Why Facebook could prove to be the Irish publican's best 'friend'
A rapidly changing but recession-hit bar sector is finding that use of social media is as vital as a pint of plain in staying a step ahead
WHAT has Willie O'Dea's moustache and Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook got to do with running a hugely successful pub in the recession?
Well, it turns out that a moustache-less picture of the Fianna Fail TD is a favourite with locals who stick pins in it at Hugh Lynch's bar in Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Lynch's is cited by the Licensed Vintners Association as one of Ireland's most successful pubs of the moment. Here, customers turn out in boom-era multitudes to put on a blindfold before attempting to reunite Mr O'Dea with his moustache. Parlour games, reality TV or pub business?
Pinning the moustache on Willie O'Dea is just one of the offbeat and ironic events organised by Emmet Lynch, who returned in 2004 from a career with Merrill Lynch in London to take over his father's pub in the centre of the midlands town.
For proof of bristling vibrancy check out -- as 400-plus punters already have -- the "moustache party" link on YouTube -- one of many Lynch bar links posted on the popular clips site.
The YouTube postings also display, for those who weren't in the bar on the night, exactly what they have been missing.
Then look up the bar's Facebook page with 5,800 'friends' listed. These are interacted with on a daily basis -- and posted with menus, events, birthday bonuses and virals.
Mr Lynch keeps a consistent presence on Twitter and there is the bar's own busy website page, which is just about to go live for true e-commerce transactions for paid-for events -- only the third hostelry in Ireland to do so.
This pub has gone viral and Mr Lynch claims it takes about three-quarters of an hour each day to sort out his online pub.
He invested heavily in quadrupling the size of his premises in the mid-2000s, and then the recession arrived with a bang.
Unlike many publicans who have kept ploughing the same furrow in the hope that the downturn would go away, Mr Lynch began trying out themed night ideas. Today Hugh Lynch's bar is noted locally (and sometimes nationally) for its event capers, which have succeeded in what many publicans believe is impossible -- bringing the lost generation of under-25s back through the doors.
The bar organised a nationwide tug of war challenge against a local team of robust brothers (the Ryans, of which there are eight) -- which made it on to national radio -- and multimedia 'bar wars', which pitched Lynch's regulars against those of PJ Kavanagh's pub in Portlaoise via a double giant screen Skype link-up.
It seems the effect is akin to running one full and lively pub into another via a giant mirror.
"We had an MC in each venue and our punters competed against theirs in events such as the turf stacking competition. We also had a blind date link-up where the boys were in Portlaoise and the girls were here in Tullamore. It's all about finding new ways to generate a bit of craic."
But the traditional market is also catered for. In the week just gone, Ray Lynam performed with free admission for all and, for a tenner, drinkers could see a series of one-act plays by a drama company.
What it underlines is that in the modern age, Facebook and Twitter have mixed it up with eventing to become as vital to go-ahead publicans as a solid pint of porter.
There's no doubt that Ireland's publicans have been through the wringer in the recession -- two pubs a day are closing and the Vintners Federation Ireland has shed a sixth of its members in six years.
The smoking ban fallout, recession-stifled spending power, below-cost alcohol at supermarkets, a possible sports ban on alcohol advertising and Ireland's first under-25 generation to stay away from the pub are just half of the bar menu of modern woes that show how easy it is for so many in the pub trade to see the glass as being less than half full.
Indeed, less than half of Irish-consumed alcohol is lowered in a pub today compared with 80pc in 2002. Yet, pubs are still listed by tourists as the top reason for coming to Ireland. Publicans have a job to do.
Mr Lynch says traditional publican values can't be let slip, but you need so much more to ensure a pub makes it today.
"Social media is vital. I take time every day to update our Facebook page and I make an effort to tweet. To be honest, these days I don't think we could do without Facebook, in particular.
"It's perfect for generating and maintaining a buzz about the bar. You get people before they've even thought of coming out to let them know what's going on or what's coming up. Facebook reaches them everywhere."
