A young person of my acquaintance – whom I won’t name and shame – only realised this week that ‘pub’ is short for public house. It reminded me of the simultaneous simplicity and genius of the idea of a house open to the public. A home from home where you can get a beer, maybe some food too, some company if you want it or, perhaps (and hopefully) a quiet corner to sit in for a peaceful moment to yourself. Or at least that’s how it used to be. These days it seems clear people want more than that.
Key to a pub’s success is not only understanding what customers want, but being able to give it to them. Noting that failure is defined by an empty pub and an empty till, followed by closing down. I was struck this week by the tales of two pubs as told in The Morning Advertiser. One, the Royal Oak in Mareham-le-Fen, Lincs, closing and the other, the Firkin Scholar, Plymouth, Devon, determined not to.
Both got me thinking about what pubs are for and what people want from them, which in turn reminded me of ‘diversification’. I used to hear this term all the time when I was a reporter covering a largely rural area. It related to farms that couldn’t make enough money (despite all those subsidies!) from farming and how they might begin additional, non-farming business to bring in extra cash. The most obvious route was converting underused buildings to holiday homes or offering B&B, but some also began renting space to other rural businesses or offering training in traditional rural practices like dry stone walling.
Building on Pub is the Hub
There is quite a lengthy piece of Government guidance on this. Perhaps we need the same for pubs. Something that builds on the work of Pub is the Hub, which offers ‘advice and support to communities looking to relocate, re-open or introduce services and activities in their local pub’. It’s been around for more than 15 years and has helped a lot of pubs diversify, but I can’t help feeling many more resources are needed to help pubs stay in business in these challenging times.
Plenty of publicans already know about small scale diversification. Offering tea, coffee and food in addition to alcoholic drinks, hiring out function rooms and, like farms, adding accommodation, but maybe the best type of diversification is to provide the local community with something it currently lacks or something it has lost that people miss.
Not just a rural issue
You might be forgiven for thinking diversification is only for rural pubs so here’s some food for thought. According to consumer organisation Which? the UK has lost around two thirds of its bank branches over the past 30 years. This is on top of the loss of many post offices.
It’s not exclusively a rural issue. I live in a town in highly populated south-east England. When I moved here a few years ago there were two post offices within walking distance of me and two more in the town centre, along with several bank branches. Now only one of the post offices and one bank remain. Which? says a fifth of people now have to travel more than two miles to reach a bank – and we’re not a cashless society yet. Many people still prefer to use cash.
No surprise then that among Pub is the Hub’s case studies are several pubs that have diversified by opening post offices (where banking can also often be done). Among them The Codrington Arms in Yate, about 10 miles from Bristol. It’s been up and running for two years now and while licensee Jenna Hale says it’s not going to ‘make us millions’ it makes enough to pay for a member of staff with a little over and has definitely boosted the pub’s business.
“What it’s done for our standing in the community has been massive,” says Jenna. “Everyone loves us! This in turn has brought new business to the pub, especially family parties and wedding receptions, as it’s bringing people to the pub who wouldn’t normally visit.”
Other pubs have diversified by adding bakeries, butchers and cinema clubs and there are other examples where pubs are also book or gift shops – all adding an extra income stream in these uncertain times. Such additional business could save a lot of pubs. It’s time we had a formal scheme to help pubs diversify.