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Fri 11th Sep 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The rise of individual expression, the return of the coaching inn and the highs and lows of eating out
Authors: David Martin, Glynn Davis and Ann Elliott

The rise of individual expression by David Martin

“I’ll have what she’s having” – that’s the so-called “Meg Ryan theory of social conditioning”, taken from the infamous scene in When Harry Met Sally, filmed at the celebrated Katz’s Deli in New York City, which has reaped the tourist benefit ever since. The “social conditioning” argument goes back to 2003 to an unusually readable academic market research paper, authored by Mark Earls, then at Ogilvy, which propounds the “herd theory” of consumer behaviour. His view is that “we mostly choose what those around us choose, whatever we tell ourselves... it’s the people around us who shape our behaviour” and “we are who we are and do what we do as a herd, not as individuals”.

It’s a significant principal, but its origins predate social media, and I’d suggest that’s created two major caveats to the theory, both of which have significant ramifications for out-of-home food and drink operators, and supplier brands: firstly, within our chosen herd, we are now increasingly able and concerned to cultivate our individuality. Secondly, there isn’t one single herd, and being one of “us” implicitly means we are not one of “them”.

It will soon be 20 years since the publication of The Experience Economy, Pine & Gilmour’s key work on the evolution of consumer markets from an emphasis on material goods, towards enriched experiences. Their work also predated social media, but even then, Pine & Gilmour stated “no two people can have the same experience, because each experience derives from the interaction between the staged event... and the individual’s state of mind”. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that close to half the adult population now uses social networking almost every day (or daily). Among those aged 18-34, that proportion is more like three-quarters.

That scale factor is amplified by the disproportionate role of word of mouth in our market, A July 2015 McKinsey article stated that “we found that the impact of social media on buying decisions is greater than previously estimated and growing fast” with experiential sectors being particularly likely to involve social recommendation. Like it or not, social media has unlocked our inner vanity and our latent desire to share (publicise) our experiences. The recent Sacla/Trajectory Partnership report on the future of eating out, amongst its discussion of key cultural trends, duly observed that “our leisure pursuits will be increasingly important as a source of personal identity...it is the experiences we buy, rather than the goods we own, that are used increasingly as a means of personal identity, providing sought-after social cachet or currency”.

Similarly, recent research on the music market by The Hub and YouthSight observed that “for ‘generation selfie’, experience is the new status symbol” and “experiences need to be sharable, otherwise what’s the point?” Move closer to home, and consider the current beer market. The old “big beast” brands are under serious attack from a growing legion of quirky crafty upstarts. Gordon Brown’s Progressive Beer Duty initiative may have kick-started the craft/micro-brewer sector, but social media is its accelerator – consumers are drawn to its novelty value, and therefore its social sharing status. It’s another world from the old regional ale affiliations – the long lost world of those Tetley Bittermen – and even this inexpert Tweeter knows there’s no social media contest between my routine Thursday at the local, drinking the same old bitter, compared to my annual craft beer “market research” session at the Birmingham Beer Bash.

This summer’s was the third Beer Bash, and even though the audience is widening over time, people still go there because other people are there – but what you drink will be a unique personal combination. In other words “I’ll have what she’s having” doesn’t mean consuming the exact same thing – you buy into the same ethos, but you express it in a totally individual way. Since Adam was a lad, young adults were always experimental, but there is evidence that they are becoming even more interested in trying new things. The Trajectory Partnership’s “Global Foresight” research finds that the proportion of 18-34-year-olds who say trying new things is important to them, rose from 34% in 2011 to 43% in 2014.

It’s not hard to find supportive evidence outside the beer category. In the States, recent Fortune articles on the “attack on big food” have reported on the loss of market share for large legacy grocery brands. The waning role of mainstream live TV channels in the fragmented media diet of the under 35s is also well documented. And in a recent opinion piece on nightclubs, Jane Merrick in the Independent noted that for their core young market “their access to music is unparalleled, their tastes more eclectic, why would they want to spend a load of money listening to the same DJ, week after week?”

