How to make this Christmas a belter

By Gary Lloyd contact

- Last updated on GMT

Take advantage: Christmas makes up a large percentage of many sites' bottom line
Take advantage: Christmas makes up a large percentage of many sites' bottom line

Related tags: Finance, Branding + marketing, Food, Soft drinks, Beer, Spirits, Cocktails

The festive period is often the time when pub operators make most of their annual sales and this year, more than ever, needs to be a good one after the disasters suffered not just last Christmas (stop singing that Wham! song) but throughout the past 20 months.

FESTIVE PERIOD STATISTICS

With a view to challenging sales from two years ago, here is some data from CGA’s Christmas Report 2019 

GOING OUT

  • 66 million visits will be made to the on-trade over the festive period – by two thirds of consumers
  • £36.25 is the average spend per visit to the on-trade over the festive period
  • 37% of consumers visit pubs more frequently over the festive period than they normally do
  • 15.7 million visits will be made to the on-trade on New Year’s Eve by 25% of consumers

DRINKS

  • 41% of consumers going out over Christmas are prepared to try a drink they don’t normally choose – something hot and alcoholic is the alternative drink most consumers say they would try over Christmas
  • 43% of consumers will spend more on drinking out over Christmas than at other times of the year
  • Christmas prompts 1/3 of consumers to up their spend on a better-quality drink

EATING OUT

  • 45% of consumers are likely to spend more on eating out over Christmas than they normally do
  • Food quality and food choice are the two biggest influences when consumers choose where to dine out

A return to normality would be more than welcome but as those in the hospitality trade have adapted there are, perhaps, a few tricks up people’s sleeves ready to be unleashed on customers to wow them and, hopefully, retain them as regular patrons.

Statistics from insights expert CGA​’s Coffer Peach Business Tracker showed Christmas and new year sales rose by 4.1% in 2018 versus the previous year and a 2.5% hike in 2019 improved further on this statistic. Unavoidably, sales for 2020 as the trade battled lockdowns, tier restrictions and many other crosswinds were down a massive 72.6% against 2019.

In January 2020, CGA said of the 2.5% sales rise during the six weeks’ trading period in 2019: “It has been a challenging year for the eating and drinking-out market, so these figures will be a welcome boost for operators. Christmas and new year is a vital time for the industry, so to see positive growth is good news.” If only we all knew what “challenging” was set to mean a few months later…

Fast forward to January this year and the CGA Coffer Peach Tracker press release led with the headline ‘Christmas sales misery for pub and restaurant groups’. The financials showed a 72.6% drop in sales during the most recent festive period and added trading figures for the five weeks from November 30 to January 3 showed drink-led managed pubs and bars were worst hit, with total sales down 83.7% and 87.2% respectively on the same period last year. Managed food-led pubs and pub restaurants were down 78.2%, while group-owned restaurants saw total sales drop 57.9%.

At the time, CGA director Karl Chessell said: “Hopes that Christmas and new year would help at least part of the market recoup a little of the income lost earlier in 2020 were dashed when the Government started to impose increasingly severe tier restrictions across England in the run-up to the Christmas break, with further prohibitions for new year, on top of the restrictions in place in Scotland and Wales.”

From a managed site perspective, statistics from CGA shows the uplift for an average outlet in total sales across the four-week Christmas period is £21,373 versus the average four-week period across the year; December typically represents 11.4% of annual sales to the managed pub, bar and restaurant sector; and Christmas accounted for £2.9bn of drinks sales and a 24% increase in sales for the average outlet in 2019 (versus the average month).

Insights specialist Lumina Intelligence says the average spend peaked across the Christmas period in 2020, shortly before the UK entered its third national lockdown.

It said the peak of customer spending per visit to hospitality sites during the festive period was £21.67 – almost twice the spend at the lowest point recorded (£11.16 in April 2021) in its Eating and Drinking Out Panel​ w/e 20202/11/08 to 2021/07/11.

Lumina added: “Focusing on meal occasion, especially on day-parts such as dinners, can help grow the average spend.”

A seasonal hit

Freehouse the Boot in Sarratt, Hertfordshire, which is operated by husband and wife team Zoe Eliasson and Nick Idle is looking forward to this year’s festivities but has also learned some lessons from last year.

“People were starting to be a bit wary of the scares from China even before it hit the UK. So Christmas 2019 wasn't a record breaker for us. It was good though and it was still busy,” says Eliasson.

