It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The first Publican Awards were staged at a pivotal moment in the industry’s history: 1992 was, declared one headline, “The year of the independent pub chain”, and, by the end of it, “the worst year in the history of the licensed trade”.
So for The Publican newspaper to launch its “pioneering concept”, an awards specifically for the pub industry, was a risk. But it was also a move calculated to deliver the kind of recognition and standards-setting required by a new wave of innovative businesses.
The Publican Industry Awards, as they were known, were announced at the end of 1991 as the deadline was reached for the ‘big six’ brewers to dispose of a total of 11,000 pubs to reduce their number below the threshold imposed by the 1989 Beer Orders.
The great sell-off changed the pub landscape and spawned a new kind of pub operator. By 1993, The Publican’s annual Market Report counted 175 independent pub chains. Significantly, the organisation formed to represent them, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), also launched in 1992.
Amid the turmoil of a forced restructure, a continuing recession saw desperate licensees burning down their own pubs to claim the insurance money, trepidation over “cunning” new long-lease deals and the challenge of responding to changing consumer lifestyles.
In 1991, the Brewers Society, as the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) was then called, launched a campaign for licensing reform that called for longer opening hours till midnight Fridays and Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons, a split between personal and premises licences plus children’s certificates to pull families into pubs.
The Tory government had promised a review of the legislation but changed its mind. And while some reforms were made in the 1990s, the industry had to wait till 2005 and a Labour administration for the full radical changes it needed.
Nevertheless, The Publican’s first Market Report, in 1992, recorded that “the pub of the 1990s is in the early stages of becoming more of a leisure outlet with an increased range of services, than an old-style boozer”.
“Publicans have got to be aware of the trends towards home consumption and a healthier/teetotal lifestyle,” said Phil Dixon, then secretary of the Midlands Licensed Victuallers Trade Association, as now familiar worries grew that falling prices in the off-trade were luring people away from pubs.
That was the context for the first Publican Awards, announced at a glittering awards ceremony at the Park Lane Hilton in the May of 1992.
Comic and game show host Bob Monkhouse, not for the last time, was named as compere and, on their way to Barcelona, stars from the Great Britain Olympics team led by Tessa Sanderson – and sponsored by Carlsberg — were invited as special guests.
About 700 people attended and applauded a dozen awards categories that gave individual and corporate operators alike a chance to win.
Ironically, it was Chris Hutt who, 20 years earlier, had written a book called The Death of the English Pub, who picked up the title of Best Multiple Pub Operator for his high street chain Unicorn Inns.
Joshua Tetley and Vaux Inns, no longer with us, were named Best National Brewery Chain and Best Regional Brewery Chain respectively, while JD Wetherspoon, very much alive today, took the title of Best Entrepreneur.
Best Small Business went to the Green Dragon in Braintree, Essex, which is still, amazingly, run by Bob and Mandy Greybrook who are celebrating 30 years at the pub. Best Freehouse the Admiral Lord Rodney in Coventry, however, is now an LGBT venue called Rainbows.
Best Catering Pub, the Wykeham Arms in Winchester, Hampshire, has since been taken over by Fuller’s, the Pheasant Inn in the Peckforton Hills, Cheshire, awarded Best Design, is still going strong as part of the Nelson Hotels Group, while the Bridge Inn at Ratho, Midlothian, which won Best Promotion, continues to collect awards to this day.
Lesley and Douglas Mirch of the Unicorn Inn in Kincardine-on-Forth, Fyfe, named Best Newcomers, seem to have gone off the radar, and Keith Hudson, director of the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), who won the award for Outstanding Service to the Industry, retired in 2006.
Meanwhile, his fellow nominees, Ted Tuppen and Alistair Arkley, went on to make their mark during the following quarter of a century.
Finally, Best Trade Press Campaign went to Heineken for its ad ‘Behind Bars Longer than the Krays’.
The following year, the awards switched to March, where they would stay, and the categories were expanded to 16 to include the BII’s prestigious Innkeeper of the Year title — a sure indication that the event had the backing of the trade. That title went to Ronnie Rusack, owner of the Bridge Inn at Ratho, now an MBE and chairman of Seagull Trust Cruises.
Also new was Businesswoman of the Year, collected by Joyce Jones and Roisin Margey of pub management firm StandInn Services; Best Bar Person, Sylvia Smith of Ye Olde Cherry Tree in Southgate, North London; and the Publican Readers’ Award, which went to Adnams.
The main corporate awards all went to names that no longer exist: Bass Taverns, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, Greenalls and Richardsons Inns.
Within a few years, the event established itself as one the big dates in the industry calendar. The networking opportunities alone meant it was the one big night out that the luminaries of the pub trade, whether or not they were finalists, just could not miss.
By 1997, numbers attending had soared to 1,500, and the dinner was a regular booking at the Grosvenor House Hotel, the only venue in London big enough to cater for it. In 2000, the awards were broadcast live on Sky Business, enabling thousands more in pubs up and down the country to cheer on their local.
The following year it got even bigger as the company awards were split to make sure smaller tenanted and managed groups had as good a chance to win as the industry giants, and, in 2003, attendance peaked at an astonishing 1,970.
Organisers understood, though, that the success of the Publican Awards was as much about quality as quantity. Behind the scenes, the judging process was continually refined and developed to ensure the results were credible and winners could confidently call themselves ‘the best’.
Journalists visit and interview every independent pub finalist and spend hours with every company finalist, touring estates and getting under the skin of the operation.
There are mystery visits, too, a job that in recent years has been taken on by professional agencies. Pub tenant surveys have also been added to the mass of evidence considered by panels drawn from business leaders and industry analysts, which grill pubco bosses on a final, feared, day of judgment.
By the end of it, every finalist knows they’ve been thoroughly tested.
The biggest change to the event, however, came in 2012 following the merger of The Publican with the Morning Advertiser (MA). Individual pub categories joined those in the MA’s Great British Pub Awards (GBPA) while The Publican Awards focused on multiple operators.
That allowed excellence to be recognised in new categories such as Best Accommodation Operator, Best Food Offer, Best Community Pub Operator, Best New Site and Best Employer, as well as introducing an award for pub estates run by the burgeoning microbrewery sector.
Outstanding Industry Contribution returned to the regular line-up and, in 2013, awards for Best Drinks Offer and Best Business and Industry Initiative were added.
Born in an age of change and uncertainty, The Publican Awards continue to play their part at the centre of a challenging industry, adapting to new demands and raising the bar to set the standards that we all need to help the British pub thrive into the future.