Restaurant, drinking house, play centre or social club – just what makes a good British pub?


In May this year, the Daily Mail reported that the number of pubs closing on a weekly basis had risen to 26. 26 closures a week!! What an astonishing statistic. At a time when you would imagine that the great British public might seek solace in a little tipple, the establishments that used to be the bedrock of the community are disappearing at an alarming rate. You can read the full Daily Mail article here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2321010/Were-giving-pubs–beer-Number-closing-week-reaches-26-sales-lager-fall-year-low.html.

So just what is it that is causing the dramatic demise of one of Britain’s most famous ‘assets’? Why is it that the city, suburbs and countryside are no longer seeing the demand for a product that has survived hundreds of years of productive and profitable use? There are of course economic and political factors at play. There is no doubt that as disposable income has dropped, so has the consumers ability to spend their hard-earned money on ‘going out’. Then there is the debate around alcohol duty and ‘cut price’ supermarket deals – I will not dare to enter that foray. It is also true to say that societal changes are significant. As the electronic world has developed apace, more and more communities are adjusting to meeting up ‘via Facebook’, rather than catching up on the gossip with a pie and pint at the local boozer.

However……there is always a however in my blog posts – how much of the demise of the great British pub is actually down to the behaviours, attitudes and actions of the people who run them? I strongly believe that one of the key driving factors (in addition to the ones I have already mentioned) is …….Customer Experience – the customer experience often served up by a pub that is just no longer fit for purpose. The customer experience that no longer meets the needs of the customer. A customer experience that is just no longer viable to sustain a business.

Think about it for a minute. These days, a pub is no longer just a place to go and have a drink. Many pubs have transformed into restaurants. Often they have been turned into ‘gastro pubs’, dishing up Michelin starred food in wonderful surroundings. Some pubs have played to the family market, creating amazing outdoor playgrounds, or even teaming up with soft play indoor ‘fun factories’. Some pubs have invested in idyllic surroundings with lush gardens and roaring wood fires. In all of these cases, the pub tends to be in a location that is ‘fit for purpose’ and that meets the needs of the existing and potential customer base. But how many pubs that have sadly ceased to exist failed to adjust to the marketplace around them? How many of them decided NOT to ‘change’ to better meet the needs of their evolving customer base?

An example of a pub that is perfectly placed to meet customer needs is a brand new one in my hometown Chester. The White Horse has been built INSIDE the world-famous Chester Racecourse. It has been designed extremely well with lovely interior fittings and features. It is the perfect place to come for lunch at the weekend, or to enjoy as part of a hospitality package during the races.

Not only is it a fantastic environment for adults, it also plays brilliantly to younger visitors. A superb ‘pirate ship’ themed playground ensures that both adults and children can be constantly entertained. The Whitehorse has it all – an amazing location, great environment, good drink and food, and lovely entertainment for children. They have thought very carefully about their PROPOSITION, and now just need to be able to deliver it consistently (great drink and food).

The White Horse has one very big advantage over the thousands of other pubs that have ‘met their maker’. It is brand new. The site has been specially selected by its owners to meet the needs of its customers. Thousands of pubs around the British Isles do not have this luxury – to reselect their location. Yet we must not forget that their locations were selected for exactly the same reasons as the White Horse – at the time, there was a need – a requirement from consumers. As we all know, and as I have already alluded to earlier in this post – what consumers want, and how they behave changes over time. We no longer ‘do’ the same things, and as a result, all organisations MUST adjust to better deliver what we want.

I recently visited four pubs in one afternoon in West London. The pubs all belong to one pub group – a very well-respected brand. The four pubs have been around for a very long time. The first pub – on a busy high road was what I would describe as ‘traditional’. It looked like a pub from the outside with a few strategically placed picnic benches, and the signage gave a hint that it also served food. It was dark and dingy on the inside and furnished as you might expect any pub to be. It was not particularly memorable (but not in a bad way). It was just a bog standard pub – nothing special. It was not particularly obvious what food was on offer, with no defined dining area – I would guess that it is a ‘bar food’ kind of establishment. I do not know if it is ‘profitable’, but I would not be surprised if it is not. The location did not seem as though it would work well as an establishment to survive on ‘drinking’ alone.

Pub number 2 was further down the same high road. Again, from the outside, this too looked very much like a traditional pub. Yet on the inside it was completely different. An interior designer with some skill had overhauled the Victorian building. Fabulous furnishings, random light fittings and an eclectic mix of paint made the interior a sight to behold. They even had a row of old cinema seats along one wall. It was amazing – a completely different environment to pub number one – a much more memorable one. Unbeknown to me from the outside, this pub also had a restaurant – a genuine sit down Thai restaurant out the back. I am not sure if they were keeping it a secret, or if it was just me not noticing the discreet menu at the entrance. This pub seemed to be far more viable than the first one – yet it was still unclear as to what it was trying to be. Was it a drinking/meeting up establishment or was it a restaurant with a pub out the front? I guarantee that a proportion of the thousands of people passing its front door on a daily basis would have no idea that there was a restaurant in there.

