Liberation Group trading strongly but warns of challenges ahead

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Done deal: the acquisition of 21 Wadworth sites in December 2020 cost £31.2m (image; Getty/imagestock)
Done deal: the acquisition of 21 Wadworth sites in December 2020 cost £31.2m (image; Getty/imagestock)

Related tags: Trading conditions

Liberation Group, the pub operator and brewer, has revealed that it is “recovering strongly” since reopening but warns of challenging times ahead.

The group, which operates 55 managed and 64 tenanted pubs and inns and on and off trade distribution businesses under the Liberation brand in Jersey and Guernsey and under the Butcombe brand in England, also outlined ambitious investment plans for the year ahead. 

The group said it traded “extremely strongly” across all channels to market and all geographies over the 13 weeks ended 28 ​August.  It compares this period with the equivalent 13 weeks in 2019.

Like-for-like managed pubs across the group overall have achieved sales growth of 2% with growth in the UK pubs of +26% offset by declines in the Channel Islands, it said.  

UK Growth

Growth in the UK Butcombe pubs was generated from sales of food (+52%) and rooms (+83%). It said this was due to the UK pubs benefitting from being well positioned for the post-reopening consumer trends towards premiumisation, local food and drink and staycations.

The tenanted pubs generated 8% growth in volumes to like-for-like tenancies with Jersey and Guernsey outperforming the UK.  

Liberation said it supported its tenants with rent discounts during the Covid lockdowns and reopenings to ensure they were in a robust position to recover from the pandemic.   

“All tenants’ rents were moved back to 100% of contracted levels in all three geographies by June,” it said.  

The group’s M&A strategy is targeted primarily on UK food-led managed pubs with accommodation focused on the south west, including Butcombe’s Bristol heartland, the Cotswolds and the south coast.  It revealed that the 21 pubs acquired from Wadworth and Co for £31.2m in December 2020 “performed ahead of expectations| since reopening." 

It also revealed that it is implementing ambitious capital investment plans with over 30 development projects planned for the next 12 months.  The most significant investments will see development into food-led pubs and inns including into the estate of 250 rooms.

The Drinks Division has seen a strong bounce back of on-trade sales in all three geographies, and continued growth of the Off Trade and other channels, the company said. 

Recovering strongly

Future growth in the drinks division will be accelerated by Liberation Quality Drinks securing a contract with Diageo to distribute its products across the Channel Islands.  Meanwhile, the UK Butcombe drinks business has “far exceeded expectations” since reopening it said, achieving a record number of recurring Free Trade customers per month at a record average spend per customer. 

“It is extremely pleasing to see all of our channels and geographies recovering strongly since reopening and achieving growth on 2019.  These 13 weeks see our largest sales volumes over the whole year so it is great to be delighting so many customers over such a critical period for us, with the quality of our food offer, our accommodation and our OBV keg products making huge contributions to our growth,” said Jonathan Lawson CEO.

“But in the longer term there are still many challenges for the sector and for us specifically, with recruitment and supply chain issues causing additional costs and lost opportunity.  There are also headwinds to come in the future UK tax regime - we continue to lobby the Government to convert the temporary VAT reliefs into a permanent reduction and to abolish the inequitable system of business rates.”

Related topics: Other operators

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