For generations, pubs have been at the heart of community life in the UK; our TV soap operas revolve around fictional, but iconic, locals: The Rover’s Return, The Queen Vic, and The Woolpack.
These exist at the hub of community life; the venue to gather and share all life’s joys and dramas. But in reality, all is not well with ‘the local’. The British people’s relationship with pubs has changed, manifesting a trend that’s similar to the impact on our high streets, from retail to banking and restaurants. The traditional pub is under threat and a range of pressures are forcing closures and transforming the very nature of what a pub actually needs to be in order to remain relevant.
The notion of ‘social’ is now inseparable from ‘media’, so that in this digital age online communities to many have become as, or more, important than the tangible experience of ‘society’. In addition, the places or hubs that we now favour to gather in, across all regions in the UK, have shifted towards the likes of ‘third-place’ coffee shops such as Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero, and other independent cafes.
In urban centres, newer bars are becoming preferred over pubs for social get togethers, underpinned by the craft beer and gin revolutions. At the same time, younger generations – although not without their contradictions – are generally leaning less than their forbears on alcohol as an essential part of their socialising, striving for healthier lifestyles overall.
The pubs that have successfully responded to this dangerous shift, have as a dominant movement done so through food-driven re-positioning – shifting from their original purpose as a default and ad-hoc community gathering place focused on the bar, to become pre-defined ‘let’s eat out’ destinations. Inspired by lesser or greater degrees by the notion of ‘Gastropub’, they have become restaurants surrounded by the peripheral trappings of what used to be a local pub. But for traditional ‘locals’ wanting to stay true to the notion of pub-first, the challenge is even more complex.
We wish to understand if there is an experiential ‘formula’ to what made pubs such wonderful communal experiences in the past. If so, could this be modified or updated to keep them as an important thread in the fabric of our evolving society?
How can pubs continue to play a relevant role in our new and future social landscape?
There will always be demand from consumers for warm, hospitable, and well-considered venues to socialise, eat, drink, and get together. From bars, brewery and craft beverage concepts, members clubs, and cafes, it is the experience, the sense of community, the integrity of product and an environment that responds and relates to the lifestyles of its audiences that make them an attraction and destination choice.
Here are some high-level conclusions for principles to consider that may help:
Stand for something: Whether it is a discovery of the local brews, a premium service, the pub garden to end all pub gardens, or the best sausage rolls for miles – define what makes your pub uniquely different and special. Think of the ways you can better engage or attract the audience you are targeting and what specifically, you want your pub to be famous for. Then make it the best it can be.
Be a genuine community venue: Integrity matters in order to create an authentic, meaningful, living and breathing experience. Building meaningful links to the local community and being creative as a venue to highlight your local features as well as being a comfortable place for people to gather, can populate the physical space of the pub. The fabric of ‘community’ is being fragmented – but humans are social animals and we want reasons to gather and great places to do so. A programme of events oriented around and celebrating local life could enhancing the pub experience now and into the future, in a way that makes sense in light of the role they have played throughout their history.
Become an all-day, all-year place to be: It’s not too difficult now to serve coffee and pastries every bit as good as the high street icons, or independent cafes – create an ambience that suits a wide range of occasions and social groups, throughout the day, from the coffee morning gossip sessions through afternoon business chats to the great moments & occasions throughout the year.
From stale to fresh: That stale-beer sticky carpet feeling might hold some nostalgia for some of us of a certain age, but it’s just not attractive to most. Think about the ways you can avoid the negative trappings of the fusty old local, without losing the essence of everything wonderful about a traditional pub atmosphere. The interior should also reflect the nature and history of the pub and the unique local character it sits within; but there are opportunities to be more creative in bringing these aspects to life visually.
Layering & texture: What can a pub do better than its newer rivals? Pub interiors will appeal if they feel layered, complex, characterful – and anything but formulaic. The design analysis should be more about the universal ‘anchor point’ principles of what makes a wonderful, relevant and compelling pub experience – rather than focused on overly proscribed styling or décor rules. The warmth of the open fire, the cosiness of the settle, a wonderful garden, the games etc.
An approachable space: The pub is essentially a casual venue for people to gather, therefore even if you elevate the experience through its design, do not forget that it has to be welcoming and approachable. Some pubs have evolved so much that they have more of a restaurant layout, be aware when developing your pub concept to not lose the authenticity of the local and the essence of this institution – yet avoid that feeling of intimidation famously portrayed by The Black Dog in An American Werewolf in London. Pubs, when done well, can uniquely provide in a small footprint, the communal experience of a great bar, with the intimacy of small groups at individual tables or booths – whatever mood, mindset or group, a great pub has a range of spaces from social to solitary.
Product offer: It’s a fact, people are drinking less, and your offer should reflect that, whether offering non-alcoholic, low-alcohol options, or drinks that can cater to trending dietary requirements. If you are going to hold certain events for the community, follow and cater to their taste and interests.
Community strengthening initiatives: Member’s clubs maintain events teams, because their initiatives are a huge pillar of their strategy when it comes to building a sense of community and bringing like-minded people together. Pub initiatives could be similar, even with less resources, perhaps partnering with other pubs for larger events, and offering a platform to various audiences within their locality. Also, by measuring the success of certain initiatives, pubs can then create recurrent events that people can associate with them and attend regularly.
We would love to see a burst of creativity across the landscape of pubs in the UK. There is no inevitability in a slow death of the local, leaving us only with a bunch of restaurants in the guise of what used to be a pub, offering us a place for our Sunday roasts. There is inspiration to be found in other sectors where the best principles of strategies for the creation of wonderful experiences, have been used to create new life. We believe in People Inspired Experiences – pubs have always been just that – we’d like to see them continue to be so for many years to come.