Christmas 2016

Planning for a Festive Fillip: How operators can make the most of Christmas

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

planning for Christmas

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People on both sides of the bar may still be enjoying the late summer sun, but for those behind the jumps, Christmas is fast approaching and with it the need to get stuck in to the preparations. And, with competition for consumer spending at an all time high, publicans need to ensure they make the most of the festive opportunities. 

Be prepared

Gareth Leakey, group manager at the five-strong Distinct Group which boasts pubs including the Adam & Eve in Mill Hill, London, starts preparing straight after Christmas for the following year. He says: “We look at it operationally, do we need to do anything better? What was it like for the kitchen?”

It is also at this time that licensees should be thinking about what food and drink they will be serving during the Christmas period. And talking to suppliers early is crucial in ensuring the right products are ordered. “It is weird that in July and August you are estimating how much turkey you are going to use and how many crackers and coloured napkins you want,” Leakey says.

Fuller’s pub the Churchill Arms in London’s Kensington is famous for celebrating Christmas with a raft of trees and decorations adorning the outside of the venue. Long-serving licensee Gerry O’Brien says that getting the decorations up early is important to showcase Christmas to potential customers.

“We used to start decorating at the beginning of December but we do it on the last weekend of November now, as once December starts you want that first weekend for trading,” he advises.

The Parkers Arms festive interior_Facebook

Launch with a bang

Hosting a Christmas showcase event is a great way to get customers engaged, as well as prompting some bookings for Christmas parties and lunches.
“We always launch in September and I always have a Christmas Fayre at every pub,” Leakey says. “We put the Christmas trees out for three days and have samples of the menu and it really pulls the people in.”

He says he used to be accused of being “crazy” launching in late summer, but believes it is essential. “I’d say you have until the end of September to launch and that’s your lot,” he warns. “It’s so cut-throat for Christmas parties. If people aren’t in my venue they’re out having a Christmas party somewhere else.”

Enterprise Inns’ rural gastropub, the Parkers Arms, in the hamlet of Newton-in-Bowland, Lancashire, run by chef-patron Stosie Madi, starts taking bookings on August Bank Holiday weekend.

“We have leaflets out telling customers what the programme for Christmas is going to be and what the prices are.

We used to have a menu available at the end of August but we developed a few problems at December time because we cook everything from scratch,” Madi argues. “We were reliant on local produce and because of the fluctuation in what is available and market prices it was be a bit of a headache to hold on to the prices.” The pub now sets a price for the festive menu and gives a guide price on everything that is going to be happening over the festive period. It also advises customers to check for any updates on its website.

Push your offer

With the Christmas menu and drinks offers launched, continual marketing is important to drive custom. Distinct Group sends out an email newsletter to its customer database highlighting its offers and the Christmas fare available.

Leakey says it is important to fully utilise merchandising in your venue. In the lead up to Christmas, menus should be clearly visible and posters placed prominently along with Christmas displays.
“What works is doing this marketing now. Customers don’t fall into your lap. Once they are there make sure they have a great time and make sure they see the deals,” he says.

Madi at the Parkers Arms argues that marketing via social media is essential to drive custom. “We put our offer on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We start communicating from September. It creates excitement and expectancy.”

Have a wow factor

The Churchill Arms is famous for its wow factor during December – every year the pub is decorated with a forest of Christmas trees. “We are preparing now for my 31st Christmas in the pub,” says O’Brien. “We had 76 trees last year and 60 the year before.”

The Christmas decorations have become a big draw for the pub, which has even been featured in national and local press. “People love it. And every year we put up more trees and people go crazy about it. It looks fantastic,” he says.

The unique decoration is a great selling point for the pub and helps to bring in new customers from both word of mouth and passing trade. O’Brien advises licensees to ensure there is a well-decorated tree visible outside the venue to entice people in.

While there might be a cost involved he believes that it has a knock-on effect on trade during the coming year. “It is like an introduction to the pub and not just for Christmas,” he says.

Churchill Arms Kensington_Xmas exterior_Facebook

Drive extra business

Madi says the most successful idea to drive business during the period has been to run a festive market the week before Christmas.

“In the winter the Parkers Arms closes at 5pm so this gives us an extra trading time,’ she says. “After lunch service, the carol singers start and we raise money for the local choir so a lot of people come. It brings a lot of local people and families in from further afield to support the choir.”

The pub also gets a “double hit” as often customers will come for lunch and stay into the evening.

The festive market also allows the pub to promote another income stream – the Parkers Pantry. During the month the pub sells its own products, such as Damson Vodka and terrines that are used in its menu, direct to consumers.

Differentiate yourself

Leakey says that the majority of people still want the traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. “What we have also found is some retro foods such as prawn cocktail are popular,“ he says.
The pub chain offers a 10% discount on pre-ordered drinks for people making bookings. “It drives the customers in and increases their spend as they have one drink organised before they even get in here,” says Leakey.

Meanwhile, O’Brien says the Christmas period is a “special time” where people want to get together. By offering the right atmosphere it means the pub can be the first choice for those occasions. “We have our hot toddies going, serve our mince pies and have mulled wine – that goes quickly,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Parkers Arms offers something different to other pubs in the area. Madi says: “We are a turkey-free zone. We are in the country and there is a lot of shooting so we have game on the menu, substituting pheasant for turkey and serving it with cranberry sauce.”

The pub also offers its home-made mulled wine from the start of October as well as spiced ciders, wintery cocktails and festive beers, which are all popular.

Butternut squash and turkey risotto

Getting a bounce back

Christmas Day may have come and gone, but there is still an opportunity to catch the festive pound.

The Parkers Arms uses its rural location to capitalise on the post-Christmas custom. “Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are big days for us as it brings people out to walk off the excesses or to celebrate the New Year,” she says.

The pub offers “decadent” brunches such as the Norwegian, the full English, the Canadian and the American priced at £15, which encourage customers to stay longer in the pub.
By offering customers a good experience during the festive season it will give them a reason to come back. Leakey says that pubs should capitalise on this by offering a card for a discounted return visit that can also drive trade during the quiet times.

Leakey says: “Give them a card and tell them to come back in January and February on a 2 for 1 deal. Bounce-backs tend to work even though margins get hit a bit.”

Supplier advice

Bestway Wholesale advises pubs to be creative about their festive party menus to make them stand out.

“Buffet ideas include pigs in puff pastry blankets, mini turkey and cranberry pies, three-bird sausage rolls, doughball Christmas trees and mini turkey sliders,” says Ron Hickey, Bestway Wholesale’s catering and on-trade sales director.

He advises licensees to take diners on “safe adventures”, with main dishes such as turkey Kiev, festive risotto or a Christmas pie, which incorporate the key traditional Christmas flavours.

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