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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 2nd Sep 2022 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Observations from the Propel Conference, building the occasion in pubs, why NIMBYs are also posing a threat to pubs 
Authors: Ann Elliott, Mark Marshall, Glynn Davis

Observations from the Propel Conference by Ann Elliott

For me, the annual summer Propel Conference is a must-attend event, and I look forward to it with much anticipation. The sun always seems to shine for those outside drinks, the location is perfect and it’s just the best place to catch up with old friends and be introduced to new people. The big thing for me though is the learning I get from the day. Its second to none, and Wednesday's conference was no exception.

I had a number of key takeaways.

 Customers are fearing, but not yet feeling, the cost-of-living increases. Even when these increases do have an impact on disposable income, customers have said they will prioritise their spending on hospitality. They are going out less, but when they do, it’s seen as more of a treat, and they are spending more. I have been concerned for some time about covers decline and spend per head growth versus 2019, particularly in the current economic situation, so this was somewhat reassuring.

Localisation is becoming increasingly evident as customers work from home more than they did – 60% (70% in London) of those interviewed by CGA are working from home for some of the week. Generally, it looks like casual occasions are happening locally, while ‘treat’ visits are taking place in town centres. There is also a very definite move from post-5pm to pre-5pm eating and drinking occasions. CGA’s view was that locations and times of visits were both changing, with customers coming back into the sector but becoming ever more demanding.

It sounds as if guests are planning their events more than they did a few years ago, and that trend is likely to continue, with 78% of consumers checking venues before they visit and 61% reserving tables online. Interestingly, 30% are reviewing drinks ranges online pre-visit, and 48% say they’ve chosen what they want to drink before they visit. This focus on drinks was much higher than I expected and suggests much more attention needs to be paid to drinks communication on brand websites and socials.

Brand social activity is becoming even more crucial in terms of guest communication, with 25% of consumers checking social pages of venues, 37% of 18 to 34-year-olds saying they find out about new places from their friends, and 30% of that age group saying they are getting brand information from social activity. From memory, more than 25% said they didn’t think they had had a good night out if they hadn’t posted about it on social media. As CGA commented: “Is your food and beverage worth taking a picture of?” A really interesting challenge for the sector.

I think these figures are correct: 48% want to order their food and drink on an app, and 52% want to interact with team members. It was also revealing that 80% of 18 to 34-year-olds say they are likely to trade up if the app features upsell techniques. It seems this technology, perhaps used as an emergency in the pandemic, could be a very valuable tool going forward to increase spend and loyalty, and to tackle customer pain points on ordering and paying.

Customers are inevitably, perhaps, more interested now versus pre-pandemic in leading a healthier and more sustainable life style – albeit there hasn’t been a huge increase, from other information I have seen, in the percentage of vegan/plant-based meals being ordered year on year.

The operators I spoke to at the conference were concerned, inevitably, about labour shortages and increased utility bills, although most had hedged well into next year and beyond. Not being able to hedge (i.e. for new openings not included in a deal) was proving extremely punitive, with absolutely no help available from anyone. This is an area UKHospitality is acting on now as a matter of urgency.

Overall though, I felt a real sense of optimism, excitement and enthusiasm in the room. Some new sites and refurbs have been put on hold, but Christmas bookings are going well, and most businesses have cash reserves which will see them through much of what’s to come. Their ingenuity, creativity and entrepreneurship will see them through the rest.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality consultant

Building the occasion in pubs by Mark Marshall

Back in the day, my parents ran – and acted in – a provincial repertory theatre company. There was no telly back then, and in response to demand, they had to put on a different play every single week. They would open on Monday night and run through to Saturday night. On the Sunday, they would break down the set, set up the new one, rehearse the new play and get going all over again on the Monday night. A tough life, but it delivered what the audiences needed.

Then, on June 2, 1953, came the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The nation rushed out and bought TVs, and virtually overnight, television became the mainstream medium in the UK, with more than 20 million people watching the Coronation on ‘the box’. Television spelt the end of provincial theatre. It was sudden and it was devastating. And the rep companies had no answer, so they largely folded. 

In my opinion, there is a distinct parallel here with pubs. Covid 19, upward spiralling food costs (domestic and trade), energy bills rocketing by 300% (with, as I write, no energy cap for business), CO2 shortages potentially harming beer output and corrosive media-driven doom and gloom are threatening to do to pubs what TV did to provincial theatre. But I think pubs have a better chance.

I think pubs need a bit of ‘back to basics’. Okay, I know this phrase was coined by John Major back in the 1990’s (after hardly behaving like a choir boy himself), but it does resonate with today’s landscape. English poet William Blake said: “A good local pub has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer and there’s more conversation.” This is a good starting point. By this, I mean that pubs should remember that they are there not just to provide drink and food. A conversation, Mr Blake, is a wonderful reason to go to the pub – but it’s entry level. 

In recent months, television has been rubbish. The BBC, night after night, served up a diet of women's football, Commonwealth Games and European Championships (of something or other). There is nothing decent to see at the cinema (as Cineworld will quickly tell you), and theatre is cripplingly expensive. So, this is a great opportunity for pubs to fill in the gaps and go beyond food and drink.

