Trying to conduct an interview in a bar where interviews, work, notepads and recording devices are expressly forbidden – as I was told upon entry to the prestigious Carlton Club – presents something of a challenge.
But a healthy disregard for such stuffy nonsense is perhaps what sets Lord Smith of Hindhead apart from some of his fellow peers in the House of Lords, and certainly he’s keen for people to see past the title and recognise the operator within.
“I would say that I’m an operator within the leisure sector who has an interest in politics, I’m not a politician that’s suddenly developed an interest in licensing,” he clarifies.
And as chief executive of the Association of Conservative Clubs (ACC), responsible for about 800 licensed operations, as well as a role as chairman of the Committee of Registered Clubs Association (CORCA), which represents 15,000 private members’ clubs and, of course, not forgetting his further position as chair of Best Bar None, it’s fair to say that Philip Smith, as he prefers to be known, is an operator.
His connection to the trade stretches back more than three decades, and while the deceptively youthful peer (yes, he paid me to write that) is a champion for the licensed sector, his passion is clear: “Clubs are my main thing, and now that Peter Stringfellow is gone, I’m the king of clubs!”
Despite this, he’s keen to draw parallels with the pub sector, and with a shared DNA between the two sectors, he feels we should all be working together, particularly on the political stage, to fight for common causes.
“It would be useful, instead of just talking about pubs, if we talked about pubs and clubs. We have to try and get that marriage together.”
The club sector is certainly not immune from the kind of pressures pubs are facing, he points out. “Clubs are closing without a doubt, and new established private members’ clubs are not reopening because its very difficult today to establish a private members’ club, of that social club nature, from scratch.”
Numbers are falling
However, much like the pub and bar sector, while numbers are falling, the best operations are fighting hard to survive.
He explains: “Yes, numbers are going down, but the ones that are left are the goods ones, the ones that are better managed, are better resourced, have more loyal membership, have better properties that have been invested in over many years and are very much part of their local communities.”
In some ways, clubs have prospered at the expense of pubs, he admits, but its a two-way street. “We have many towns and villages now, where pubs have decreased, if you’re a stand-up drinker, often the only place to go to is a club.
Now, if that’s a Conservative club, I’m very happy for somebody to have a road to Damascus conversion to Conservatism, but if they just want to go and have a good pint with good company, I’m happy with that too.
“Some clubs have done well because the number of local pubs have closed down, but equally, some pubs have done well because clubs have closed down.”
The challenges are shared, he says: “The problems pubs have are exactly the same as clubs – it’s a change of social attitude. There’s been a fundamental change in our attitude to alcohol consumption and our attitude to how alcohol is purchased, and where it is consumed.”
He points out that in the past 10 years, there’s a been a 14% reduction in alcohol consumption across the board. “Among young people particularly, since 2004, the numbers drinking has fallen by 41%.
“Seventy per cent of all alcohol, wines, beers and spirits, across the board is purchased through the off-trade, through supermarkets and off-licences. So you’ve got 70% of alcohol being consumed at home, rather than out. And finally 40% of all alcohol consumed in the UK, is consumed by only 10% of the population.”
Just like pubs
He points out that clubs, just like pubs, are facing the same factors, a decline in consumption, the challenge of purchasing behaviour and the fact a significant proportion is being purchased by quite a small percentage of the population.
The entire sector needs to adapt to meet those challenges, he points out. “You’ve got to be offering what people want, and you’ve got to try and work out what they’re going to want in the future.
“Politics is a bit like a business and vice versa, if you’re going to win, you’re going to have to see slightly further into the future than the man standing next to you.”
He also feels there needs to be a more positive approach from the sector, particularly when talking to politicians.
“My view is that industry has got so much to be proud of, and so much to be really positive about. I can’t think of any other sector that is investing in the high street like the leisure industry.
“The money that pub companies and breweries are investing into their pubs, bars or whatever it might be, is a huge amount each year, as is the amount they’re investing in staff training, in apprenticeships, etc.
The leisure industry is the third largest private sector employer. But it’s not just about the fact we employ people and pay lots of revenue – in many places we’re keeping the high street alive.”
He points out that despite all these great stories, we seem to struggle to get those messages across: “The thing that frustrates me sometimes, is that we’re not very good at talking about any of that, and tend, instead, to focus on just asking, or moaning about business rates, or duty or whatever it might be.”
Change the record
He says we need to change the record: “If we spent 11 months of every year talking about things like the amount we’re spending on infrastructure, the amount we’re investing in the high street, the amount we’re spending on training and education, the amount we’re spending on product development – all the different things we can do, and which we do really, really well, we can spend the last month saying, oh, by the way do you think we might have a look at A, B and C, which would really help our industry.”
He understands the frustration the sector feels, and why the issues tend to be at the forefront of operators’ minds: “It is unfair and unjust when a business is going to invest £250,000 on refurbishing its operation, and making it state of the art, and then it gets hammered by business rates. You’re being penalised for success, and that doesn’t seem right.
