Regents Inns forges ahead with Walkabout

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Regent Inns is pushing its Australasian bars when other companies are holding back.Another crocodile stares down from above the bar as Regent Inns...

Regent Inns is pushing its Australasian bars when other companies are holding back.

Another crocodile stares down from above the bar as Regent Inns opens the latest outlets in its chain of Walkabout Inns this month.

Cardiff and Wolverhampton are the new locations for the Australasian theme bar that has won accolades and healthy returns in towns and cities across England.

Until June this year, the roll-out had been slow. The first opened in a 2,000 sqft unit in Covent Garden in London's West End four years ago and by the end of last year there were still only five of them.

Regent is now powering ahead, spending £20m to bring the size of the brand's portfolio up to 22 by the beginning of next year, opening some of its biggest-ever sites.

Regent's operations director Peter Mackie said: "It was created at a time when people weren't talking in terms of brands but we thought that it had legs.

"There's huge investment behind it now and the returns are very good for Regent Inns. The reason we held back on rolling out was that we wanted to be very selective in where we put them and didn't want to dilute the brand."

The concept has now been extended, with hostel accommodation and nightclubs known as Surfer's Paradise added to some sites. By the time the Manchester outlet opens in November, up to £3m will have been spent on it.

However, it's a different story at Regent's closest rival in the sector. Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) Retail has abandoned plans to double the size of the estate of its Australian themed Bar Oz.

Since the first opened in Newcastle three years ago, the number of Bar Oz outlets quickly increased to 11. But there have been no new openings since Reading, Berkshire, in February 1998.

A year ago S&N Retail said it planned to boost the portfolio to 20 in time for the start of the Olympics in Sydney next year. However, it has now shifted investment into other brands, such as community pubs.

Retail strategy director Jeremy Blood said: "We are very happy with the performance of our existing Bar Oz sites, with many regulars enjoying their relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

"While we have no plans to change any of these existing bars, we do not anticipate there will be any more Bar Oz bars as we will be concentrating our efforts on other brands."

Bass Leisure Retail withdrew its toe from the Australasian waters last year when it closed its landmark New Zealand theme bar, the Polar Bear, in London's West End.

Australasian bars were once thought to be the next big theme after the plethora of Irish pubs, but few operators entered the market. Even Walkabout Inns has been a success because of the quality of its service, music, staff and general atmosphere rather than for hanging fake crocodiles, boomerangs or stuffed kangaroos from the ceiling.

Charles Tolley, associate director of interior design supplier Andy Thornton, admitted that the industry hadn't seen the surge in Antipodean theming that had been expected.

His company continues to stock bric-a-brac from Australia and New Zealand but it now accounts for only a small part of the business.

"There's always going to be a niche for Australasian bars but they tend to be more subtle with their theming and use only a few special interior pieces," Tolley said.

One of Regent's assets is Michael Thiele, a New Zealander who was involved in the first Walkabout and is now director for the chain. He is assisted by general managers Tony Jackson and Murray Rea, both from New Zealand, and Michael Bodor, an Australian.

"We didn't want to insult people's intelligence, which is what happened with Irish bars," Thiele explained.

The bars are decorated in warm colours and feature TV sports, live music and DJs, adapting to younger crowds as the evening develops.

The concept extends to the food offering, which has big portions and chunky steaks. At the London sites in Covent Garden, Shepherd's Bush and Islington, food accounts for about two per cent of turnover but outside of London it is already over 10 per cent.

Along with the usual choice of beers, Antipodean brands are available, such as Steinlager from New Zealand and VB from Australia.

This year it was a finalist in the pub retail brand category in The Publican Awards.

"People in Britain identify with Australasia," Thiele said. "It's a country where they have relatives and where increasing numbers of Britons want to visit.

"People aspire to the lifestyle of sun, sea and surf. We deliver that in a relaxed atmosphere."

The concept has evolved since it first appeared, with sites now as big as 10,000 sqft. An increasing proportion of the development cost is spent on sound systems — about £200,000 was invested in audiovisual equipment at the Nottingham outlet which opened in June.

As well as Nottingham, new Walkabouts have opened this year in Southampton in Hampshire, Brighton in East Sussex, Wigan in Lancashire, Leicester and Lancaster.

The expansion continues in Reading and Swansea in South Wales in October, Leeds and Manchester in November and Newquay in Cornwall in December. By next January the brand should have reached Bristol, Sheffield in South Yorkshire and Oldham in Lancashire.

Regent is currently looking for sites on circuits in other towns and cities, such as Newcastle and Bournemouth in Dorset. It also wants to move into Scotland, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and across the Irish Sea to Dublin.

"We see no reason why the expansion won't continue at this rate," Mackie said.

"We're moving Walkabout Inns forward all the time but the basic feel hasn't greatly changed — a relaxed place for drinking, live music and watching sport.

"We have set ourselves some very high targets but we are exceeding them."

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