Confidence levels among the leaders of Britain's pub, bar and restaurant groups remain broadly flat in light of ongoing political uncertainty and multiple continuing business challenges.
That is according to the latest CGA Fourth Business Confidence Survey, which found operators' optimism in their own business prospects continues to be higher than their faith in the market as a whole. However, the June poll of around 140 senior industry executives did show that drink-led operators were notably more upbeat about the future.
Leaders were more upbeat about their own businesses, with a majority (65%) fairly or very optimistic about the next 12 months, though the figure was down both quarter-on-quarter (from 68%) and year-on-year (from 75%). Movements in the two measures showed that the gap between confidence levels in their own businesses and in the market in general had narrowed slightly over the past three months.
The survey also highlights concern about the frequency of consumers' visits to pubs, bars and restaurants over the rest of 2019. Nearly half (45%) of leaders think consumers will eat and drink out less often in the next six months than they do now, with far fewer (9%) predicting they will do so more often.
Three in five (61%) leaders of drink-led businesses say they feel optimistic about the market over the next 12 months - nearly twice the proportion of leaders of food-led businesses (33%). This echoes findings from the Coffer Peach Business Tracker that show much stronger like-for-like sales growth for managed drink-led operators than for food-led ones over the past year.
Fragile market confidence reflects the many pressures facing the hospitality sector, including rising labour, property and food costs, intense competition and uncertainty over Brexit. It follows a tough first half of 2019, with more than a quarter (29%) of leaders reporting that their business performance over the past six months had been below expectations - nine percentage points up on CGA's last Confidence Survey.
CGA group chief executive Phil Tate said: "The patchy optimism among food-led business leaders confirms that 2019 has been a rough ride, with casual dining operators buffeted by ferocious headwinds and several high-profile brands struggling. But leaders of drink-led businesses clearly feel they have much more to look forward to - a sign that after many years of pub closures and restaurant expansion, the tables have turned."
The latest CGA Fourth Business Confidence Survey also highlights the need for investment if brands are to obtain a competitive edge. A third (33%) of leaders say they plan refurbishments across more sites this year than last, with only 14% planning fewer. This suggests that operators are focused on making the most of their existing assets rather than expansion, and recognise the importance of keeping their venues fresh and appealing.
Ben Hood, chief executive of Fourth, said: "It's fascinating to see something of a confidence gap emerging in the outlooks of operators from different types of businesses, which is clearly a product of the extremely challenging conditions buffeting some parts of hospitality. What is also resoundingly clear from industry leaders is a razor-sharp focus on labour productivity, no matter what type of business they lead."