Play it again, Sam 13 December 2019 Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
In this week's issue... Play it again, Sam Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
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Best publicity still has to be word of mouth

01 January 2000
Best publicity still has to be word of mouth

"We found you in the guide," he bellowed, slamming the book down on the bar by way of emphasis. "I just hope it'll be worth the detour and you'll need to look sharp because we haven't got all day."

His next sentence was a rapid-fire set of questions: "Have you got a menu, where are the toilets," and then as an afterthought to his wife, "what do you want?"

She smiled a tiny smile and said, "a gin and tonic please", as she watched him disappear in the direction of the toilets. "Right," he said, when he returned, "I'll try a pint of your best bitter," and looking at his wife, asked again, "what was it you wanted?"

There was a time when I wondered whether a guide entry had any worthwhile effect at all, customers hardly ever made mention of such matters and certainly never brought the guide in with them, let alone used it as a means of underlining their expectations.

But times and manners have changed, as assertive, guide-toting customers are now by no means uncommon.

Guides nowadays are recognised as an important weapon in our armoury of ways to increase trade and profitability. They come under the heading of publicity, you see, which is perceived to be free, as opposed to advertising, which is perceived to be paid for.

Publicity in its simplest and best form is good, old-fashioned word of mouth, which is undoubtedly the least expensive way of promoting the hospitality we offer. Nothing can equal the selling power of satisfied customers telling all and sundry about their favourite hostelry.

A tasty piece of publicity will provoke a response along the lines of "Oh, they're doing well aren't they?" Advertising, on the other hand, could well produce a reaction such as "Hello, they're advertising, business must be poor."

Guides, though, come in a variety of guises, the best being those that are the result of collated word-of-mouth recommendations. The Good Pub Guide is a prime example, listing more than 1,000 pubs in England, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands, all of which are visited anonymously, following repeated recommendations by the public and assessed on food, drink and atmosphere.

Earning accolades

Innkeepers cannot buy the Good Pub Guide accolade, they can only earn it by having a genuine concern for their customers and their pub. The AA Guide to Britain's Best Pubs, the Which? Guide to Country Pubs and Egon Ronay's Guides all rely upon word-of-mouth recommendation and make anonymous inspections. Hostelries gain entry into such guides free of charge.

If, however, a guide were to appear on the market purporting to be independent and unbiased, when in actual fact the main qualification for entry was a fairly hefty fee, I would imagine that most right-thinking people would view such a publication with mistrust. But such guides do exist.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a whole rash of them appeared under the guise of titles such as "A Guide to the Historic Inns of Chester" or, "The Picturesque Inns of Rural Lancashire" and so on. Those who wished to purchase an entry were then invited to submit a photograph or a sketch of their hostelry, together with the wording of the actual entry which they wanted to appear. All very cosy.

Mercifully, such "guides" were easily identifiable as they bore little resemblance to the real thing, but the concept of marketing and advertising, masquerading as genuine acclaim, was to prove for some, too much of a money-spinning opportunity to resist.

Les Routiers, for instance, makes full use of the blue-and-red sign which, for many years, has heralded a warm welcome and reasonably priced good food in France, for locals, truck drivers and travellers alike.

But now, despite the fact that the professionally produced annual guide is offered for sale in bookshops, cheek by jowl with all the other guides, Les Routiers nowadays appears to be simply a marketing outfit and those establishments that are featured in the guide have paid substantial sums of money for the privilege.

After an initial £50 inspection fee, pubs and restaurants that wish to become members of Les Routiers are charged an annual fee that rises according to the number of covers. Up to 49 covers, the annual fee is £395 plus VAT (ie, £464.13), 50-79 covers £425 plus VAT (£499.38) and 80-plus covers pay £445 plus VAT (£522.88).

Readers may draw their own conclusions, but it seems to me that the Les Routiers Guide, by charging an annual fee for inclusion, cannot lay claim to the same integrity as those guides that do not.

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