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How To Maintain And Improve Footfall In Dublin Pubs

This month’s Discussion Forum was held in Dublin’s Temple Bar Hotel. Attending it were Derek Fowler of Fowlers of Grange Cross in Ballyfermot, Michael Hedigan of The Brian Ború in Glasnevin, Con Treacy of the Halfway House in Ashtown and Conor Kenny of Conor Kenny & Associates.

“It’s gone way beyond price, value and service. They are fundamentals. It simply comes down to giving you and me more reasons to come in besides food and drink. They too are now fundamentals.”

Pat Nolan: What were you thinking of when you wrote that, Conor, because it’s quite on the knuckle.

Conor Kenny: The pub business was very good at changing because it got smoking, ‘kids out before nine o’clock’, the Lidls and Aldis selling cheap booze. Then the recession came. Nobody was immune. The pub business didn’t grasp that change – not because they didn’t want to but they didn’t know how.  In the Irish market it has to be food and drink with entertainment thrown in.

The pub business needs to change to reflect that, Generation Y – anyone under 26 – behaves completely differently to what we did at that age. I think ‘imagination’ is missing big-time from the pub business. The old road has run out. Someone said to me in the UK recently, “We’re not in the food and drink business any more; we’re in the sex and entertainment business”. I’m not saying that’s right but it shows how they rethought where they were. There’s a great need for re-inventing what a business does.

A very good American marketer Seth Godin said, “Keep the machines, but change what they make”. So give me a reason to come in. Food and drink are what I do when I get inside but you’ve got to give me new reasons to come in. I’m not suggesting that you all become casinos or dens of iniquity but use imagination within the pub – within your staff - to come up with new ways to bring people in. They need to be relevant to your local market and they need to do something that attracts a newer younger generation. Every year 20 to 25 per cent of your market is going to naturally fade away. What’s your plan to replace them?

Derek Fowler: He’s right. Over the years publicans have always re-invented the wheel but this time there are so many different factors that have hit us so fast over the last seven to eight years that it’s hard to make the changes you need to make. Pubs now need to do something totally innovative that the customers will grasp, giving them a reason to come into you. You have a key person - a key advocate - who’ll drive business for you and attract the customer. Resources are severely tightened. It’s harder to extend your business.

Michael Hedigan: Conor is right – and Derek. It all comes down to the customer getting good quality products, getting good deals with your suppliers and working with your staff. From start to finish we go through the whole thing to see where we can improve and how we can get back different people. We concentrated on our upstairs, on different types of things like comedy or parties, trying to identify our market again but also keeping the customers we have. We’re in the service business. People love to see a professional barperson working and that means “Hello, how are you?”, “What would you like?”, “Sit down and I’ll bring it over to you”. “Goodbye” is as important as saying “Hello” and Goodbye and Thank you are a big part of it. It’s like Mine Host, a few words for everybody. You make people feel comfortable and a warm welcome encapsulates a lot of it. Value to me is not all about the price. It’s about someone going out the door and saying, “I had a great night”. It’s the totalexperience.

Con Treacy: I agree with what has been said. When we bought the Halfway about 20-odd years ago, we had a policy of always having a senior member of staff on the floor - we still have – to see what’s going on; you really can’t depend on lounge staff who’re there to make a few bob. It’s an expensive lounge boy, but he’ll pick up more and see what’s going on.

Down the years we had a policy of always saying goodnight to people at the door. That’s probably slipped a little during the boom but we’re going back to that again, to say goodnight properly, to let people know you’re happy they came in. We do a lot of food and when people come in for food they don’t want the big screens. It’s very hard to try and mix the two as you need that business as well, so it’s a tightrope you’re walking all the time. We have a room upstairs. We have a lot of new apartments up in the Phoenix Park so we have residents’ associations and we entice them in. Some wouldn’t be remotely interested in the pub but they come for the meetings, see what’s going on, see you do breakfasts, see a restaurant, some music….PN: How do you get this message to them.

CT: We have TV messages about upcoming events going all the time in the pub.

PN: Conor, could you offer three ways of getting customers to spend more?

CK: There’re an awful lot of myths about upselling. Anyone can do it but there’s only one reason they will do it - that’s because there is something in it for them. That’s human nature. The pub business is like a theatre: the show starts all over again the next day. What has gone before is irrelevant. Your staff go through a stage door every night and can’t afford to bring their emotions or feelings into the business. Michael’s absolutely right about the value of using my name and particularly saying Goodbye. That’s the actors’ job.

You get upsales through your staff and you do it through marketing. A multi-million Euro business would have a marketing budget and have either brought-in or internal expertise. I remember a really good pub operator in the UK saying to me: every publican should spend 30 per cent of the time out selling. We’re going to have to become experts in marketing. There’re a lot of things you can wrap together, for example. You could do a pint and a sandwich for €5. Start pushing product and experiences together.

Take what Michael was saying about comedy: you get a bottle of wine, dinner for two and two tickets to the comedy club for €50 – that’s marketing. That’s giving me an overall experience to go out to rather than the price of a pint. It’s about coming up with creative ways of doing that.

