Most publicans would like to attract more women to their pubs, but the reality is that many are still missing out on the enormous potential of female funds. And a lot of what needs to be improved is less about big investment and more about attention to detail.
Of course, the idea of making licensed premises more female-friendly is not new. So much of what those early female-friendly concepts such as Pitcher & Piano in the mid-1980s did - open windows, all-day food, and better wine (available by the glass) - is now taken as read by the majority of pub chain operators. But is the female market genuinely still being overlooked?
New research from the BitterSweet Partnership, an arm of brewer Molson Coors, has shed light on the importance of the female pound to the pub, and on what women currently enjoy about pubs and what could be improved.
In a survey of 2,000 women by ICM in March, nearly one in three women said they visited a pub at least once a fortnight. But major bugbears which prevented women from visiting pubs more often include: an unfriendly and often unwelcoming environment (26%), and poor music choice (21%).
So it's actually smaller things, which can be addressed very simply at an operational level, that can really make all the difference, not just to your customers' experiences of your venues but to the bottom line.
That is something Lee Cash of Oxfordshire-based Peach Pub Company understands well. "Because I come from a brasserie background it never occurred to me that a lot of things we were doing in our pubs were ‘female-friendly'," he explains. "It has never been a subject of debate because high standards are in-built and there's no reason why pubs should be any different."
And making the environment welcoming was something that the Bristol-based Loungers chain took very seriously from the start. Founded by three men in 2002, it has gone from one venue to 13 and is now worth more than £8m. The company recently undertook some research that showed 60% of its clientele were women in their twenties and thirties, proof that tapping into female profit potential can lead to big things, as co-founder Alex Reilley explains.
"It's hard to pigeon-hole the venues as a bar, bistro or café because they are little bit of all of that rolled into one," he says. "I think the main driver for women is that we are relaxed and flexible: we can be their local café if they just want a quick coffee with a friend, a pre-work breakfast, a business lunch, or a good first date venue because they feel safe."
For Becky Salisbury, co-owner of Salisbury Pubs, which has four award-wining venues in the home counties, there's another simple mantra: "Cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness! It's absolutely vital and it's something you have to make a culture, not one of those tick sheets in the toilets," she says.
"If you can't get your staff into the mode that pub toilets should be something they want to use as well, then you're failing.
"Signage is vital, too. I've noticed both personally and professionally that asking where the toilet is at the bar is not something women want to do, and nor should they have to."
And it's something Ed Turner, commercial director of South-east based Geronimo Inns, agrees with: "Loos are something we still do really poorly in this country, and I'm not even saying we get it right all the time but companies like ours and even big chains such as Wetherspoon's, which major on getting it spot on in this area, have the right idea."
And talking of getting it right, women clearly won't tolerate having to stand around in the same way that men might, with 18% of them finding a lack of seating an issue. It's clear that operators conscious of creature comforts, be it seating or signage, will benefit, says Turner. "What we do is design pubs that remind people of their homes - they are quirky, individual and comfortable," he explains. "But we never leave them standing still: we move the bric-a-brac around, and we're careful to make sure that we wash down the front of our pubs every day.
"We're also careful to recruit managers who you'd be happy to have in your kitchen for a cuppa, because they tend to recruit in their image, and that makes for the right environment - then blokes and girls alike will want to come to your pub."
So it's not that difficult to make sure that women are made to feel more welcome; mostly it's just elbow grease, good manners and common sense - and if you follow the list of top tips on page 27, you'll see an uplift in women in your pub or bar in no time.
BACK MASSAGE AND BUBBLY AT THE SWAN, BRADWELL, ESSEX
For Aimee Winsbury-Cutts and her husband, Ashley, the answer to getting more women into their two Essex pubs lies in back massages and free bubbly.
The licensees of two Greene King properties - the Swan and the Dolphin, both near Braintree in Essex - wanted to find a way to overcome women's preconceptions that their properties were fusty, traditional country pubs. After a "Women Mean Business" seminar run by the pub company, they hit upon the idea of an exclusive women-only beauty and therapy event called "Bubbles and Beauty" at the Swan.
