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Fri 2nd Dec 2016 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The renaissance of pubs at train stations, learning from female role models in the sector, and hospitality and the virtual reality
Authors: Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott and Sam Lowe

The renaissance of pubs at train stations by Glynn Davis

Coopers Bar in King’s Cross station was a venue I visited with a frequency that was wholly unjustified on the basis of the dire characteristics of the place. It was rough and ready to say the least, it had a poor drinks offer, and the staff were generally up-against-it unfriendly. The nadir came when they installed bright blue lights in the toilets to deter local addicts from injecting on the premises. But since it was located in the station alongside platform one it had that key quality that I’ve always enjoyed about train station bars – the feeling of motion. There is never a whiff of stagnancy as most people are passing through, which injects a sense of urgency and frisson. Can we squeeze one more in before sprinting for the train home is the most frequently heard question.

Even so, I wasn’t particularly sad to see the back of Coopers Bar because its demise was a result of a renaissance in train stations and their bars. In something akin to slum clearance, out have gone the rather hardcore drinking venues in our main line train stations and in have come some of the best pubs around. Coopers has been replaced by The Parcel Yard – poles apart in its offer but still with that glorious feeling of movement and throughput of people, which is highlighted by the monitors around the place displaying live train departure times. Also in London we have the Euston Tap and from the same operator we have the pick of the train station pubs in my opinion – the Sheffield Tap and the York Tap. They sit on train station land in buildings that have been lovingly restored at great expense and that recreate the glory days of the railways.

While we might not be in the same sort of halcyon days of rail travel it could be argued these are glory days for rail stations. Go back a handful of years and they certainly weren’t places you would hang around in – unless at King’s Cross you were after a certain type of service – whereas today they are very much retail and leisure destinations. So much so in fact they put the high street to shame, with the recent figures from Network Rail for July to September showing like-for-like retail sales in its managed stations increasing by a healthy 3.5% to £166m. This compares with the figures from the British Retail Consortium for the same period indicating general retail growth of a mere 0.2%. It is the food and drink operators that are driving this growth, with coffee and food-to-go showing the biggest uplifts while Asian food has also delivered a strong performance – up 10% over the three-month period.

This is certainly not a London phenomenon because although King’s Cross was the top performer, with a 13% increase in sales, there was also big like-for-like uplifts enjoyed around the country in places such as Manchester, up 10%, Birmingham, up 8%, and Glasgow, up 6%. With such growth it is not surprising there is something of a serious appetite among the pub and foodservice operators for a bit of the train station pie. JD Wetherspoon recently opened a unit in Edinburgh’s Waverley station having cut its teeth in running extremely successful travel pubs in airports.

While most of the action has been in main line stations in large cities we could be seeing a broadening of the phenomenon – particularly in terms of stations associated with commuting into London. Dark Star brewery is earmarking train stations in areas such as Redhill, Tunbridge Wells and Chichester for the opening of future pubs. This follows the recent opening of its second pub The Lockhart Tavern that sits just along the road from Haywards Heath station.

In contrast to the main line stations where the pub is providing customers with a drink before they catch the train home the likes of The Lockhart Tavern are clearly aiming to provide the train traveller with a drink to relieve the stress following the commute home. Although the latter will never deliver the same buzz as the busy bars in the city centre train stations it is good to see some life being breathed into pubs located near other lesser stations, which have had a pretty poor time of things over recent years. Whichever type of station pub takes your fancy, may it please never have blue lights installed in its toilets.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
 

Learning from female role models in the sector by Ann Elliott

This week, I had the great pleasure of hosting the bi-annual Elliotts lunch for leading women in the sector. It sounds a bit corny to say it was a real privilege but it was – with nearly 60 brilliant, inspirational women in the room. Every woman there has played, and is still playing, a key role in making the sector as successful as it is today. It was such a great occasion. 

The most brilliant and inspirational among us was our speaker, Debbie Hewitt, chairman of The Restaurant Group, who I thought would be a great person to talk about her career and board level experiences. She was appointed as a non-executive director of The Restaurant Group in May 2015 and independent non-exec chairman almost a year later. She is currently non-executive chair of Moss Bros Group, White Stuff and Visa UK and senior non-executive director of Redrow, NCC Group, BGL and Domestic & General. Her executive career was spent at RAC where she was group managing director and prior to that she was in retail management with M&S. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and was awarded an MBE for services to business and the public sector in 2011. Oh and she has twin seven year olds, supports Liverpool and is a parish councillor just for fun.
 
Importantly for her audience, she has had 17 non-exec roles in ten different sectors working in turnarounds, growth businesses, startups, regulated businesses, mergers and acquisitions and companies in administration. As she said though, the only part of her career that she planned was her MBA and Masters in finance. Her career path has been random apart from that – giving hope to some of us in the room. Going plural has given her the opportunity to influence the strategy and to shape the future direction of the businesses she has been involved in whilst helping her gain experiences of different sectors, appreciate what good really looks like and to learn from other experienced non-executive directors.
 