The third thing touches very much on what Con was saying: we’re very good at selling to people once they’re in. But you must go out to them rather than hoping they’ll come in to you. Young people don’t go to the pub but to someone’s house and drink cheap bottles of vodka. Then they’ll get the party bus to go nightclubbing.

The crowds are not coming to the pub. A Grand Canyon has opened up. Want to know a really inexpensive way of attracting people into your pub? You all employ girls and guys in the target age-group that aren’t coming in. So sit them down over a cup of coffee for two hours and ask: “Tell me why wouldn’t you come into this pub?” And they’ll tell you! “What would we need to do for you to come into this pub?” And they’ll tell you. That’s a simple way of getting in touch.

Last point: some of the best marketing brains in the world work for the drinks brands. They’re incredibly creative, incredibly driven and have significant budgets. Traditionally, there’s been a bit of adversity between publican and drinks brands. That has to change. There’s a wealth of expertise they can bring to your business. You could say, “Tell you what we’ll do: I’ll pay you by the day agreed but I want your marketing manager in here for two hours. And I want some ideas”. You then need to work with the brands. So if it’s Baileys, which is all about indulgence, have an ‘Indulgence Night’. If it’s Heineken, which is all about rugby, have a ‘Rugby Night’. And when there isn’t a rugby match on? Have a wine night, ‘What’s Wine All About?’. Get these guys as partners. I’m not going to go to a pub on a Tuesday night just to drink. I’m going to go because of the offer and then I’ll have a pint. You’ve got to get me in first and then when I’m in there, I’m going to have a pint. Say, “Come in and drink a pint on a Tuesday night”, well I’m not going to do it.

MH: Marketing’s crucial. We did a lot of it in ‘08 and ’09 - packages like the soup and sandwich offer, lunch including a glass of wine, the two-course meal, even an Early Bird with a glass of wine. Part of that is upselling. Desserts are a thing you can upsell on. But there’s no point trying to upsell on a dessert from a freezer. They have to be home-made and well-presented. The staff on the floor can do the bit of upselling - you can say, “The competition this week is who has sold the most desserts?”. Our only challenge is to get the people in the door to experience what we’re doing.

CK: And anything round charity…

MH: Early week though? No, that would be a Thursday night. You’re bringing them in though. We had one for the local church which put it in the local parish newsletter and people came who’d say, “I haven’t been here for a while: it’s lovely, I must come back”.

Your food should be restaurant quality now. You’re wasting your time if you think you’re going to sell anything less. I believe in fresh food, especially fresh fish. Every time I get an opportunity when people say, “The fish and chips is lovely”, I say, “That’s because it’s fresh fish”. The companies are more than willing to help you if they see they can get something. You might say that every pub is in competition with all the others but we’re all in the pub business. We want the pub business to thrive and the Dublin pub is an institution worldwide. Every tourist coming into the country used to mention the Dublin pub. It’s down to ourselves to make sure that we keep that. It’s like running a good party. And most publicans know how to give a good party, having a good atmosphere around the place.

CT: People now are looking for the Early Bird. You can’t possibly give them fresh fish at the price you can charge.

MH: You’re right. You can’t be giving it away. The fish and chips may be part of the menu but it’s only one aspect of what I would try and sell.

CT: But this is the problem. People are expecting too much and saying, “Throw in a bottle of wine with that”. We do small weddings and they cut you to the bone. They want to bring their own wine and their own champagne. Theydon’s want to pay corkage: I think it’s gone beyond the beyonds.

CK: I totally understand that, Con. We hear it day-in, day-out. This debate about price for your fish…. For me, they’re two totally different markets, different messages, different propositions. When we work with people one of the first questions I ask is, “Who are you for?”. The most common answer I get is, “We’re for everyone” until I describe the character who’s about to walk through the door -- and then they say, “We don’t want them”…. So you’re not for everyone. What might work brilliantly in Ashtown mightn’t work for Derek or Michael. The clearer you are about who you’re for and what you’re offering them, the clearer it is to communicate with them. If you say, “I’m for everyone” then don’t be surprised when no one listens.

DF: Going back four years when I was LVA Chairman, we needed communication with the companies and the marketing people. At present we need to get the marketing people in from the various companies and for them to get on board to help the drinks industry and especially Dublin pubs. In relation to marketing, it's a matter of where you want to be, whether it’s in Malahide or in town. In areas where you've got a huge amount of different businesses - pubs and restaurants – you have to know what's around you first before you can decide where you want to be. I always try to ensure that there will be someone on the floor to ensure the customer gets the right level of service. You'll have a value offer but you'll also have a premium brand whether it be drink or food.

MH: A manager on the floor keeps an eye on the whole show and if he's good, he's doing the marketing as well. The LVA campaigns are very good at identifying the Dublin pub.

CK: The beauty of the pub is that there's always an owner so we’re flexible. You can implement change quickly.

PN: Should food and family be higher up the list of publicans’ priorities? ‘Four meals for the price of three’ on a Sunday?

