Inside Track by Peter Martin
Well done to the British Beer and Pub Association for winning some much-needed positive publicity for the pub and bar market. Its announcement last Monday of the launch of its code of conduct that will see a limit on ‘happy hours’ and other promotions in its members’ pubs hit all the broadcast media, even with the BBC on strike. Spokesman Mark Hastings was up early studio hopping to get over the point that pub operators were responsible people, did take anti-social drinking seriously and were prepared to do something about it. The reaction was generally good and the BBPA can claim a PR success. The trouble is that positive news about pubs like this is still sadly a rarity. At the weekend, BBC News ran with the story that hundreds of pubs may be forced to close because they could miss the deadline for applying for licences under the new licensing regime. This is another good cause for the pub industry to fight, but the reason the item made the headlines appeared to be down to the Conservative Party adopting it. Shadow minister Teresa May was out quoting from what she claimed was Tory research that showed only 3% of applications expected by local authorities had materialised. The figures seemed strangely similar to those produced by the Local Government Association a fortnight earlier and which John McNamara, chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping, commented on at his organisation’s annual lunch in warning of the impending catastrophe for the trade. But, good for the Tories. At least they saw the potential for creating political capital out of the problem. Why weren’t the pub trade’s own organisations making more noise about it? Effective PR can be costly both in terms of time and money, but there seems a reticence to make that commitment. And it’s no good just leaving it to the trade bodies, there’s a strong argument for individual companies and their leaders to take the initiative too. It could be argued that their leadership of the business brings with it the responsibility to promote the interests of the sector as a whole. Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin has gained airtime to put his case on various issues and more recently Yates’ chief executive Mark Jones has turned in polished performances on Radio Four, betraying his background as a former parliamentary candidate. But they are two of the few, and Jones is now, temporarily at least, out of the market. It is not just pubs that suffer from poor media coverage. Casual dining, the popular end of the restaurant market, has a similar low profile. Amid all the recent doom and gloom about falling consumer confidence in high street retailing came a whole crop of upbeat results from the popular dining world. Mitchells & Butlers, arguably the UK’s leading pub and restaurant operator, revealed group like-for-like sales up 4.8%, restaurant division like-for-likes up 7.4% and food volumes across the business up 9%. The Restaurant Group followed up with a trading update showing like-for-likes ahead 3%. Then Caffe Nero reported that it would "materially outperform market expectations in terms of profit" with high single-digit like for like growth. If all that doesn’t make a story that eating-out is alive and thriving in Britain and bucking any consumer downturn, I don’t know what does? Apart from the financial pages, those stories missed the news pages and the broadcast media. For M&B, in particular, that should to be frustrating. OK, it was competing for space and airtime with poor results from Boots and Sainsbury’s, but more should be expected, surely, from the country’s top pub player? The fact that M&B is now selling almost as much food as beer, 30% of sales against 34%, is another angle to peddle the press. It’s the changing face of the pub that in these times of binge-drinking hysteria needs to be better explained. It does take hard work and at times ingenuity to get good press, but in these times of the New Puritanism in all strands of politics the need to keep polishing the industry’s image has never been greater.