Music has always been central to self-identity, but there can be few better examples of the market fragmentation and individualisation enabled by online technology – it’s become normal to be different. And the added attitudinal dimension is that those who self-publish their individuality, novelty and experimentation, are also implicitly setting themselves apart from the same old brands and behaviours. It’s still herd behaviour, but with an added “us and them” factor.

As US customer service guru Chip Bell puts it, consumers’ definition of extraordinary is changing, with a growing emphasis on the extra and not the ordinary – because although marketers want consumers to talk about the brand or the venue, in today’s “personal knowledge economy” consumers really want to talk about themselves. For out-of-home food and drink brands, accustomed to long-term supply contracts and six month menu cycles, this poses a couple of tough contemporary challenges: be attractive to many, but appeal to the individual – be consistent, yet constantly surprising. That calls for more of the extra, and a lot less of the ordinary – because there’s little or no social capital in the same or the mundane.
David Martin is managing director of Red Circle Insight


The coaching inn has returned by Glynn Davis

In the Davis household, 2015 has represented something of a watershed in the way we book holidays. For the past couple of years a trip away instinctively meant first looking for a hotel and if that proved fruitless then Airbnb came into play. This is partly a result of having two young children who ideally can share their parents’ room thereby enabling us to avoid the unnecessary need to pay for two separate rooms. With most hotels only having a limited number of family rooms to accommodate four people there has been an increasing requirement for us to fall back on Airbnb.

So much so in fact that this year the online platform has become our go-to option when looking for accommodation. We have used it to book a variety of different length stays both in the UK and abroad. It guarantees the securing of very centrally located accommodation at a reasonable price. But despite Airbnb’s clear advantages there are times when it simply cannot deliver the goods. Sometimes something else is required for when you don’t really want to look after yourself. When it comes to a UK break, and there is a need to be looked after, then the ideal accommodation from my family’s point of view is not renting somebody else’s apartment or even booking a traditional hotel, it is staying in a coaching inn.

Typically comprising central locations, bags of history, atmospheric bars, good quality food, (ideally) a separate restaurant, comfortable bedrooms, and not impersonal in the way of some big hotels, they perfectly fit the bill for our requirements. Rather handily this has coincided with something of a rejuvenation in this style of venue over recent years. For decades they were pretty much unloved as a form of accommodation. With their modest numbers of rooms they tended to fall between being a pub, a hotel and a restaurant and the reality was that people rather compartmentalised staying in hotels, drinking in pubs, and eating in restaurants.
 
But with gastro-pubs firmly a mainstream phenomenon, consumers have increasingly looked to do all these three things in one venue. In the process the coaching inn has found itself in something of a sweet spot. And consumers have begun to reacquaint themselves with this quintessentially British form of hospitality venue. A fair chunk of UK consumers have undoubtedly lost some interest in the soulless budget hotels (for anything other than functional business trips and cheap stag/hen jaunts) and have grown a craving for venues with quirkiness and character. And vitally, have all the relevant food and beverage facilities on-site.

What links the rejuvenated coaching inn of today with its original extremely successful incarnation is that the bar is the beating heart of the operation. This is what really separates the coaching inn from the hotel. Rather than the accommodation and bar still being distractions to each other – as they had been earlier – the new owners of many coaching inns have recognised that success is determined by carefully knitting these components together into one complementary whole.

With the bar being of such importance, it is not surprising the coaching inn has been particularly appealing to the more progressive pub companies. For some years the likes of Young’s, Fuller’s, and Daniel Thwaites, and of course the newly named The Coaching Inn Group, have been playing around with accommodation and the coaching inn is ideally placed for them as they look to fulfil their aspirations of adding rooms to their core food and beverage heritage. Each of these firms has been investing significantly in their properties, both in terms of bringing back to life those venues that they already owned with accommodation, and (space permitting) adding rooms to pubs that previously did not have any letting accommodation.

