Long read: What can we do to make people more safe in our venues?

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

16 March 2020

A shocking number of customers still feel unsafe in bars, pubs and venues. Millie Milliken looks at the initiatives on offer and investigates what more can be done to equip staff and safeguard patrons in the future


A recent poll conducted by Imbibe on Twitter asked our readers a simple question: ‘Do you think the UK bar industry does enough to keep vulnerable customers safe?’ Having spent the last few months talking to numerous industry bodies, campaigners and operators, I was sure the answer would be overwhelmingly positive.

Surprisingly, the poll told a different story: 81% voted ‘could do better’, 3% voted ‘definitely’ and 16% voted ‘not at all’. We asked the same question on Instagram – the results were near-identical.

A February 2019 YouGov report highlighted that women feel markedly more unsafe than men waiting in a pub alone for a friend or a date. In 2017, Stonewall found that one in six LGBTQ+ people who visited a café, restaurant, bar or nightclub in the last 12 months were discriminated against. The Guardian’s Racism in Britain report, conducted last year, found that ethnic minorities were three times as likely to have been thrown out of – or denied entrance to – a restaurant, bar or club.

As a customer, I have certainly been exposed to an increasing number of initiatives being run by venues or companies in an effort to make patrons feel safe. Perhaps the most widely publicised for sexual assault is the nationwide Ask for Angela initiative.

The key is seeing vulnerability differently

Jessica White

Launched in 2016 by Hayley Child, the substance misuse strategy coordinator for Lincolnshire County Council, the initiative linked the people in front of the bar with those behind it, placing posters in female toilets reading: ‘If you go to the bar and “ask for Angela” the bar staff will know you need some help getting out of your situation and will call you a taxi or help you out discreetly – without too much fuss.’ Since its launch, the campaign has garnered attention from around the world, even prompting a US alternative encouraging people to order ‘Angel shots’.

More recently (2018), the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, launched a partnership with Drinkaware for a UK-first LGBTQ+ pilot, aimed at training staff in bars and pubs in how to ensure the welfare of people on a night out. According to the official government website (gov.co.uk), 35 staff from six London venues were involved in the initial launch. Pubwatch, Best Bar None, UK Hospitality and Purple Flag – to name a few – have created accreditation schemes that mean pubs, bars and venues across the country can educate their staff in customer care best practices.

Yet, that 81% from our survey suggests that there is still some work to be done and it also suggests that there are plenty of staff working behind the bar who don’t feel equipped to deal with these issues. Which begs the question: What are the challenges we still need to overcome, and how can operators make sure that their staff are fully equipped to protect their customers?

Definition mission

‘From a guest perspective, just simply knowing that on a night out the staff serving you are fully up to speed with knowing how to spot threatening and discriminatory behaviour can be anxiety reducing,’ says Jess Mason, drinks journalist and, as of June this year, Stiegl UK beer ambassador.

Knowing how to spot this behaviour can often be an issue, though. One initiative that works closely with staff to address this is the Good Night Out campaign. Established in 2014, Good Night Out started as a ‘grassroots response to sexual violence in nightlife communities’, with a belief that nights out should be about ‘fun and freedom, not fear’. Created by Julia Gray and Bryony Beynon, the company now goes into hundreds of bars and venues to offer accreditation programmes to staff, primarily around sexual violence.

A lot of stats show that male customers are often the ones in trouble

Annabel Brown

Practical workshops see Beynon and her colleagues sit down with bar teams to discuss and define areas such as consent, what behaviours are and aren’t OK and how the law defines sexual assault. Emphasising the barriers around reporting sexual assault, especially for the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities, is important for Beynon. ‘The barriers of coming forward if you are sexually harassed already exist,’ she tells me, ‘but there are even more for [members of the] BAME or LGBTQ+ [communities]. When we deliver our training we try and do an intersectional understanding. The nightlife sector is diverse, so we need to make sure our training is representative.’

‘The key is seeing vulnerability differently,’ says Jessica White, community safety lead at the LGBT Foundation. White also works as part of the Soho and Village Angels teams who work in London and Manchester to ensure that members of the LGBTQ+ community are safe on a night out. She cites the standardised interpretation of vulnerability (ie a woman at the hands of a man) as being problematic. ‘Through the time I’ve worked on this project, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers’ videos made around the Ask for Angela campaign, but… the problem is that it affects who they see as vulnerable.’

Annabel Brown, customer engagement manager at The Deltic Group (the UK’s largest operator of late-night bars and clubs) cites an oft-forgotten group of vulnerable customers – young men. ‘One big focus is our male customers, as they get easily forgotten... Obviously we need to look after our female customers, but a lot of stats show that male customers are often the ones in trouble. I think anyone who has spent enough time on a front door will know that if a man has lost his friends or doesn’t know how to get home, what they tend to do is just walk off on their own looking purposeful, when they’re really not.’