"The whole idea was to make women want to come to our pub. As a woman, if I don't know a pub, I won't go in there because you don't know what pubs are like on the inside," Aimee explains. "I was mainly interested in attracting women so that they could taste our food and see that it was a nice friendly, clean environment that they would want to come to again for lunches with their friends."
Aimee sold 70 tickets for £10 each for the event, mostly to older women, which fits in with Greene King's strategy of targeting what it calls "SWAGs", defined as "sassy, wise and grown-up" women above the age of 35, who have more money to spend and are less tied down by children.
The evening saw guests get a glass of sparkling wine on arrival, a beauty treatment, and nibbles. Extra treatments were £10 for 20 minutes. Male drinkers who hadn't heard in advance that their pub was going to be overrun by women were redirected to the nearby Dolphin.
By the end of the evening, the Swan had taken £500 behind the bar, and Aimee estimates that they made a 70% mark-up on the tickets. By publicising similar future events, she also took 20 advanced bookings. And one of those future events is likely to be something for women who want to take refuge from wall-to-wall football during the World Cup.
"Basically I just think: well, what do I like? I like getting my nails done and having something nice to eat and having a drink and having a chat to my friends. So it was about creating that atmosphere," she says. Creating that atmosphere also means other little touches, such as women's magazines at the bar, as well as newspapers; a "Ladies Who Lunch" loyalty card scheme; and better feminine products in the ladies' toilets.
Want to attract more women? Convince them it's a safe place to meet friends (top), use the bar area to serve breakfast (left), and make sure there's good seating (right)
CUP CAKES AND TEA COSIES AT THE PLOUGH IN HARBORNE, WEST MIDLANDS
Adam Johnson is a rare beast, having made it big with a series of highly-acclaimed top-end bars, such as 52 Degrees North. When the recession hit he decided that he would be better off at the coalface and returned to running a pub after an amicable split with his business partner.
The Plough in Harborne, West Midlands, is now a multi-award-winning site itself and Johnson puts much of that down to attention to detail and making the pub as welcoming to women as possible. Johnson says that, particularly in smaller villages, the pub has to be a multi-function venue. "What we quickly realised when we were looking to put on a more all-day offering is that you can't just put a Fairtrade coffee on and expect them to come, you've got to do something different from up the road," he says.
One of the real catalysts was that his wife - although she has a full-time job - started making cup cakes. "Because they are really good and fresh they looked amazing," Johnson adds. "At the start we threw a lot of them away, but they created a real talking point. Little things like that started to soften the pub, which had been predominantly a drinking environment for seven years.
"Now they are a roaring business in themselves - but if I had still been looking at this from a head-office perspective, if they hadn't worked after two weeks I would have cancelled them, but because we are putting them into the business at cost it made sense."
Johnson's wife and his female designer also keep an eye on the trends. When knitting became trendy they started to hand-knit the tea cosies and offer a biscuit of the week, which is always retro, such as a Jammy Dodger. It all adds a "smile" factor to the pub and allows them to charge £1.90 for a tea - but making sure it's still a value proposition.
"We also make sure that we are constantly vigilant about respecting the customers so that they in turn will respect the environment. We don't want this to be a Wacky Warehouse, but we do instil in staff that if a woman is coming in with a buggy to open the door and that the kids get a colouring book and, if the parents are OK, some sweets," he says. "This may sound trite but firstly it keeps the kids quiet and the rest of the customers happy and what we have found is that mum and dad will come back without the kids, and all it has cost you is a handful of jelly beans!"
TOP 10 FEMALE-FRIENDLY TIPS
1 A warm greeting and send-off goes a long way
2 Cleanliness is key, particularly in the loos
3 Soft drinks aren't just for children, stock some high-end products such as fresh juice
4 Good value (not cheap) food and drink will get women in daily
5 Keep the scheme evolving and fresh - ie, change the cushions or rotate artwork
6 Local provenance will encourage more purchases
7 Flexible furniture for groups of ladies or mums with prams
8 Staff should be smart, even if it's just matching branded polo shirts
9 Soft furnishings such as cushions and curtains to soften the scheme and relax into
10 Ensure your bar looks different at each stage of the trading day - eg, a Bloody Mary tray alongside cereal and pastries on the bar in the morning
Design tips were provided by Melony Spencer from design firm Spencer Swinden