JD Wetherspoon has been getting in on the act through the creation arguably of new versions of the coaching inn. What it describes as its “hotels” are effectively modern coaching inns with rooms upstairs that are supported by the strong, well recognised, and good value food and beverage offer of a regular JD Wetherspoon pub on the ground floor. But it has not just been the pub companies that have recognised the strong potential of the coaching inn because specialists like The Coaching Inn Group are building their operations wholly around the coaching inn. After the recent sale of a stake in the business it announced its intention to invest £20m in doubling its size to 15 inns.

This all sounds very good news to me because being able to seamlessly move from bar to restaurant to bed is one of life’s great luxuries. My children seem to agree too because for six and eight year olds the appeal of being able to do all this under one roof means they don’t have to bother with putting their shoes on at any point during the evening. Sometimes when the whole family wants to enjoy life’s little luxuries, it’s a newly re-fashioned, old fashioned coaching inn and not Airbnb that fills the need.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends


High and lows of dining out by Ann Elliott

The last week or two has seen some incredible highs and some unbelievable lows in dining out – proving to me that consistency in dining out experiences can never be taken for granted.

Highs have included:

A fantastic lunch at the Samuel Jones, a new St Austell pub in Exeter: It’s a conversion from a derelict mill down by the river so it has character in abundance and is a super piece of space. Service was exceptionally friendly but the food was something else – one of those menus where you really want the food to be as good as its description and then it exceeds on every level, particularly in presentation.

An awesome Sunday lunch at The Thatch in Adstock for 20: Andy is a great licensee and has a team who seem to do everything right all the time without being obsequious. It’s a pub you keep going back to time and time again after trying lots of others and finding them wanting. The food is always interesting, fresh and full of flavour. Nick Hewer from the Apprentice says this is his favourite pub and I would agree. It’s worth a trip out to the country (ish).

The new Soho House in Dean Street for breakfast: The design is just beautiful (as are the majority of guests) and achingly trendy (as are the majority of guests). Surprisingly, the service was warm, friendly and welcoming from reception through to team members. The food was a bit of a mixed bag to be honest – overcooked bacon balanced by perfectly cooked eggs and more avocado than you could shake a stick at. I would go back just to admire the décor and not bother eating.

Breakfast at Plum and Spilt Milk at Kings Cross:
I am not sure I really like this place but for some strange reason I keep going back. It’s a bit bland and lacking in atmosphere but the food was really good, the company was great and the service made me smile. It’s easy – perhaps that’s why I keep going.

Balthazar for coffee: It couldn’t be any more accommodating here if it tried. Breakfast, just a cup of coffee, working there for an hour, just a glass of champagne or the full Monty. Doesn’t feel like it will bend over backwards for its customers but it does, every single visit.

Lows have included:

Madison at St Pauls for after work drinks: This place does have amazing views – full stop. It also has intimidating bouncers, huge queues at the bar, poor value for money wine, areas where you can’t go with a drink in your hand (but no notices telling you that it’s the case) and reserved tables with no one on them for an hour. I didn’t want to stand in the queue for 40 minutes so asked a passing waiter if I could buy a bottle of wine from him. I could! Joy of joys! It took 20 minutes but he eventually brought one and I paid there and then – but there is absolutely no evidence of “standing” (as opposed to “table”) service. An extra ordinarily irritating place.

The Five Tuns in Heathrow Terminal 5: Dismal, completely dismal. Feels like someone has taken over from someone else (Geronimo from TRG?) and forgotten to update the signage. The latter offers Lancashire hotpot, Barnsley chop and fried duck egg – none of which were on the menu. One blackboard mentioned ‘”delicious seasonal specials”, which comprised ham and eggs, salmon and prawn linguini and beef fillet medallion salad. The board outside said “kids eat free” followed by the offer of fish and chips, English ales and takeaway. Classy. Priscilla was fantastic – the rest of it was shocking.

The interval bar at The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre: Surely someone must be able to improve on interval offerings? Please.

Perhaps you have to have the lows to really appreciate how great the highs are when they happen?
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector public relations and marketing firm Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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