Moving forward

It’s not all doom and gloom. There is plenty of work going into making advances in customer safety. In practical terms, Mason has been working in earnest to establish TEPA (The Equality in Pubs Accreditation), an idea born from the desire to help anyone and everyone find safe spaces to socialise in, in the UK. She launched the scheme at Imbibe Live in 2018. ‘Social equality is a human right,’ she told Imbibe at the time. ‘Let the best pubs, bars and taprooms, run by the most accommodating, kind and friendly staff , identify themselves and help all people remember that the value of pubs is as much what they represent as anything they serve across the bar.’

‘It’s awful that lots of people still feel unsafe going out to pubs and bars,’ she tells me. ‘A public house should be just that, a place where everyone can go and feel safe. TEPA is one way to shine a light on places who care about their customers.’ The initiative is currently stalled in its early stages, but it is not short on advocates.

David Wilson, public affairs director at the BBPA (British Beer and Pub Association), is resolute in his support of Mason in her endeavours. ‘There is a move [towards creating a national accreditation scheme] and Jess has really stimulated a discussion among operators to say what the most effective way to tackle the issue is.’ Wilson also highlights the importance of locality when it comes to adopting and creating schemes. ‘The key is that they need to meet local requirements. They have to meet local needs... meet the demographics.’ He points out that in Brighton, there has been a heavy focus on the LGBTQ+ community, while in St Albans, an initiative called ‘Ask for Clive’ has been introduced specifically for the growing gay male community.

Industry experts also spoke to me about working with pubs in relation to far-right groups. In some areas, pubs still run the risk of operating as strongholds for these types of groups and industry bodies are working hard with operators to minimise the risk. Elsewhere, the Good Night Out campaign worked for the first time last year with London Cocktail Week in The Village to educate staff on looking after customers.

‘We originally signed up as members of the Women’s Night Safety Charter, which is a campaign organised by the Mayor of London and championed by our Night Tsar, Amy Lamé,’ Hannah Sharman-Cox and Siobhan Payne, founders of London Cocktail Week, told me. ‘We wanted to be part of anything that improves safety – and even more specifically the safety of women, as an all-female team.

Just knowing staff are fully up to speed with how to spot threatening and discriminatory behaviour can be anxiety reducing

Jess Mason

‘Having signed up and wanting to do more, we started doing some digging and eventually we found Bryony [Beynon] and the Good Night Out Campaign.’ Beynon attended The Cocktail Village before the event opened and spent time training each stand holder to be fully aware of what to do in case of someone needing help – under any circumstances.

‘We wanted to show our commitment by employing Bryony and have gone on to introduce her and the campaign to other bar groups and organisations. It’s something we feel very passionate about,’ added the London Cocktail Week founders.

‘The aim is to make sure that every single person that works there, from the manager to the glass collector, feels as confident knowing how to react to sexual harassment in the same way as knowing where the fire exits are,’ says Beynon. ‘We give the people in the room a simple tool kit.’

Made in house

Venues are also growing their own initiatives, too. The Deltic Group (which has won awards for its dedication to responsibility) launched its campaign ‘We Care’ five years ago in response to being approached by numerous organisations to be involved in their schemes. ‘We Care’ includes free phone charging, (softly) challenging anyone leaving the premises alone and escorting customers to taxis – even paying for them if necessary. Staff are trained and given supervisor support when it comes to dealing with confrontations or carrying out diffusive acts.

It’s an ongoing process and Brown still sees there being work to be done: ‘I think the biggest issue we have is getting our customers to understand that we are there to help them. If anyone is in trouble the staff are trained – and want – to help… we want to make sure all of our customers get home safely. We’re doing a lot to get that message across.’

But there are also some factors that might be holding venues back from reporting incidents. According to Beynon, there is a fear among venues that they could lose their licences if multiple incidents are reported to the police. ‘Unfortunately what can happen in London boroughs is that they have a licensing regime which penalises venues if a certain number of crimes are reported… that creates a disincentive for [venues] to record issues.

We even hear of some instructing people to go across the road to report [an incident].’ As a result, the team has worked with the likes of Southwark Council to change that ‘so crime scores are counted, but they don’t count against the venue’. It’s encouraging stuff. Mason tells me that although TEPA has been stalled in its early stages, it has not in any way been aborted.

‘There are plenty of people who want it to exist and many more who know that as the industry moves forwards towards safeguarding others and reflecting diversity too, stigmas can be reduced. It will serve to highlight the bars and venues that welcome all people rather than alientate them.’ ‘We’re not complacent,’ assures the BBPA’s Wilson reflectively. ‘Awareness grows all the time. We operate in society and reflect society...The challenge is to make everyone feel welcome.’

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