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A sell-out 200 capacity audience of the industry’s leading opinion formers attended yesterday’s ALMR Spring Conference (April 24 2013) for a high protein/low carb diet of intelligence, innovation and inspiration about the future direction of not only the sector but also the Association, writes AMLR strategic affairs director Kate Nicholls.

The conference was the valedictory event for outgoing chief Nick Bish and, as chairman Steve Richards said in his concluding remarks, he certainly went out on a high, handing incoming chief executive David McHattie an organisation full of momentum. And the conference certainly demonstrated in spades the dynamism, vibrancy and energy around our sector at the moment.

Kate Nicholls is strategic affairs director of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers.

Even though I had a hand in planning the vision and the narrative we wanted to tell, the quality and breadth of insights from all the speakers was still overwhelming and trying to sum it up in a few hundred words barely does justice to their input. But if I had to sum up the event for those unfortunate enough not to be able to attend, then there were three key messages I took away:

The future’s bright

Despite the talk of austerity Britain and the appalling weather, just like Narnia, there are signs of a thaw.

Justin Urquhart-Stewart gave us a whistle-stop tour of the world economy to tell us not just that things can only get better – they already are.

The green shoots are there in terms of consumer spend and consumer confidence but business optimism is lagging behind. And the most resilient market demographic – the millenials.

In eating out terms, they have been the only age bracket showing growth throughout the recession and 61% eat out at least weekly – but not necessarily in our outlets. That compares with just 30-40% of the old age range which make up traditional pub customers.

Although I can hardly claim to be their voice – except in my own imagination where I am still 19 – they are not only our customers, they are our employees.

Understanding what motivates and drives them will be key to capturing their leisure spend.

More importantly, the flat business confidence is not matched by the investors. A panel of private equity, banks and business angels suggested that confidence in and support for the sector is returning. Investors are perking up and the funding is available for good ideas and crucially good operators.

The future may be brighter than we think!

The future’s – well, if not Orange, then at least digital

This was an overriding theme coming through loud and clear across all the presentations.

Contactless payment, ordering services, data capture were all explored and with 63% of those pesky millenials using social media and the internet to decide where to eat, drink and party – it is one operators cannot ignore.

This is not just the media you can control, it is the power and influence of a poorly lit, fuzzy smartphone photo of a meal on Instagram.

Paul Madden of Mitchells & Butlers and Alison Dolan of Sky identified the untapped potential of Wi-Fi and digital communications to deliver enhanced revenue but acknowledged that even the best digital marketeers in the sector know that general retail and other leisure sectors are streets ahead of pubs and bars in spotting this potential.

This is not just a service to customers, but is a key business driving tool, allowing you to capture and exploit information about your guests – which Karen Forrester of TGIF explained delivers a win-win in terms of team engagement, with the numbers following inevitably.

Back to the Future

What I found particularly interesting – and salutary – though was the fact that with all this technology at everyone’s finger tips it simply means that we as retailers have to be even better at the basics; getting retail right.

One lightbulb moment I had was a discussion about window dressing – basic I know in a digital age where you attract people in via vouchers, emails, online booking. If we remember to think like retailers then we should use our shop fronts in exactly the same way that Harvey Nichols and other high street retailers do.

Carluccio’s windows don’t just let you see into the venue, they sell a lifestyle, an aspiration. Check out a Drake and Morgan venue next time you are in the city and you will see what I mean about window dressing.

Because, let’s face it, if consumers are getting ever more sophisticated and discerning, if they know everything there is to know about your venue and your offer through the internet – or a friend’s photo – before they set out, then simply meeting their expectations is not going to be good enough.

You are going to have to do something different, something exciting – you are going to have to exceed their expectations each and every time they visit.

And the way you do that is through your service and through your people. You need to invest in them first and foremost.

As Luke Johnson said when he was talking about unlocking investment, angels and private equity invest in people – and there’s a man who knows a thing or two about retail!

Kate Nicholls is strategic affairs director of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. GS Systems supported the Spring Conference.

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