Does the pub industry have a vision for future success?

By Rob Willock

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags High street 21st century Tim martin

Willock: "The pub sector needs a vision for the future"
Willock: "The pub sector needs a vision for the future"
Two retail veterans issued separate but similar challenges to the pub sector at our recent Pub Retail Summit, writes Rob Willock.

Two retail veterans issued separate but similar challenges to the pub sector at our recent Pub Retail Summit.

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin was in great form, explaining how — through the years — he had spotted various opportunities and threats in the market, including real ale, all-day food and coffee, and taken advantage of them.

He recalled walking around central London, having been to one of his pubs at 3pm, which was empty, and passing a Starbucks, which was full. “It wasn’t Steve Jobs-type insight to see that we had to close the gap with the coffee shops,” Martin said.

On the smoking ban — for which his company campaigned — Martin remarked:  “We could see the way the wind was blowing. We started to get writs from pregnant women who didn’t want to work in smoking pubs but knew we had to employ them. You don’t have to be a genius to work out where that was going to end.”

And on tax campaigning, Martin said he could not understand why more pubcos were not signing up to fight the inequity of VAT between pubs and supermarkets. “It takes a special talent to see so many pubs close and blame changing economic trends, the weather, nicer homes etc,” he added.


Wondering aloud why gaps and mistakes still exist in the pub market, he concluded that some pubco bosses suffer from delusion and denial; they are out of touch; they are naturally reluctant to take difficult decisions; and they probably don’t even like pubs.

Say it like you see it, Tim!

With conference delegates still reeling from that broadside, up stepped former Iceland chief executive, now high-street consultant, Bill Grimsey, who made them question their worldview even more critically.

He told the assembled pub industry leaders that if they didn’t have a 20-year business plan centred on the impact of technology, their businesses would go the same way as HMV (ie: down and out).

He said that, among all the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s high streets, one thing is for sure — that their future does not lie in retail, but in delivering an experience.

That should play right into the hands of pubs, whose business model is not directly threatened by e-commerce. But it won’t, unless the pub industry’s leaders are preparing for that high-tech landscape.


“The high street is dead as we know it,” said Grimsey. “You can’t bring it back, so you have to look forward to tomorrow’s consumer, tomorrow’s communities, and ensure you are fit for purpose for the 21st century. Make that mental move.”

Tim Martin noted that hardly any of the pubcos that existed 20 years ago are still in business — and Bill Grimsey said the current crop won’t exist in another 20 unless they work out a vision of success for the future.

So that’s precisely what we will be exploring at our next conference, Future Pub​ — on 3 March at the May Fair Hotel in London. Who has a 20-year vision they’d like to share?

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