"People get fed up if you just use it to plug the pub the whole time, so I make an effort to pass on funny virals from YouTube or whatever so there's a reason for them to keep coming back to the page."
There's also a smell of success behind a bar in Cork city, where Vincent Droney, co-owner of the Sextant, a former hardcore dockers pub, also uses Facebook -- to post up his daily food menu, something the Sextant has become famous for.
Prospective clients can see what's on before they leave the office. "You forget how much it means until the day you don't post it and then the complaints start."
The Sextant is best known for its food: simple, tasty, wholesome and, importantly, according to Mr Droney, showy. This pub's slogan is "Grub, Grog and Garden" -- in that order. In particular, the Sextant's 'Roast Pig on a Spit Fridays' are renowned even beyond the real capital.
On the first Friday of every month a full-sized 50kg hog is spiked and spit-roasted over coals outside.
The pub uses the aroma of a sizzling hog to snake out along Albert Quay to catch passing punters -- enticing them to follow their noses, Bisto-kid-like, to the Sextant. It costs Mr Droney €600 per pig.
But customers swamp the place and queue up for free prime cuts with crackling and homemade apple sauce, all wrapped up in a fresh seeded bun -- and then they stay for beers.
"It definitely pays its way but you have to do it right. We have other theme nights -- Fishy Friday or another day for pizza and with the same idea.
"We cook it on a wood stove outside and it's also free of charge until it runs out. It's as much for the show of the cooking as for the tastes," says Mr Droney whose reputation for food has drawn a big birthday and corporate event following.
"I try to come up with 10 new ideas each week and if they don't work then so be it, move on and try some more."
Social media hasn't been ignored at the Sextant either, where Mr Droney diligently maintains a Facebook page with more than 4,000 'friends'.
"We've also had a look at our customers' changing lives and we've changed our routine to suit them. For example, we realised that those with children might not get out at nights any more but they can sometimes leave their children for a few hours on Sunday.
"So we have our 'boozy brunch' on Sunday for them, which is really popular. We don't have the weekend-long sports that some pubs go in for -- the screens are kept upstairs and don't come out except for big event games. The emphasis is on talk and interaction here."
Or you could go beyond the full hog and concoct your own international town festival. This is what Jimmy Murray of the Riverfront hotel in Virginia, Co Cavan, achieved along with the local garden centre owner when they decided business could be a lot livelier in the town.
The pair simply invented a reason to go there. "In Virginia in the United States they have a pumpkin festival, which is huge. So we said, 'why not have a pumpkin festival'?"
Conceived five years ago, this year's event brought 20,000 people to the town for the entire October bank holiday weekend with a good many coming from abroad, particularly, to visit the festival.
Giant pumpkins and their growers -- from all over Europe and the United States -- came in search of prize money that ran into thousands of euros and acts such as the Waterboys, which caused Europeans to travel specifically.
This weekend, Mr Murray is supervising the transformation of the function room into a football 'stadium'. "We're putting in cinema-style seats with a capacity of about 250 and I'm bringing in a big screen.
"There'll be a hot dog stand and all the things you normally get at a stadium. I thought, you know there'll be plenty of great games in the coming tournament other than the three we're in. So we're getting ready."
Mr Murray also uses Facebook to generate interest and to keep his regulars informed. The bar has more than 5,000 'friends'.
"We also have mutual deals with local businesses to keep the money going local. On Mother's Day, for example, you can get a deal with a lunch from us and a bunch of flowers at the garden centre.
"Both of us are covering our costs only, but it gets you into the garden centre and it gets you into the pub."
Mr Murray is also big on theme nights ('Circus Night' is a favourite) and also draws the elusive under-25s with a combination of social media, culture awareness and acts such as Damo and Ivor (one actor) from the Republic of Telly, and Keith Duffy whom Mr Murray brought for a weekend in the pub.
"This is a pub. We have an important role. You want to come in here for a pint or food or to relax, to meet people and to talk. But, most of all, you come here to forget your problems. As publicans, it's our job to keep thinking of new ways to keep it that way."