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Fri 18th Jan 2013 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Site focus,  limitations of like-for-likes and maximising TripAdvisor
Authors: Paul Charity, Paul Charity and Mark McCulloch

The benefits of site focus by Paul Charity

In deepest Derbyshire, there’s always a steady succession of operators calling in at The Bull’s Head in Repton to take a look at what its licensees Richard and Loren Pope are up to. New Pub Company’s Peter Linacre makes no bones about drawing inspiration from the pub’s brilliant pizza offer to launch his own pizza menu at the Camden Eye. Spirit chief executive Mike Tye argues that the pub has so many points-of-difference that it can lay claim to be a single-site brand.

The Popes won BII Licensee of the Year three years ago and would stand every chance of winning BII Licensee of the Decade in my humble opinion if such an award existed. The scale of the achievement of the Popes at The Bull’s Head is hard to over-state. They took over a pub that was closed and through hard work, retail innovation and steady investment have achieved double digit sale growth for six consecutive years. In December, they smashed the pub’s weekly sales record in the second week, before smashing it again in the following week and then smashing it a third time in the six-day final weeks of the month. I’m privy to the actual weekly sales figures but have promised not to disclose them. Suffice to say, they are awe-inspiring – and testament to the Popes’ retail skills.

Richard Pope comes from a managed pub background while Loren is a former solicitor. The Bull’s Head, Repton speaks to an eternal conundrum for the ambitious and gifted operator. Do I risk diluting my efforts by expanding? Am I better off focused on creating the maximum momentum at a single site? The Popes have ambitions to expand their company, Chilled Pubs, but they have taken their time in favour of moving The Bull’s Head further and further along its trajectory of excellence. The past year has seen further giant strides at The Bull’s Head as it defines and redefines itself in a parallel universe of what’s achievable in the traditional pub context. Building on the excellence of its wood-fired pizza, the Popes sent their head chef to the Carpigiani University of Gelato in Bologna, Italy last year to learn the art of making high-quality gelato. He returned and the Popes invested £60,000 in gelato-making equipment. “We have our own fresh gelato every day,” Richard tells me. “It only lasts two days but on Day One the product is mind-blowing. The margins are really good as well – and it’s something a managed pub would never do.”

Attention to detail is everything at The Bull’s Head and the Popes sourced gelato dishes from Italy and imported a special waffle iron from the US to serve top-class wafer-thin waffles as part a unique six-strong gelato sundae offer. Prices range from £6.25 for the Strawberry Steer to £9.75 for the El Bully (caramel crunch gelato, Madagascan vanilla gelato, Belgian chocolate gelato, black cherry ripple gelato, home made chunks of fluffy meringue, marshmellow and raspberries, chocolate shards, freshly-cooked waffle, whipped cream, chocolate brownie bits, fudge pieces and raspberry coulis). The outcome is a holy trinity of results – a unique dessert offer at a comparatively high-ticket but achievable price for Derbyshire and high Gross Profit margins. With one eye to the future, the investment in Gelato means they are in a position to supply as many as four pubs going forward.

The Popes like to make progress on multiple fronts at any given time. At the start of December, they opened a garden room in a marquee behind the pub that provides an extra 110 covers. The word marquee does it little justice because they have created a unique and magical year-round dining space with astro-turf, trees and twinkling lights in the ceiling and the majority of guests now regularly state a preference for being seated there. “It’s made a huge impact and we can trade it 52 weeks a year,” says Richard. It also provides the opportunity to start offering champagne breakfasts, which are on the schedule to begin after Easter. With the usual attention to every detail, the Popes also started to sell their own snack pots six months ago (see website for more detail) – and they are out-selling crisps by two-to-one.

There are more plans afoot. Currently staff are being taught butchery skills ahead of the opening of the Popes second pub with the intention of butchering their own meat at the venue where dry-ageing will take place on site. “It will be another Unique Selling Point,” says Richard. Needless to say, The Bull’s Head is a study in how a pub can surpass customer expectations at every turn. The Popes second pub is eagerly awaited.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

The limitations of like-for-like figures by Paul Charity

There is always eager anticipation in January when it comes to hearing how companies fared during the crucial month of December. Like-for-like sales performance is regarded as the key barometer of company performance over the crucial festive trading period. Interesting to read a health warning this week from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which argued that there is an over-reliance on like-for-like performance that means people are often comparing “apples with pears”. The Institute argues that like-for-like sales performance is not always reported in a consistent way. Furthermore, the Institute claims that they are not always a reliable indicator of how a business is actually performing. Heavy discounting, for example, can alter the relationship between sales data and profitability, which can undermine the relevance of like-for-like sales as a guide to increased profitability. Ernst & Young head of retail Julie Carlyle says: “More sales don’t necessarily mean higher profits. Sales volumes can be driven at the expense of profitability.”

Nobody can blame operators for wanting to put their best foot forward when it comes to reporting like-for-likes. This is a time-honoured practice, referred to by one well-known operator as lamp-shading – casting a ring of light around the best areas of performance whilst allowing less impressive information to sit in darkness. In fact, the aforementioned operator was rumoured to regularly close under-performing sites for refurbishment just before accounting periods to plump up like-for-like figures. Another obfuscation can centre around reporting performance in core and non-core estates or “invested” and “uninvested” estate. Among tenanted operators, there has been a move to report the performance of those parts of the estate on “substantive” leases although the definition of what amounts to a substantive lease can be a little hazy.

