America is vast - it's bold and brash, loud and cheerful, wild and wacky but bigger and better? Lorna Harrison gives a personal view on how trade differs across the Atlantic.
It's certainly been responsible for some successful brands which have become everyday names in Britain - McDonald's, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday's to name a few. It's also had a big influence on the way we treat customers from its "have a nice day" attitude to store cards and reward schemes. It's fair to say that many customer care and loyalty schemes now commonplace on our high streets and in our pubs originated from an American concept.
There is a great perception that the USA initiates retailing ideas which are adapted to suit the British market. But is this really the case and are American bars winning the battle for the leisure dollar? From the evidence relayed at the annual Nightclub and Bar convention and trade show in Las Vegas, the answer is a straightforward no.
We have a lot to thank the guys across the Atlantic for and it's true to say their levels of customer service have helped whip our own industry into shape. We have learned a lot about good practice, training and customer care from America but thankfully we have learned to adapt and better the offering to the British way of life. An initial spate of Americanisms when the likes of McDonald's opened here in the late '80s were thankfully short-lived as British consumers objected to the dreary, bored monotones of "enjoy your meal and have a nice day".
My aim of visiting the Las Vegas convention was to establish what new, innovative ideas were currently being adopted over there and how feasible they would be to duplicate on our own little island.
However, having sat in half a dozen seminars, I left with a feeling of "tell me something I don't already know". Each state adopts different laws but generally the views on licensing problems, smoking issues, competition for trade and customer demands are pretty much the same as Britain. You will find, however, that the legal drinking age in one state may be 18 compared to a neighbouring state where it's 21. Again, smoking is not a problem in Nevada but in neighbouring California it's a totally different ball game. To use the words of the airline stewardess as we landed at Los Angeles airport: "A reminder to all our smokers, this is California - so good luck!"
However, statistics on current trends, marketing, loyalty, customer service and training are very similar to what we are experiencing here. The rise in home entertainment, satellite and cable television and other leisure pursuits is driving more people out of bars and restaurants and the emphasis throughout the seminars was "how do we get these customers back".
I am disappointed to say, there were no simple solutions put forward. What I did learn, however, was that no matter what state the bar owners originated from and no matter what variations of the laws they had to put up with, they all want to run decent, successful businesses without the burdens of red tape and bureaucracy - sound familiar?
Employment law seemed to cause more problems than anything else. Say "boo" to a member of staff and you're likely to be sued. The Americans are extremely litigious and an employer doesn't even need to personally step out of line before he's landed with a writ.
At one seminar, Paul Sorrentio a trial lawyer based in San Diego, spoke to a room of bar owners from across the States including Michigan, California and Texas all of whom had various employment difficulties ranging from whether dating was allowed between staff to whether sacking someone for being persistently late was acceptable. The analysis made shocking hearing.
"We live in a country where everyone wants to sue," he said. "Five to 10 years ago suing over employment law was minimal but over the last three years it has got much worse. Being a bar owner is an unpredictable and risky business." Sorrentio cited several cases where bar owners had faced a court over minor matters, on many times outside their own personal control. Cases included:
- A couple who had been working and dating together split up. One partner claimed sexual harassment because the other partner had persistently tried to get back together. The bar owner was found guilty because he had failed to separate the couple's working duties.
- A woman who had been employed for three months was late for work 23 times and was given a written warning. She counter-claimed that she had been sexually harassed by a colleague who persistently asked her out for dinner. She won.
It can only happen in the States? Well don't you believe it. We've already seen consumer power hit Britain with the likes of BBC's Watchdog forcing people to complain on the most trivial of matters. And in our own industry employment law is already becoming much tougher with the minimum wage, working time directive, maternity and paternity laws and part-time workers regulations.
We have, indeed, learned a lot from the USA over the years but we have set our own benchmarks in Britain and are building on a first-class industry. It appears there is nothing amazing taking place in American bars at the moment and their problems are shared by our own publicans, especially when it comes to red tape. This all brings me back to a point I regularly raise - we have an exciting and unique industry in Britain and should be extremely proud of what we can offer and, from what I saw of several American bars, we have nothing to be jealous of.
- Highlights from the Las Vegas convention are being shown exclusively on Sky's Pub Channel. Half-hour specials will be broadcast at 4pm on April 3, 5, 10 and 12.