Monday, 12 March 2012

Pete Robinson unleashed

Pete Robinson, whom many of you will know from his articles in The Publican, reflects on the demise of that publication and the pub industry generally. His account of five year's of denial and self-delusion over the smoking ban will not surprise anyone outside of the Westminster bubble, but it cannot be said often enough.

Towards the end of 2007 the industry was clearly in deep trouble. The 'New Breed' of non-smoking drinker had failed to materialise and the long exodus of the pub trade's life blood, its rank-and-file customers, was already underway. Pub insolvencies were already up 600%, a number that would TREBLE in the following year to EIGHTEEN TIMES former rates, while those prized industry shares were nosediving into the cellar.

Yet at the time you'd never have guessed any of this by reading The Publican. The main consensus was how smoothly and successfully the ban had been implemented. Every 'industry ‘spokesman’ and his dog queued up to insist their business had been totally unaffected by the ban and each was reported in equal, laborious measure.

I'm sure the smart pubs and wine bars were doing okay around the Publican's plush offices on London's trendy South Bank, and perhaps still are. However this only served to insulate the editorial staff from the grim reality sweeping across the rest of the country everywhere north of Watford.

In one 2007 Publican article I remember a smoking-ban 'official' assuring worried publicans that "it normally takes around 3 months for lost trade to return".

Eh? WTF? I was staggered such a fatuous comment went unchallenged. This eejit had no right nor evidence to make such an unsubstantiated statement yet it was reported as if it were gospel.

By 2008 the post-ban carnage could no longer be ignored. But as the rapidly plummeting trade stats settled into a terminal spiral of descent the Publican's editorial opinion switched to naively blaming 'bad' pubs which had been unable to evolve.

'Embrace' the smoking ban we were told. Just do food and everything will be okay. Up your game, open a library/post office/cinema in your pub. Set aside a lunchtime for expectant mothers or an evening for transvestite grandads.

Just offer 'excellence' then watch the customers come running.

How do you 'evolve' to a 33% to 80% drop in takings? Even if it were possible for the country to sustain 40-odd-thousand foodie pub-restaurants, for many it was madness to invest a fortune in pricey catering equipment when local competitors were offering £2.99 two-for-one deals.

In truth the customers we've lost don't want excellence. Most pubgoers couldn't give a toss about fine dining, health emporiums, creches, drop-in centres or gymnasiums. They simply want to be treated like adults. They want their old pubs back, warts an' all.

During the summer of 2008 the recession kicked off as the 'credit crunch' and that was that. At last everyone had something to blame it all on despite pubs trading well throughout all previous recessions.

And that's pretty much the story up to today. The pub game is still up shit creek and if they had a paddle they'd be rowing even deeper into the murky waters of complete denial.

In 2010 The Publican's own survey showed 78% of licensees, many of them desperate to save their ailing businesses, were demanding the smoking ban be amended to allow separate indoor smoking rooms. This was backed by an F2C survey published in the Morning Advertiser which found the figure virtually identical at 79%.

So why wasn't more made of this? God only knows.

Instead the Publican threw its weight behind three campaigns - to fight the proposed mandatory code of practice, 'axe the tax' (duty and VAT cuts on pub drinks) and hike up supermarket prices, none of which stood a cat in hell's chance of success.

Even if they'd all been won it would still make no difference to today's unpopularity if every pub sold beer at one quid-a-pint. Customers are still abandoning the pub and we've been unable to stem the flow. We never will until the industry admits to the problem that dare not speak its name, that huge grinning elephant sitting in the room.

Read the rest here.

1 comment:

dearieme said...

I note that another wave of The Terror Against Red Meat has just been released.