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Publicans pray for English success in the World Cup

15 June 2006

Unless you've been living on another planet this past week, 5pm tonight (15 June) sees England kick off their second World Cup match, against Trinidad & Tobago. For publicans, this evening is their biggest night since… well, the Paraguay game last weekend.

At first glance it would therefore appear madness for Ashley Hall, proprietor of the Pilot pub in Greenwich, London, to be spending the evening watching the match in Nuremberg rather than quenching the thirst and hunger of his customers back home.

But Hall is one of two publicans being flown to matches by brewer Fuller's following a competition to find managers with the most innovative business plans for boosting sales before and during the tournament.

Big business

What is clear when you speak to Hall and other publicans is that the World Cup will be big business for the trade only if they work hard to make it that way. "A lot of pubs have plasma screens now so you have to offer something different," says Hall. Initiatives he plans include an outdoor big screen, barbecue and bottle bar, TVs in the main and snug bars, food promotions such as "66 World Cup" platters, a more limited overall menu to ensure food gets out faster and a 10% discount for people who order an hour before kick-off.

Although Hall is reluctant to reveal how much extra he expects to take during the tournament, industry opinion suggests well-run pubs can expect to report at least double takings on England match nights. "While England stay in they will be huge games. If England reach the quarter- or semi-finals, they will be weekend games and that will be fantastic," says Barracuda general manager Paul Cutsforth.

Most big chains have been working on how to squeeze the most cash out of the tournament for months now. A regular stream of advice has been relayed to them since the New Year, not only about specific promotions but on general good practice.

Tips include ensuring the screen is clean, seats are shifted around to give the best view, table service is available where possible, and managers have enough staff, beer, food and so on. "It's a heck of an organisational challenge," admits Geoff Brown, director of marketing at Punch Taverns.

But on a wider level, the tournament shows the ever closer link between the pub trade and televised sport, be it football, this winter's Ashes tests in Australia or Wimbledon later this month. What's also clear is that the relationship between the two is not always smooth. Last month Wolverhampton & Dudley admitted it was likely to remove Sky from half its pubs by the start of next season because of the "ridiculous" charges the satellite TV operator was levying for showing football matches. The brewer said the cost to it of showing matches had increased by £400,000 in the first half of the year, a rise of 20% on the previous year.

Televised sport

JD Wetherspoon has also had a turbulent relationship with televised sport, having to reverse its position of having no TVs in pubs.

"There's an assumption that the World Cup gets a lot of people into pubs who then spend a lot of money, but we think that's a fallacy," says operations director (south) Nathan Wall.

He also points out that there is a significant market out there who are not fanatical about the World Cup and won't take kindly to "their" pub being taken over or radically changed.

"We're not aiming to compete with the sports bars. To be honest a lot of our profit forecasts are pretty pessimistic," Wall adds.

There are two other potential downsides from the tournament that may yet take some of the shine off the riches ringing into tills around the country.

The first is the ever-present worry about rowdy punters, particularly if England do badly, and the impact that might have on the trade and its image. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell has promised a nationwide enforcement clampdown.

The second worry is what happens once it's all over. "The World Cup is such an opportunity that inevitably there will be a dip," warns Brown. "We're encouraging publicans to think about family events, quiz nights, DVD evenings and barbecue kits."

Let's hope it will turn out to be a triumph for England and the pub trade. But astute publicans already need to be looking beyond thinking, living and breathing football.

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