No holds barred as pubs brew up a new appeal

Gone are all those boozers for the lads – themed pubs for niche audiences are the lucrative in-thing. And designers should make the most of this thriving sector, reports Clare Dowdy

The pub sector has been through some painful changes over the past few years, with many sites closing as publicans witness a fall in clientele and sales. But smart operators are now looking beyond their traditional audiences and repackaging their offer. New and revamped branded venues are proving surprisingly popular with consumers, and designers have had a large part to play in this success. But what factors have affected this change, and what of future trends?

The 1992 Beer Orders led to a big shake-up among the major brewers which created an opening for smaller independent operators offering a more “branded” experience, according to the Pub Retailing Mintel report, published in March.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission’s review of the whole on-trade market forced breweries with more than 2000 outlets to sell off half the total number of their outlets above the 2000 mark. This has led to a growth in lucrative independent groups, whose outlets account for more than 21 per cent of the total number of pubs in the UK. And the number of such sites will rise, predicts Mintel.

“It is the smaller groups of operators which have shown the most dynamic performances,” states the Mintel report, citing Greenall’s and the Magic Pub Company in this category.

Meanwhile, the pub sector has suffered from a fall in alcohol sales resulting in thousands of closures. Mintel blames factors including the growth of the off-trade market, the National Lottery, drug-taking, the growth and quality of home entertainment and changing age profiles.

These trends have forced operators to reassess their profiles and tap into previously overlooked markets.

“For many years brewers and brand-owners have targeted the male 18-24-year-old age bracket,” states the Mintel report. But the numbers in that group are now on the downturn and owners are looking to broaden their appeal.

In 1994 owner Grosvenor Inns rebranded the identity and interiors of its chain, The Slug and Lettuce, to target females, says Paul Davis, founding partner at Agenda Design, the consultancy which carried out changes.

London-focused independent chain Pitcher & Piano is a modern branded chain catering for a wider audience than traditional pubs. The concept was established in 1986 and was recently bought by pubs and brewery company Marston’s, which plans to extend the concept beyond the capital, doubling its size to 14 in two years. Design Solution has been responsible for all recent interiors.

It is not just women who are being targeted. Between 1995 and 2000 the number of high-earning professionals is expected to rise by nearly 14 per cent, according to Mintel. And this is encouraging chains to go upmarket. Scottish & Newcastle is currently revamping its Chef & Brewer chain with this in mind.

Older people with disposable incomes are also being targeted. Fuller Smith & Turner launched English Inns, a branded pub and hotel concept targeting “grown-ups” this summer with identity and interiors by Design House.

Innovative chains do not only rely on appealing branding and attractive interiors to lure a cross- section of punters – many have bolstered their food offer. Since 1984 the value of such catering has grown from 1.8bn to 4.4bn, according to Mintel.

Design House has completed the identity for a family food concept for Bass. The brewer plans to follow the first three Innkeepers Fayre with further sites.

Meanwhile, the new generation of branded concepts will continue to innovate. Allied Domecq has launched an in-pub video phone network for customers to “enjoy some cyberspace flirting and fun”, says its design company CHBi Interactive Media. The concept, entitled Xchange, is being piloted at eight venues.

Despite such frenzied branding activity, Design House chairman Tim May expects the future of the pub industry to lie with the local pubs. Design House is currently working on such a concept for Allied Domecq. “There won’t be a locals brand, but there will be brand marketing which will bring clarity and more relevance to the offer,” adds May.

In the meantime, designers can cash in on a sector which is becoming tighter, more differentiated and more heavily marketed.

Xchange designed by CHBi allows pub customers to link up and ‘chat’ with those in other pubs

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