Last orders? Securing the future of the British pub
Live venues and commercial spaces of every stripe have had a tricky couple of years but – as Andy Myring, Director and Head of Design at Mavis, part of The Maverick Group tells us – pubs are also contending with a longer-term downturn in footfall. How can they reverse the trend? Through design strategy and customer prioritization, says Myring.
“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” So said Samuel Johnson in 1776.
Recent estimates suggest that the UK’s food and beverage industry lost at least £25.66bn due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Local pubs suffered most, with almost 2,500 forced to close their doors in 2020, and 400 more closing in 2021.
The Maverick Group considers the demise of the pub during the pandemic and what that means for culture.
But it seems the pandemic has only accelerated a long-standing trend. Over the last 40 years, the number of British pubs has fallen from 65,000 to fewer than 50,000. Culprits include the smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze, decreasing consumer appetite for drinking, and beer duty among the highest in the world. Thousands of pubs have fallen prey to developers and their shrewd eye for the value of pub real estate.
Why is the decline in pubs concerning? Because they're an integral part of social infrastructure, particularly in rural towns and villages. Think tank Localis, agrees, citing the power of pubs to help build a sense of community cohesion. Localis argues that, for many people, a visit to their local pub serves as an occasion to leave their house and socialize with neighbors and friends, helping prevent social isolation and loneliness. For this reason, the absence of rural pubs could jeopardize the social fabric of many communities, hindering interaction and local community initiatives.
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Research carried out by place-based funding organization Local Trust goes even further: “a lack of places to meet (community centers, pubs, or villages) … make[s] a significant difference to social and economic outcomes for deprived communities. Areas of deprivation that lack these community assets have higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health than others, leading to them being ‘left behind’.”
Losing pubs means losing the glue that binds communities together.
The loss of pubs may also mean the loss of one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy. A 2020 report by Oxford Economics claims that pubs support 884,860 jobs across the UK, providing £12.1bn in wages and £23.4bn of gross value added (GVA).
If the value of pubs cannot be underestimated, nor can landlords’ creativity when it comes to the fight for survival. Some pubs are serving non-geographical communities brought together by shared interests: LGBTQ+ groups, vegans, theater-lovers and pet owners, for example. Others are adding to the long tradition of pub theaters and live music now that lockdowns are over. That’s just the start. You can now attend parent-and-baby lectures for new parents, life drawing classes, parent-and-baby cinema, and yoga sessions in pubs. Glass blowing, knitting sessions, libraries and computer literacy courses are among other imaginative offerings.
Such initiatives represent ways to ensure viability, but also to bring people together. A 2016 survey found that one in five adults in relationships met their partners in pubs.
Bearing all this in mind, the government has been urged to support pubs by reducing the tax burden on the sector. Suggestions have included permanently reducing VAT on all food and drink sales within pubs, freezing beer duty, and reforming business rates.
Pub owners are probably wise not to hold their breath. Instead, they should seize the opportunity to rethink their retailing proposition and re-establish pubs as vital parts of urban and rural communities. For too long, pub refurbishment and design have focused on cosmetic changes, rather than design strategy: how people want to use pubs and how they can be an integral part of the community.
Smart pub brands will be thinking about longer-term positioning and the white space that comes with such massive shifts in consumers’ lives. Pubs have an opportunity to become pillars of stability in an unstable world by offering realness and intimacy to consumers. Humanity and empathy will become the benchmarks by which brands are judged, rather than the old ideas of perfection. Goodbye, 'brands know what’s best’. Hello, customer prioritization.
In 2020, Mavis tackled this issue directly for Greene King, partnering with fellow designers, Bedrock Design. Our brief was to help the UK’s largest brewer and pub retailer to transform its Farmhouse Inns offer – and that meant re-evaluating the entire guest journey. We fixed pain points such as long queues and created wow factor elements. Meanwhile, we ‘dialed up’ the farmhouse aesthetic and personality, creating a place that people wanted to visit.
Now’s the time to consider the importance of pubs and how their future can be secured. We need to re-imagine them – because Samuel Johnson was right.
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