Operators reveal the secrets behind trading in Bristol

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

City focus: members of the MA Leaders Club gathered in Bristol for the last meeting of the year (image: Getty/Andy Sage)
City focus: members of the MA Leaders Club gathered in Bristol for the last meeting of the year (image: Getty/Andy Sage)

Related tags Multi-site pub operators Bristol Pubco + head office

Sustainability and independent venues are important to the pubgoers of Bristol, delegates at The Morning Advertiser's MA Leaders Club heard in the city this week (Wednesday 13 September).

Guerilla Pub Company CEO Julian McLaughlan runs six pubs in Bristol and has been in the sector for almost a quarter of a century.

He said: “We run slightly similar places, there’s a bit of an anti-establishment thread that runs through Bristol, [a city that is] big on inclusively [with a] higher percentage of vegetarians and vegans and it has pretty much always been like that.”

Overall, the city is home to around 30,000 students and the operators outlined how this demographic impacts their businesses.

McLaughlan said: “Students don’t go out as much as the used, a couple of our pubs are surrounded by students but they don’t make up the majority of our custom.”

Similarly, Blightman, who is the marketing manager of The Assemblies, which runs three sites in the city, highlighted how term times affects her business on both a customer and staffing level.

“[It’s] quite transient. In the summer, [we] tend to have a drop off so we don’t build anything based on student audience. [There is a] massive surge this time of year for our live music offer.

“Probably 50% of our team are students [who] then the disappear for the summer but they come back and it’s important to nurture that.

“[They are] always creatives, studying design, music or fashion so we welcome that as part of our strategy.”

However, with the city being near to large music festivals, this can both benefit and hinder trade for Guerilla as it also runs an events business.

Festival impact

McLaughlan said: “Sometimes summer can be a bit tricky. Bristol and West Country has a huge amount of festivals.

"The double-edged sword is you get loads of people for the festivals (Glastonbury and Boomtown), everyone wants to go and work at them.

“It affects it a little bit for us. It’s a bit quieter for sure.”

When it comes to consumer demand in Bristol, residents in the city are looking for independent businesses that are taking sustainability seriously, according to Blightman.

She said: “There is a call for independence and venues to promote this as their offering.

“Also sustainability which a lot of people in Bristol care about, the audience is definitely looking for that.

“One of our venues it completely veggie, based on demand in that area. All our menus have at least 50% vegan/veggie, which is really important otherwise we would just lose the trade.”

But the city hasn’t been immune from a shift in working patterns by office workers, both operators highlighted how trade had been changed in the early parts of the week compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“We used to be 7 days a week, two services a week but have dropped that offer a bit due to lack of demand. The after work crowd don’t really exist five nights a week anymore.,” Blightman said.

“We have noticed food on the harbourside has changed. [There has been] ups and downs with the city centre has been most affected."

Looking forward

McLaughlan echoed Blightman’s comments about trading and the impact of people working from home has had.

He said: “Earlier in the year, Monday and Tuesday used to be really good across the portfolio, [now] we are a lot quieter.

“One of our pubs is surrounded by offices. Lunch time and after work trade used to be [good]. Since Covid people are in offices 60% less than they used to be so we are missing out on a fair bit of trade.”

Looking ahead, McLaughlan raised concerns about trade heading towards the colder months.

“[I was] pleasantly surprised over the past 12 months, we had a little bit of growth, not a huge amount but a little,” he said.

“It’s been ok, not amazing but ok. I’m a massive optimist but I think winter is going to be pretty tricky.”

However, Blightman was more positive about the months ahead and how it may fare for her business.

She said: “We are still here thankfully. It has been a struggle, the past few years have thrown more and more at us constantly but we’ve got through it but I think winter is going to be quite good for us. We are feeling quite positive about the next part of the year and journey.”

Related topics MA Leaders Club

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