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Fri 1st Feb 2013 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Coffee protests, impressive sites and social media control
Authors: Paul Charity, Ann Elliott and Carl Sautereau

Costa may have made an almighty mistake in Totnes by Paul Charity

A decade or so has passed since JD Wetherspoon was the absolute bête noire of individual licensees as it fanned out across the country. Part of this was related to the sheer ambition of its opening programme at the time, which peaked at just under 100 sites-a-year at the turn of the millennium. The number of opening tapered off sharply between 2003 and 2006, moving in consecutive years from 45 openings to 28, 13 and then nine as Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin sensed the property market was becoming over-heated.

But at one stage it seemed that every single Wetherspoon opening would be met with a vociferous local campaign arguing that an opening would sound the death knell of local operators. Over the years, too, it did look like a well-organised campaign stood some chance of prompting the local planning authority to find a sound and legal planning policy that prevented an opening. At times, genteel towns seemed more likely to find a blocking regulation than anyone. So it was that Holmfirth in West Yorkshire opposed a plan to convert its Picturedome cinema to a Wetherspoon and Stamford in Lincolnshire saw off a Wetherspoon plan to open in a town centre site that eventually became an Ask venue.

It’s a sign of how much has changed that Wetherspoon is currently working on opening unlicensed sites in both town – and local opposition is a little more hushed this time around. Another factor at work here is that, in the wake of the arrival of the credit crunch in 2007 and the subsequent rise in vacant units, more communities have come to regard a Wetherspoon investment in opening an often derelict building as a pub positively. The decline in local opposition comes despite Wetherspoon targeting smaller communities for openings. In 2009, the average population within two miles of a new opening was 38,000 compared to an average of 73,000 in 2003. True, the population within two miles bounced up to 67,000 and 54,000 respectively in 2010 and 2011 but last year’s 40 openings had a local population back down in line with 2009 levels – 39,000. The point here is that the size of the community made little difference to local opposition – the moment for mass, concerted and vocal opposition has passed.

It is the branded coffee operators that now find themselves cast in the role of unwanted interloper, accused of trampling over local independent coffee businesses. The level of noise generated in a host of communities must be a little unnerving and Costa Coffee took the unprecedented step of agreeing last year that the retail scene in Totnes, Devon would be damaged by its arrival. Costa has since taken a firmer stance with the townsfolk of Southwold in Suffolk and written to the Mayor of Ripon to point out that the town had already been penetrated by national retailers.

The quantum of opposition to Costa in particular does seem to have intensified because franchisees are looking to open sites in some particularly small communities - the market town of Bingham in Nottinghamshire, subject to an application currently, has just 8,000 citizens. And it is regularly the first national coffee brand to arrive in a host of other larger communities. It seems to me that the coffee controversy arising in town after town is a moment in time comparable to the Wetherspoon experience a decade or so ago. Free market forces are at work here and, as the high street property scene becomes denuded of a series of large retail brands, national coffee chains are part of the answer in maintaining town centres as a vital place for people to meet and greet. It’s hard to guess the extent to which Costa’s experience will mirror Wetherspoon. But I do not remember the pub chain ever agreeing with local opponents that it was unworthy of a position on a high street. The withdrawal of Costa from Totnes seems to have encouraged local opponents in many other towns to believe they stand a chance of facing it down – the noise levels have risen a few decibels since the Totnes decision.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

The great (and less great) sites of 2012 by Ann Elliott

I have visited some awesome (and not some awesome) pubs, bars and restaurants in the last 12 months and thought it might be worth reminding myself what they were - as a reminder of where to return in 2013 (and where to avoid).

Favourite place at the moment has to be Caravan in Goods Way. The staff are relaxed but professional, the décor is bang up-to-date and the food is delicious. Who would have thought sprouts would really make a comeback as a tapas option? The portions are very generous so you don’t need seven dishes between two of you to have a great meal (note to self). My only small quibble is that they need to freshen up the menu a bit now with some new dishes – it’s been the same for some time. But that won’t stop me from going back tonight for my fifth visit.

The coffee is wonderful at The Counter in The Delaunay and it’s a relaxing and interesting environment that is never excessively busy so you can always get a table. The service is impeccable, too. The Riding House Café is another current favourite. It just seems to be one of those places where you can eat, drink and chat at any time of the day, with a food and drink menu to suit every occasion, be it a formal business lunch or a catch-up with mates.

Whilst burgers aren’t really my thing, I could have devoured two at both Burger and Lobster and Meat Mission. They both seem to have achieved that brilliant balance of taste, volume, quality and moistness. Both places were full of men when I went – perhaps the thought of all that mayonnaise running down your chin isn’t quite such a turn on for women.

By contrast I thought that Bubbledogs was overrated and didn’t warrant the 20-minute queue. The hotdogs were dry and pretty tasteless despite being washed down by lashings of champagne. The staff were excellent but the below-average food didn’t do them justice - maybe I just went on an off day. I took all of my team to Mishkins pre-Christmas and we feasted on a brilliant breakfast served by very tolerant waiters who coped very well when we ordered everything on the menu.

You have to try very hard to find The Parcel Yard in Kings Cross as British Rail don’t seem to have been too generous with directional signage. But perhaps that’s an element of what makes it pretty special – a slightly hidden gem. The décor, of course, is integral to its appeal. There’s a definite feeling of, ‘This-is-how-I-imagine-pubs-were-in-the-past’, that makes it incredibly appealing, helped by a menu that has strong female appeal and a team who are happy to personalise your order. It’s a great model for Fuller’s to use in other rail terminus sites if it can find them.

