Inside Track by Peter Martin
It's what was expected, and ironically what many in the pub and restaurant industry ended up wishing for - a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places. After years of campaigning, particularly by the pub trade, against legislation, there was a strange sigh of relief across the sector as the free vote in the House of Commons backed a total ban, including clubs and non-food pubs. It was the least worst option, with only a few restaurateurs with plans for private cigar-clubs seemingly supporting an exemption for private members' clubs. So what next? The industry has just over a year to prepare itself for a smoke-free future, but no-one really knows for sure what that future will look like. There are those that still hope that the ban can be overturned. Alan Bowes, boss of London & Edinburgh, the pub and hotel group, is planning legal challenges to the legislation in Scotland and England. Trade organisation will also continue, quite rightly, to argue for a longer transition period. But the likelihood of either succeeding is remote. Then there are those that see a smoking ban as the death knell for the British pub, claiming thousands will close and those that remain will be unrecognisable. We've heard these doom and gloom predictions before, whether it was the threat of the brewery tie, the Beer Orders, licensing reform, drink-drive or the minimum wage. The pub has survived them all more or less intact. It is more resilient than some give it credit for, and it will survive the smoking ban - although that doesn't mean to say the institution won't have to adapt and evolve. It will. While the obvious first moves will be to look to ways to circumvent the ban, through building smoking terraces or other ingenious “outdoor” areas, the legislation should prompt both chains and individual publicans to take a long hard look at the “product” the pub provides the public. Why is the pub seemingly so reliant on smokers? If so many of them are dependent on a small and shrinking minority of the population, now less than 25%, perhaps they should think about why they aren't attracting more of the majority non-smokers? Julian Sargeson, chief executive of the Laurel Pub Co, made a good point recently. “Our challenge is attracting lapsed customers and anti-smokers who have maybe drifted into casual dining restaurants back into our cleaner and fresher bars,” he told a business magazine. Has anyone else noted that there may well be a correlation between the falling popularity of pubs and the growth of mid-market restaurant and coffee chains? Most in the industry, as well as the investment community, expect the pub, bar and nightclub market to take a sales and profits hit in the immediate aftermath of the ban. Interestingly, some pub groups are looking to soften the blow by investing more in the eating-out arena. But the optimists believe that pubs will recover over time, provided they use the opportunity to refocus their offering. There are still many imponderables. There are those that believe that the ban will encourage more people to give up cigarettes, even in the run up to next summer's prohibition, and that the problem may not be as dramatic as some predict. After all, even those remaining smokers are now used to no smoking at work, on buses, trains, planes and the cinema. Will pubs be any different? Are smokers really going to give up going to the pub and drinking with their non-smoking mates? This may be an over optimistic view through the smoky haze, but it is no good crying into your beer. The pub has survived other threats and has no option but to face this challenge. It should be a call to some innovative action.