“We should look at the overall picture, and start to work as a combined industry, to talk about all of the positives, and make the argument that we do this in order for our businesses to be successful – we do this so that we can make a profit at the end of the year. Just think about how much more we could do, if we were just given a break, in one or two key areas.
It could make a big difference. And if that difference means the numbers of pubs and clubs that are closing slows down then that’s good for the industry, it’s good for our communities and, bottom line, it’s good for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”
Lord Smith entered the trade at a young age, joining the ACC at the age of just 21. “I was quite young, at a loose end, and the opportunity came up, so I applied, and for some unknown reason they gave me the job, and here we are several years later.
“I fell into it. It was initially the political aspect that interested me but in actual fact – over a very short space of time – I have to say the politics did go to one side and I was focused massively on the industry we’re in.”
Now 52, Lord Smith climbed the ranks and took on the chief executive role about 19 years ago, and quickly made his mark. “We’ve transformed the association, offering so much more than we did in the past, and hopefully really supporting our clubs, which are mainly run by volunteers, with the best professional service and support that’s available.
“It’s essential to me that, with everything we do as an association, the primary beneficiary must always be the club. If it’s right for the club, it’s right for us.”
800 associated clubs
The ACC effectively acts as a trade association, providing all-round support for the 800 associated clubs, but one that is closely involved in supporting its members.
A recent innovation has seen the association do a deal with drinks supplier Matthew Clarke, offering individual clubs better buying power, some free stock and also providing deals like a third off a Sky Sports subscription.
His political ambitions, while dormant, had never gone away. In 2001, he stood for parliament as the MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne North. “You’ll be pleased to know that I maintained the Conservatives’ second place in that constituency,” he jokes. “But I did get a small swing for some reason – must have been my Geordie accent.”
Over the years, he’s been heavily involved with the Conservative party, becoming the treasurer of the party and playing an active fundraising role. All of which resulted in him being asked, by then Prime Minister David Cameron, in 2015, if he would accept a role in the House of Lords.
“So that dragged me back into the political scene again.” And he’s keen to use his position to champion the licensed sector. “It has been good. It has enabled me to do more within my specialist field of licensing and gambling and specialist clubs. But I can also campaign on the concerns that our industry has voiced and highlighted.
“I’m not a lone voice – there are many others in my house and the House of Commons, who have a very clear recognition of what we do. So, no, I’m not a lone voice, but I would say a unique voice as one of the few people in politics who is also an active operator.”
But all these roles ensure that Lord Smith is certainly a busy man. “I have no spare time – there have been times when leaving the Lords at one in the morning would not be unusual. But I don’t find that a difficulty, because, for me, leaving a bar at one in the morning is nothing new either!”
And, of course, his role as chairman of CORCA certainly reinforces his role as the king of clubs, but does that mean he can spend what little spare time he has, swanning from club to club?
“I’d like to think I’d be welcome in most clubs, and I’ve always been made welcome, but,” and he leans forward with a twinkle in his eye, “I rarely swan.”
None but the best
Lord Smith took on the role of chairman of Best Bar None a couple of years ago, and is helping to steer through changes to the organisation, which could see an explosion in membership.
“We’ve launched a central membership team that will enable any licensed establishment to receive Best Bar None accreditation without there being a local scheme in place.”
Prior to this, the only way bars could apply for accreditation with the project, which seeks to raise professional standards and reduce alcohol-related crime, was if a scheme was in place in the area the pub or bar operated in.
“That was fine,” says Lord Smith. “But it has limitations because you had to wait until you’d got the local police licensing officer, the licensing officer from the council, and one or two forward-thinking publicans or groups to get involved to start the scheme. So it was very much a top-down approach.”
Now any licensed operation can apply to the central organisation that will then carry out the necessary checks and audits to give it the accreditation to be part of the scheme.
“The premises will have that sticker on the window to say it is part of Best Bar None, which, in many parts of the UK, means a lot. That logo, that stamp, does go a long way in order for people to say this is a good place to go and have a drink.”
He says that schemes like Best Bar None are an important tool in the fight against pubs, bars and clubs being held responsible for poor alcohol retailing.
“What I’ve always found to be fundamentally unfair, is that so often, the very few individuals that spoil an evening out for everyone else, haven’t actually purchased all of their alcohol in the establishment where they’ve caused the trouble, or the establishment that they’re standing outside.
“They’ve purchased large amounts of alcohol very cheaply from supermarkets and other outlets, got completely tanked up at home then come out and caused difficulty, leaving those of us at the coalface and the front line to pick up the pieces... and usually the blame.
“Best Bar None not only seeks a practical way to try to make sure that any outlet that is a member reduces any possibility of having that difficulty, but can also be a mouthpiece for defending our pubs, clubs and bars and ensuring it is made clear that any difficulties that are caused are not primarily the responsibility of those establishments.”