I’ve just come back from South Africa and I can really recommend visiting the new breed of wineries and restaurants around Constantia and Stellenbosch. Chefs who used to dominate the Cape Town dining scene have moved out here and produce exquisite food in the most extraordinary settings. From memory, five out of the top ten restaurants in South Africa are now found in wineries. Look out for Cellars Hohenort, Jordan’s, Rust en Vrede, 1682 and Overture if you go. Some of the best food I have ever eaten. Oh and fit in Le Quartier Francais in Franshhoek if you can, too.

Just off for breakfast at the Summertown coffee shop - different target market but equally highly recommended. Roll on the rest of 2013 for more fantastic experiences.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliott Marketing and PR

Getting a grip on social media by Carl Sautereau

Most companies in the leisure industry have Twitter or Facebook accounts, but many don’t actively manage or monitor them, believing that having a presence on a social media platform is sufficient to be called a strategy. It isn’t. Not just because they are missing out on the opportunity of attracting and retaining customers, but because a poor social media strategy can lead to disaster for a company’s brand – worse in fact than not having a social media presence at all.

Some companies choose to control all of their social media activity from a central marketing department. If you pursue this strategy, you have far greater reach per post than if your social networking activity is split into smaller groups or regions. It is an easier strategy to execute and greater attention can be devoted to dealing with your followers.

However, for most companies in the leisure industry, this centralised strategy doesn’t work. In many cases, your audience is split into distinct groups, based on geography, profile or specific interest. Companies such as nightclub and restaurant chains, for example, need multiple social media accounts, as most of their customers and potential customers are interested only in information about their local venue.

This is the situation in which we found ourselves at The Luminar Group. We own 56 of the country’s largest late night entertainment venues, with various brands, including Oceana, Liquid & Envy and Lava & Ignite. Some of our social networking activity is, of course, relevant to all our customers, but most has a local focus: potential customers in Swansea, for instance, are unlikely to be interested in a special event organised at one of our clubs in St Albans.

For this reason, we needed to implement a parent–child strategy, whereby we run the ‘parent’ social media activity from our central marketing department in Milton Keynes, while local managers or designated employees run the social media marketing in their area.

The first and most important part of the strategy is that, as a company, we need to own all of our social media accounts. It is not uncommon in a business like ours for local managers and employees to set up their own Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. This is particularly prevalent where the central marketing department is a bit lax in its own activity.

Owning your own social media presence ensures that activity doesn’t stop if an employee leaves. Dormant accounts will frustrate your customers and interfere with the continuity of the brand’s message. But this is only the start of the problem. There have been examples of managers who have left companies and gone to work for rival organisations, taking their old employer’s Twitter followers with them. Worse still, an employee who owns a local Twitter account might leave your company under a cloud. Imagine the damage a disgruntled employee could do to your brand reputation if they retained control of your social media output. This damage could go far beyond the local area.

Next, we had to ensure that our central ‘parent’ team had access to all the local feeds. Some local managers are more active than others. Negative posts need to be addressed immediately, and if someone posts a negative or offensive comment on a relatively inactive local page, and this is not picked up, it can do untold damage to the entire brand. In some countries, such as Australia, you may be directly responsible for every posting on your pages, even those by customers, and this can leave you open to potential charges of libel or indecency if you don’t tackle offending posts immediately.

Organisations need a way of monitoring all posts centrally, but being able to monitor what is being said on your social media channels is just the start. Users are talking about you even if they don’t post on your wall. Companies must listen to these conversations in order to improve their services. Consumers rarely complain at the reception desk or to a member of management anymore; instead, they use social media to publicly share opinions – and they may make these complaints on sites other than your own. If you can’t monitor and respond to your customers’ online complaints, wherever they make them, you might lose them, along with any potential customer who reads the unresolved complaint.

We realised that to manage our social media presence effectively, we would need two things: first, a comprehensive strategy, which allowed local branches to manage their own social network presence, but which gave our digital marketing team ultimate control over the entire network in order to promote our business efficiently and consistently, and to protect our brand. Second, we would need appropriate software that enabled us to put our strategy in place.

For a while, we thought we would have to commission our own bespoke software, but then we came across a company called CrowdControlHQ, which was developing a system that did exactly what we needed.

First, the system enables us to oversee all of our various social media accounts from a simple dashboard, so that our central marketing team can monitor all activity. We are able to create posts centrally and, using a simple tickbox system, determine which of our social media accounts will receive the post.

More importantly, the CrowdControlHQ’s software automatically monitors all posts and deletes any that include words or phrases from a pre-specified list that might cause offence. It then alerts our control team. Employees with higher levels of security in our head office are able to block spammers and those who post offensive material to any of our Facebook accounts.

Many organisations share passwords to social media accounts among multiple employees, but with this system, unique logins with different levels of authority mean there is an audit trail, so we know exactly who has posted what. In addition, all of our accounts have a single administrator, so that complete control is retained by head office.

Logging in and out of numerous social media accounts can be frustrating, but using the dashboard, our control team can be logged into and monitor all of our accounts at the same time. It also flags up any account that has been inactive for a specified period, so we know if one of our venues is neglecting its local marketing.

But the beauty of this system from our point of view is that it extends beyond our own accounts, and is able to monitor posts that mention our brand names or any key topics we specify across blogs, Facebook, Google+, news sites, Pinterest and Twitter. Our control team is then able to respond to any of these comments immediately.

In implementing our marketing strategy, it’s handy having the right tools to measure its effectiveness, while having the peace of mind of knowing that the reputation of our brands is safe.
Carl Sautereau is head of customer engagement at Luminar. His responsibilities include social media, customer experience, e-learning and market intelligence at the UK’s largest nightclub operator

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