From medieval music to comedy bingo, and jive dancing to outdoor cinema, what is the key to running a successful event in your pub? And how do you measure success? We spoke to three publicans to find out.
Where: Anchor Inn, Wingham, Kent
What: Outdoor cinema, upstairs jive dancing classes
Kevin Abbott, who runs the Anchor Inn, has found that a focus on an upstairs function room has taken the Kent pub down some unexpected roads.
Abbott says: “A guy came in and said he’d noticed we were doing a lot of music, but had we considered cinema in the garden? We hadn’t until then but we ran with it.
“He is a local enthusiast who comes to us with a series of options. He has an 8ft screen, a projector and a Dolby surround sound system and we pop it out in the garden with dry ice and smoke machines.
“We put on the Pink Floyd Pulse concert at the start of the summer and we have Queen Wembley coming up. We promoted it heavily inside the pub and on social media and ended up with 140 people at the first film. Entry was by donation and raised £500 for charity.”
He continues: “People like to take a bottle of wine out to watch the film so it’s not far off a normal bar night but with 140 people in. We always say on Facebook that the restaurant is open at 6pm ahead of a showing at 8.30pm.
“We usually put the films on a Friday or Saturday – it’s more profitable to make a good night great than get a few extra people in on a midweek night.”
Another area the pub has evolved into from its music is jive dancing. Cross promotion of events, and driving people back to the pub, is keenly encouraged.
“Someone comes in to deliver the jive classes,” Abbott explains. “We ask for a modest fee as he gets 40 to 50 people, they have a couple of drinks before they go in and a couple more afterwards. We also have yoga but then it’s a glass of water and a slice of cucumber.
“If we have a rock and roll band on, we give flyers out at the jive dancing classes. Once you have people engaged, you can impart information to them. We have live music on Friday nights, Sunday lunchtime and sometimes in the week so, including the cinema and jive classes, the events probably drive around 40% of turnover.”
Abbott urges landlords to find their niche if they want to use events to drive trade.
He says: “You can’t be all things to all people. We tend to specialise in vintage bluegrass and rockabilly. We know the profile of the customers we want to attract. We link events together and push one from the other. We share stuff with the local village Facebook pages and also the parish magazines – that really has a big effect. Know your audience and how to reach them.”
Where: Chandos Arms, Colindale, north London
What: Period-themed music, board gaming
Emily Kolltveit took on the Chandos Arms four years ago after a long stint with Emmy-nominated folk band Medieval Baebes.
Kolltveit explains: “The pub had a very bad reputation when we moved into it four years ago. We went about changing perceptions.
“You need to bring out your own talents; it would have been pointless me running a sports bar. I have a history with early music. My friend came and did a show, we all dressed up and it was amazing.
“We had a theatre company called Tiny Wallops that came and did an interactive show, where we transported the pub back to the late Victorian period and everyone tossed an enormous marrow around the pub singing Oh What A Beauty!
“I met a local girl who was a comedian and helped her set up a comedy night. I wouldn’t have a stripper but, other than that, I would go for anything. There are so many pubs on their knees, you can’t just open the doors and expect to be successful anymore.”
While the Tiny Wallops night was a financial success story, Kolltveit believes the event nights can offer substantial benefits even if they don’t leave the till wedged with cash.
“There is a tension between beauty and money in everything you do in life,” she says.
“If you only judge success on how much money goes over the bar then you are missing out on the great joy of running a pub. If five people love it then that’s a win for me.
“We have a board gaming night four times a month, they’re a nice group of people who stay for hours. They are not slamming Jägerbombs but it’s a steady trade and that’s what we dream of in this business.”
Building a network of contacts in the community is a crucial step to creating good events, says Kolltveit.
“I’m heavily involved in most organisations in our area – the church among other things. I have a database of people to turn to. The wisest thing you can do if you’re in charge of driving a pub business is get off the bar and into the community.
“We do a lot of social networking, we use Facebook and Twitter but also Nextdoor, which allows you to interact with the community in the local area. The link between church and pub is important – all those weddings, baptisms and funerals. The priest will know everybody.”
Ultimately, putting on events close to her heart has achieved the goal for Kolltveit – changing the perception of the pub.
“You know you’re winning when you see women coming back.”
Where: Horse & Jockey, Melling, Merseyside
What: Comedy bingo, bonfire night extravaganza
Adam Franklin started his stint at the Horse & Jockey with an invitation to Sunday lunch.
“The pub was run down,” Franklin says. “There was no community here for 10 years; now we have 250 people for Sunday lunch every week. The whole village comes.”
The pub throws itself into all manner of events now, from family fun days to celebrations of big televised football matches.
He adds: “My best mate is Brendan Riley, who does comedy bingo. He sets up a two-and-a-half-hour show that includes stand-up alongside bingo. He will get winners to do a dance-off. It’s a brilliant night, we do it every couple of months and tickets sell quickly. We set up the restaurant but Brendan markets it and puts it on.
“Comedy bingo doesn’t take any more money than a steak night, and it costs more. But it works because people tell us they’re speaking to someone for the first time who they’ve lived over the road from for five years.
“We are building a community. The front bar used to have the same 10 blokes at the bar. Now we can have a couple on a date. The events have driven the change.
“The next three events are always advertised on tables and in toilets. There’s a competition between staff to see who sells the most tickets – Natalie, who works for us, always wins.”
One event the pub is well known for is the way it celebrates Guy Fawkes night.
Franklin adds: “We have hog roast in the car park, an outside bar, a radio DJ as presenter, we sell sparklers, we have tickets to the restaurant. We will have 700 people there. The car park is rammed.”
Alongside changing the face of the pub, building a community and driving repeat trade, the events have the happy side effect of boosting staff morale and subsequently retention.
“We enjoy it,” he continues. “We would get bored doing the same thing over and over again. We have had young staff choose local universities so they can keep working with us.”
Franklin urges landlords to accept – and learn from – mistakes and keep bouncing back.
He reveals: “We tried to do a local bands night and customers arrived but the bands didn’t turn up so it was one guy singing the same song over and over again. We’ve done food themed nights that didn’t work. Take responsibility and learn. And make events regular so people know when they are.”