Pub Skills

Six things we learned at MA’s pub skills event on spirits

By Georgina Townshend

- Last updated on GMT

Massive opportunity: Drinks are at the heart of a great guest experience
Massive opportunity: Drinks are at the heart of a great guest experience

Related tags Alcoholic beverage Bar

Drinks are at the heart of a great guest experience. But how do you make sure it keeps your customers coming back rather than driving them away? 

Experts speaking at The Morning Advertiser’s​ Pub Skills event this week shared their top tips with attendees at the masterclass and interactive session in The Soho Hotel on 3 May.

Simplicity is back

Going back to basics is de rigueur when serving spirits, attendees at the Pub Skills event heard last week.

Simplicity is key, says Phil Montgomery, senior account manager at research firm CGA strategy. Over the past few years we’ve seen “indulgent and complicated” cocktails, which pubs may not have had the expertise or facilities to do, he says. But now top end bars say classics are doing well. Menu design and bar tender knowledge are crucial for creating a good service experience. “Simple serves with great taste are gaining traction,” he says.

George Nightingale, owner of GBPA winner Spoken, agrees and says: “There are really great cocktails, and really bad cocktails, and those who float around in between are messing around a bit. Do it right, and do it simply.”

And Nightingale adds that bar staff can help by asking the customer what they like drinking and then tailoring a simple but great serve to their taste. “Customers don’t want to feel stupid,” he says.

Cocktails are worth more than champagne for on trade

One trend that highlights the importance of spirits and cocktails is that cocktails are worth nearly half a billion pounds in the UK. Figures from CGA Strategy show that this means cocktails are now worth more than Champagne for the on trade.

But Montgomery says, at the moment only a third of food-led pubs offer cocktails, while even fewer community pubs do them, just one in four.

Research from CGA showed that the money which can be made from spirits in cocktails can create an extra £35,000 a year for a pub on average.

Spirts have become an “important weapon” for licensees facing a challenging market as more and more consumers want an experience, Montgomery says.

More than two-fifths of consumers (43%) drink spirits, which is about 20 million people, so it represents a “massive opportunity”. Montgomery says that this interest in spirits can be seen in the significant additional demand for rum and premium tequila.

Signature serves sell drinks

A signature serve is a drink that you can legitimately refer to as doing it “your way”, explains Alex Percival from Diageo GB’s training team.

One in three customers are prepared to spend more on special edition drinks, so it makes sense to create them. “There are too many pubs that don’t have a signature serve,” he says. “We don’t use the term cocktail, because it can be off putting and a signature serve doesn’t need to be one, it can be a spirt and mixer with a bit more care and attention.”

There should be at least one signature serve for each site and maybe one per bar tender, but probably no more than that, Percival says. Consider putting a time limited on the availability of certain serves as this encourages customers to try them before they’re gone.

Customers love a creation story

A signature serve should stand out – be that with an interesting glass, a beautiful garnish or a flaming flourish. The name of the drink is important too. Make sure the name says something – not only about the drink but about the venue, your concept or team, says Percival.

And use the provenance of your ingredients to help sell the concept. Exclusive ingredients can make your drinks unique to your bar, says Percival.

“Provenance is high on the consumer radar, so having local links promotes loyalty to your drink and you.”

You can enhance this further by using premium versions of your most popular spirits, he adds. This heightens the flavour and makes the experience for the consumer more rewarding all round.

Touchpoints are the key to a good experience

“No one wants average,” says Matthew Guest from Diageo GB’s training team. When people have a remarkable experience they remember it, they talk about it and they come back. But it’s very difficult to create a remarkable experience unless you make a blueprint for it, he says.

“Unless you design the experience that you want people to have, then how can staff deliver it?”

One way to do this is to think about all your customer touchpoints and how you can improve them. For example, how staff welcome people as they come through the door, the way staff greet and serve them at the bar, and even how employees answer the phone to take bookings. Not to mention responses on social media and via your website.

Guest said it’s worth thinking about asking questions during a telephone booking, such as “is this a special occasion”, or getting bar staff to ask customers “what do you enjoy drinking?” rather than “what can I get you?”

To really go above and beyond, one pub offers to take wet umbrellas at the door, then staff dry them under the hand dryer in the loos and give them back.

Charging less can earn you more

Nightingale said pubs should go back to basics, and look at value for money.

At Nightingales bar Spoken, their house pour is considered a premium poor elsewhere, which he claims “sets a benchmark” of what he thinks is acceptable.

“For the sake of a few pence per measure I would really encourage everyone to do that, because the long term benefits of repeat business will far outweigh the small sacrifice in margin”, he said.

In addition to offering premium spirits as standard, Nightingale only adds a 70% uplift to the second measure of all his spirits. This equates to a substantial discount but it brings in a tidy sum, he says, without cheapening the offer.

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