RESIZEDzoe.and.Nick.2017
Plenty on their plate: Zoe Eliasson and husband Nick Idle at the Boot at Sarratt

“We had an awful lot of bookings but not so many big Christmas parties, booked for 2020 after we marketed the hell out of it. Then [with the tier restrictions], having to cancel was a bit of a nightmare because we had got all of our Christmas stock in. Nick and I did a big thing for the locals of a meals on wheels-type of service. We supplied Christmas meals for the needy and the elderly around the area.

“We did a takeaway service through the Christmas period, which we did through all three lockdowns. On Christmas Eve, we had a long list of people that came and collected a pre-packaged meal that also had cups of mulled wine, with some orange and cinnamon sticks and cloves on the side, plus Christmas pudding and brandy sauce. We’ve already had inquiries for the same thing for this year as well because if families are staying in, they don't want to cook or wash up. So we’ve already got some pre-orders for that this year, which felt so nice for us because we had so many TripAdvisor reviews, personal emails, phone calls and texts last year saying how we made people’s Christmas.”

Eliasson explains the grade II-listed Boot has enjoyed a renovation during the pandemic and recently picked up a local award as the best takeaway restaurant. But will the revamp help during the run-up to Christmas this year?

She says: “Since the first Christmas we moved in here, in 2010, I put up fairy lights and I never took them down. At Christmas, I just add baubles to all the beams where the lights are and it’s the most beautiful little pub at Christmas time. With the refurb it will look really nice and kind of fresh.

“We tried to modernise it a little bit. But it’s so important to us to keep the character. It's all low ceilings and it's got a really lovely magical feel to it.”

She adds lots of people are beginning to book meals at the Boot, saying “people are really excited and they've kind-of got two years’ worth of Christmas budgets to spend on Christmas parties”. In fact, on the morning of this interview, the Boot took a single booking for a Christmas party for 47 people. The Boot does not offer Christmas crackers so it doesn’t add to plastic waste but wants to provide a an experience by “trying to think outside the box”.

So bookings are being taken and ordering of food and drinks has taken place already but Eliasson warns: “We're a little concerned there might be shortages of turkey this year so we’ve already pre-ordered an awful lot from our butcher. We were guaranteed fresh turkey crowns whenever we need them pretty much. So currently, we’re covered up until mid-December, but we're continuing to work on that. However, we’re kind of top of the priority list, which is a great feeling and a big relief.” She adds beer is supplied largely by nearby Paradigm Brewery so the relationship is close and therefore shortages are extremely unlikely.

Being a freehouse means there is no over-riding support from a pub company but Eliasson explains the pub has had so much support from the local community including help with decorating.

No matter how much kudos has been built up with the community throughout the past 18 months or so, most of the Boot’s restaurant trade comes from outside the village. Eliasson says: “We have a lot of drinkers that live in the village. But our main restaurant trade is from outside. We’re very close to the Harry Potter studios and a lot of people who come and visit Warner Brothers Studios look for local pubs and restaurants and they find us.”

One idea is to use your outside space during the winter months but this will, of course, need to be heated to handle the bitter UK weather conditions. Eliasson explains her pub purchased a marquee tent the year before Covid struck after laying down artificial grass to beat waterlogging. Functions can be held year-round outdoors and, although nothing goes on late so neighbours are not disturbed, it adds an area for people who are still pensive about being inside a pub as life begins to get back to normal.

Whiskey business

Other businesses with the potential to provide stock to the on-trade have also given their views on how an operator can make the most of this period.

Spirits business, Quintessential Brands, which has a portfolio of premium brands and production facilities in the UK, Ireland and France, recommends whiskey as a stand-out product to serve in your bar this Christmas.

Business unit director for on trade Cheryl Gordon cites Irish whiskey The Dubliner as a drink designed to appeal to 20-somethings who looking to explore a new beverage during the festive season. She adds liqueurs are also growing in popularity and products such as its The Dubliner Whiskey & Honeycomb liqueur (30% ABV) is a social drink that can be enjoyed as shots, for example, and can lead to further whiskey sales. Gordon says: “We expect it to be a huge hit among younger adults who are looking to make the most out of the Christmas festivities this year”.

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Quintessential Christmas: Ophir gin is 'set to perform well'

Quintessential Brands’ Ophir gin is “set to perform well this Christmas” says Gordon, adding that although other categories are attracting attention, consumers will not be abandoning gin.

