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Fri 5th Feb 2016 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The humble bar stool, ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘vaping’, and the impact of Wi-Fi
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase, and Dan Brookman

The humble bar stool by Glynn Davis

One of the delights of a visit to New York is the ubiquity of the humble bar stool. When you’re after a solo drink there is nothing better than pitching up at the bar, pulling back the stool, perusing the beer list, and then engaging with the (generally very well informed) bar staff while placing your order. It’s very easy in such a prominent position to then either remain anonymous, continue the conversation with the bar staff, or engage with the drinkers alongside you. On business trips this is my tried and trusted method of accessing the culture of a city – far more effective than looking at buildings. And in New York this is an easy process. 

This is because pretty much every bar you go into in the city has stools neatly arranged around the perimeter of the bar. The image portrayed in the US comedy Cheers with all the regulars perched on their stools is played out in every drinking establishment you choose to drop into. I’ve grown up with recognising the bar is the hub of any pub. The liveliness around it is a good indicator of the health of the place. Even with a modest number of drinkers in a pub there can be plenty of hubbub and atmosphere created from a congregation of people around this focal point.

The bar is the area the regulars typically congregate and where newcomers, in a well-managed pub, should be welcomed. There is this image of frosty receptions given to unknown drinkers visiting pubs and been unable to access the bar. (“American Werewolf in London” anyone?). This is the worst aspect of crowding around the bar. We’ve all experienced the issue of trying to get the attention of bar staff and been unable to make progress as you are faced by the backs of drinkers sat or stood around the bar joshing the bar staff. This can be extremely frustrating but the blame is with the pub’s employees rather than the fault of the bar stools that undoubtedly play their part in encouraging the melee around the bar. 

When I was a rather too frequent visitor to the East India Arms in the City of London at lunchtimes it was always so rammed you had to squeeze yourself in through the door, but as soon as you managed this tough exercise the bar staff instantly looked for eye contact in order to take your order. By the time you’d reached the bar your drinks were waiting for you on the counter. It is clearly possible to serve everybody in a timely manner in even in the busiest of pubs so it is therefore a great shame that many places have over the years sought to remove their bar stools and discouraged “vertical” drinking around the bar area. 

All Bar One pioneered such a dispersal programme and others like Drake & Morgan followed the trend – although the strategy completely fails when they are very busy (and to their credit they often are). Even one of my local pubs in north London, the Great Northern Railway Tavern, had a brief attempt at removing its bar stools when new managers came in. But they were quickly reinstated after complaints and a realisation that some of the atmosphere had been sucked out of the place. Fuller’s has recently bought the pub and I’d be staggered if it tried such a strategy. 

As a respected operator of traditional pubs it knows the value of having people sat around the bar and the vital role of the bar stool. And most importantly it has sufficiently professional staff to ensure everybody can be served in an acceptable time frame regardless of the number of people crowding around the bar. It has been heartening to see how central the bar stool has become in many new establishments recently. Not only has dining at the bar become extremely popular and fashionable in many food-led pubs, bars and restaurants, but also in high-end bars they are becoming a feature as ubiquitous as in any New York City drinking joint.

The reason it works in these places is down to the level of service that is given. Often this can include table service, which eases the burden on the employees serving behind the bar. But even in venues that don’t typically take orders from tables I’ve seen it used on an ad hoc basis and it is always extremely well received by customers. This unexpected personal touch has been very effective at tempting people to have one more before moving on. 

I’m certainly not advocating the implementation of table service in all our pubs because self-service is one of the defining features of the British boozer. But it could be used at specific times. It is all about being flexible with the way service is delivered and adapting to the circumstances, none of which should ever necessitate the removal of the humble, but vitally important, bar stool.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

‘Virtue signalling’ and ‘vaping’ by Paul Chase

In my last article I wrote about “virtue signalling” – the tendency of some people to adopt modes of thought or action as a means of signalling to others how virtuous they are – regardless of whether their actions have any operative significance. The tendency to say “me too” in respect of utterly vacuous policies like sugar taxes, minimum alcohol pricing, plain packaging of cigarettes and health warnings on bottles of booze, is a way of signalling which side of the moral divide you’re on in respect of a range of apparently disparate issues, which are in fact connected in that they represent a kind of new puritanism.

Almost without exception virtue signalling is about gesture politics. It is an easy way of appearing to do something that doesn’t require too much effort. It almost always involves imposing bans, taxes or regulations. And more often than not it signifies a moral disapproval that is rooted in a kind of crude anti-capitalism. Not all of this meddling is restricted to what we eat, drink or smoke. But a lot of it is.

Which brings me to “vaping”. I’m not a smoker and never have been. I spent 23 years running licensed premises in which people were allowed to smoke tobacco and I just took it for granted. When the smoking ban was first mooted I felt then as I feel now: that it should be up to operators to decide whether to allow it or not; or whether to have a smoking room; in essence, give people a choice. But it was not to be. I don’t intend to rehearse the whole debate about smoking and second-hand smoke, but I do think that the advent of vaping has created a dilemma for the virtue signallers who walk amongst us, and the smoking debate has been resurrected in a different form. 

The Welsh government is proposing to ban vaping in enclosed public spaces – to treat vapers like smokers. The ban is supposed to kick-in sometime in 2017. But health minister Mark Drakeford has recently told the Welsh Assembly’s health and social care committee vaping would be allowed in wet-led pubs that don’t serve food, and where unaccompanied children are banned. But it appears uncertain exactly what this means. As Assembly member Darren Millar put it: “Many wet-led pubs serve pickled eggs, pork scratching and packets of crisps on the bar. Are these pubs included in the ban or not?” 

