Marston’s chief executive Ralph Findlay spoke to MCA on the back of yesterday’s full-year results announcement. He revealed more details on new formats Firebrand and Accent as well as plans to reinvigorate existing concepts. He also revealed that the group is designing hybrid pub/lodges and talked about shaping the community pub of the future.
Findlay said the group had benefitted from a well-invested estate and a strategy of generally opening sites away from casual dining hotspots.
He said: “There is obviously a lot of caution about but I think there is a danger of being over-cautious. People are still going out and leisure spend is still up, so the most important thing is to identify where that spend is going.
“We have benefited from a number of factors. We have continued to build new pubs – about 60% of our Destination estate has been built in the last ten years, which puts us in a really strong position. We have also been quick to identify trends that have been going on in the restaurant and casual dining sector and bringing them into a pub environment. So, over the past few years we have brought in smokehouse offers, pizza kitchens and may more – we have been ahead of the curve on that in terms of the pub sector. We’ve also put a lot of focus on an interesting and exciting range of drinks – whether that’s craft beers, spirits or non-alcoholic drinks.”
MCA revealed in August that Marston’s was trialling the Firebrand model, based around the twin pillars of premiumisation and community.
Findlay told MCA that the purpose of the format was to encourage a rise in spend per head through driving service standards.
He said: “It’s about raising the bar on customer service. A large part of the market is focussed on discounting and we are going the other way. We want to make a step change in customer service – not to raise prices but to increase spend per head and migrate away from the more value-led section of the market.”
The company is also looking to stretch its portfolio through a format known as Accent.
Findlay said: “It’s premium mass-market and suits pubs which have good demographics but not quite good enough to be in the Revere estate. The look and the offer is more independent and premium but is more centralised than Revere.
“We have been working on both of these formats for over a year and there is potential. They are weapons in the armoury – other things we are using to keep ahead of the game in what remains a very competitive market.”
Findlay said that while Marston’s continued to innovate it was also putting a lot of focus on ensuring traditional offers such as carveries were refreshed to ensure they remained relevant.
He said other ways of stretching the portfolio included exploiting accommodation options wherever possible.
The accommodation offer across the estate stood at c1,250 rooms at the end of the financial year with like-for-like sales up 4.5%, RevPar up 4.4% to £38 and occupancy up 0.8% to 74%. The group opened eight lodges in the year and plans to open a further five to 10 lodges per annum. These will be a combination of new-build sites and existing pub opportunities.
Findlay said the group was working on an integrated pub/lodge design, which would help to reduce construction costs.
He said lodges typically take two years to come fruition as opposed to the instant hit of pubs.
Marston’s plans to open three new sites under its Premium offer in 2018 – a Pitcher & Piano in Sheffield and sites in Bristol and Leeds.
The group will complete its EPOI rollout in 2018, which Findlay said would improve speed of service and use of customer data.
He said the investment in technology was aided by the fact the company has its own telecommunications business, which now services other pub companies.
Community pub of the future
Findlay said the group had continued to feed in suggestions from the Pub of the Future programme it carried out with younger drinkers in 2014. He said that in the Taverns business the group was focussed on creating the Community Pub of the Future, incorporating changes to the drinks category to ensure the pubs are attractive to the younger customers without alienating more traditional clientele.
He said: “What was reassuring about their (young people’s) vision of the pub of the future was that it wasn’t that far removed from what is here already. The first message from them was don’t break the pub.
“What the young people told us was that they wanted greater connectivity, in terms of access to WiFi. They didn’t want us to drown the pub in technology but they did want to be able to use their own technology in our pubs. They also wanted more customisation, so to be able to access the entertainment they wanted to see in the pub. In response we created personal hubs where you can download the entertainment that suits you, and customise your experience in the pub.
“They also wanted to see improvements in the speed of service and paying the bill and wanted pubs to be active on social media.”
Marston’s pioneered the introduction of franchise-style agreements in the pub sector and Findlay said the model had continued to evolve. The group is still considering the suitability of the model for the Destination estate but Findlay said there was still ample scope within the Taverns division.
He said: “The franchise model is really appropriate for the Taverns estate because the real attraction is for the licensee to truly engage with the community. That would make it most appropriate to the Taverns estate but that’s not to say it won’t work in Destination.”
The expected £6m synergies from the integration of the Charles Wells business will be felt over three years with c£2m in the last year, £3m in the current financial period and the final £1m in 2019.
Findlay said the group remained acquisitive for good deals in this segment and said the company would be interested in acquiring a craft brand, pointing to its success with Shipyard.