A brisk ten minute walk saw me arrive at pub number 3. Wow – was my first impression. This is what I imagined most of the ‘doomed’ British pubs to look like. Although it was housed in a Victorian building like the other two, it just looked tired. A sandwich board was on the pavement outside advertised ‘London’s best sausage’ served here! Peering through the windows I seriously doubted this claim. The inside was no better. It was a 1970’s throwback. Split into two bars separated by a door, the barman/landlord looked less than pleased to see me enter. When he eventually decided to serve me, it was most certainly not done with a smile. I sat at one of his tables adorned with table mats my grandmother used to use – they had a variety of animals such as cockerels adorned on them. London’s best sausage turned out to be hot dogs out of a tin. As I sipped my soft drink, an old dog ambled up and smelt my shoes. The pub was slap bang in the middle of a heavily populated area. Do I give it much hope? I’ll let you make your own judgement.

Pub number 4 was a few miles away. Yet another completely different experience awaited. In a suburban setting, this pub loked like it was a member of a chain of identical establishments. Big screen televisions, glossy menus on every table – it looked liked a place where you could come and watch a Six Nations Rugby match or bring the kids for a Sunday Roast. There are thousands of these ‘chain’ type pubs around the country, and they seem to do pretty well. They are designed to attract a certain type of customer, and tend to be in the right location to do so.

Four very different experiences. Despite being so different, they are all part of the same industry. They are all owned by the same company. What the consumer does not necessarily know is that some of the pubs are ‘managed’ on behalf of the pub group. Some of them are run by a ‘tenant’. Pub number 3 on my ‘tour’ was an example of a ‘tenanted pub’ – in that case, there is fundamentally nothing wrong with the building or the location – it is the attitude and behaviour of the tenant that needs to be addressed. This just shows that there are significant differences in the autonomy that these two models offer. However, whoever is in charge; whoever is empowered to make decisions; it is vital that each and every pub that still exists in the UK does one vital thing…….CLARIFY its PROPOSITION!!

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One of the three elements of my customer experience management framework, ‘understanding the proposition’ is the starting point for any business in determining its ‘customer experience strategy’. This is a concept that is unfortunately lacking in many organisations today and is all too evident in my mini West London tour. What is our proposition?’; ‘why do customers transact with us?’; ‘why do customers come back (or not)?’; ‘what do we want our business to be for customers?’ These are all questions that every pub should be asking itself and its customers. If the existing proposition does not successfully meet the needs of customers, it will need to be changed. Inability to change, or lack of desire to do so could well result in failure. It is not wrong to have a big emphasis on families. It is not wrong to turn your pub into a specialist in local ales – just ensure that whatever you want to be, the customer base is there wanting what you have to offer.

It should be pointed out that over 10,000 British pubs are owned by just two companies – both of whom are understood to have debt issues. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to invest in the infrastructure of their pubs to make them fit for purpose. Although the location, décor, facilities and so on are a critical component of the customer experience strategy, where you are unable to invest in making changes, you must rely on other elements of the customer experience management framework. The thousands of hard working people who, unlike the Landlord of pub number 3, make customers feel so welcome when they enter a pub are equally as important as the pub itself. Even if a building is crumbling, if you have engaged, positive, motivated staff who build a relationship with customers, it can go a long way to ensuring the survival of the business.

So what makes a good British Pub? Businesses (Pubs) grow because they provide something that customers want and need and are able to successfully and consistently deliver the experience they expect. Businesses (Pubs) decline because the same customers no longer want or need the things that they offer or because customers have given up waiting for you to do what they expect. In todays competitive economy, it is as vital as ever to continually ask whether or not the experience that you are able to offer does what you and your customers want it to do. You must be able to continually improve or transform. It is tough, but it is also reality.

Do you know of pubs around he country that deliver brilliant experiences? Or indeed pubs that are on their last legs? I would love to hear about them.

Update – 9th July 2013 – a reader of this blog post has written an excellent response – you can read it here – http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-fox-and-hedgehog.html

4 thoughts on “Restaurant, drinking house, play centre or social club – just what makes a good British pub?

  1. I’d recommend a trip to Hawarden. Glynne Arms (descendants of Gladstone!), Fox & Grapes, Bluebell and Crown & Liver. Genuinely spoilt!

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  2. Interesting post, although I would say to some extent a good pub is a community that is made by its customers in a way that a shop or restaurant isn’t.

    Also a pub coming across as needy and over-eager to please can be offputting too.

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  3. Hi Ian, I found your blog post (and the further blog reply) very interesting and they reminded me of a specific comment made to me by a pretty well known individual in the pub industry. We work with a number of pub companies, particularly regional breweries that own and operate both managed and tenanted venues. There are many pubs out there who do struggle, for many reasons, but the pubs that do well flourish due to a good offer and, more importantly, the ability to make the customer feel highly valued and warmly welcomed. I think your examples kind of sum that up!

    When discussing research we had conducted for this particular pub operator I asked in general terms if the economic downturn was a worry for him (this was a couple of years ago). His response was very clear – “not in the slightest”. When I asked why, he stated – “the poor operators will suffer, the good operators will flourish” – it is as simple as that. There is lots of variety out there in terms of pub offers from food led country pubs to town centre chameleon venues but each one will be profitable if it focuses on each customer who walks through the door!

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    • It has to be recognised, though, that the overall market for pubs has dramatically declined over the past 30 years, so there are many pubs that, because of their location, are never going to flourish regardless of what formula is applied.

      Obviously in a declining market it is the less well-run pubs that will go to the wall first, but it is quite wrong to extrapolate that the decline primarily results from pubs being poorly run. It is a wider secular trend completely beyond the influence of individual operators.

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