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Fri 11th Oct 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Big games mean big money; lunch is dead, long live lunch; and home from home
Authors: Glynn Davis, Charlie McVeigh and Ann Elliott

Big games mean big money by Glynn Davis

When England beat Holland 4-1 in 1996, when Doncaster Rovers gained promotion to the Championship in 2009, when David Beckham scored that last-minute equaliser against Greece to propel England to the 2002 World Cup, and when Manchester United dramatically won the Champions League in 1999 – those were all memorable occasions.

They were also some of my most enjoyable evenings in a pub because at the time those big games all required a trip to the boozer. One of my favoured venues during this period was The Pavilion End in Watling Street in the City of London because it genuinely catered for sporting events. Its offering continues to this day and it now has three Sky boxes that feed live sporting coverage to nine large televisions and a pull-down high-definition projector. The Pavilion still pitches itself as a high-quality sports pub when few others have followed it with any real conviction.

The typical pub scenario has been for more upmarket venues to ban televisions and focus on food instead, leaving sports to the domain of old-school boozers in which the only redeeming features have been televisions screening various sports – most notably the footie coverage by Sky.

Combining quality surroundings with a higher-end offer incorporating extensive sports coverage has been rare but things seem to be changing as a smattering of venues look to take sports coverage beyond the spit-and-sawdust environments it has largely been trapped in.

Among those to identify sports as a growth engine is ETM Group co-founder Ed Martin, who told a recent Propel conference that having focused on food-led pubs he required a strategy to expand the business and believes sports bars in the UK, particularly London, aren’t doing this well. He said the UK was failing abysmally in this department compared with the US, where the sports bar is a fixture throughout the country.

To fill the gap, ETM has opened the 20-screen Greenwood Sports Bar & Kitchen in Victoria that operates with “200 guys watching sports on one level while people dine on another level, all in a premium bar”. Elsewhere in London, ETM has also created Westwood Sports Pub & Kitchen in Westfield and converted its Long Arm Brewery bar in the City into an upmarket sports-focused venue. It’s about to add Redwood Sports Bar & Kitchen at London Bridge Station to its growing portfolio.

Another top operator, JKS Restaurants, has also spotted the potential of sports and it operates various spaces at Brigadiers, its Indian restaurant in the City, which screen a rolling programme of sporting events. As a driver of after-work customers who are predominantly male in this location, sport is an obvious attraction and it is cleverly incorporated into Brigadiers’ restaurant space.

Undoubtedly people’s desire for more immersive experiences is one of the drivers of such moves. This has seen the rise of competitive socialising and led to concepts such as Flight Club, Swingers, Bounce and Puttshack as well as the various escape rooms that have cropped up around the country.

However, unlike those operations Martin says sport has the benefit of being “constantly marketable”. There’s always another tournament, match or bout on the horizon that can entice another group of customers – and potentially lucrative ones at that. On average, a sports fan spends more than three hours in a venue when watching a match and spends as much as £28.94 versus an average of £14.25 by non-sports fans, according to CGA Sports Analysis 2018.

Although I had no recollection the next day of how much money I’d spent on any of those memorable big-match nights, it would certainly have been in the order of £30. Forgetting such facts because of the euphoria of the evening neatly encapsulates how advantageous showing sports can be for pubs and bars.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Lunch is dead, long live lunch by Charlie McVeigh

There’s something about a “proper lunch” for a middle-aged hospitality professional that’s not dissimilar to his or her younger self dropping a pill at a rave. 

First the sense of anticipation, an excited queasiness. On arrival, the maitre d’ looks caught somewhere between nervousness at what he knows will end up as a rowdy table and anticipation of a large dollop of tronc and/or a palm full of notes.

Next comes the stiff upward jolt of the first Martini. Nerves are jangling but the direction of travel is good. Suddenly, cruising altitude is attained and all is well with the world. Wine is gulped and commented on knowledgeably. Our exec is bullet-proof, everything said is terrifically funny, each observation is profound. There may even be close physical contact, firm arms round the shoulder, back-slapping and, later on, play-fighting.

Eventually confusion sets in and we might be spotted staring absently into space or asleep on a banquette. Some of the younger set might have “gone on” to the Groucho Club or Dinerama.

Finally there’s the awakening next morning – not always where you expected to wake up. Kingsley Amis nailed it in Lucky Jim: “Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did. He resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Of course longer-term benefits include the deep bonds formed in adversity – a “proper” lunch isn’t a walk in the park, it has a whiff of recklessness, even danger. Viewed from the outside it has the garrulous hallmarks that make our continental cousins (and spouses) look at us in appalled embarrassment. From the inside it is a glorious adventure, with all the thrill of bad behaviour thrown in.