CT: It’s very hard to call: you could do a thing like every 10th meal is free but where does this stop? Early Bird? There’s a punter there and then they’re gone. You’re getting nothing out of it. If someone comes in and orders a jug of water, you might as well not have them at all.

MH:… What Con is saying - and I agree - is that you’re putting on an offer to attract people in. Your margins are cut right down so it’s costing you a lot to produce. You’re hoping to get the extra sale as you put the service into it. That’s fine if you get 10 people and five of them buy a drink, but it’s very hard work for very little otherwise.

CT: In Halfway House, it won’t be inferior stuff; you’re only codding yourself if you give frozen stuff. It won’t work and you’re doing more damage than good. You’ve got to put it on early and they want it cheaper again…

CK: Can I challenge that? My big thing is running and every Sunday morning there's a group of us go off on a run. They’re the most cost-conscious bunch yet we go for breakfast to Avoca out on the Naas Road, 15 minutes in the wrong direction. Now the whole bit about price is big at the front of an experience but it evaporates in the second half. If they were really walking the talk - which is price – we shouldn’t be in Avoca. If you want cheap, don’t go to Avoca; if you want fabulous quality, go to Avoca. We get there about half-ten on a Sunday morning and we’re lucky to get parking. I’m saying this not to challenge you but as a factual story about something that's very good, beautifully presented, fantastic service, great choice…

CT: But there’s obviously more going on than food, it's nearly a day out. I've been in that place myself.

CK: If you go in at lunchtime, I’d say it's 80-85 per cent female. One reason and one reason only: the quality of the food…. You can be sure they didn’t target us. We found them.

MH: A lot of people are attracted by that type of food and Con is right. If you go to a price that's ridiculous, you’re out of business. But you can go to a price where you hope that you'll get something extra out of it; you get a fair price and you present an offer. But they’re coming into your pub and you've an opportunity to impress them. I’d agree with Georgina Campbell that if you push the restaurant prices down any more you'll put them out of business. And we’re busy fools at that stage. I use fresh fish as a marketing tool. A carvery can have nice fish as well. It goes back to your QSV: the old Quality, Service and Value.

CT: Trying to get people in on a Monday or a Tuesday is the nub of the whole thing. What I’ve found is that those residents are very important. A lot of people have a bit of money on a Tuesday night. Residents’ associations have a lot of hassle with management companies. They’re just looking for a section of the pub, ideally a room or something like that. We get 100, maybe 150, people in.

MH: You might get about 20 of them to stay and have a drink. But at least they have experienced your pub again.

DF: In relation to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we’re going back to the old ways of running our pubs. We have quiz competitions, stuff to bring people in whether for darts or ballad sessions. We’ve been through all this but in relation to people who’re going to be reading the magazine, we’re all trying different things, different times of the week and different times of the day. In relation to food we have a pint-and food offer for matches and you market it differently. Whether it's the Heineken Cup or the Six Nations or whatever, we do something different. For Cheltenham it's a pint and stew; you keep it home grown so the Irishness is there as well. We’re just doing it more vigorously now both in Ballyfermot and Malahide. Even in Ballyfermot it works. For different pubs, there're different offers -- every single publican told me not to touch food, by the way -- and if someone asked me today, I’d say “yes” but you need to speak to the experienced people in the business whether that be the people who provide you with the food or the people who serve it.

MH: Sometimes, the Monday night is the continuation of the weekend, not always a bad night. It's the Tuesday night you have to try and get the people in. We’re lucky in the Brian Ború in that we have a good funeral business. Every time we have a funeral party come - maybe 50 or 100 - more will have experienced the place and it can mean another funeral or a party or a quiz.

PN: Why don’t pubs market to women, potentially half your market?

MH: Ignore nobody. Obviously you’re trying to cater for women but you’re trying to make the place comfortable for everybody. Women, as Conor said, are decision-makers a lot of the time. I would always have been happy to say I had a place for everybody in the pub. Those groups of women probably wouldn’t go into an all-ladies pub but they want to go into a pub where they’ll feel comfortable. It's up to you to make that happen. A group of women can have their drink, their food and their bottle of wine. If you have a nice choice of wine, you serve it in the right glass. At the conservatory at the back you can have your morning coffee, your fresh scones and your after-tennis teas; in the afternoon they come out for lunch and if we can get the girls who’re going out to lunch to meet here… Feminine touch? You certainly have to look after the toilets, flowers on the table, little nightlights in the evening, flowers in the Ladies…. If you’re going to have a good party at home, how do you dress your place up? You make it comfortable. The thing with the coffee jug sitting there for four hours, I never use. We can all make lattes and cappuccinos and make them right, like a pint of Guinness. It has to be in the right crockery. The overall effect is, they’re walking out the door and saying on the next night, “We’re not going to the restaurant but we’ll go to the pub because we’ve seen that it's nicely laid out,” if they’re going for a bit of a meal…. Conor identified earlier that unfortunately the young generation stopped going to pubs and started going to houses for drinks. They do go to pubs, the late-night pubs in town.