Ophir is said to offer a spiced flavour profile and the ability to pair it with ginger ale allows it to escape any potential of “G&T fatigue”.

“With Christmas 2021 set to be busy, speed of serve will be key and so we’d suggest stocking a range of the best-selling RTDs to help in these high intensity moments to relieve pressure on staff,” says Gordon. Quintessential Brands’ range of pre-made gin and mixers include Greenall’s cans, Opihr ‘stubbies’ and Bloom bottles to help establishments maximise sales. These are also useful as “take-away” options if an operator is considering such services.

She adds: “Christmas is always an occasion where people want to treat themselves and this year is expected to be bigger than most after last year’s non-starter, so there will be a real opportunity to up-sell. One way to do this is by looking for easy ways to signpost ‘good’, ‘better’ and ‘best’ in your spirits offering, selecting brands and prices that offer a clear choice to customers.

“For example, our Bloom gin offers a step up into a more premium range of “fruit and floral fusion” flavours than many of the standard “sweet and colourful” gin offerings within the category. Inspired by the nation’s favourite cocktail, the Pornstar Martini, Bloom Passionfruit & Vanilla Blossom Gin has been a huge hit with UK consumers since launching last year, so cocktails like the Bloom Pornstar Martini are a great option for your ‘best’ offerings.

Greenall’s premium quality gin is said to offer great value and comes in a variety of flavours such as Original London Dry Gin, Wild Berry Pink Gin and Blood Orange & Fig Gin. Pairings to consider for the flavoured gins include tonic, lemonade and even ginger ale in the case of Greenall’s Wild Cherry Gin.

Great small plates 

Independent family-run wholesaler Creed Foodservice believes its sharing food platters that are designed to cater for a variety of tastes and preferences will be a hit this season.

It says small plates are a great way to enjoy a range of flavours and textures and its own dishes have taken inspiration from international food trends that have come to the fore this year such as Japanese gyozas, and spicy corn fritters and macaroni bites inspired by southern US states.

Creed claims these tapas-style dishes are not only great to have on a menu as an alternative to a traditional three-course set dinner, they are also brilliant for encouraging impromptu nibbles to go with festive drinks. Other options from the brand include cheese and charcuterie platters, plant-based charcuterie that include vegan chorizo slices made with pea protein, smoky mushroom pate and fava bean cheese slices.

Alternatives to traditional Christmas main courses include skin-on seabass fillets and vegetable Wellingtons including Butternut Squash & Beetroot and Carrot & Spiced Marmalade. While hot sandwiches and loaded burgers can be decked with pigs in blankets and Christmas condiments such as homemade sprout and carrot slaw, melted Brie and cranberry sauce.

Desserts available include a Jaffa Mountain Cake – chocolate across a layered sponge with orange mousse, dark chocolate orange truffle and topped with Jaffa Cakes and sponge flooded with truffle – and Black Cherry Charlotte Cake.

Creed executive development chef Rob Owen says: “Christmas this year is about bringing back the magic for diners, to create an experience that everyone remembers. But, it’s not without a certain amount of caution that operators will go into this season.”

Going premium

Meanwhile, Becky Davies, head of commercial for drinks importer and distributor Ten Locks expects much “enthusiasm and excitement” for this festive season after last year’s lockdown restrictions and expects premium spirits to play a big role.

She says such drinks and brands offer escapism and a force for positive change: “Offering a sense of adventure through drinks really brings excitement to customers looking for something unusual or exotic. Drinks from far away that offer new flavour experiences appeal to those seeking escapism after over a year of travel restrictions and uncertainty. This will endure in the run-up to the festive season as drinkers trade up.

“Consumers are more ethically minded than ever before and want brands that strive for positive change, be it supporting sustainable producers, profiling the marginalised, or those that place provenance, heritage or family at heart. Stocking brands that deliver in these areas, and offer a feel-good factor, will help pub operators and bartenders offer the right range to drive festive sales.”

On the subject of whether operators have learned any new tricks they can put into practice in the first Christmas of ‘freedom’ since the pandemic, Ten Locks’ Davies explains: “Operators have to demonstrate value beyond the liquid and the challenge to bartenders is to show more of their worth and create drinks people have missed and that can’t be prepared easily at home, offering unusual garnishes, frozen drinks such as a daiquiri or margherita, or those more creatively presented. 