This reporting season has certainly seen operators keen to put their best foot forward. Spirit, for example, highlighted strong like-for-like performance over a three-week Christmas period until 5 January. Less impressive, one assumes, were the first two weeks of December when the industry consensus was that festive celebrations got off to a very slow start. Similarly, Greene King stressed a stellar performance on Christmas Day when bookings were up by 17 per cent on the previous year as 805 of its 950 managed pubs opened their doors and sales rose 6.8%. Stepping back from the headlines, like-for-like growth was a modest 2.8% (although this came after a 8.8% rise in the same period the year before). JD Wetherspoon stepped the other way by deciding to say nothing about trading over Christmas, preferring to simply state that like-for-likes were up an impressive 8% over the eleven weeks to 13 January. The company’s statement, which was the shortest I’ve seen it produce, without even the usual quotes from chairman Tim Martin over the tax regime. It seemed keen to avoid providing any clues on which parts of the business have been performing best. (Tim Martin claimed not to know exactly how food and drinks sales had each performed when I spoke to him on Wednesday morning). What was clear, though, was sales increases have been at the expense of margin, down 1.1% to around 8.2%. 

The Institute of Chartered Accountants has a solution to the problem of whether companies results are directly comparable – the formulation of a standard approach with the method used for calculating like-for-likes published alongside results. It seems to me unlikely in the extreme that this will ever come to pass.

For now, like-for-like sales performance should be treated as but one of a number of general health-checks. It should be seen in the context of general inflation for a start. 

More generally, though, a few themes were very apparent from company results and like-for-likes in 2012, with greater piquancy during December. Weather events became more extreme in 2012 and individual company performance reflected the peaks and troughs of climatic change, a trend that seems to have become ever more noticeable in the pub trade since the smoking ban of 2007. Capturing pre-bookings has also become the key battleground in this digital age. Those companies that performed well stole a march on rivals through increased sophistication in attracting pre-committed spend. It was noticeable that even a wet-led operator like Intertain saw out-performance in December thanks to boosting the number of pre-booked customers by 50% to 78,000 for the month.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

How pubs can maximise their presence TripAdvisor by Mark McCulloch

When I was considering writing this piece about how pubs can maximise their presence/scores on TripAdvisor, my first response was to ask myself, “Are pubs actually rated on Tripadvisor? Isn’t that for holiday destinations, hotels and ‘proper’ restaurants and not pubs (surely)?”.

The key question is: ‘Will people actually visit your pub due to a favourable Trip Advisor review alone?’. They might, but Trip Advisor is one of a hundred sites that operators should be looking to be featured on if they are to really drive visits from online presence. When you search for ‘Pubs in (insert destination here)’, by and large, you are met with Google search results as follow: Google listings, beerintheevening.com, fancyapint.com, TimeOut.com but not Trip Advisor (on page one of Google anyway, which is all the public and I have time to look at). If you are on page two to five you are decreasing your chances of being found and south of page five you haven’t a hope. If you search for a pub by name or places to eat in (Location X) then you will find that Trip Advisor creeps into your results.

To work out the best approach, you need to look deeper into the way people use ‘search’, for what, when and with what occasionality. That will help you understand how you can harness the potential of online reviews/content and develop an online search strategy that captures every click.

The trick here is to be constantly and consistently listed in all the ways that people ask questions - Best Sunday lunch in (Location X), Good food in (X), Best burger in (X), Best local restaurant (X), Top ten places to eat in (X), Where to eat in (X), 80th birthday meal in (X). Although these are all food examples you can also use your pub’s key attributes to your advantage eg; Sky Sports in (X), showing Man U game (or your favourite team) in (X), Pool Table in (X), Country pub in (X), Dog friendly pub in (X). I could list millions of possible search terms but we help our clients work out how they can best use natural and paid search to meet demand across all possible searches.

In terms of TripAdvisor, my advice would be to take a step back and think about how potential customers are searching to find a place like yours. Customers who take the time to review your pub give you ‘word of mouth’ recommendation on a global scale (that’s all!). Instead of being daunting, this should be embraced as the most exciting opportunity you have ever had to get people through the door.

The onus then falls to you to give make sure that you are always focused (as ever) on delivering value for money, an awesome atmosphere, great food quality and the best experience possible through exceptional hospitality. Treat every customer like a mystery shopper (as everyone is these days). It can be extraordinarily damaging if a bad review goes up online. If a poor review is posted online then the most important thing is to respond to this (as you would any complaint). Don’t leave it unattended or worse, delete it.

Lastly, you should continually prompt, encourage and perhaps incentivise your customers to post reviews in a variety of online review and listing sites as this spread will ensure you gain the most consistency and credit on Google for being widely reviewed rather than just on one ‘famous’ review site.
Mark McCulloch is a director at Elliott Marketing and PR. Contact mark@elliottmarketingpr.com or 07881314385

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