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So how do you promote loyalty among a disenchanted consumer movement that is becoming more and more content to stay at home, smoke in peace and enjoy their favourite tipple at a fraction of on trade prices? One answer lies in our traditional Irish fáilte, the intangible gift the rest of the globe lauds us for yet which many natives believe has been on the wane since the dawn of the Celtic Tiger. The on trade may be taking a daily hammering from consumers, media and politicians on cost, however the fact remains that it is not price, but value for money which is the core issue. If you are to provide value for money then you have to give your customers an experience that they feel is worth paying for. Sarah Grennan spoke to the training experts and learned that to survive in today’ turbulent trade, pubs need to offer service that is that bit more special, to do that, vintners need to invest in their staff and train their workforce thoroughly. The day of leaving your staff to their own devices is passed.

The time for refusing to properly train staff in the belief that they are only going to leave you anyway is at an end. It may be an understandable reaction to a constricted labour market and a notoriously transient workforce but it is no longer a viable option for businesses trying to weather the current on trade storm.

The recent Drinks Industry Group of Ireland Survey of Licensed Premises 2004 shows that while employment in the licensed trade has surged by 28% in the last five years to over 100,000, in 70% of public houses no members of staff have Cert Training.

However, according to Conor Kenny, head of hospitality industry consultants, Conor Kenny & Associates, training is critical to the health and safety of a business. ‘Publicans spend a lot of money investing in design and location, but a customer’s experience comes from their interaction with the people behind the counter. ‘The pub is like a theatre. You can have the best sets, backdrops and lights, but without people – the actors and audience – it is dead. In pubs, the audience is the customer, if your staff aren’t acting to the best of their ability then you’re in trouble.’

While complaints of price are rife, Conor argues that money isn’t the only issue. ‘It’s all about experience’, he notes, ‘When we’re on a good night out we judge our experience on the venue, the quality of the food and drink, the company we’re with and most importantly our interaction with our host or server. The bill is the last thing we judge the evening on. People form their decisions on a venue based on a whole series of things and it is the pubs which look at all these issues which will do well.’

He warns that time is running out for publicans who do not take the issue of training and customer service seriously. ‘Some guys in the industry are in very serious trouble. The trade is extremely difficult at the moment. Publicans are being hit with the smoking ban, declining sales, bad publicity about binge drinking, rising costs, price issues…… If you as a publican can’t adapt to what is happening quickly then you will be at the cutting edge of pain very soon’, cautions Conor.

Patrick Larkin of Larkin’s in Edenderry, Co. Offaly, concurs that customer expectations are increasing. ‘I find today that it is not enough to just open a pub and expect people to come in. We have a nice lounge with comfortable surrounding, but that’s not enough. People perceive drink now as expensive so you have to offer good service and a great experience to draw them into pubs.

He believes that the trade let service standards drop during the heady years of the boom. ‘The industry lost sight of the customer. Even renovation wasn’t customer driven in the Celtic Tiger years. Lounges were built with fewer seats to encourage more drinking. But customers want to come in and relax in comfortable seats, with lounge staff bringing their drinks to them , not to stand all night.’

Following a recent renovation of the pub, the Larkins realised that they needed to raise the level of their customer service offering. ‘Before we did the renovations we rested on our laurels a bit in terms of service but we realised that you had to offer more if you want to attract customers. There are 5,000 people in Edenderry and 10 pubs. We have no tourist trade so we have to rely on our local business, each of the 10 pubs in the area have been renovated in some shape or form over the past six or seven years so you have to remain competitive and offer good service, look after your locals and keep them coming back for more other wise you’re dead in the water.’

With this in mind, the Larkins enlisted the help of Conor Kenny and now run a comprehensive training programme for workers. Staff are heavily involved in the process and weekly meetings allow them to address problems and discuss further ideas for improving service and trade. A key method to improve service involved identifying different areas where each member of staff was strong and asking them to pass their skills, such as pouring the prefect pint of making the best cappuccino, on to their co-workers.

‘If you don’t include staff they will feel alienated’, says Patrick. ‘Gone are the days when the owner or manager ran the pub. Today everyone is involved in the running. It’s a completely different industry from five years ago. You have to be on the ball and you’re not going to be able to do that on your own. We have a great mix of staff – one gentleman is here 25 years and another is here six months, but they have the same interest in improving standards and delivering quality service.

‘It’s a difficult trade at the moment and off licenses are the only sector in the industry that are experiencing growth’, Patrick continues, ‘The majority of people have mortgages, two cars and two jobs where they work very hard, when they come home in the evening it is a lot easier and cheaper to get a bottle of wine and sit indoors with a video than go out to the pub. That’s why our service and premises must be up to scratch to entice them in.’