The 'Irish pub' abroad is beginning to grow again as sales increase
The pulling power of Irish bars abroad makes them one of the most valuable brand franchises in the world, writes Simon Rowe
It's probably our most valuable natural resource and it's definitely our most popular export - the Irish pub.
It may not rival the pharmaceutical or IT sector in terms of export volumes but the Irish pub brand still has massive pulling power all over the world.
From Siberia to Abu Dhabi and from India to Mongolia, authentic Irish bars - designed, handcrafted and shipped from factories in Ireland to be installed by Irish craftsmen in far-flung locations all over the world - are enjoying a resurgence.
Two decades after Irish pub exports began in earnest, business is booming again and the international market remains relatively untapped, say business insiders.
The Irish pub export concept was launched around the time of Italia '90, when bar owners worldwide - especially in the US - wanted a rub of the green as World Cup fever gripped the nation and expats sought out decent Irish-themed hostelries.
Irish design firms were quick to jump on the paddywagon, rolling out a range of identikit Oirish pubs.
These 'authentic' Irish pubs are designed and built in factories in Ireland - complete with wood panelling, bar tops, floorboards, whiskey mirrors and bric-a-brac - and shipped around the world in freight containers followed by teams of Irish craftsmen who complete the fit-out on-site.
Mel McNally, the pioneer of the concept, has been designing and building Irish pubs for export since the 1990s. He has designed hundreds over the years through his firm, Irish Pub Company. Like many others, he came close to calling time on the business when the crash hit and his firm was left nursing a massive financial hangover. But McNally has since restructured the firm and witnessed a global resurgence.
"It's coming back around in Europe, which was a surprise to everybody," he says.
He attributes the resurgence to a generational gap. "There is a generation of people who think the idea is brand new because they weren't in business when we did the first launch in the 1990s."
John Heverin, boss of rival firm Ol Irish Pubs Ltd, says the Irish pub business model has proven resilient because the return on investment is far greater than that offered by "trendy themed bars".
Referring to the likes of Dublin themed bars such as Pravda (now the Grand Social on Liffey Street) and the Ice Bar in the former Four Seasons in Ballsbridge, he says: "Any concept that you go with, you've got a seven-year window. Most of those new launches last seven years; three years to pay back, two years to make a profit, and two years to come up with the next concept. That's how most of them run. Whereas the Irish pub, if you do it right and you don't get carried away with being trendy, you've got 30 years.
"Guys like that. They like the security of the asset. It comes down to picking the right location and knowing it's a 30-40 year investment. You name me any other concept that has that legs," says the canny Donegal man who has been exporting pubs for 17 years.
McNally agrees: "If done well, the return on investment is second to none." Brand Ireland still has massive pulling power around the world, especially when it comes to pubs, he says.
"The Irish brand is still huge. Irishness still travels. Despite some sceptics in the 1990s and the 2000s, Irish pub exports are still there."
The Irish pub concept is, arguably, the most attractive franchise in the world. It offers all the benefits of a brand with global recognition without the downside of royalties and fees. And patrons of Irish bars stay longer and spend more.
But to do it well demands a significant investment, somewhere in the region of €800,000 when design, build, transport and fit-out costs are added up. Once designs are signed off by Irish design teams, it takes about 16 weeks to have a turnkey site ready to open anywhere.
"That's the part that clients like," says Heverin. "If we miss the opening day, we pay the owner €1,000 a day - so we don't miss the opening day."
Heverin, who employs five in his design and marketing team and another 17 in the firm's Louth workshop, says he's been globetrotting in the past 12 months, building new pubs and sourcing new customers.
"I'm just back from Russia where we were looking at a few cities. The US is still a massive market. I'd say we'll be working in the US for the next 20 years. But if you asked me where I think my son will be working, I'd say India."
As well as standalone projects, Heverin's firm has installed Irish pubs on 11 cruise liners and does work for the Caribbean-based resort giant Sandals, which operates 15 resorts dotted around the sun-kissed islands of Jamaica, the Bahamas, Saint Lucia and Barbados.
The roll call of places where his firm has built Irish pubs includes Chile, New Zealand, India, France, the US, Oman, Latvia, Estonia and Russia.
"There are few places we haven't been," he says.
McNally's company has enjoyed similar international success. With offices in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Atlanta in the US, the Irish Pub Company is keeping the green flag flying. Two decades on from McNally's first foray into the Irish pub export market, the idea has spawned many incarnations and imitations in the unlikeliest of places.
Now wherever ex-pats gather there is likely to be an Irish-themed watering hole, whether it's Bernie's Irish Pub in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, O'Reilly's in Bangkok, O'Malley's in Shanghai; Finnegan's in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the daddy of them all - the Grand Khaan Irish Pub in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
It looks like the market for Irish bars abroad isn't even close to saturation point.
Sunday Indo Business