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Fri 2nd Jan 2015 - Operators report December LfLs ‘strong’ after slow start
Operators report December LfLs ‘strong’ after slow start: Christmas trade arrived late this year as preliminary sales figures for December and the New Year period show healthy like-for-likes after a tentative first couple of weeks. Peter Borg-Neal, chief executive and founder of the 12-strong gastro-pub operator Oakman Inns and Restaurants, told Propel: "Trading started slowly, but recovered by Christmas Eve, and we have hit all our target numbers and seen good growth. Business was particularly up on last year on 30 December and New Year's Eve. What we have seen, though, is strong growth in dining, but a slight decline in drinking." For the 25 days from Monday 8 December to midnight on 1 January, the company's like-for-like sales were up 7.4% over the same period in 2013, with total sales up 24%, though wet sales fell as a percentage of turnover from 45.5% of turnover to 44%. Steve Haslam, founder of the pub and restaurant company TLC Inns, saw takings 9% up like-for-like, though again, after a slow beginning. He said: "It was a pretty flat start to December, we were not particularly impressed with the first ten to 12 days, but things picked up. Black Friday was massive – then and on Christmas Day a couple of sites broke records. One of our village pubs was 26% up for the month, and one of our large Grand Central sites did very well too. But Christmas does seem to be trending a little bit later – maybe it's the pressure of work on everybody means they stay away and then pile in at the end. We've even noticed a fair few number of delayed bookings, with sites reporting people putting their celebrations back to January." The Kent-based pub group All Our Bars, which operates around 40 sites, was actually expecting a slow start to Christmas, according to chairman Stephen Brook, having seen the same thing in previous years, and adjusted its tactics accordingly, with promotions running through until the middle of December. While final figures are not yet in, Brook said, the company traded well in central London, while business at its well-established outlets sites in North and North West London was "very solid". Nigel Wright, chief operating officer at TCG, said “Trading this Christmas has definitely been a marathon rather than a sprint, with the first festive bookings being in late November. The traditional ‘Mad Friday’, falling on 19 December, wasn’t quite as mad as in previous years, apart from in some northern strongholds, as it was still six days ahead of Christmas Day. We have also found that customers who had booked extended holidays through from that Friday to after the new year have been spreading their spending across the entire festive period with sales still strong right up to this weekend as the public are out and about in the sunny weather. Pre-booked Christmas parties and functions were also ahead of last year but I believe drinks spend per head on the actual occasions may have been lower. However, once people were home for a week or so, there was plenty of festive celebrating, which meant that we saw strong drink sales in our local and community pubs as customers got together with friends and family. Record sales come from many houses including the Fatling in Hornchurch, the Golden Fleece in Chelmsford, the Hare & Hounds in Liverpool and the George Staples in Sidcup. There was also plenty of footfall in shopping areas, with tourists packing our West End venues in London over the Christmas/New Year period itself and Bar 38 in Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth also seeing record numbers as shoppers took a break to eat and drink.” Unlike last year, when floods and heavy snowfalls had hammered trade at many venues, business at Heartstone Inns benefited from the much milder weather, with the company's 11 outlets trading "very strongly", according to founder James Birch. One noticeable difference this year, he said, was that more people were pre-booking the set menu rather than, as in the past, turning up "on spec". While it was, again, too early to give full figures, he said, the company's new acquisitions had bedded in very well, while some of the established outlets "started to go crazy" over Christmas and the New Year. Business at the Banwell House Pub Company in the West Country, founded by Toby Brett, was "absolutely manic" throughout December, with every week a record breaker. "We had people booking up from the middle of November, and it's been constant all the way through," Brett said. "I've not got the full figures yet, but business has been considerably up. Bookings have been a lot stronger – even New Year's Day bookings were much higher, both lunchtime and evenings. We've felt there's more confidence about: we've sold as much Champagne as Prosecco.” At C2 Investments, owner of five hotels and bars and the Lancaster Brewery, founder and managing director Matt Jackson reported "fantastic" figures, with all the company's outlets showing figures up on 2013, and "a great atmosphere" everywhere – "everything sold up, full up and everybody having a great time." The only slight cloud was that sales of the company's beers to free trade outlets were down, but beer sales in its own bars were up, and the brewery's seasonal beers had done very well, Jackson said. Bulldog Hotel Group, the coaching inn operator led by Kevin Charity, also reported an "exceptionally busy" Christmas, with like-for-likes, led by food, up 13.69%. While the first week of December "wasn't massive", Charity said, business had built up quickly, and the week of Christmas itself, ending 28 December, was" fabulous", giving the group third-busiest seven days of 2014. The New Year had also been stronger than it had been for the past five years, Charity said, rounding off a year in which the company has been in double-digit like-for-like growth every month since April.

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