The surge in applications to run a pub

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Fresh challenge: taking on a pub or moving to a different site could be just what the doctor ordered (credit: getty/andresr)
Fresh challenge: taking on a pub or moving to a different site could be just what the doctor ordered (credit: getty/andresr)

Related tags Pubco + head office Finance Property Multi-site pub operators Training Tenanted + leased

“New year, new me.” So often the cry of someone who managed to survive the previous 365 days despite facing hammer blows all the way with the intention of reversing such misfortunes in the time it will take for the Earth to revolve around the sun again.

But January is a landmark month when it comes to people wanting to renew themselves and many consider taking on a new pub as a way of transforming their lives and making the most of their own skills – and that is true of newcomers to the industry, those wanting to move to or add a new site to their CV or for ambitious people in the sector wanting to start running their own venue.

Admiral Taverns is one pub company expecting the same to happen again having seen a 48% increase in enquiries from potential licensees for one of its sites.

And it appears to be the same scenario for all pubcos.

Hance McPherson, who is head of licensee recruitment at Star Pubs & Bars​ – the pub arm of Heineken – says January is “always one of the top three busiest months of the year”.

“It may not always be the busiest month in the year because it depends on what’s happening and what we’re doing around marketing,” he explains.

“For example, if we have a couple of pubs hit the market that are really popular, such as big gold brick London outlets or Just Add Talent pubs that are particularly popular, that will generate a lot of interest.

“I’m definitely comfortable that January is consistently one of the busiest months regardless of what’s going on.

“We’re not recruiters, we’re closer to being real estate agents I guess because we’re not employing people; we’re leasing pubs.”

Hance McPherson resized star pubs and bars
Hance McPherson of Star Pubs & Bars

He continues: “It’s the new year, people take stock over the Christmas period and they think about ‘what’s next?’

“So that’s both people coming into the trade, people moving out the trade and mainly people moving around and the trade.

“November and December are the busiest months because that’s when the festivities are going on.

“People are out celebrating all the Christmas lunches and Christmas parties, and that’s when a lot of the money is made in the trade.

“Then they wash up in January thinking ‘right, well that’s that year done’ and they may be thinking ‘that was fantastic but I could do more’.

“Maybe they want to trade off to a site that does more food or less food or whatever – that’s when they will start looking at the market.

“They might want to trade up, they might want to trade down. They might want to just make a move.”

Admiral Taverns​’ head of recruitment and operations support Ceri Radford also believes the start of a new year sees the majority of enquiries flood in.

She reveals: “We expect January 2024 to once again be a very busy time for potential licensees registering their interest with us, in a similar vein to 2023 when we saw enquiries in January and February increase by 48% and 89% respectively, compared to the start of 2022.

“I feel January tends to be a busier time for the pub industry due to people looking at a change of career and wanting to the start the year with a new challenge.

“In fact, this year we have seen an overall increase by 53% in applicants compared to 2022, demonstrating a continued support for community pubs across the UK.

“In November alone, we saw 20% more people visit our website than usual which resulted in an increase of 82% in applicants compared to November 2022.”

Marston’s​ director of operations John Green is also an advocate of these beliefs.

He states: “People generally start the year off with new lease of life and resolutions to shake things up. We see an upswing in speculative queries about running a pub.

“There’s generally more of an influx of people wanting to pursue a new career and starting their own business is an avenue many are keen to explore.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Greene King​ says: “January – as well as the first few months of the year – often see a big drive in recruitment and applications to run pubs.

“More often than not, this is due to people reflecting over the festive period on their goals and aspirations – both professional and personal – as well as using their downtime during the Christmas and new year period to properly explore opportunities to run a pub if they had been considering it previously.”

All walks of life

What do potential pub operators want from a pubco when applying for a site?

“There’s demand for increased flexibility – and that’s why we evolved our partnership agreements,” says Green of Marston’s. “They do not want the rigid, old-style tenancy agreements where £50,000 to £60,000 is required up front.

“Our partnership agreements don’t make a lack of experience or funding a barrier. Our agreements offer more flexibility thorough training and an induction.

“We combined two parts of our business to improve efficiencies and provide a suite of agreements that meet the needs of our pubs, partners and guests. The revised model was fine-tuned based on feedback from our partners.

“It’s really a melting pot in terms of the applications we receive. Applicants know what they want when they come to us. They are specific about the pub because they are from that community, or they are geographically targeted with their application. Then there’s requests for serving food (both via our menus or independently), outdoor spaces and for sites with hotels, which is very popular.”

Admiral’s Radford says: “Our licensees come from all walks of life and our recruitment team do everything they can to ensure they are providing licensees with information and the tools to support them in their decision, always ensuring that we match the right person to the right pub.”

She adds a high proportion of applicants usually enquire about their local pub because it’s where they have grown up.  Some 90% of people already know the pub they want to apply for when they ask Admiral because they want to be part of a community and run a pub that means something to them.”

ceri radford the station Admiral Taverns
Ceri Radford of Admiral Taverns and the Station Hotel that received £176k investment last year

Greene King adds those looking to run a pub – whether leased, tenanted or franchise – want a “true” partner that will help them realise their ambition or aspiration of running a successful pub business by providing support when they need it and freedom to get on with it when they don’t.

