The Pubs – First In, Last Out

Recently, I wrote about the future of pubs and how they may or may not survive post pandemic. It generated a spirited debate (no pun intended) and although there has been little clarity since the article, I wanted to provide an update based on much of the feedback I received. One thing to remember throughout is that with each passing day, it becomes harder for pubs to reopen or survive. Time itself is a debilitating factor.

The UK is in disarray when it comes to controlling the virus (or its people), and no matter how alert you stay, it is impossible to make heads or tails of the Prime Minister’s messages. There is no indication of what the plan actually is, and that really isn’t helping. It seems clear, however, that pubs will be the last to reopen, with the earliest time speculated to be July, although just a day before it was said it could be as long as September (or even October)! No one really has a clue. Even when we do get a little clarity, we are not necessarily going to like the message.

So – is there any hope left for the pub industry?

Anyone who has looked at what is required under social distancing protocols for their own business will instantly understand why pubs are so fraught with difficulty; these are social venues, after all. It is almost impossible to achieve proper distancing, and even then, only the pubs with the largest space will be able to comply. When you throw alcohol into the mix, you start to question whether pubs can realistically open before a vaccine has been found!

Just look at the incident in Seoul last weekend. The pubs and bars were opened, only for the infection to instantly flare up again (one individual, a super-spreader, infected 27 people in three bars he visited in one evening). That led to the immediate closure of all venues. At the time, the individual was asymptomatic, so could hardly be held responsible. In short, this is almost impossible to police. For business owners trying to run a bar in such a scenario, it is catastrophic to open and then have to close again (with all the loss of trade, stock, etc.).

The government announced yesterday that the current furlough scheme is extended until end of October with no changes before the end of July. In August, September and October the employers will be asked to make a contribution towards the pay, but no further information has been given. The idea is to ease people back into work with part-time hours, which probably won’t work for pubs, although the October date might be the strongest hint yet that they are not expected to open until then anyway.

One way or another, the industry is likely to miss out on most, if not all, of the peak summer seasonal trade, the key time for pubs to make the most of their outdoor seating areas. It is close to impossible for these businesses to survive even if they could open their doors this month, let alone waiting right till the end of the summer. The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) estimates that some 19,000 pubs may not be able to reopen post pandemic. The current financial support won’t cut it if they are to wait much longer without clear direction on extended support from the government. 19,000 is almost 40% of the UK total.

Inka in a bar

What are the customers saying?

When you start to consider the scar tissue from this, the prospects for bars and pubs look even more dire. How long will it be before people can confidently enter a crowded bar, full of strangers jostling, shouting or singing along together? Would you do that?

When I asked across my social media channels if anyone will be willing to go to a crowded pub as normal once we are able to move more freely, the overriding response was very cautious. Many are worried about their local bars and restaurants being able to survive with limited capacity but feel extremely tentative about going back in there. People are more likely to go to a coffee shop or a restaurant than a bar because they simply do not trust that the other customers, under the influence of alcohol, can follow the social distancing rules properly.

This is a valid point. What happens when the pub crowd starts to get rowdier and ignore the rules? How can the staff control the situation properly, when the only thing the customer might be doing wrong is enjoying themselves too much or being too friendly!?

Some also doubted the self-discipline of the staff in these venues. Can they really wear a mask and gloves without touching their face or scratching their noses before serving customers using the same hand?

There were a few who were adamant about going to visit bars as normal once that is an option, and that was good to see, but they were easily in the minority. Not that they’ll be hugging everyone they meet, but for them life has to get back to (new) normal, and if they want to enjoy a drink or few, then that is what they will do. Perhaps the novelty will wear off once they actually experience the limitations these bars are required to operate under. Personally, I would happily go to a pub if they were offering table service and I was seated with the people I know a good distance away from the people I don’t, especially if I was sitting outdoors. But when it comes to a small crowded bar, I wouldn’t feel so confident.

One potential solution is for pubs to become even more food-driven, with table service, moving into an already crowded restaurant space. Everyone is sick of eating at home every day and night so there is a great number of people who would enjoy a meal and a few pints at the pub. Whether the venue will be able to make enough income this way is another question altogether. One short-term option perhaps, but, as one of my readers said, ‘We already have thousands of restaurants…’

Inka in a wine bar in Brighton

The growth of socialising online

It seems we are all consuming roughly the same amount of alcohol (or maybe a wee bit more…), even if we aren’t able to visit pubs and bars. Online shopping has been the biggest beneficiary and has helped businesses to generate sales whilst trying to survive the lockdown measures. Although setting up ecommerce for your business is not as easy as you might think. You must consider all the logistics, including packaging and delivery.

Chris from The Dram Team offered me an insight into how his small business has been doing amidst the pandemic. The Dram Team offers whisky subscription boxes directly to customers as well as some B2B miniature bottling and tasting sets (you might be familiar with SMWS tasting sets). Chris has seen a sudden rapid increase in the total number of subscribers, but also growth in demand on the B2B side. If a supplier or a drinks brand now wishes to offer tasting sets to its customers, it is much easier to do this via a business like The Dram Team which has already figured out the logistics and can make this happen in a timely manner.

Chris pointed out that these brands have now realised they can access clients that would not otherwise make it to Scotland or other regions to visit distilleries or take part in various experiences. Now you can host a virtual whisky festival as long as you can supply enough samples to people’s homes. I received many comments on this topic and several people were more than happy to take part in virtual tasting events or small local events over the usual large-scale festivals, even post pandemic. There is definitely a brighter future in an online presence for drinks brands if they can think innovatively and offer interesting alternatives to their customers.

Whisky tasting set

Bottom line

Even without the lack of leadership in the UK, the future for pubs is looking grim. In a country with a government that likes slogans, here is one I think we can all get our heads around:

‘Pubs Can’t Open During a Pandemic.’

Until we can find a vaccine, the reality is that they should remain closed. It is easier to see why cafés, and perhaps some restaurants, should be allowed to open first, as they can control the distancing measures better and less alcohol is consumed.

The time for pubs will come again, and I am sure in the future we will all appreciate them much more, especially when there’s likely to be a lot fewer of them. In the meantime, people will continue to drink as much as before, perhaps more after listening to Boris and his posse… Socialising online may not tickle everyone’s fancy, but needs must…

Drinking whisky while online

What would it take for you to go back to the pub? Would you visit restaurants or cafés over pubs and bars?

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