I was somewhat dismayed, therefore, to read lunch as an occasion is in decline – in terms of frequency (minus 7%) and spend growth, which is almost half that of breakfast or dinner. 

However, I’m not altogether surprised. For me personally breakfast, which is in steep growth, is the “getting stuff done” meal. It’s when you meet someone for the first time you think could be an important contact. It’s when you meet to hammer out a knotty issue. It’s business-like, time-efficient, inexpensive and hasn’t the slightest whiff of danger. Oddly, it’s similar to meeting “for a pint” which, despite involving alcohol, rarely spins out of control. 

In a world where there has never been greater surveillance of employees or investees, breakfast looks like a good use of time. On the other hand, being a frequent luncher will certainly raise question marks over use of time, mental health and attitude towards the sanctity of company funds. 

I would say the optimal number of proper lunches per year is somewhere between four and six – and these should be paid from one’s own pocket. Breakfasts, by way of contrast, can be three to four per week and no-one blinks. 

I suspect the famous lunching restaurants such as Rules, River Café and Otto’s succeed by providing the ideal backdrop to “proper lunch” behaviour. There’s a veneer of civility, a reassuringly expensive wine list, comforting food, and knowing staff who recognise you and provide the gentlest of nudges towards excess – a nudge all the more effective for being almost imperceptible. Then there’s the growing, congratulatory tone from the team as the event progresses and the choices become more reckless and expensive. This is an art form and has nothing to do with the quality, style or sourcing of the food and everything to do with making someone who wants to exit their own head for an afternoon feel good about it and drop a few quid in the process. It is, in fact, an art form as old as civilisation itself.

Lunch may be, if not dead, then dying by the broadest of measures but it unquestionably has an important role in the psychodrama of conducting business in middle age. Therefore, I say: “Long live lunch!”
Charlie McVeigh is founder of Draft House and a judge on BBC show My Million Pound Menu 

Home from home by Ann Elliott

A few weeks ago I put our family house up for group bookings on Airbnb. We had been considering opening as a B&B but in the end that sounded like too much work – I’m not at my best in a pinny cooking sausage and bacon before trying to catch the 7.13 to London. Just too much can, and will, go wrong, with it all captured on TripAdvisor I’m sure.

It has been something of a learning curve, although I’m sure someone more digitally savvy than me would have found it incredibly easy and intuitive – all sorted out over half a glass of Gavi di Gavi – but I had to consume the whole bottle just to write the headline. I had two different Airbnb log-ins for a start – one on my PC and one on my laptop. That took a while to sort out. Then I couldn’t change the cover photograph from one of a bathroom to one of the whole house. I’m certain some potential guests would be more interested in the loo than the garden but I’m not sure they would be the sort of people I want to encourage to stay in my home.

Buckingham is, of course, the centre of the universe but what’s more important to guests, our proximity to Bicester Village, Bletchley Park or Blenheim Palace? Do they want to Go Ape or go shopping? Does “only 35 minutes to London” or “only an hour to Oxford” sound as if they might want to get away from the house? Does mentioning National Trust properties make us sound like a pair of old, middle-class Brexiteers who have just been to watch the matinee of Downton Abbey? It’s all very worrying.

Seemingly “hot tub” is the most searched-for term when seeking holiday rental cottages so we’re going to have to buy one (with a small mortgage) and install it before we welcome our first guests in January. We can mention it, indeed I have, but the only photograph I can take of a hot tub right now is of one for sale in Dobbies, which might be a bit misleading on the website. Similarly, we don’t yet have a croquet pitch (is that even the right word?), a football pitch or a pretty fenced-in pond as described in the details – so autumn is going to be full of dodgy DIY projects.

I still can’t decide on the cancellation policy either – will a “flexible” one encourage guests to cancel at short notice or a “strict” one mean people are too frightened to book in the first place? That’s another dilemma to tackle so I have wimped out and gone for the middle choice, which of course will please no-one.

Then there’s all the painting, repairing, flooring, gardening, tidying, deep cleaning, lock installation, window washing, ant removal and cobweb moving to be done. At the same time, we have to buy 16 of everything in the crockery and cutlery section, order new beds, find new bedding, and source new soft furnishings (that’s my excuse anyway). We have to write all the “how-to guides” – visit local places, make the most of the village, not break the TV, use the dishwasher, be nice to the neighbours, light the barbecue, not spill wine on the carpet etc. Our “to-do” list seems to grow longer by the day – writing a “to-do” list is on our “to-do” list.

I’m loving it, though, and have learned so much already, with much more to understand and appreciate about this market place. Seeing bookings come through and communicating with guests has been amazing. I understand why people want to open their own businesses in bricks and mortar – it’s intoxicating. Roll on January.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

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