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Fri 29th Mar 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Game changer, let data steady your ship, how not to handle a complaint, and unlocking the UK’s towns and cities
Authors: Martin Wolstencroft, Victoria Searl, Paul Chase and Dan Davies

Game changer by Martin Wolstencroft

Live sport in pubs has come a long way during my time in the sector, particularly in the two decades since I co-founded Arc Inspirations. Before then a sports pub amounted to a community boozer with a sticky carpet and smoke-filled bar full of blokes – probably wearing football tops – that had a dusty television in the corner.

Investment in sports coverage by the major broadcasters in tandem with advances in audio-visual technology has meant people can now enjoy a superb, immersive viewing experience from the comfort of their own sofa. As operators, our venues need to match that experience at the very least and offer compelling reasons for people to keep returning. Customer expectations have clearly increased. People think carefully about where to spend their money when eating, drinking and watching sport – they want venues that can provide high-quality, memorable moments.

When it comes to watching the big match, fight or race, the shared experience of being alongside like-minded fans in the pub is second only to being at the event itself. You can’t bottle the electric atmosphere that draws people through the doors and provides the thrilling, communal buzz we all witnessed during last summer’s fantastic Fifa World Cup.

We believe Arc has been at the forefront of changing the game when it comes to sports bars. This is no more evident than at The Box in Leeds city centre, which opened in September last year.

Before opening we thought long and hard about how to evolve the concept. We wanted to create “the” place to eat, drink and play in the city – an antidote to the out-of-date sports pubs of the past. I spent a lot of time researching venues in the US (where they take their sports really seriously) and this heavily shaped our thinking around The Box.

The Box needed to be more than simply a great place to watch live sports, it had to deliver an unmatched experience. As a sports fanatic and someone with strong connections to various teams and clubs across Yorkshire, I was emotionally invested in creating a venue I knew those teams would enjoy as well as an inclusive space that appealed to a broad customer base seeking entertainment – not just guys watching football.

I think we’ve achieved that. In fact, I know we have. We’re thrilled the success and innovative approach embedded at The Box has been rewarded by it being crowned “best new bar” at the recent Publican Awards. It’s validation of our thinking as a business and huge recognition that we have created something special for our guests.

Of course this success wasn’t achieved by accident – it was incredibly hard work. We invested £1.3m in the site and a lot more blood, sweat and tears as the team debated and refined the design ahead of launch. I hired female designers to challenge our thinking and ensure the bar had a female-friendly and inclusive feel to it through the interiors, styling and colour palette.

The layout is flexible, with bookable booths and bar stools, sharing tables and relaxed “social seating”. The industrial-style furniture is designed with sharing in mind and for guests to get up and dance on the benches when the live music or DJ gets going. The solid wood oak floors and wall panelling with monochrome tiling details nods to a motor racing chequered flag theme.

Two full-size Maplewood European shuffleboards take centre stage, surrounded by sharing tables for groups to book. As you enter the bar there is an impressive ceiling-suspended television rig with feature lights and glitter balls to illuminate the dance floor in front of the stage. One of the bar’s hireable private dining rooms has its own darts lane with electronic scoreboard.

Our focus on experiences is reflected by the drinks-led innovation that features Budvar tank beer suspended above the bar, making it a real focal point. It sets the standard so when customers set foot in the venue they know you are dedicated to serving them a quality pint. It’s our best-seller on draught, averaging about 2,000 pints a week.

The Box also features exclusive cocktails on tap, our own-recipe Martinis to name just a couple, which is a real point of difference that drives guest loyalty and shows our commitment to running an inclusive venue offering entertainment for all in its broadest sense.

Our pizza oven is also on show in an open-style kitchen, offering a sense of theatre and inviting customers to enjoy being part of the overall experience. This means the bar transforms into an eating and socialising spot all at once.

We think we’ve created a blueprint for the modern sports bar. Feedback from our customers supports this and we see it in our sales figures with The Box trading well above expected levels and on track to be our first £1m profit site. However, we aren’t resting on our laurels. As we refine the offer and understand what is popular with customers, we’ll look to introduce new experiential activities while remaining focused on fostering that special atmosphere.

What particularly pleases me is The Box’s success is proof that our strategy of operating sites in clusters, with our core bar brands in close proximity and complementary to each other, is winning in our chosen markets. Next time you’re in Leeds come and see us – it’s a game changer.
Martin Wolstencroft is chief executive of Arc Inspirations, the Leeds-based operator of a number of fast-growing brands

Let data steady your ship by Victoria Searl

It’s clear casual dining is sailing choppy waters. Whether forced there by changes in customer dining habits; disappointing operational delivery; unsustainable rent, rates and general operating expenses that are squeezing businesses by 5% a year, according to Deloitte; the boom in delivery; indistinguishable brand and marketing; or simple market saturation, the sector will surely be unrecognisable by the middle of next decade.

