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How Pubs Are Innovating To Survive – And Thrive

By April 18, 2014 No Comments
How Pubs Are Innovating To Survive – And Thrive

Beer tap at pub It wasn’t a great night for supporters of the England football team. They watched on as goalkeeper Robert Green allowed a soft shot from the USA roll across the line, allowing the Americans to secure a 1-1 draw in the opening game of England’s 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa.

But for British publicans, it was undeniably a worthwhile evening.  It’s reckoned that no fewer than four million Britons crowded into pubs across the land to watch the game on television. And as excitement builds about this year’s World Cup tournament in Brazil, publicans will have another chance to cash in on football fever.

The Government has done its bit to help the pub industry in the UK, insisting that every hostelry has the right to stay open for four hours after the kick-off of a match in which England is playing – a significant relaxation of normal licensing rules, given the time difference between the UK and the host nation. Publicans are being encouraged to take advantage of supporters’ appetite for watching games with their friends rather than in the solitary atmosphere of a front room.

The British Beer and Pub Association has also teamed up with the Local Government Association, and the Association of Chief Police Officers to produce a useful guide for outlets that want to make the most of the World Cup to boost their trade. It covers the basics such as where best to position TV screens to avoid congestion, right through to the choice of which glasses to use when serving drinks.

One thing is clear – the tournament will provide pubs with a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of customer numbers. The stark reality is that in a typical week, 26 pubs close their doors for ever. In 1982, there were 67,800 pubs in Britain. Now, the total is well below 50,000. These ailing small businesses need to exploit every possible option for boosting trade just to ensure their survival.

In large part, the decline is due to a shift in drinking habits. People are more likely to buy alcohol in the supermarket to drink at home rather than going to the pub. The statistics speak for themselves – in 1980, 80 per cent of total beer sales were through pubs, but, by 2012, that had fallen to 53 per cent.

So, the economics of running a pub in the 21st century are challenging, to say the least. And where you make your money is likely to be affected by the type of pub that you run and where it’s located. The British Institute of Innkeeping divides pubs into four broad categories:

  • A “rural character” pub where sales are split roughly 50:50 between food and drink.
  • A community pub where most of the takings are coming from drinks.
  • A pub where food accounts for most of sales.
  • A “circuit pub” – a traditional bar with high takings, most of them coming from drinks.

The BII gives publicans some outlines of what the finances of different types of pub might look like, and where their costs are likely to be concentrated. The figures can only give a broad idea of where the money comes from and where it goes, but they give some benchmarks against which those running pubs can measure their business’s performance. The British Beer and Pub Association also provides tips and guidance on everything from finances and licensing to staffing issues and how to pull a perfect pint.

But, as the statistics on pub closures show, it’s often not enough to provide good quality food and drink, along with a pleasant atmosphere. So, many publicans are becoming more entrepreneurial in their approach, and are dreaming up new ways of bringing in custom. One approach has been to provide facilities and services not usually associated with a traditional pub, from selling pub-made ready meals to punters while they have a pint, to offering crèche facilities to young mothers during the quieter trading hours of the daytime.

The Pub is the Hub is a not-for-profit organisation that helps licensees and local communities to keep pubs open and thriving – particularly by incorporating other local services. It has aided several innovative pub projects around the UK:

    • The London Inn in Horrabridge, Devon, is located right on the edge of Dartmoor. Its landlord encourages locals to bring in books they’ve already read and are happy to pass on. The books are then sold for 50p each or lent out for 20p. The money doesn’t go to the pub itself; it’s passed on to local charities and community groups – around £500 or £600 a year. And how does the London Inn benefit?

      “Particularly during the holiday season, it definitely encourages visitors to come in, although we’ve also got a good reputation for food,” says landlord Mike Huda. “People come in for a book, then they stay for a drink or something to eat.”

    • Also in Devon, licensees Jeff White and Kate Knight, took over the Britannia pub in Knowle, near Budleigh Salterton, in November 2012. The premises had an unused room, so they embarked upon a project to open a local shop within the pub itself. They secured £4,000 in funding from the Community Services Fund run by Pubs is the Hub, and matched that sum from other sources and grants. The shop has become a central part of the rural community, and the landlords now have plans to set up an online grocery ordering and delivery service from the pub premises.
    • Further west, in Cornwall, two rural pubs – the Star Inn at Vogue, near Redruth, and The Ship Inn at Lerryn, near Lostwithiel – have teamed up with the county council’s library services. Now, customers can browse books on the shelves, order titles from across the county and are given full access to online library services. In particular, it’s hoped that the lending library initiative will encourage more women to come into the pubs.
    • In Derbyshire, villagers in Bamford clubbed together to buy the local pub, the Angler’s Rest.  They reckoned that to increase trade they needed to provide people with as many reasons as possible to visit.  So, the project included a plan to reopen the village’s post office within the pub, and to open a new café. Ben MacIntyre, a director of the Bamford Community Society, which now runs the Angler’s Rest, explains:

      “We had a vision of a business that was really at the heart of the community, run for the benefit of both local people, and to attract new visitors to the area. The relocation of the post office is a major part of these plans. The Angler’s Rest is already a much loved village asset, and bringing the post office into the building is another way to ensure that it remains relevant and accessible to the whole community.”

So, while times may be tough for pubs in Britain, some landlords are being very imaginative by providing punters with much more than a pie and a pint, and seeing their enterprises – and communities – flourish as a result. And, in the short-term, all publicans should be planning their marketing now to make sure that they get their fair share of thirsty supporters this June when the World Cup finally kicks off. Failure to do so really would be an own goal.
Image courtesy of ahmet guler /

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