“They want honest advice and expertise from their pub company partner, to combine it with their entrepreneurial flair – because when these are brought together, amazing pub businesses are created,” GK’s spokesperson adds.

Star’s McPherson, who has worked for Heineken for 11 years in total, says: “We’ve got almost 2,500 pubs, which is almost twice as many pubs as McDonald’s has got restaurants in the UK – you don’t know them because they’re not branded.

“This means it’s really difficult to say what each person wants because the operators are just as diverse as well.

“One of the trends the industry is seeing, and we’re no different, is the rise of the managed-operator model – ours is called Just Add Talent (JAT).

“Money is tight and the entry costs across those types of agreements and pubs is a lot less.

“It’s about £4,000 and it’s that lower ingoing cost to get set up and there’s also a bit less risk in it [for the operator] as well.

“We take more of the risk on it and we do a lot of the heavy lifting around the pricing, the ranging – we buy all the products.”

Transferable skills

Conversely, what are pubcos looking for from their potential new publicans?

McPherson says: “If we have a pub available that’s really busy and does lots of food you need someone who isn’t taking on their first site because there’s so much to learn and some pubs need experienced people.”

But Star is always looking for people with new ideas whether they be seasoned pros or newbies.

“We tell applicants we’re interested in what they can bring to a pub. We also changed our interviews and screening interview scripts to look for transferable skills as much as pub experience.

“Transferable skills are things like, if you’ve run a business before, if you can understand P&L, if you have been able to recruit, train and manage a team and keep them motivated, and things like that.

“Those skills are really important and about 60% of our applicants haven’t run pubs before. They might be from hospitality, as in restaurants and cafes and stuff, but not specifically from the pub trade.”

The Greene King spokesperson states: “No one size fits all for a prospective operator so we offer a wide range of agreements to match the needs of different people.

“What we look for in an individual or team to run a pub also varies by the pub itself and the agreement. For our growing franchise division and Hive Pubs, experience of running a pub in a managed-house environment is key – be it at GM or AGM level.

“Alongside this, entrepreneurial flair and that desire to step up and run your own pub is essential. For leased & tenanted pubs, it’s all about understanding how a business works, a passion for hospitality and again that entrepreneurial flair – if you have this in spades, we can provide everything else you need.”

Greene King Pub Partners site Six Bells 300k
Greene King Pub Partners site, the Six Bells, enjoyed a £300k revamp last year

Similarly, Radford of Admiral explains: “We want great people running our pubs, but most importantly, the right person for that specific pub.

“It doesn’t matter if they have 20 years of experience or are brand new to the industry – once we’ve found the right person, we do everything we can to support them.”

She says people new to the industry can often bring fresh ideas and helps with the company’s mission to attract younger people into the industry.

Admiral offers a financial investment, plus training, particularly within its Proper Pubs managed division.

Marston’s partnership agreements are claimed to attract people who have “entrepreneurial spirit but not necessarily the funds to start up”.

“It hits the sweet spot of offering the support, knowledge, infrastructure and buying power of a big business, coupled with the flexibility, freedom and entrepreneurialism of a start-up which makes them attractive,” Green says.

“Every applicant is different and unique, but they do have some things in common. Our successful partners have a great work ethic, are self-starters and are adaptable to change. They are great with people, are keen to build communities, love a challenge, are flexible and creative.”

Digital coherence

So what does the licensee of the future look like?

Star’s McPherson says: “The operator in the future must be digital savvy and have a great presence on social media.

“They will need be able to use digital to market to consumers – it’s going to be key.

“But, of course, the great hospitality of the British pub is always going to be an absolute cornerstone.

“Giving people a reason to go out will remain vital and you see that with places like Flight Club – what’s called ‘competitive socialising’ and you can see that in pubs as well.”

Greene King also sees being proficient in digital as a must. Its spokesperson adds: “The digital first approach to recruitment will continue to grow.

“It goes without saying we are in a digital first world now where everything is increasingly done online and this is how people are used to doing their research and decision making.”

They add the human element is still crucial but more people will see a slick digital customer journey from application to getting the keys to their pub as a key point of difference when choosing a pub company to partner with.

Green at Marston’s believes publicans want flexibility. He states: “Our agreements offer more flexibility and less risk for our partners.

“There’s a new generation of people that aren’t sold into the whole ‘job for life’ scenario. They want to flex their entrepreneurial muscle and just need support to thrive – which is where we come in.

“Our evolution towards partnership/retail agreements, reflects the current recruitment market.”

Admiral Taverns’ Radford concludes: “We want to continue to attract the younger generation – people who are innovative and have a focus on embracing fresh ideas and staying at the forefront of current trends. I think we will continue to see an increase in this as they know what people want from the start and will adapt their offering accordingly.

“AI will no doubt play a big role within recruitment – the industry will need to understand and learn how to use this effectively in order to attract the best talent.

“In 2023, we saw 22% of our applicants are looking at Proper Pubs over leased & tenanted, which I think will continue to grow in the current economic environment, as applicants look for a more stable income.”

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