Build on the experience. Give good reasons to abandon the home other than the promise of a decent meal and a pint. The local pub in my village has reacted to the myriad of crises facing it by putting up a sign outside saying ‘good food served here’.  Well, whoopie-doo. Widen the doors to allow the punters storming the place to get in. That approach is simply not good enough anymore. 

Good reasons to go. Love them or hate them, BrewDog’s latest venture in Waterloo kind of takes this to a wonderful extreme. Yes, they have loads of great food and billions of craft beers to choose from, but so much more besides. Co-working space and pods, meeting rooms, bowling, a helter-skelter and even a podcast recording studio. There’s a Grind Cafe covering all caffeine needs, DJ nights, special food days, beer tasting sessions and my favourite, birthday parties for dogs. Okay, not many pubs have the space to do all or any of that lot, but they can adopt the principle of offering more good reasons to go to the pub. 

For example, two of our clients are thinking along these lines. Fuller’s pubs have been delighting audiences with their ‘Shakespeare in the garden’, where guests can relax with a drink or two, some food and watch a fun performance. Entertainment that could be transferred indoors in the colder months. I’ve been, and it is great fun. Better than being stuck indoors watching Commonwealth lawn bowls. Hall & Woodhouse have been running ‘close up magic’ in some of their pubs, where a magician will appear at your table and amaze you. Again, a reason to go and protect the experience. 

Most multi-site operators have a menu refresh twice a year, usually spring and autumn. This is fine, but in between, there needs to be more focus on special occasion food experiences – something that goes beyond the usual expected menu choices. Something that builds on the experience, like a street food week – definitely the thing of the moment.

And, of course, there are all the tried and trusted favourites to choose from: darts, skittles, bridge and backgammon tournaments, quiz nights and so on. Ideally, pubs or pub groups should appoint an entertainments manager. Right now, this is what’s needed. At the risk of being repetitive, build the experience.  

As Propyard in Bristol puts it: “We believe in the limitless power of people to energise and enrich the world through art, music and food. From performers to guests, we’re open to everyone who believes in unlocking the potential of shared experience. Together, we make things happen.”
Mark Marshall is managing director at customer experience specialists Service Monitor

Why NIMBYs are also posing a threat to pubs by Glynn Davis

Some years back, I visited a property with a friend who was considering buying a flat in the building, which was situated in the Highbury area of North London and backed onto a hidden side street. His interest in this specific part of town was very much piqued by the proximity of The Compton Arms. 

As a renter of a basic room in a shared house, I was not only very jealous of his potential move into a pad of his own, but also by the fact he would have this lovely little pub as his local. I knew the place very well as I’d visited it many times to watch various England games, enjoy pre-gig pints before seeing bands in the Union Chapel, and simply taken the opportunity on many occasions to drop in for a quiet pint (unless Arsenal were playing at home) when passing through the area.

The compact detached cream building, with its colourful hanging baskets above a couple of wooden benches out front, nestling perfectly on Compton Avenue, was such a picturesque sight that owners Greene King had once used it in a national television advertising campaign promoting its beers.

We have all been mightily pleased when our own personally much-loved hospitality businesses, which have given us so much joy over the years, have come through the covid-19 period, and this was certainly the case for me with The Compton Arms. But the tentacles of the pandemic continue to reach into areas we could not have envisaged, and this North London boozer is now fighting for survival as a result of the objections of four local households.

They allege the pub is a public nuisance, poorly run, that the licensee has no interest in communicating with them, and that it is a danger to health. The latter cannot surely be from the food because the chef has previously worked at Dabbous, Texture and Bao. It sounds like they are throwing the kitchen sink at the pub with their raft of complaints. Meanwhile, the pub’s licensee says the group simply got used to the quiet when the business was closed during the various covid-19 lockdowns, and now they want it closed for good.

Regardless of how tempting it sometimes seems, I would certainly not live in close proximity to a pub as I value quiet in the evenings far too much. But many people do fall for it – including those complaining about The Compton Arms, I suspect – and so I have little sympathy for their situation. The pub has clearly been around a lot longer than these individuals, and should they win their case, the reality is they will undoubtedly be gone in a number of years and be replaced with other residents. But the pub would most likely be unviable and potentially gone forever, with developers recognising the opportunity for turning it into more flats in a desirable location.

The issue of noise around pubs and restaurants certainly became an issue within Soho when indoor dining and drinking was prohibited, and the relaxation in the rules over using the pavements and roads led to something of a carnival atmosphere in the area. When indoor dining returned the Soho, the locals demanded the outdoor tables be packed away as the levels of noise outside was not what they’d signed up for. They won the argument (helped by the fire brigade arguing it could not navigate its engines through the streets). With the temporary outdoor licenses handed out during covid-19 becoming permanent in 2023, pubs and restaurants must take great care to ensure they do not put at risk this very valuable additional trading space.

With the gloomy prediction that thousands of pubs are now on the brink of closure as a result of soaring energy bills (and everything else for that matter), and major pub operators including Greene King, Carlsberg Marston’s and Admiral Taverns wanting the Government to help them over the dire situation, the last thing any pub tenant or owner needs is to be faced with closure threats from complaining neighbours.

While the fate of many pubs looks to be in the balance over the coming months, The Compton Arms’ future is expected to be decided a little sooner (late September) by an Islington Council committee. Let’s hope it survives and we avoid the setting of a dangerous precedent. 
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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