What is it that gets into people and makes them feel it is necessary to get into the granular detail, the tick-and-tock of other peoples’ lives in this way? There is a division of opinion amongst the public health community with the British Medical Association, Public Health Wales and the Centre for Tobacco Control Research all favouring a ban (and not just in Wales). But Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation Wales and Action on Smoking and Health are all opposed. The reason for this division is while most people see vaping as a means by which people can enjoy the recreational use of nicotine without inhaling the carcinogens in tobacco, others say it is a gateway to smoking, not a way of kicking the habit. Overwhelmingly the research demonstrates it is a way of giving up, not a way of starting.

But here’s where the health and moral aspects of this issue get intertwined. Nicotine is a drug; and it is seen as a drug of addiction. So should people be encouraged to use it at all? And insofar as vaping represents a private sector solution to a public health problem – that is something that makes some in the public health racket feel very nervous indeed. So better to signal vaping is just a less-bad way of smoking by treating vapours as smokers, but maybe with a few concessions. 

What makes this kind of restriction even more of a piece of virtue signalling nonsense is in the vast majority of pubs and bars vapours go outside with smokers in any event. Some operators insist on that as a matter of policy, and I understand why. It is difficult to explain to your customers why one way of enjoying nicotine is permitted inside, but the other requires you to leave the building. It creates control dilemmas for operators and their staff. So, why not do with vaping what we should have done with smoking – leave it to the operator to decide what their policy is in relation to vaping, and leave it to customers to decide where they want to drink.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on health and alcohol policy

The impact of Wi-Fi by Dan Brookman

Free guest Wi-Fi is now very much a must-have service for hospitality business owners to offer to their customers. With the advent of smartphones, customers’ appetite for connectivity is insatiable and with content providers such as Sky, Spotify, iTunes, Netflix and BT ensuring their subscription services are available on all devices, the Wi-Fi experience has to keep up.
 
In simple terms, a Wi-Fi interaction creates a relationship between your business and customers that can be linked to your marketing campaign. However, our experience is there are still very big differences in the way operators use the raw data on customer visits that Wi-Fi provides, not all businesses are turning it into an effective marketing tool. 
 
While we believe the majority of leisure consumers don’t make specific choices to where they visit based on Wi-Fi availability, it will certainly enhance their experience if the Wi-Fi provision in your business offers a seamless connection and the browsing speed is good. If your venue is looking to attract business customers, then choices will definitely be made based on the ability for people attending meetings to get online.
 
The initial customer connection is the key opportunity to collect customer information and entice the customer to opt-in to your mailing list. Clearly, this shouldn’t be too onerous for the customer. We recommend asking for: first name, surname, email, mobile (non mandatory), gender, and date of birth – so you can send an offer for their special day.
 
There should also be a pre-ticked box for email and SMS, and it makes sense to ensure the page clearly shows the benefits of leaving theses boxes ticked, such as regular offers and exclusives. To increase the amount of “live” email addresses collected, it helps to verify a user’s email address for Wi-Fi access.
 
In addition to the above, you can also offer customers the ability to register using social networks. This can be very valuable, as you can collect social user data, although it may also add another step for the customer before connecting. One downside is at the whim of the networks updating their APIs (the code used to connect applications), changes can result in the authentication process stalling or failing, leading to a poor customer experience. For one of our clients, utilising Purple Wi-Fi, in December last year 41% of customers opted to use social media to sign-up against the 59% who used the registration form. Of the social media sign-ups, just .05% was from Twitter, with the rest from Facebook.
 
The other key piece of information automatically collected on registration is the user’s Media Access Control address. This is the unique device ID that every phone or tablet has, and that is used to verify a customer is registered to access your Wi-Fi on subsequent visits.
 
Once a customer has registered with you it opens up a wide variety of data opportunities. You know the date and time of every visit, the length of time spent online, and the device type. From this you can establish total visits over time and frequency of visit, all of which give your CRM a wealth of useable marketing and customer insight if they are properly added into your mix.
 
To put the potential benefits into context, we tracked one hospitality client trading at over 20 locations around the UK for the month of December. There were over 100,000 customer sessions during the month by 48,000 individuals. We were able to segment these by key dates, time of visits and booking data, allowing us to target customers with specific messages tailored to their pattern of use.

Key actions
 
User Experience: Make sure you offer a good user experience and the Wi-Fi sign-up process is clear and inviting.
 
Data: Store the data transactionally by individual, in addition to simply storing the connection and disconnection date and time, to give you a picture of how much each customer spends, and on what.
 
Customer engagement: There are several ways customer activity can be driven by Wi-Fi data:
Welcome – where a customer is new to your database, ensure they get a welcome email 24 hours after the visit. This can include an offer to drive a return visit to your business.
Customer feedback – this is valuable, but customers don’t like to be asked too often. We recommend if you have this in place, you suppress the automatic request if the customer has already given feedback via a Wi-Fi prompt within an agreed period.
Add value – prompt customers to make a further booking or purchase a gift card, with an email or SMS while in the venue. Reward loyalty by triggering a message based on the number of connections to Wi-Fi over time.
 
Segmentation: Ensure you segment the customer by day, time, session, and also by key dates such as Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, bank holidays and sports events. Over time, all this information builds into valuable knowledge about your customers and their relationship with your business, rather than simply data on when they visited. By ensuring free Wi-Fi plays an active part in your overall digital marketing strategy, you reap the commercial rewards, while customers continue to appreciate the convenience of Wi-Fi in your business.
Dan Brookman is commercial director of digital marketing specialist Airship

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