Inside Track by Peter Martin
Last week we saw masterful TV and radio performances from Greene King boss Rooney Anand, being confident, positive and progressive about the future for not just his company but for the pub market as a whole. But the industry is still walking a PR tightrope – and one that the restaurant market has already wobbled on. Remember tipping and all the fuss over whether certain restaurant chains were passing all customer gratuities onto their staff or using some to top up the minimum wage? It didn’t make great headlines for the companies involved or the market as a whole. Whether anyone actually thought twice about applying for a job or leaving a tip next time round is not researched, but it can’t have helped. And so to the smouldering embers of the smoking debate. It would have been surprising if the anniversary of the smoking ban in England hadn’t been marked in some way by the pub industry, but a survey that showed that almost three-quarters of pub landlords still wanted to reverse the ban was not perhaps the positive, progressive image that sector leaders might have hoped for. While at a corporate level, operators have moved on, grassroots licences patently haven’t. For an internal market audience, this finding is valuable evidence. A lot of pubs are still hurting, or at least are still in transition, not yet attracting new customers to make up for a drop-off in their cigarette-puffing regulars. But the item made it to BBC News: “Pubs 'want to overturn' smoke ban” was the BBC website headline. What is the public to make of it? The ban on smoking may actually go down as one of this Labour government’s most popular pieces of legislation. The vast majority of the public back it, most pub-goers welcome it too and the health dividends are already being felt with as many as 400,000 people kicking the habit in the last year. And then we have pub landlords apparently living up to their old grumpy and reactionary stereotype. Well, that’s how many will see it. Pubs have a tough enough time as it is. This is hardly the image of an enlightened business wanting to open its doors to a wider market. The fact that another widely-publicised survey showed that 40% of pub goers are smokers, compared to around 22% of the population as a whole, simply demonstrates that pubs still have a way to go in being attractive to a representative cross-section of the community. It’s a tricky business getting the right message to the right people in the right way. The industry image needs carefully looking after, especially in current times. What the public might think should always be front of mind. So let’s have more of the likes of Rooney Anand. Peter Martin is co-founder of M&C Report and founder of Peach Factory