“In addition, make an occasion of the whole customer experience – offering good value food and drinks pairings, happy hour menus, aperitivo boards or sharing platters with drinks is a great way to ensure customers stay in venue for longer.”

She adds pubs and bars should consider adding food and drinks bundles for pre-ordering, both for consumption on the premises or to take away.  

“Lots of things are different – pubs aren’t fully back to normal but many are embracing the difference and changing some systems and procedures to improve overall efficiency, staff wellbeing and customer experience,” Davies says. “Having a ‘point of difference’ will be a key driver this Christmas because drinkers are on the lookout for something out of the ordinary and unusual with exciting flavours – and they are prepared to pay for premium, high-quality products.” 

She adds “heritage and authenticity” will continue to be great drivers too, so brands with an interesting or heart-warming backstory, traditional production methods, and authentic flavours will be a hit. Christmas 2021 looks promising for brands that can deliver on taste, quality, and innovation and pubs should demonstrate this in their ranges. 

RESIZEDTen.locks.west.cork.whiskey
Community gains: West Cork Whiskey also provides employment for its people who live in the area where it is made

Whiskeys and rums can give festive darling gin a run for its money this term says Ten Locks’ Davies. She cites Diablesse Clementine Spiced Rum, which comes from Diamond Distillery in Guyana as an ideal festive tipple and adds contemporary Irish whiskeys such as West Cork’s portfolio as a good choice for the period too, especially because it has a socially positive aspect by providing sustainable employment to the many local suppliers that provide base ingredients and support the production of the finished products. In addition, it’s the first Irish distillery to harvest CO2 – another societal benefit. 

Variety is the key

“Customers are more experimental through the festive period – they are open to trying new things as they are introduced to new seasonal flavours,” argues Aston Manor Cider brand manager Katie Walker. “Having a varied range of drinks is essential through this time; from good quality, mainstream cider such as Kingstone Press through to premium options like Friels Vintage cider.

“This year, transparency and education are key. Consumers are seeking out more information about the products they’re buying. They want to know where the ingredients come from, the sustainability surrounding them and how they’re affecting their health in terms of sugar levels and calories. Therefore, it’s likely we’ll see a rise in independent, craft brands on keg.”

Walker adds low-alcohol options are also a vital part of the festive drinks offering, saying such offers will be vital among ‘teepartial’ and teetotal drinkers as more people moderate their alcohol intake or upgrade from their regular soft drink. According to recent research, 27% of 18 to 35-year-olds say they are actively cutting down on alcohol consumption and 56% of the same age range are now consuming more low or no-alcohol products. 

She points to Aston’s Kingstone Press Cider (0.5% ABV) as a must-stock product and says, on the palate, this medium dry cider has a clean, refreshing taste with a subtle tannic finish.

“Delivering a unique drink experience is also important, especially in 2021 after so many people stayed at home last Christmas,” says Walker. “It is crucial to ensure customers have a special and different time in a pub than they would at home.”

She cites Friels Vintage cider as a premium option to serve in your pub that is available as cocktail-inspired flavours. Friels Pina Colada Cider and Friels Passionfruit Punch Cider offer consumers a different take on traditional flavoured ciders while reducing the ABV of an actual cocktail. “Offering customers choice and an experience is key. For those drinkers looking to try something new, it’s important to have varied flavours and types of drinks. For those who wish to keep clear of alcohol then low and no alcohol choices are vital. Then, it’s all about the experience and giving them something they are not able to get at home,” Walker says.

Coca-Cola is a brand often associated with the festive period. Amy Burgess, senior trade communications Manager at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB (CCEP) explains three quarters of consumers in Great Britain did not eat out of home at Christmas in 2020, resulting in 107 million fewer trips made versus the year before, according to CGA data. This means there will be an appetite for consumers to return to socialising outside of the home. The same statistics show 75% of consumers are expected to visit pubs, bars and restaurants over the festive period.

Burgess says: “Looking back to Christmas 2019, overall spend in the on-trade was up 5.4% with soft drink serves up by 3.1% while 87% of all mixed drink serves included a cola, lemonade or tonic water.

“Categories like colas, lemonade, mixers and adult soft drinks will all remain key sales drivers but the festive season also gives operators an opportunity to diversify their range and bring some extra sparkle to festive occasions.”

