated. I could find nothing, I do however have a teenage daughter and she has experienced theatre-based alcohol education. She informs me that she and her classmates filled in an evaluation form as they left and nothing more. Thus, it is doubtful this counts as an independent evaluation. It would also have been informative to follow up at some future point to ascertain whether this knowledge base is sustained over time. However, there are numerous examples of international studies that show education results in increased knowledge but minimal impact on behaviour. Mr Chase quotes figures that show a decrease in underage alcohol consumption and implies a link between this and education. It is true that underage drinking levels are falling. However, most education is likely to have a very small impact. Of greater importance is likely to be: the fact that young people have other substitute activities such as social networking; the sanctions for selling to underage drinkers are now very high; and, in some cases, greater surveillance on the part of parents. There is now good research that shows that greater parental surveillance is associated with less risk-taking behaviour on the part of young people, both when drinking at home or with their peers. The role of parents and other adults is the key to giving education a chance of making a significant impact. Any messages are soon undermined when the overwhelming message is that alcohol is a reward for a hard day, a way of coping with stress or integral to enjoying yourself. So Mr Chase, I hope Diageo will place equal emphasis on working with parents and other adults as well as targeting their efforts on young adults.

Now to some final comments about responsibility which clearly struck a raw nerve when I happened to point out that alcohol was a drug and that some of the careless rationalisations many people have concerning alcohol would not sound quite so good if compared to other “bad” drugs. I am old enough to be able to reflect on a number of societal changes and I feel that over the past 30 years as a society, the UK has become more greedy and selfish ( I feel the rise in home-drinking as opposed to drinking in social spaces, like the pub, is a reflection of this) and any sense of responsibility for wider society is becoming increasingly eroded as checks and balances have been taken away. Many libertarians fail to acknowledge that when an individual exercises their freedoms and rights, the price is often paid by someone else. In this case, if someone drinks at a level where there is a risk to their own health, the price is paid by others as well as themselves. 

However I am not someone who wishes to push a temperance message, but one that argues we have to make some changes. I enjoy alcohol and feel that the British pub is one of the most important parts of British culture. I don’t want to see the alcohol industry demonised in the same way as tobacco has been. However, some change is required that acknowledges the importance of alcohol to the economy, but also that there are health costs attached to the current British alcohol culture and there are evidence-based ways to address this. To claim that everyone who wishes to see some changes to the way we drink is pushing a message of temperance does no-one any favours. 

Dr John Foster is Principal Research Fellow at the University of Greenwich-School of Health and Social Care. This article represents his personal opinions and do not represent those of the University of Greenwich

My eight-point marketing check-list by Ann Elliott

I am working with a number of pub groups at the moment who want to know how they can increase sales in underperforming sites. Usually they believe that their locations are ok, their management teams are fairly strong and that their marketing activity is no better or worse than their competitors. They know though that they need a fresh pair of eyes to challenge them and to provide experienced and objective advice.

Whilst they don’t always say it, they often need someone too who can look at their business through the eyes of the customer – quite often they are themselves too deeply involved in the operation to be able to have that critical and important perspective

When we receive briefs along these lines I have a short check list I use:

1.  How good is the manager? This sounds bloody obvious – but there is absolutely no point getting customers to come to a pub where the manager (and her team) isn’t superb at giving them an outstanding experience which makes them want to come back and recommend. Marketing can only persuade a customer over a threshold of a pub once - then it’s over to the operators. I look to see if the team are united behind some sort of message about the pub, that they know what’s expected of them and that they have regular feedback on how they are doing. It’s about great leadership at the end of the day.

2.  How good is the BDM? If they aren’t, they don’t always recognise that the manager is the problem not the solution. If the BDM says he is too busy to meet me, there is usually an issue somewhere.

3.  Is their offer right for the customers they want to attract? This means I review the whole of the customer journey from parking the car, to ordering food, to buying a drink, using the loo’s and paying the bill. It’s about every bit of the experience. Whilst patently it’s critical to get the food and drink range, quality, price and ‘value for money’ right, every single element has to deliver against their customer’s needs and expectations.

4.  How well are they communicating this offer consistently and clearly to customers? This is much easier to assess in a branded managed environment but far less easy to evaluate in one that isn’t.

