Inside Track by Peter Martin
Even the legendary good cheer and bonhomie of the ALMR’s annual Christmas lunch last week failed to ease the sense of gloom hanging over most of the pub and bar industry. Talk at the pub trade’s big end-of-year celebration quickly turned to how bad the back end of 2007 had been and how awful 2008 looks like being. The smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze and the general fear of an economic downturn were all blamed for the trade’s parlous state. There was also a rumbling discontent that trade associations were not doing enough to stand up to the Government to fight some of these issues – particularly cheap alcohol in the off-trade. The pub market is collectively in need of a stiff drink. Optimism is in short supply this festive tide. One major operator did confess to expecting that Christmas trade would only be marginally down on last year, but that was as upbeat as it got. Part of the problem is a general lack of optimism in the country as a whole – and it starts at the top. Gordon Brown is no Tony Blair when it comes to looking on the bright side, and the nation is taking its lead from the man in Downing Street. It manifested itself in November, which was a calamity for the drinking and eating out sector when people appeared to stop going out. Northern Rock hit and the country started to fret about its money. The problem for the pub sector, and the restaurant market too, is that it is in the business of cheering up the nation – of showing it a good time. Pessimism is infectious and downcast leaders will do little for the morale of their staff or their customers. This is as trite as you can get, but as the saying goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough …….”. The economic and business environment in the UK will get harder and consumer confidence is likely to remain fragile. There will be casualties, but as one deal-maker said last week, that’s probably no bad thing. That should be a challenge to the rest to up their game. As one prominent operator admitted over a post ALMR-lunch pint: “The truth is we are just not good enough. We have to get better.” A shake-up is in prospect, but, just like the nation as a whole, the drinking-out market needs some leadership and optimism. So for a New Year’s resolution and to get you in the mood for 2008 look for Monty Python on your iPod and “always look on the bright side of life”. Merry Christmas.