A group of business leaders in the pub sector got together for a round table discussion at MCA’s Pub Conference on 6 July to discuss industry-wide headwinds. They shared the impact of economic uncertainty, labour shortages, inflation, and falling consumer confidence on their businesses, as well as the ways in which they are navigating these issues.

During the conversation, the shift towards delivery and digital marketing, and improving the employee proposition, were among the key themes discussed.


Mark Derry, executive chairman, Brasserie Bar Co

Derry argued that smaller community pubs are better placed to navigate current headwinds as they have a lower demand for labour, as well as lower utility bills and food costs. “The community pub sector is thriving in my view,” he said.

Due to recruitment struggles, he also called for government support in terms of relaxing visa restrictions for immigrants from Commonwealth countries. Brasserie Bar Co has no vacancies for general managers or head chefs, but there is “an issue at the lower end of the skill set,” he reported.

The business is focusing on retention to ease recruitment issues.


Chris Jowsey, CEO, Admiral Taverns

Jowsey reported licensees were expressing increased reluctance to take on longer-term agreements. While “the pipeline of people coming through and looking to take on a pub has not slowed down,” the uncertainty of the trading landscape has meant a shift away from long-term agreements, he said.

Admiral Taverns is less impacted by staffing issues as much of its estate comprises of smaller community pubs operated by people living above the pub, he revealed. He agreed with Derry in that “community-focused smaller pubs are actually a good place to be in right now.”

In his view, tackling labour shortages effectively requires a long-term investment in making hospitality a more attractive sector to work in.


Henry Fairbanks, CEO, Chestnut Group

Fairbanks said that “weekend millionaires” are a key focus as “people still want that treat and want to go away for a weekend”. He also mentioned that Chestnut Group expects the staycation trend to stick for the next year or two, as consumers cut down on international travel both due to the rising cost of living and due to travel certainty.

The Chestnut Group will invest heavily in its accommodation business as a result and leverage its portfolio, which is focused on “destination” spots, he said.


Jonathan Lawson, CEO, Liberation Group

Lawson commented on research published earlier this month by the Altus Group, which reported pub numbers have dropped by 7,000 in the past decade and by 200 in the first half of this year. He said “the pace of decline has slowed down if fewer pubs are closing this year than in previous years”.

He also emphasised that many pubs are being refurbished, adding that spend, footfall, and square footage are better metrics to gauge the pub sector’s success.

Driving customer satisfaction will be the key focus for the Liberation Group. As Lawson said, “value for money is satisfaction minus price and how you drive that satisfaction is key to whether the customer believes they have that value”.


Jonathan Neame, CEO, Shepherd Neame

Neame provided an insight into trade during the Jubilee period, reporting strong sales on bank holiday weekdays but weaker sales over the weekend. He said there was a “dichotomy between busy pubs and quiet pubs,” with those that planned for the period in advance performing better.


Peter Borg-Neal, executive chairman, Oakman Group

Borg-Neal also weighed in on research by the Altus Group, saying that “people get obsessed by the absolute number” and adding that other metrics are more important while measuring the health of the pub sector.

He called for government intervention to help the sector tackle staff shortages, arguing that the number of jobseekers in the country fails to match the number of vacancies. Jobseekers from countries with “high levels of unemployment and a desire to live somewhere else”, such as South Africa, are markets to tap into since promises of increased immigration from places like Australia and New Zealand have not materialised, he said.

Borg-Neal also added that trading over the Jubilee period in June was underwhelming for Oakman Inns, with strong sales over the Thursday and Friday bank holidays but weaker trading during the weekend.


Clive Chesser, CEO, Punch Pubs & Co

Chesser expressed concern over recent research from Lumina Intelligence that indicates younger people are moving away from the pub sector. He said operators will “learn from the choices [younger customers] are making” and look more closely at the reasons behind the shift to QSR and other channels, and the attractiveness of those channels compared to the pub sector.


Richard Whitehouse, director of digital product and transformation, Mitchells & Butlers

Whitehouse revealed that Mitchells & Butlers has increasingly focused on delivery, with some sites working with three operators (Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Just Eat). Mitchells & Butlers now has “more delivery offers than physical offers”, he said.

Delivery can also be a way to attract and retain younger customers that “value convenience, specifically Gen Z”, according to Whitehouse.


Russell Danks, marketing and strategy director, Punch Pubs & Co

Danks proposed the sector should expect a few shifts in consumer behaviour as a result of the cost of living crisis, with the first being “frequency droppers”, or people that go out less frequently, particularly on weekdays. With “mid-week activity already hard to come by”, he said there will be a rise in the number of “weekend millionaires”, or customers that spend more during weekends at the expense of mid-week activity.

He also emphasised “experience seekers”, saying that people will be more likely to look up venues on digital media as they become more careful about spending decisions.


Charlotte Vincent, head chef, Brickmakers Arms, Windlesham

Vincent spoke about her experience at the Five Bells Inn, where she worked for five years prior to moving to the Brickmakers Arms. Supply chain pressured led to an increase in prices and a reduction in menu size, she reported.

She also weighed in on current trends surrounding healthy eating, saying she has adapted to cooking more vegan food and healthier options.


Shirley Couchman, CEO, Wells & Co

Couchman spoke about the increased emphasis that Wells & Co places on mid-week offers to incentivise trade on weekdays. The business is focusing on both segments – its community estate, which is more value-led, as well as its premium estate as “people are still willing to spend”, she said.


Gabriella Overeem, head of account management and enterprise sales, Uber Eats

Overeem reported that Uber Eats sees significant demand for pub food, evidencing delivery as an important incremental revenue opportunity for the pub sector. She also spoke about the post-pandemic shift “towards delivery for pubs as consumer behaviour shifts that way”, highlighting the significance of delivery in supplementing weekend trade and easing concerns around weekday spend.

While Uber Eats still sees most of its trade taking place over weekends, the pandemic has led to an increasing number of delivery occasions on weekdays, with trade “evening out compared to pre-2020”, she said.

Overeem also spoke about using virtual concepts as an opportunity and the importance of putting resources and marketing behind them to ensure their success.


Max Turner, business development director, Attensi

Turner emphasised that while the size of the workforce is smaller than it was, the experience level and skill set of jobseekers has also declined. Rather than recruitment, the focus should be on retention and “upskilling people you already have and making sure they’re the ones adding value so people keep coming back”, he argued.

As customers becoming more expectant and demand better speed and quality of service, improving retention is the key to moving forward, he said.