Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 1998
* The Good Cuppa Guide *
From time to time they do surveys on what extra features people would like to see in pubs. Top of the list is normally "a cup of tea". But I suspect that most pubs offering food would provide a cuppa if asked, even if it wasn't on the menu, and it's hard to imagine groups of people spending two or three hours in the pub sipping tea, or going on tea-drinking pub-crawls. Even if cups of tea were available in every pub, and heavily promoted, it would make little impact on the overall level of trade.
Drawing conclusions from market research amongst people who basically aren't interested in your product anyway is unlikely to be the best way of developing your business. If Volkswagen asked Swampy what features he would like to see on the new Golf, he would no doubt give them a forthright answer, but it wouldn't be much use to their marketing department.
You often read today that pubs will have to appeal to new groups of customers to ensure their long-term survival, but the examples given are usually people whose visits to the pub would at best only be occasional, and whose allegiance would be very fickle.
How many people are going to go out for a meal in a pub most nights of the week? How many women are going to go to even the most chintzy and non-threatening pub on their own rather than as part of a group of friends? Who but irresponsible parents would take their children to the pub every day? Anti-smoking fanatics may be pacified by non-smoking rooms with powerful extractor fans, but they're probably the kind of fastidious people who would then turn their noses up at the smell of beer or other customers' body odour.
If pubs go too far in avoiding anything that may deter non-pubgoers, there must be a risk that they will end up losing more business from their existing customers than they gain from new ones. Pubs can't be preserved in aspic, and nor can pub culture, but the challenge should be not to change them to placate people who don't like them in the first place, and will only be occasional customers, but to encourage those who basically like the idea of pubs to visit them more often.
* In-Pub Mountaineering *
It seems to be standard practice in new city-centre pubs opening nowadays to put the toilets either in the basement or on the first floor, to maximise drinking space at ground level. This can be distinctly offputting to many people, often but not necessarily all elderly, who would never consider themselves "disabled" and yet find long flights of stairs a bit of a struggle. It's a particular feature of Wetherspoon's pubs, which in many other respects are much more congenial for older people than a lot of the competition.
The Moon Under Water on Deansgate is such a huge pub, and the toilets up so many stairs, that by the time you've been and come back you'll probably feel it's time to go again. Yet in many of these pubs, and certainly in the Moon Under Water, there's a vast acreage of empty floor space, which I'm sure could easily have been used to find room for some ground floor toilets. Perhaps it's time for pub guides to introduce a "walking stick" symbol alongside the wheelchair for disabled facilities, to indicate pubs where you can get to the loo without having to climb the North Face of the Eiger!