She did discuss some aspects of board life:
· Not all board meetings are strategic all of the time. Increasingly they focus on governance and compliance
· Non-executive directors have to have insight on everything. They have to ask the critical question and, just as importantly, be prepared to really listen to the answers
· Fraud is not the biggest issue for boards – getting the strategy right is.
· Non-executive directors have to be executive at times and be prepared to step up to the plate
· All non-executive directors are accountable – not just the execs
 
She shared some of her own lessons, which were fascinating for us all:
· Makes it a priority to understand how every business she is involved in truly makes money
· Looks for evidence in the data rather than relying on the opinion of others. She has found that often the opinion of the most senior person in the room is given more weight than the data. She is only interested in what the information is telling her
· Needs to know who is really accountable for delivering what
· Looks for the best and worst case scenarios across business options
· Wants to appreciate if the situation passes the Sunday Times test
· Needs to understand what is happening outside the board room
· Looks for three elements in her role. Is she learning? Is she influencing and leaving a legacy? Is she having fun? She looks for roles, which give her at least two out of three of these
 
I personally took away some key learnings of my own from Debbie’s talk:
· Always keep in touch with your customers. Go out and about and take no notice of those who try to stop you
· Aim to leave a legacy and appreciate what you want to be known for doing and achieving
· Have confidence. Don’t let that inner voice negatively influence you. Believe you can
 
Debbie spoke with passion, enthusiasm, humour and engagement. We will all have come away from meeting her and hearing her speak just that bit more enthused and inspired about what we can achieve in our own careers. What a fantastic role model.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading PR and marketing company Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com
 

Hospitality and the virtual reality by Sam Lowe

The hospitality sector is now facing the reality that business success will soon be determined primarily in the virtual world. Ray Kurzweil, award-winning scientist and futurist, believes we are grossly underestimating the rate of technological progress. “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference.”

The information revolution is often compared with the industrial revolution however as argued by Amy Bernstein in the Harvard Business Review – digital technology undoubtedly engenders change at a significantly faster pace. As a result, laggards could struggle to catch up with early adopters of new advances. The majority of consumers’ lives are already spent in the virtual world. Most office workers will interact with more people and for longer online than they do with those seated around them. VPN, tele-conferencing and e-mail render physical location unimportant.

A large proportion of people’s free time is also spent in the online world, socialising and retail therapy now often takes place on a smartphone. Computer games have moved from inside the console on to the web and many of our most prized possessions have gone post-physical. Music collections, film libraries, books, even our most treasured photo albums no longer exist outside the virtual world.

Cash, the last “real-world” remnant of money, is also rapidly disappearing. Banks closing rural branches and progress in contactless payment technology is speeding its demise. The Scandinavians are leading the way and the Economist notes that in Sweden only one in five transactions by value is now made in cash. The hospitality industry has historically viewed technology as an “enabler” within the bounds of a traditional customer journey. The reality is that, soon, little except the actual act of physical consumption will take place outside the virtual world.

In the past, the journey for restaurant customers was linear. A date is made with friends on the phone and someone nominated to choose a venue and book a cab. The evening follows a standard format – choose food, order, eat, pay, leave. If good, the establishment is recommended to others, or the group might return themselves. The hospitality sector has slowly embraced technology to improve this traditional process however as more and more of the customer experience moves into the virtual world, a more fundamental mindset change is required.

Now almost all stages of a customer’s hospitality journey can now be arrived at most efficiently by using software. Sites such as Zomato will not only help decide on a venue but will also check for a table and make a booking. Friends' availability can be checked and a date quickly decided using a shared Google Calendar. Inside the restaurant, staff take orders with tablets, the logical progression will be more customers placing their own via smartphone. Startup Velocity allows customers to settle the bill online whilst also ordering their Uber home.

New apps mean that endorsements and reviews have moved from post-experience to real-time in the virtual world. The process often starts before customers have even arrived and continues throughout the whole journey. A booking for a trendy venue posted on a social media profile, a “check-in” at the venue with Twitter, or an Instagram of the food. TripAdvisor reviews of past experiences are becoming outmoded as forms of endorsement. As apps start interlinking, it becomes easier to stay longer in the virtual world.

Disruption of the traditional linear customer hospitality journey is one key phenomenon resulting from the exponential advances in digital (and particularly mobile) technology. However, much more important is the developing trend for apps to start interlinking and sharing information. Google has very helpfully started adding appointments and events to Calendar all on its own. Velocity knows where you are eating and where you live, when you pay the bill and it can easily order you an Uber home. Tweets can be posted on Facebook, Instagrams on Twitter.

Although older generations are deeply distrustful of online payment technology momentum is driving this forward ever faster and it too will also become integrated into a seamless virtual web. As customers spend longer and longer online throughout their experience of hospitality, providers must meet, interact and efficiently conduct business with them there. In the coming years, the most successful players in hospitality sector are likely to be those that realise that technology is no longer simply a tool but the very foundation of any consumer retail business.
Sam Lowe is an economist and hospitality strategist. He is currently focused on understanding today, how hospitality will look tomorrow. Always excited about new opportunities. For insights built on foresight, email samuelilowe@gmail.com

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