Steven Lyne of Oxford’s Royal Blenheim discusses the critical thing pubs need to do to succeed
With the closure rate of pubs across the country continuing at worrying levels, breweries and landlords have been frantically adjusting their businesses to cope with new trends and ever-changing economic factors. What does the modern pub need to focus on, to ensure that customers keep coming back and the doors stay open?
Pub closures have risen at an alarming rate, and are now at their highest rate in a decade. Pubs already face daily challenges in maintaining a viable and thriving business and to make matters worse, we are currently experiencing a perfect storm. With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, rising costs in utilities and lingering debts, it is more difficult than ever to recover and stabilise from the difficult years of trade during the pandemic.
Over the past few years, it has been interesting to see how pubs have taken grip of the challenges they face and have tried to re-imagine their venues. Some have worked out better than others, but I have seen plenty of fantastic projects. The successful ones have injected new life into their proud places of work. Vibrant atmospheres, fantastic drinks and punters leaving with a new firm favourite local. What are these pubs doing that the quieter ones are not?
I find it quite difficult being a landlord of a pub and walking into other venues sometimes. I seem to almost always switch into “work mode”, spotting issues and noticing the condition of my ale. What would I do or change regarding an issue overheard from another punter’s table? Annoyingly, these types of venues always tend to stick out as they’ve missed something critical that would end up leaving a customer with a sour visit. And in our current climate, fumbling the ball now may lead to the final whistle being blown sooner than in previous years.
The good pubs, for some reason, never get the shout out that they all deserve, quietly tipping along in good praise and almost always subtly. We all have our firm favourite boozers, and we should wax lyrical about them. Yet for some reason, if you get people taking about pubs, the conversation always starts with ones that aren’t quite hitting the spot. I suppose we all like a good moan, but it does highlight an important observation about us punters and landlords. We all love to find the negative in things, but we must dig a little deeper to see what we truly love about our favourite pubs.
Underneath all of what we love about our favourite watering holes is one critical principle: Consistency. It has to be one of the crucial main points that all modern pubs should be focusing on, in what we do and what we promise to our customers. It was the highest item on my list when I first took on my General Manager position at the Royal Blenheim. And it was a fairly daunting one as it is something that can’t be done in a short time span.
I was 23 and looking at my first senior management position at a much-loved pub. Looking at what I had to work with, I had several large decisions to make, and with a pandemic with unknown troubles lying around the corner, I had to make some bolder choices. One of them was committing the Blenheim to becoming a properly wet-led pub. For those of you that don’t know the Blenheim, we have a plethora of lines to utilise in bringing the best beers we can to Oxford city centre. However, in previous years, we had also tried balancing having a kitchen open alongside our drinks offer.
For some reason, one side of the pub always felt like it was compromising the other. So, in February 2020, I committed us to the wet-led route and promised to ensure only the best quality drinks would be served from our lines. I remember at the time reading articles about how the pandemic could be the nail in the coffin for wet-led pubs. Yet we kept our heads down and slowly battled our way through the pandemic. Out the other side, I am glad to say we have kept our word. And I won’t lie in saying it was easy, but it wasn’t any fancy marketing scheme or a prime location that worked in our favour. It was the day in, day out consistency of the fundamentals that have allowed us to flourish in our tiny corner of Oxford.
Ensuring that we remained as consistent as possible has led our customers to know exactly what to expect when they walk through our doors. A lack of consistency is often the first thing that starts the brutal cascading effect of a pub going downhill. And consistency is one of the few subtle things that successful modern day pubs are doing very well. With a reliable expectation of what you shall get from a venue, people start coming back regularly and more importantly, they are happy to!
Many people might jump to conclusions too quickly as to what makes a pub a busy and successful venue that we love to visit. Is it the brand of drinks they have on offer? Is it because they are cheaper than the competition? Maybe it is their location on the bustling high street? Very rarely is any of that true. More importantly, a consistent venue leads to one of the most satisfying things you can achieve in a business. It is one thing you can never buy and is certainly difficult to earn. Loyalty. And with all the challenges that we face in the coming years, loyalty to a venue will be one of the most critical lifelines that a pub can have.
With pubs adjusting their venues to handle all the current challenges we face, everyone loses out if consistency starts to be lacking. It may seem more important than ever to squeeze out savings where possible, maybe by getting cheaper products in. Or where businesses try to do as many things as possible to attract new customers. However, if that means sacrificing a consistent experience to a new patron as they walk through your front door, it is time to refocus and regroup before going any further. We are losing enough pubs as it is, so let’s make sure none of our favourites becomes one of them.