The X Factor… must-visit venues

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Drinks: Drinks
Other: Business, Venues

What is it that makes any bar, pub or restaurant a must-visit? Susanna Forbes trawls the country in search of the ideas that really work and keep the punters coming back for more


No-one ever said that the on-trade was easy, so why is it that, even in the depths of a credit crunch, that some places always seem to be bustling?

Good, fair-priced food and drink plus a cheery welcome all play a part, but what lures a customer from the easy comfort of home again and again?

The key seems to be threefold: know your market inside out, present a slick but effortlessly friendly atmosphere and, most importantly, branch out – think laterally and add style with your own unique roster of events or initiatives. That way first-timers become regulars, while your regulars never get bored. Here are a few ideas to get you started…

JOIN IN & JOIN UP

In other words make yourself indispensable. ‘In a recession you need to be far more flexible,’ says Angelus owner, Thierry Tomasin. ‘If your customers want brunch or dinner at 4pm, so be it.’ Fellow top-sommelier turned proprietor Matt Wilkin MS has also adapted his offer, doubling his real ale quotient to meet popular demand.

Research groups and networks that are local to you and invite them in. Offer to become the base for their activities, and if needs be waive the room hire fee.

Understand your guests. ‘We see marketing and PR as a necessity,’ says Nina Basset. She and über-hotelier husband Gérard have employed a part-time business development officer at their boutique hotel TerraVina since the start. Last year’s Christmas Fair, showcasing local food, drinks and craft attracted newcomers as well as delivering 50-60 guests for lunch. This year, following customer research, the first half of 2010 sees a monthly mind, body and soul-themed programme of talks designed to appeal to the lunch market.

Present a slick but effortlessly friendly

atmosphere and think laterally with events

Get involved. Exploiting his unsurpassed beer knowledge, landlord Mark Dorber’s new place, The Anchor in Walberswick, is not only on the itinerary of East Anglia’s Food Safari’s day trips, but has also become the launch pad for the UK’s first Beer Safari.

Any extra space? Paula and Jon Briscoe cemented their foodie credentials by installing farm shops and delis into their two pubs, The Jolly Farmers near Reigate and The Wise Old Owl in West Sussex. This diversification scooped them the 2007 Best Rural Retailer award from the Countryside Alliance (food-emporium.co.uk).

Perhaps best known for helping local Post Offices relocate to the warmth of local hostelries, the Pub is the Hub organisation has helped hundreds of other venues with rural hook-ups. The Black Swan Hotel, in Ravenstonedale in Cumbria, converted a bedroom into a successful village shop selling locally-sourced goods, with half the £12,500 project costs coming from the County Council (pubisthehub.org.uk). Or why not register yourself online with www.useyourlocal.com as a place where busy regulars can pick up their parcels?

DEVELOP YOUR OFFER

To attract repeat customers rather than freeloaders, ‘special offers’ need to be inventive.

‘Giving guests something more than they order’ is a good way to encourage loyalty says Gorgeous Group’s Robbie Bargh. ‘In The Connaught Bar, this is a fabulous nip of the cocktail of the day. In The Coburg at The Connuaght it’s the history of the cocktail laid out beautifully in its menu and – of course – the homemade crisps.’

Geronimo Inns’ commercial director, Ed Turner takes a similar tack. ‘We add value rather than discounting,’ he explains. ‘For example, if you come in on New Year’s day and have a meal, we’ll give you a Bloody Mary.’

‘I don’t do promotion for promotion’s sake,’ says Gérard Basset. ‘That drives me nuts.’ Instead, TerraVina develops readers’ offers with top magazines. ‘It’s about choosing the right medium at the time to suit you.’ Thus, dinner will be at the normal price, but with the lure of discounted accommodation.

At The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in January this year, owner Roger Jones repeated his free corkage offer for bona fide members of the wine trade. Located between Newbury and Hungerford, Jones sees this as a way of attracting customers with significant entertaining budgets to The Harrow, adding that invariably ‘they don’t bring enough wine and so there’s lots of add-on sales’.

Other initiatives at The Harrow include a VAT-free January for Australian wines on Jones’s list, and a competition with Taittinger, champagne, the prize being a gastronomic day at The Harrow, beginning with a morning in the kitchen and ending with lunch for said winner and three friends.

CONJURE UP DISTINCTIVE EVENTS

Some central stimulation can provide a focus. At Geronimo Inns, commercial director Turner starts the ball rolling by distributing a calendar complete with ‘weird and wacky dates’, from National Sausage and Curry Weeks through to St Patricks’ Day. ‘The staff brainstorm and then we share the ideas,’ he explains. ‘It always comes back to the people.’

Fullers’ ran its third Action Week across its 160-managed estate pubs in an otherwise-quiet week in November. With events ranging from opera night at The Dove in Hammersmith, via beer and food evenings, Scalextric tournaments, to a World War II tribute day at The King & Queen in Caterham, ‘The benefits are plain to see,’ says Elton Mouna, retail marketing manager. ‘Not just on the customers’ faces, but also with the 5% like-for-like sales uplift.’

They may not be original, but winemaker dinners make customers feel special. And with a healthy emailing list, they are a sure-fire way of attracting custom. Priced at £100 a throw, an event at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn can sell out within two to three hours and Jones has a waiting list of potential speakers.