Casual dining is still a relatively new concept and where some restaurant businesses will end up when the waves subside is anyone’s guess.

We know the government has a huge part to play in our survival but, aside from Brexit, business rates and the myriad commercial challenges battering us from every side, it’s time to honestly assess the effectiveness and relevance of the way “we” do business – specifically within marketing.

Commonly seen as an expense rather than an investment, it’s usually the first pot plundered when savings need to be made. Because the nature of marketing means it’s strategic, commercial, creative and also hugely practical, with an extremely fluid definition of what it is and what it should encompass among board members, it’s often poorly understood and utilised.

It isn’t surprising it’s the function most likely to be driven by stakeholder subjectivity, at odds with insight and marketer’s instinct alike, but there’s more than marketers’ pride at stake, this confusion can have a significant impact on a business and it’s chances of success.

When food development takes place in isolation without a thorough brief from marketers – usually closest to their customers – it’s frustrating for the marketing team trying to shoehorn it into a plan and for development chefs who don’t get the opportunity to see the guest reaction to, and commercial impact of, a well-constructed launch campaign they have worked so hard on.

When operators hear of repeated U-turns, add-ons and changes to a strategy proudly presented at regional meetings only weeks or months before, it irreparably damages their trust in marketing and leads to lower engagement. When marketing and operations are not functioning symbiotically, the very core of a brand is at risk. 

This leads to systems teams, which often hold the key to (and budget for) future-proofing businesses, feeling uninspired to introduce new platforms without the clarity of brief possible when everyone is singing from the same song sheet.

This lack of connected thought in some boardrooms creates precarious foundations on which to maintain position (let alone drive growth) and creates huge volumes of work for teams across the business that are already at capacity. Judging by some performances, it doesn’t seem to be working either.

Talking to marketers across all sectors there is clear frustration – but hospitality seems ripest for change. As an industry we can and must do better.

The businesses that are winning – Pret A Manger, McDonald’s, Wagamama – protect their brands like lionesses guarding their cubs, are unflinching in the execution of their propositions, and underpin empathetic innovation and marketing activity with hard data.

So as the waves continue to pummel our industry we need to ask ourselves, what shape are our ships in? 

Are we getting the most out of local marketing by identifying the most effective messaging and the most valuable postcodes to target or relentlessly hammering away at a hard-to-measure approach that makes operations and marketing teams feel overstretched and uncomfortable?

Are we using data and insights to create and deliver a truly distinct and memorable guest experience?

Are we managing to reach the millions of passive social users who share the profile of our target customer as well as creating compelling content for the much smaller pool of highly active users?

Are we driving our industry forward through technology and speaking the language of our target markets?

Are we routinely using data to uncover opportunities or validate major decisions, whether strategic or tactical, with no menu going to design, no last-minute change in strategy being signed-off and no site being opened or closed without rigorous (but speedy) data analysis being sought and listened to?

In waters moving as fast as ours it’s not always easy to keep everyone’s oars aligned. However, by making more objective decisions based on fact as well as feeling and executing them with imagination, we can bring stability and certainty when navigating the unchartered territory of the market place we operate in.
Victoria Searl is an industry marketing director and founder of hospitality data consultancy We Are Data Hawks. Email victoria@wearedatahawks.com 

How not to handle a complaint by Paul Chase

I have often heard people say we British get customer service badly wrong and in hospitality we concentrate too much on the customer service process and not enough on the subjective customer experience. This observation is usually accompanied by the claim they are streets ahead of us in other European countries or the US when it comes making customers feel good.

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Gran Canaria where I stayed at the Villa del Conde – a beautiful hotel with one of the most impressive entrance and reception areas I’ve ever seen. Gothic columns and a vaulted ceiling soar 50 feet while guests are greeted on arrival by a marbled floor and chandeliers that would be the envy of a nouveau-riche block-chain millionaire – if you could find one with sufficient good taste. To add to the ambience, someone at a grand piano was playing Chopin (I think) as we walked through the entrance. The whole scene was like the opening sequence of a Bond movie – at any moment you expected the bad guy from Spectre to rock up and add to the drama!

It was an impressive start and the service from reception staff and quality of our rooms added to expectations we’d get a great customer experience during our week-long stay. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Like most hotels they had holiday reps selling full-day and half-day excursions, and one of our party bought a half-day trip. He was to be picked up by bus outside the hotel at 10am next day and taken to the harbour, where he would board a catamaran to watch dolphins, enjoy lunch and drinks on board, and a visit to a town with a market where artisans would display and sell their work before the boat trip back. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot as it transpired – and this is where the importance of communication comes in. The pick-up was from outside the hotel, which the customer took to mean outside the hotel’s entrance. So when the bus was apparently half an hour late the customer asked a security man to make a phone call. Reception staff and the holiday rep got involved and it turned out “outside the hotel” meant down the hill from the entrance and in the street – so the customer missed the bus and had his day ruined. What, the customer demanded, was the holiday rep going to do about it? What she did was dismiss the customer’s complaint and say it was all his fault – after all, other customers had understood her pick-up instructions! So rebook another day? Put the fee paid towards a different trip? Or, heaven forfend, a refund? Nope – the reps response was: “This is not possible.”