5.  Do the team really seek out, listen to and respond to customer feedback? I look at every bit of evidence I can find from booking engines to mystery guest schemes to complaints. The answer to a poor performing pub is usually in there somewhere. I also watch the team in operation to see if they are genuinely interested in customers. Are they checking back, for instance, because it says they have to in the brand standards manual (if they have one) or because they genuinely care about giving their customers a great time?

6.  How consistently great is the pub from an operational perspective? It only takes one ‘off’ night or meal or drink to put a seed of doubt in a customer’s mind and then a frequent customer can become an infrequent one overnight. The basics have to be right and delivered time after time. Normally I just sit and watch and it usually tells me all I need to know.

7.  How well do the team know their local area? I expect a team, led by the manager, to know their local area street by street. They should know their local businesses, organisations, shops, universities and clubs like the back of their hand - they should keep a database and update it regularly. They should really be going out locally every week to make new contacts. Those managers who believe in the power of neighbourhood marketing do – they usually show me what they are doing before I ask for it.

8.  What are they doing in terms of marketing and how are they measuring success? I have another checklist here. I review their marketing plan (to be honest though quite a lot of pubs don’t have marketing plans) and their marketing activity against this plan. I look at what they are doing in terms of activity, events, charity links, networking, PR, social media, printed communications and digital communications- and how coordinated it all is.

An underperforming pub often does needs to sort out its marketing but sometimes there is a lot more to do before it can even get to that stage.

Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliott Marketing and PR


Charting a new course at Atmosphere Bars and Clubs by Paul Harbottle

Faced with the problem of reviving a business that has been in sales decline for the past seven years, I was pretty sure that the solution to putting this right was not to try and replicate what had been done time and time before. Atmosphere Bars and Clubs (ABC) desperately needed a new lease of energy and thinking 'outside of the box' without ruining the business values that our loyal customers have told us are the reasons they visit.

When I joined ABC 18 months ago I was struck by the level of staff enthusiasm and pride, but frustrated by the lack of consistency and team spirit. The first thing that I did was open up the business decisions to a wider audience. Get the guys and girls in the front line to tell you how it really is and then collectively work out how to put it right. The power of the whole team will always be better than the power of one. The more people that understand why and how you have reached a decision, the better the chance you have of reaching the right answer and getting the solution implemented across the board. It's taken a while, but sales are now growing and profits are improving.

Our philosophy is 'entertainment over price'. We want all our staff to treat our customers as if they were guests in their own home. I have banned all marketing material that leads with a price point. Breaking the sell-it-cheap cycle is the only way that the whole sector will survive in the long term. People want value-for-money, they don't want cheap drinks in a grotty bar with crap service. Our marketing approach caters for different groups of customers on different days of the week. Much like cinemas and Easyjet, off peak or midweek sessions are better value-for-money, with the weekends and late night being more premium. We lead the weekend with parties, focusing on our strap line: “There ain't no party like a Chicago's party”. In the past six months we have launched an entirely new website, which is not only up-to- date, it breaks down by venue and allows for bookings and payments on line. We get 10,000 visitors to our website a week.

None of our success is a result of anything revolutionary. Evolution over revolution ensures that we can test our theories and change course if we have made mistakes. Being resourceful has allowed us to make some business enhancing decisions without costing us a fortune. A great example of this is our pricing. We wanted to develop a pricing model that identified the margin opportunities based on the local competition, our own capacity and the day part. We were pointed in the direction of McDonald’s, who use a large third party company to do exactly this piece of work for them. The cost to ABC of engaging with the same supplier was going to be in excess of £250,000. We put our heads together and put the problem to London Business School. They came up with two MBA students who took it on as part of their project work. We ended up with a great pricing tool that cost us £15,000!

At times we have faced some tough decisions. We have closed the doors on three venues in the past 12 months. Reluctantly we have had to concede that the time, resource and effort to break even in these venues is far outweighed by the upside of putting this focus and energy into the remaining estate.

With the business now turning around we are going to open the first new Chicago's for ten years. Stourbridge opens to the public on 14 September. The boost that we are all getting from opening in a new location is infectious.

The doom-mongers who see the late night sector as terminally challenged, can't see beyond the last 5 years. I compare our situation with cinemas 30 years ago. Look at them now. Collectively, to survive, the sector needs to broaden its thinking, enhance the offer and develop the new 'popcorn'.

And what next for ABC? Watch this space.

Paul Harbottle is chief executive of Atmosphere Bars and Clubs

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