Events range from opera nights via beer

and food evenings to Scalextric tournaments

But what about homegrown talent? As well as his sabrage demonstrations, Basset runs hour-long tastings for diners at TerraVina, as does Wilkin at The Princess Victoria. At Hotel du Vin in Winchester, Yohann Jousselin took centre-stage for a dinner soon after his Young Sommelier of the Year win last year.

Mojo’s legendary Rhum Rooms in Leeds and Manchester play host to cocktail masterclasses at least once a week. For £25, guests get to learn how to create four classic cocktails as well as sample several others, plus a chance to put their new-found skills to the test at the end with prizes for the best (www.mojobar.co.uk/masterclass).

Spirits come under the spotlight too at Mojo when the relevant brand ambassador is in town. ‘I was getting frustrated that we were always having masterclasses just for bartenders,’ says co-owner Mal Evans. ‘We started with gin and have since done bourbon and rum.’

Whether restaurant or bar, if you have decent ales on your drinks list, what about a special beer dinner? Master brewer Julian Herrington – formerly Shepherd Neame’s brewster and now at Meantime – talked guests at The Marquis at Alkham near Dover through a matched six-course dinner for £47.50 last July – roughly half the price of most wine dinners
(www.themarquisatalkham.co.uk).

CULTIVATE YOUR OWN NICHE

‘Every bar and restaurant needs a story – what is their USP, what do they specialise in?’ says Bargh. ‘Buying a bottle of beer from Richard or Michael at Utobeer or at their fabulous pub The Rake is everything I want from a place to visit. I get a fabulous selection, a story of each beer, great expertise and, most importantly, I get the feeling that knowledge and passion is being passed on from them to me.’

At The Lanesborough, Library Bar and Garden Room director Guiseppe Ruo is like the Indiana Jones of the cigar and cognac world, travelling the globe in search of the rare and the new for his guests. While still wanting his regulars to feel part of a family, Ruo believes in creating memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Visits may not come cheap, but there’s never a spare seat in the Garden Room.

Specialising in being quirky encourages repeat custom, as Kings Cross newbie The Fellow has found. ‘They are all a little bit more unusual,’ says events manager, Natalie Vincini, of activities such as bingo compered by the Quizzer Sisters and Sundays spent hosting East London vintage jumblers, Wills-Moody, in The Fellow’s speakeasy-style cocktail bar, The Black Door.

It’s never too late to add something new to your mix. Research shows that featuring music in a pub boosts takings by 44% on average, rising to 60% at weekends, with live gigs being the most effective (research by CGA for PRS for Music, 2009). But think of all the elements, cautions Mojo’s Evans. ‘We call it running the room. This is the most important factor. The way the music builds, the lighting levels – everything.’

If real ale is not already on your menu, should it be? Stats show that cask ale is doing better than other wet sales in pubs and, perhaps as importantly, real-ale drinkers are more affluent with a higher average spend per visit than other beer drinkers (Cask Report 2009). And get accredited for how well you keep your beer. Pubs with a Cask Marque award grew sales at 14% in 2008; those without saw a drop of -2.5%.

EXPLOIT YOUR CONTACTS BOOK

Finally, what else makes your set-up unique? If it’s your extensive drinks roster, what about selling your wines retail too? It works well for The Princess Victoria and Angelus. ‘Usually they come in for two bottles and end up with six,’ says Tomasin. ‘They have a glass of wine and tapas.’ Having taken advantage of their hosts’ expertise, they emerge sporting an Angelus-branded bag. Now there’s a happy customer.

‘If you start doing promotions, it looks like you are in trouble. Value for money means pampering.’

Thierry Tomasin, Angelus

‘Part of it [benefits for club members]is about saying “thank you”, because people in the drinks trade don’t do that enough.’

Ed Turner, Geronimo Inns

‘We don’t advertise. Our advertising is the comp button
on the till.’

Mal Evans, Mojo

‘Rituals which are animated can help reinforce a bar’s destination credentials.’

Robbie Bargh, The Gorgeous Group


Five top tips

1 Build your own electronic mailing list – there’s no alternative these days.

2 Start a club – for every member, you’ve a chance not only of repeat business but creating your own ambassadors.

3 Make your mail-outs meaningful – Ed Turner includes recipes, jokes and benefits for Geronimo Inns’ 13,000 members, giving his missives a relatively high opening rate of 40%.

4 Listen, listen, listen – your staff are probably your best marketing consultants.

5 Take the long view – rooms loaned for free to local networks and clubs can expose you to potential new customers.


And now for something completely different…
Eight extraordinary events that really work!

THE ULTIMATE MARTINI MASTERCLASS Dukes Bar, London, £85; classic cocktails at the Ian Fleming haunt

MURDER MYSTERY The Marquis at Alkham, Dover, £39.50; role play, three-course meal and glass of sparkling wine

PUDDING PARTY John Harvey Tavern, Lewes, £28; seven puds matched with seven dessert wines

CAROL CONCERT Mojo, Manchester; mulled wine and minced pies with Manchester’s own Accord Gospel Choir

DOGS’ DINNERThe Spaniards Inn, Hampstead Heath, London; free dog wash plus organic pet food menu

VALENTINE’S DAY WITH A DIFFERENCE TerraVina, New Forest; DB&B plus personal tour with head keeper at nearby Marwell Wildlife Park for animal lovers

PARADISE BOOT CAMP Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, London; Saturday morning work-outs in nearby Queens Park, with £20 dining room voucher

BREW A BEER DAY The Windsor Castle Inn, Stourbridge, £99; spend a day in the pub’s microbrewery


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