Only 49 Days to go until the Big Man Makes an Appearance!

6th November 2015

The Christmas opportunity by Glynn Davis

Christmas is still some nine weeks away but the other evening I had a taste of what is coming over the horizon. Having a post-work “meeting” on a Tuesday evening at the Old Fountain pub in Old Street would have been a relatively relaxed affair despite the place’s beer selection proving increasingly attractive to itinerant drinkers.

But it wasn’t, because a large group – part of an organised gathering – had shifted from the room they had initially commandeered into the main bar and made it nigh on impossible for anybody to get to the counter to order. This is what it will be like in many bars and restaurants in the run up to December 25. I know from my own diary that I’ve some early “festive” drinks already arranged for late November – so not exactly long to wait for that then.

Now, I’m far from being a Mr Scrooge and I reckon I enjoy Christmas more than the average adult but when it comes to its impact on the leisure and hospitality industry it certainly has its downsides and I’m now fully in preparation for the onslaught. My chief moan is to do with the customers. Christmas unfortunately brings out far too many part-time pub-goers and diners.

I find they have similarities to Sunday drivers who have the ability to get into the bar but then don’t quite know what to do once inside. There is often a total misunderstanding of bar etiquette (and I won’t even go near the issue of their alcohol tolerance levels) that can make the most typically calm of pubs a nightmare for regulars during the month of December.

The best example of ensuring your most loyal customers are not crying into their glasses at Christmas was delivered in a pub I used to frequent almost every lunchtime, when working in the City of London. The long-standing landlord of the East India Arms (then a Young’s boozer and now with Shepherd Neame) would distribute key rings during the month of November to his loyal regulars. Once you had one of these prized possessions in your hands it was your pass into the pub during the fortnight before Christmas.

It was like winning the lottery when you were given your key ring. This modest measure ensured this tiny pub could continue to deliver its exemplary service at its busiest time of the year. Looking back this might have been a bit harsh for the key ring-less who found no room at the inn but the landlord clearly knew that offending one-off visitors was far outweighed by the goodwill he generated among his regulars. ie the ones who ensured he could pay his rent all year round.

What also descends upon us at Christmas time is the decision by many venues to restrict their dining offer to set festive menus. I fully understand that it is a tough time for restaurateurs dealing with large groups and that limiting menus and insisting on pre-ordering your choices is not really a problem. What I do begrudge is when these menus seem to deviate too far from the raison d’être of the restaurant. This seems to make no sense because the opportunity for the venue to showcase its food to many people who have not visited before but who might do so in the future if they are impressed is completely lost.

The worst example I encountered was in a Spanish tapas restaurant (whose name I cannot remember because I’ve tried to eradicate it from my memory). Not only was it a restricted menu for group bookings but also it was traditionally English with turkey and all the trimmings along with other typical domestic alternatives. Not a sniff of any croquetas de jamón, chorizo or frittata alas.

At least the place had the sense to delay the food arriving at the table for so long that its customers had glugged so much cheap company-funded Rioja that they had forgot all about the food. The only thing to appear for a number of hours was hummus and baskets of French stick. At least it was consistent in delivering no foodstuff with anything whatsoever to do with Spain.

This is an example at the extremity but the reality is that deviations from the norm are undertaken by far too many restaurants around Christmas. Maybe a lesson should be learnt from the most high-end of venues, which change virtually nothing over the festive period – except for the décor. There are reasons that they are regarded as the best in the game – they know why their customers visit them and that’s exactly they give them Christmas or no Christmas.

Apart from that I can’t wait for December. Only 49 days to go until the big man makes an appearance.

Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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