Iain Jackson, who heads up Marston’s c350-strong Destination division spoke to MCA about the growth of the group’s Firebrand and Accent divisions and the scope he sees for further expansion. He also discussed how he has restructured his teams into smaller units that can react more swiftly to changing consumer trends, and the creation of a dedicated openings team, to follow sites through from acquisition to the handover to ops teams.

Iain Jackson describes Marston’s as a “humble” company but over a day in trade with MCA he explains that this certainly does not denote any lack of ambition or courage.

The operations director for Marston’s Destination arm illustrates his point with the 104-bedroom lodge which sits beside its recently-opened Spring River pub in Ebbsfleet, Kent.

He says: “It’s our biggest lodge and was a huge investment in the future of Ebbsfeet. That is a result of years of work on behalf of the acquisitions team who could see the massive amount of development going on in the area, and the senior team being quick to capitalise on that.

“We have learnt a lot about accommodation but we’re not a hotel operator and we don’t want to be. Here (at the Spring River, Ebbsfleet), I was very keen that we didn’t have two teams – one for the ledge and one for the pub. The pub sits at the centre of it all.”

Destination takes in a number of different formats, including Two for One, Grill & Pizza, Milestone Rotisserie and Milestone Carvery, as well as the newest entrant – the now 27-strong Generous George.

At Spring River, Jackson explains how the company has evolved the carvery format, with the emphasis on marketing the experience rather than the price. The bar has also become a far more important part of the whole package with spirit sales driving the growth. Across Destination, spirits are seeing a 50% sales lift – 60% of which is premium gin. In Carvery alone gin has seen 70% growth.

This gentle evolution of the offer is evident across the variety of formats within the Destination division. Jackson continually emphasises the need to be connected to how customer needs are changing week by week.

He uses the terms ‘pub’ and ‘restaurant’ interchangeably, stressing that in each venue Marston’s is seeking to cater for a variety of different rhythms.

“Customers are coming out for an experience and that comes in many forms. Where they want a restaurant feel we can provide them for them while behaving like a pub for other customers when they need it.”

As well as premiumisation in drinks, the group is seeing national demand for healthier eating and vegetarian/vegan food. While vegan food is currently only about 1% of total food Jackson says this is rapidly growing, and the group is looking at introducing vegan menus. He stresses that while the company is keen to engage with millennials it remains conscious that it does not want to alienate its core demographic of 35-65.

He says: “Whereas trends used to take several years to fully embed themselves into the mainstream, that is now happening in a matter of months. The key consumer trend around the country at the moment is choice.”

To keep aligned with how and where this choice is being demanded, Jackson has restructured his staff into smaller teams. The units bring together operations, food and marketing teams working together, with the aim of responding to local sentiment.

The teams are set the basic boundaries of return on investment and consistency and tasked to fulfil customer choices on five key consumer trends – Experience; Premiumisation; Provenance and Convenience.

This work has all gone into shaping the Firebrand and Accent formats. The former is based on the twin pillars of premiumisation and community and currently sits at around 40 pubs, with a further ten or so in the pipeline. Accent, which is a “premium mass-market” format is currently across ten pubs and Jackson says that ultimately he sees the scope for around 50. Both formats go across multiple brands with the core aim of encouraging a rise in spend per head through driving service standards.

Marston’s has also created a new openings team in Destination. The group follows through the entire process – acquiring the land, overseeing the build and then handing over to the ops team. The first site that the new openings team has followed through from the ground up is the Mallard in Scunthorpe, which will open in July.

The next stage of innovation, says Jackson, lies in technology – backed up by its now its now £8m-a-year-turnover in-house Telecoms business. The group constantly evaluates the prospects in delivery and take-out, with a new EPOS coming in that will facilitate online ordering.

But, despite all of these plans, Jackson remains grounded and very Marston’s-like when he concludes: “Our pubs meet and often exceed our customers expectations by getting the basics right and providing experiences that deliver them reasons to come back.”