When you're a large brand with 30 bars nationwide it can be difficult to develop and maintain a personal relationship with your customers. This was the problem facing Bass's expanding All Bar One chain, and the solution it came up with was an in-house magazine.
"Small operators can have a personal relationship with their customers, but it's not so easy with a big group," says Tamsin Saunders, editorial director of Barfly, All Bar One's 16-page quarterly launched in September last year. "The magazine is a way to establish a personality in a group where the bars are all the same."
It has taken a while for restaurants and hotels to realise the worth of an in-house publication for their customers, something airlines have been doing for years, but All Bar One is now one of many to head down this route.
Barfly is based on a lifestyle or Sunday supplement type of magazine and is not intended to be promotional. "People are turned off by promotional newsletters," says Saunders. "All Bar One wants to be seen as an interesting and sophisticated sort of place that cares about the same things as its customers - not just as a big company churning out a promotional thing."
The articles are written by national newspaper and magazine journalists and can be about anything that All Bar One customers relate to, from buying contemporary art to one-night stands. Essays in Love author Alain de Botton contributes a regular column and there are arts reviews and travel features.
The four food and drink pages are always related to offerings in the bars and contain recipes written by head development chef Phil Oates so that customers can cook All Bar One dishes at home.
Saunders says response to the first three issues has been very good. "We have had lots of feedback both from customers and prominent writers who have expressed an interest in writing for the magazine."
Distribution costs are kept to a minimum by making 1,000 copies of the magazine available in each bar for customers to take away rather than mailing them out. Advertising by suppliers makes up 15% of the content and is the means by which the magazine is funded.
Budgeting for hefty distribution costs is something Conran Restaurants will need to do if it goes ahead with plans for its own title later this year. The group is looking at developing a Conran newspaper following the success of its Bluebird newspaper distributed to 400,000 people last year to coincide with the restaurant's launch.
"We have established a core number of customers who are interested in finding out more about Conran Restaurants and it is important to communicate with them," says public relations manager for the group, Victoria Parnis. "The aim is not to make it a promotional tool, because we believe customers are more intelligent than that, but to make it an interesting read."
Groupe Chez Gérard has been striving to produce an interesting read of features, food items and group news for its customers for five years with the bi-annual Santé magazine, which has recently been increased from 16 to 24 pages.
Santé is distributed in the group's 14 restaurants and mailed to customers on a database compiled from business cards left at the restaurants and people who have indicated on comment slips that they would like to receive the magazine.
Circulation currently stands at 100,000 and is growing, according to Jenny Binns of Grayling Public Relations, who produces the magazine. "It is the group's leading marketing tool, designed to get bums on seats, and the marketing budget is Santé-oriented." Spin-offs include supplementary newsletters and a Web site.
Restaurants are not the only places to recognise the importance of communicating with customers. Highstyle is produced by Highbury House Communications for Inter-Continental Hotels and Resorts and targets the group's business customers in 43 hotels across Europe.
The glossy, 100-page quarterly contains celebrity interviews, travel features, fashion, a "cultural diary" of events in various cities, reader offers and competitions in addition to news of the group's hotels and their facilities. "It's a very good way to enhance the image of luxury and attention to detail we want to promote," says publisher Rebecca Linn.
Highstyle costs between £60,000-£70,000 per issue to produce and is funded by advertising of products and services in keeping with the luxurious style of the magazine. About 400 copies are mailed to travel agents and top corporate clients, but the bulk of distribution is done through hotel rooms and restaurants. Additionally, readers can subscribe for £10 for four issues.
According to Dee Cayhill, director of public relations in the UK for Inter-Continental, feedback has been good. "Every issue gets about 1,000 responses," she says.
The Virgin Hotel Collection has chosen a different approach to its in-house publication. Its four-page newsletter Recollections is designed by an agency in Newcastle and contains a roundup of news about the hotels written by marketing director Ranjit Thandi. "The aim is to inform customers of what is going on at the hotels and to update them on the collection and any refurbishments," says Thandi. "It contains no advertising."
Fifty thousand copies of the bi-annual newsletter are mailed out to customers on a database compiled from enquiries and a further 20,000 are available at reception in the group's 40 UK hotels.
Thandi is convinced the newsletter increases awareness of the group among customers and has been pleased to see reader response growing since Recollections was first published a year ago. "Each issue contains a competition to which 60% of the database respond," she says. "And 10-15% take up the special offers."
But it isn't just large groups that choose to communicate with their customers in this way. Raymond Blanc makes sure the 6,000 "friends" of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons are kept informed of goings-on by sending them Le Petit Rapporteur, an eight-page newsletter written by Blanc and his general manager Simon Rhatigan.
The regular diary dates page gives details of forthcoming special occasions such as Bastille Day celebrations and other festivals, with sample menus, and "chatterbox" is a regular update of renovations and other news.
Catering for a different market altogether is The Spaggo, produced for younger customers of Spaggo's Bar & Grill in Slough, Berkshire. The first issue was mailed out to 400 children in October last year with a further 300 being dispatched as the database, compiled from colouring competition entries on the children's menu, grew.
The content of the four-page illustrated comic ties in with characters at the restaurant such as clowns Spags and Lasagne who roam the restaurant in the afternoons. "We produce it in-house with the help of a friendly designer who charges next to nothing for the artwork," says proprietor Tammy Mariaux. "And we get the printing done quite cheaply too. Our largest cost is distribution."
Mariaux is pleased with the effect on business. "We sent out a letter with the first issue encouraging mothers to bring their children into the restaurant during the afternoons," she says. "As a result, turnover has increased by £3,000 per week; and of the first 400 copies sent out, 4% responded to the competition."
The Spaggo will be produced twice a year to start with, although the frequency may be increased at a later date. Says Mariaux: "It's a great way of communicating with people who have already eaten at your restaurant."