All this was communicated by the rep shaking her head and rolling her eyes while walking away from the customer. Guess what happened next? The customer blew his top and demanded a refund – he wasn’t going anywhere until he got his money back! It all got very shouty, security was called and the general manager was called to pacify one large, angry Englishman with steam coming out of his ears. Eventually the money was refunded.

It’s hard to imagine how the handling of a complaint that arose from an unintentional miscommunication could have been much worse. Here are the obvious lessons:

– Remember the first rule of dealing with a customer’s complaint, never take it personally

– The second rule? Re-read the first rule!

– Never dismiss a customer’s complaint by blaming the customer

– Focus on what you can do to rescue the situation, not on playing a blame game

– Empathise and apologise for the mix-up and offer the choice of a refund or rebook. The right attitude can defuse anger, the wrong attitude inflames it

This experience stems from two factors. Firstly, if you employ commission-only reps and put them in a situation where they have to choose between making the customer happy with a refund or themselves unhappy by losing commission, don’t be surprised if they put themselves and not the customer first. Secondly, to counter that possibility train staff in customer service – so we British aren’t the only ones who sometimes get it badly wrong.

Here I’ll end with a little confession. The angry customer was me – and I’ve already booked on an anger management course!
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy

Unlocking the UK’s towns and cities by Dan Davies 

It’s no secret investment in cities goes hand-in-hand with the growth of communities and economies. What’s less understood is how to apply this simple insight to the UK’s smaller, often-overlooked locales.

With London’s industries and services undeniably oversaturated and other major cities following in the capital’s footsteps, isn’t it time to focus on the burgeoning potential of smaller towns across the country?

One example is Warrington in Cheshire. Nestled between Manchester and Liverpool, the town has inevitably been overshadowed by its neighbours. But now, with its well-connected position and a population quickly climbing towards 210,000, Warrington is brimming with potential of its own. And while other UK towns reach a similar cusp, the opportunities surrounding Warrington have been perceived – by public and private sectors alike – as compelling rather than too challenging to tackle.

The solution to unlocking Warrington is taking shape at Time Square, the £110m mixed-use development driven by Warrington & Co on behalf of Warrington Borough Council and development manager Muse Developments. Due for completion in the first quarter of 2020, the scheme will serve as the new beating heart of the town’s retail and leisure offering – sensitively developing Warrington into a destination in its own right rather than a satellite to Liverpool and Manchester.

Attracting locals and regional visitors alike, the scheme is set to significantly drive footfall in the town centre with first-rate dining, a 13-screen Cineworld complex, Grade A offices, a social public square and ample car parking. Time Square will also incorporate the town’s historical elements, with older façades respectfully repurposed to house a contemporary, European-style market and food hall offering that’s expected to drive 25,000 visitors per week alone.

In the midst of unpredictable times for the British high street, this budding development is one worth paying attention to. Warrington hasn’t been immune to the bricks-and-mortar challenges, with the town’s key retail thoroughfare Bridge Street on a slow decline caused by the lure of online shopping and the draw of its major neighbouring cities. However, thanks to Time Square’s unique and cohesive funding structure, Muse Developments has the ability to deliver a vibrant and appealing scheme that simultaneously meets the council’s key revitalisation objectives for Warrington. And with the public and private sectors working together – and a strong sense of ownership from both sides – the results will transform the town.

The Warrington community will inevitably feel the ripple effect of tangible benefits. Time Square has already created almost 400 construction jobs and, on completion, will mirror this number across the development’s leisure, retail and restaurant line-up. It’s also set to increase Warrington’s catering market potential by 14% to £68.5m and has been the catalyst to prompt other regeneration activity across the town. It also goes without saying it will transform the routines and behaviours of those in the local catchment area, creating a central hub of activity rather than a reliance on out-of-town prospects.

As the 2018 Cineworld deal shows, the scheme inherently appeals to major operators. Despite this, great value will be placed on getting the tenant mix right to fuel the development’s long-term vision. This forward-thinking approach will see Muse Developments and Warrington Borough Council selectively focus on the next generation of food and beverage occupiers, particularly independents and regional groups, to enhance Time Square’s dynamic appeal.

As we tackle big questions about the future of our cities and communities, strategic place-making such as this could be the answer. With its collaborative and relevant approach to investment, Time Square is an exciting model for overlooked towns and cities – in the UK and beyond – that are hungry for renaissance.
Dan Davies is co-founder and director of Metis Real Estate Advisors

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