A man walks into a pub. It’s the year 2000. As he looks around, he sees and smells things which are familiar to him. A room that’s cramped or snug depending on the size of your jumper. Frosted windows grabbing just enough light for you to see the curves of a pint glass. The cigarette vending machine in one corner, a big back-ended widescreen television in the other. Smoke, stale and fresh, sways, wanders and ascends across the room as the hum of people engaged in both deep and meaningless conversation echoes around the man as he makes his way to the bar. He sits on a stool that’s slightly too high and maybe a little too hard but comforting all the same. The barman already knows what to do. He does it every day. At the same time. Even on Sundays. Even on Christmas day.

In the busiest times, the man would have always been surrounded by other regulars too, but, as the years ticked by, the room became much less crowded. It’s said you won’t find the answer to your problems at the bottom of a pint and it seemed, for a while, that’s exactly what the industry was doing. The famous Einstein quote reads insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, and landlords were driving themselves crazy looking for solutions, but it didn’t appear as if they were doing anything new.

Whilst the above scene was comforting and can still be comforting for many drinkers across the UK, it became almost a niche offering as a lot of the population’s wants, needs and expectations changed. For example, Millennials preferred to pre-drink before going out, instead getting their beer from a supermarket to save money.

The industry has been slow to react, and that, along with other factors including high business rates and competition from other hospitality sectors meant a serious decline. From 2000 to 2017 pubs were closing at an average of 732 per year. Almost as fast as the many new micro-breweries that started to appear, campaigns to save pubs began popping up such as Trynuary, Save Your Local and Long Live The Local. These highlighted other things which were negatively impacting pubs like Beer Duty tax being three times the EU average.

Though more and more pubs were closing, and the statistics still looked unsettling, new approaches were eventually tried, and now it seems like those efforts have started to be rewarded. In December 2019 it was reported the number of pubs had actually grown for the first time in 10 years with an increase of 320. And, again for the first time in 15 years, the number of small pubs and bars has also risen. In addition, the founder of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, is planning on spending £200m that’ll generate 10,000 jobs. The glass is finally looking half full, but what happened?

Delivering a Premium Pub Experience

One of the biggest things pub companies have started to do is invest in their estates to offer a higher quality, more premium customer experience with coordinated products. Think triple-cooked chips instead of typical pub-grub, Estrella instead of Carling. That’s not to say more value focused offerings don’t have their place, rather pubs have got better in identifying their target markets and making sure their needs are adhered to. Companies such as Thwaites in the north and Fullers in the south focused heavily on making their pubs much more pleasant to be in, with higher quality ingredients supplementing more diverse menus.

In the case of Thwaites, they routinely transform tired pubs and develop narratives and business cases for choosing certain ones in certain areas and wake them up. These investments not only benefit their business, but the surrounding area too. Often, this will be in the form of structural renovations, adding bedrooms to pubs with heavy footfalls in leisure focused areas or simply updating parts of a pub with new décor, flooring and furniture.  

As mentioned above, many more pubs have also started offering food, identifying the correct audiences and producing menus to match. Think about how normal it now seems for the traditional British pub to offer mouth-watering pizzas made in their very own pizza oven.

Stay in a Pub

Pub companies have looked to add rooms to many of their properties, offering customers an alternative experience to conventional hotel or guest house accommodation. As such, in 2019, Fullers were reported to be upping their room count from 813 to 1000 across its estate.

In conjunction with this, there’s been a rise in staycations with an increasing number of Britons preferring to stay at home rather than venture abroad. The number of British holidaymakers booking to stay in the UK during summer 2019 went up by 13% as they preferred to explore places like the Lake District and Cornwall.

Diverse Food Offering

You’ll struggle to pick up a food menu nowadays and not see a whole section dedicated to special dietary requirements. Vegans, vegetarians, celiacs and more all need to be catered to and many sectors within hospitality have had to adapt to a changing audience. Pubs are no different. A quick glimpse at the Dickens Tavern, a Green King pub, just a couple of minutes’ walk from us, is a perfect example. Not only can you filter by dietary need you can also download PDFs dedicated to nutritional and allergen information on their website. This is exactly what people want and pub companies have endeavored to make it as accessible as possible.    

In three key areas, experience, accommodation and food, pubs have really stepped up their game and we’re now starting to see the impact of that. Time will tell whether there’ll be continual growth, but the statistics are looking much more favourable than they were in the last decade.

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