Thirsting for a theme no more

Themed pubs are falling out of favour with revellers, who now prefer a more minimalist backdrop, though they are still a hit with those in a party mood

Themed pubs and bars were welcomed by UK consumers when they were first developed in the Seventies. After years of drinking in more traditional establishments, there was great enthusiasm for pubs designed to look like an Irish tavern or an Australian outback bar.

Despite seeing rapid growth during the Nineties, however, the market has been in a state of general decline since 2001, according to Mintel. Its value has dropped from £382m in 2000 to an estimated £350m in 2002.

A number of closures have highlighted the fact that themes are falling out of favour with British drinkers. The number of Finnegan’s Wake Irish outlets operated by Scottish & Newcastle Retail (S&N) was reduced from 16 in 2001 to just seven in 2003. In 2002, Ballymore Leisure closed four of its eight Shoeless Joe’s sports bars, retaining sites in London, Brighton, Manchester and Cambridge.

However, the more successful chains in this area can still be seen on the UK’s high streets. Six Continents (now Mitchells & Butlers, formerly Bass Retail), had particular success with its O’Neill’s chain of Irish pubs and the 91-strong chain still dominates the market, accounting for 63 per cent of all venues with a national theme.

Australian bars are also very popular – this has been the only other national theme to be very successful to date. The winner in this area has been the Walkabout Inns, owned by pub and bar group Regent Inns. It has developed Walkabout into a chain of 41 large Australian pubs across the UK, offering a mix of Aussie beers and delicacies, screening key sporting events and staging live bands.

Regent also led the move during the Nineties towards developing themes in larger venues. It claims the Walkabout concept needs 12,000 square feet of high street space, which can generate double the sales of a traditional pub on the UK high street.

Although they have not been as popular as Irish and Australian bars, other countries have been used as themes. Pivo, a Czech café concept owned by Scottish company Belhaven Breweries, provides an interesting variation on the national theme as it is based on the popularity of Czech lagers such as Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell.

Sport-themed bars account for a third of the total market and are the second most popular genre. However, in terms of consumer popularity, Mintel’s research shows that one in four named sport as their preferred theme for a pub, which actually makes it the most popular theme and puts it ahead of national themes.

The remainder of the market is more fragmented with other themes using innovation, such as focusing on products, to try to rejuvenate the market. There has been a growth in the vodka bar market, reflecting the fact that young people are drinking more spirits and flavoured alcoholic beverages than beer.

Laurel Pub Company has a partnership with Vodka Bar Management, responsible for the Babushka bars, and northern bar operator Inventive Leisure now has 31 Revolution bars that stock a wide range of vodkas.

Consumers are increasingly looking for venues that have unique design and offer a memorable night out. At the same time, interiors have to be free from any theme-defining characteristics. Consumer trends point towards the need for sophisticated outlets that offer quality food and drink set against a neutral backdrop or even minimalist design.

Alternatively, eclectic schemes feed the more cosmopolitan consumer. Fusion bars and restaurants such as Opium, a French-Vietnamese bar, are increasingly popular with consumers looking for more than just a night of drinking. These venues feature a multitude of eclectic styles but do not have characteristics generally associated with themed pubs and bars, such as memorabilia or large centrepieces.

Having shown strong growth in the mid-Nineties, the novelty value of these pubs and bars has well and truly worn off. Many outlets are now returning to traditional pub or minimalist décors, which are in tune with the desires of the discerning British consumer, but the opposite of themed pubs and bars.

Yet although the market is shrinking, it is not last orders for themed pubs and bars just yet. Though Mintel’s research shows that two in five adults claim to prefer more traditional watering holes and never visit themed pubs and bars, the sector is still strong with “occasion drinkers”.

Themed pubs are more likely to attract consumers visiting for a one-off occasion, such as a birthday party. Consequently, the sector, like the themed restaurant, is now a niche market, offering a different visiting experience but only for the occasional users.

Mintel’s research shows that the turnover generated by the total pub market will remain sluggish and the number of outlets will remain static. The immediate future of themed pubs and bars looks even less promising as it is expected to fare worse than the pub market as a whole.

Mintel forecasts that turnover and the number of outlets in the themed pubs sector will fall over the next four years, but operators do still have areas of potential development. “Occasion consumers” may not offer the levels of sales that operators have seen in the past, but they do offer themed outlets a means of counteracting loss of share.

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