Unsung heroes

CCEP will be bringing back its Hero the Driver​ campaign over the Christmas period, which celebrates designated drivers as the unsung heroes of seasonal celebrations by offering a free second drink when they purchase a Coca-Cola Original Taste, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar or Diet Coke.

Schweppes
Just the tonic: Schweppes could bolster your bar

Burgess also cites tonics and mixers as playing an important role in any operator’s line-up, particularly as spirits, like gin, continue to grow in popularity.

Flavoured tonics include new Schweppes Slimline Elderflower Tonic, which works well with vodka or gin, garnished with a slice of cucumber.

Meanwhile, more than one in 10 consumers say a slimline tonic, which includes Schweppes Slimline Tonic, would be their mixer of choice when ordering a drink, claims Burgess.

She adds: “Some 60% of consumers are looking to ‘treat themselves’ when they go out to eat and drink. Premium drinks are key driver of growth as consumers look for more indulgent drinks choices.” She cites the Schweppes Signature Collection as suitable for this category, which includes Crisp Tonic Water, Light Tonic Water, Golden Ginger Ale and Quenching Cucumber Tonic Water in its line-up.

To get into the festive mood, CCEP recommends serves such as Rosemary Wreath – white port, Schweppes Indian Tonic, with a dehydrated apple slice or rosemary sprig to garnish, served in a highball glass over ice; Jingle Fizz – dry gin, Schweppes Slimline Elderflower, with a cinnamon stick and a dehydrated lemon wheel to garnish, served in a highball glass; and Merry Spritzer – Martini Fiero, Schweppes Pink Soda, with fresh cranberries and thyme sprig to garnish, served in a goblet.

Meanwhile, Molson Coors Beverage Company on-trade category controller Mark Bentley says: “After a disrupted Christmas period in 2020, families will be excited to tuck into their turkeys together and enjoy all the trimmings that come with the festive period, including Christmas parties and meals out at their favourite pubs and bars. Venues should make sure they are well prepared, stocking up on festive favourites and offering something for everyone as they welcome a wider mix of consumers than at any other time of the year.”

“Premiumisation has been a long-term trend in the lager category and Christmas, in particular, is a time when people look to treat themselves so consider how you can cater to those looking to trade up to more premium drinks. Premium ciders, for example, represented more than 40% of total value sales in the on-trade cider market in 2020 (source: CGA), so options like Aspall Cyder remain key.

“There’s also a growing market for world beer. Its share growth has increased from less than 5% of draught lager in 2009 (source: CGA) up to 27.0% now (source: CGA). To tap into this, we teamed up with La Sagra Brewery in Spain to create Madrí Excepcional, a crisp, clean and refreshing lager that captures “El alma de Madrid” or “The Soul of Madrid” for pubgoers here in the UK. While Continental-style pilsners such as Staropramen and Pravha are also becoming increasingly popular.”

Bentley adds core lagers still account for 45% of all draught sales in Great Britain, according to CGA, so must not be forgotten about.

“Christmas looks to be a time when some of those who are yet to return to the on trade come back to their favourite venues, for example older drinkers,” says Bentley. “As this happens, we expect to see a bit of a shift towards a more familiar, pre-pandemic sales mix, with core lager regaining some of the share it’s lost to world beer more recently.”

Not only is getting your range right a good way to set out your Christmas stall, providing great service can “make or break a Christmas social occasion”, he adds. “The same tactics operators deployed to ensure a smooth reopening period are also great ways of managing the busy festive season. This might include using order and pay apps to take pressure off the bar and avoid leaving customers waiting.”

In summary, Eliasson at the Boot explains the difference between Christmases past and present: “We've just got a lot more excited about it, even though we haven't necessarily had the time to kind of put in the marketing. In previous years, we've done leaflet drops and things but we just haven't had the time because we've been busy. When I do a social media post, I put a bit more thought into it. Just thinking outside the box and being a bit different always gets people's interest. Sticking a picture of Father Christmas, saying how many sleeps to go and, on social media is just something to get people noticing you. I drive publicity on my own through my mobile phone. I'm not grateful for Covid at all, but I'm grateful for how it’s taught a lot of us how to think differently and create new businesses out of nothing overnight, and just kind of be positive and get on with it. And if you want to make something work, I really believe you can do that.”

The simple message is advertise your Christmas offer well and they will come. Stock up on the right food and drinks and they will come. Great service may be forgotten but bad service will be remembered so get that right and they will come again.

Related topics: Events & Occasions

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