Monday 16 January 2017

Pubs in search of cure for post-recession hangover

Simon Rowe

Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30

US President Barack Obama visits the Dubliner, an Irish pub in Washington DC, with Irish cousin Henry Healy (centre) and Ollie Hayes, a pub owner in Moneygall Picture: Pete Souza
US President Barack Obama visits the Dubliner, an Irish pub in Washington DC, with Irish cousin Henry Healy (centre) and Ollie Hayes, a pub owner in Moneygall Picture: Pete Souza

International hospitality consultant and former Guinness brand manager Donal Ballance knows a lot about the global appeal of the Irish pub.

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Since the early 1990s, Ballance has developed Irish bars on both sides of the Atlantic. As a former manager of Guinness's retail and pub operations in Ireland and the UK, he was part of the team responsible for literally exporting the Irish pub concept around the world. In the early days, hundreds of Irish-themed pubs were designed and built for export around the world.

Ahead of a major Dublin conference to discuss the challenges facing the industry, Ballance sounds a warning bell about Irish pubs resting on their laurels.

Although an Irish bar is a fixture in most international cities, it is a fast-changing landscape as many pub groups have discovered to their peril.

Ballance points to events in 1986, when Howard Johnson, of HoJos fame, had well over 1,000 units and was the largest full-service restaurant operator in North America. In 1980, JD Wetherspoons was a single pub in England.

"Today, HoJo numbers just two locations while Wetherspoons has grown to over 1,000."

Similarly, Irish pub groups have flourished and faded.

"In 1996, the Blarney Stone chain of Irish Pubs thrived in Manhattan, with 34 locations. Today, there's just one left," he said, speaking from the US, where he now works as a hospitality advisor.

"The common thread binding these business stories is how relevant these brands remained to their customers over the course of 30 years or so. For any number of reasons, from management style to content offering to customer experience, two failed and one succeeded in an industry that moved at a relatively staid pace during that period."

Keeping pace with rapid change in the hospitality industry is the key to survival, says Ballance.

This is what 600 Irish pub operators from home and abroad are coming to town to discuss. Starting tomorrow, for three days this week, City West hotel plays host to the annual Irish Pubs Global Awards, conference and trade exhibition.

Depending on who you talk to, the glass is either half-empty or half-full.

On the one hand, the Irish pub has never been so popular - outside of Ireland. It may not rival the pharmaceutical or IT sector in terms of export volumes but the Irish pub brand has massive pulling power all over the world.

From Siberia to Abu Dhabi and from India to Mongolia, there are more than 7,000 Irish pubs dotted across the globe.

Many of them are authentic Irish bars - designed, handcrafted and shipped from factories in Ireland to be installed by Irish craftsmen in far-flung locations.

Irish beer exports are soaring too. The Irish Brewers Association has released its annual Beer Market Report for Ireland, which shows that Irish beer exports are up 16pc and are valued at over €265m - with 43pc of beer produced in Ireland being exported. The craft beer sector revolution is continuing at pace, with an estimated 2pc of total beer market share in 2015, up from 1.2pc in 2014.

But closer to home, the industry is still trying to shake off its post-recession hangover.

Based on current trends, Irish pubs abroad will soon outnumber pubs in Ireland. There are about 7,300 licensed premises in the Republic and that number is falling, down by more than 10pc in less than 10 years, with the decline in Dublin estimated to be running at about 6pc.

Creating a 'destination pub' is key to surviving in today's marketplace, says Senator Billy Lawless, who will deliver the keynote address at this year's Irish Pubs Global Gathering.

Senator Billy Lawless was elected to the Seanad in May this year to represent Ireland's largest constituency: the Diaspora. Lawless previously headed up the Vintners' Federation Ireland and is the owner of a number of pubs and restaurants in Chicago, employing over 300 people.

Before emigrating to Chicago in the 1990s, he was a prominent publican and hotelier in his native Galway.

Senator Lawless says: "The Irish pub continues to enjoy prominent status worldwide and it's vital that we maintain this position. It's important that we share our experience and expertise. That is what this event will allow those attending to do," he adds.

Branding expert Kay McCarthy, who will address the event, says Irish pubs need to re-think how they connect with Ireland's 'Generation Y' - the so-called 'Millennials' or 'Generation Me' who now number about 650,000.

"Generation Y have very different expectations when it comes to the Irish pub. Irish pubs need to rethink how they connect with this group. You're not competing with the pub next door, you're competing with Netflix.

"No longer is drink enough to attract young people into a pub. Instead, it's about the overall experience. They want pubs to be authentic. They want an enhanced experience."

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