Britain’s operators in military style challenge to liberate pubs in time for Independence

Pub Operators re-opening business Pubs
Share this article

When Prime Minister, Boris Johnson confirmed 4 July – Independence Day – as the date that pubs in England could throw open their doors to a thirsty population, the collective imagination was no doubt consumed by images of pints of ice cold lager in frosted glasses, frothing real ales and giant glasses of Sauvignon being quaffed in sun drenched pub gardens. For Britain’s operators, however, 4 July took on a different and much more serious meaning, representing the culmination of the biggest logistics exercise the industry has experienced. Coinslot spoke to four of the industry’s leading players – Chris Haley, Greg Wood, Matt Bicknell and Nick Rudd – to find out how they were working behind the scenes as part of the unglamorous supply chain helping pubs to get their game face on ahead of the big day.

 

Nick Rudd Managing Director, The Rudd Group

 

Coinslot: Can you describe how big a logistical task reopening is?

Nick RuddNick Rudd: As you can imagine we have essentially had to shut down our entire operation and now need to reopen it again in an efficient manner whilst managing the cash burn before we start to generate income. As a group, we have a number of products in sites that cannot simply be switched on again after such a long standby period. For example, all of the fruit machines require refloating, the ice makers and ware washers need deep cleaning and the jukeboxes updating. We have found it both frustrating and difficult to work to uncertain timescales.

CS: Is cashless machine play a bigger issue now than it was previously and how are you responding to this?

NR: I wouldn’t say that it is a bigger issue now but the pandemic has certainly made it a more prominent talking point with a number of breweries. We have always been keen to promote cashless payment and if anything, this downtime has allowed us to have some interesting conversations with regards to moving things forward. We began the roll out of cashless solutions last year and believe the pace of this will increase in the next 6-12 months.

CS: How do you rate the lobbying activities undertaken by the British Beer and Pub Association?

NR: I believe that the industry as a whole has pulled together very well and our trade associations have been very good at relaying and interpreting information from the government. Again, the main frustrations lie with the uncertainty regarding dates.

We began the roll out
of cashless solutions last
year and believe the
pace…will increase in
the next 6-12 months

CS: With a decline in pub footfall, either as a result of social distancing requirements or a general fear of going out, do you think PubCos will revisit their machine density and look to remove AWPs?

NR: We actually believe quite the opposite will be true once the doors open. For three months now consumers have been able to buy cheap alcohol in the supermarket and drink it at home, the things that they miss about the pubs are the things that they cannot do at home – play pool, fruit machines, soak up the atmosphere etc. Keeping these items in operation will be crucial during reopening. Pubs have worked very hard to ensure machines can still be available to customers whilst abiding by social distancing rules. We have seen an increase in enquiries for our unique products such as VDarts that will allow darts players to play people from other pubs across the country remotely and at a social distance.

CS: Do you think the way that you operate equipment in pubs will change in terms of service and collections?

NR: In the short term, naturally we will have to adapt our operation slightly due to the reduction of income and the necessary need to manage the health and safety of staff members returning to work.

CS: How will the ‘new normal’ impact game design and game play – do you think percentage pay outs will increase for example?

NR: One of the main reasons digital machines have been so successful is because of their high percentage payout. I don’t actually see game design changing that much as a result of the pandemic. The only major change that may come in to operation sooner would be cashless. It could also be a great opportunity to look at stakes and prizes on Cat C machines.

CS: With food likely to be less of a profit centre, is there an opportunity/ possibility that pubs that are without gaming machines will look at new revenue streams including income from AWPs?

NR: Definitely, as mentioned earlier, pubs will now need to look for items other than food and drinks sales to generate footfall and revenue. I think a lot may need to focus on additional entertainment and their rhythm of the week. It is also important to remember that the AWP income can often be the most profitable square footage in the pub.

CS: As pubs try and create an atmosphere with fewer customers, does pay to play music become more relevant particularly jukeboxes that have apps which mean customers don’t have to touch hard surfaces?

NR: Jukeboxes have always had their place in the pub environment and I don’t see this changing – all of our jukeboxes already allow for remote play via apps. Venues may look to install full entertainment systems similar to those we supply through our Innstay arm of the business. These entertainment systems allow for scheduled background music that changes throughout the course of the day.

Greg Wood Essex Leisure

 

Coinslot: Can you describe how big a logistical task reopening is?

Greg WoodGreg Wood: Make no mistake, it represents a huge challenge for the business as a whole. There are a lot of aspects to consider and incorporate into our plans to ensure that we don’t either over spend on wages or start the process too late. With reference to staffing, having put almost all of the team on furlough we need to ensure that we bring them back in a way that has maximum impact for the restart, without spending too much on wages and impacting cash flow. The delay in getting official confirmation for the reopening of the hospitality sector has had a massive impact on our timetable and reopening plans. Risk assessments have been continually evolving based on government guidelines, changes to internal practices and feedback from the small number of staff that we have brought back to work. We have been making contact with all of our sites over the last week, the vast majority of whom weren’t able to do anything until they received official guidance, which has made planning far more difficult and complex.

CS: Is cashless machine play a bigger issue now than it was previously and how are you responding to this?

GW: There has been a big move by the supermarkets and other major retailers to cashless payments. This has been a prudent in terms of the pandemic but it has also delivered huge commercial benefits. While cash is far from dead, Covid-19 has meant that more people are willing and open to use alternative payment methods. Overall, I think that cashless is a bigger issue now than it was, to this end we have committed a number of the Game Payment units to get out into pubs as soon as possible. Our view is that we need to be able to offer the customer as many payment methods as we can, not only because of Covid-19, but other issues surrounding security, age verification and player interaction.

We need to be able to offer the customer as many payment methods as we can

CS: How do you rate the lobbying activities undertaken by the British Beer and Pub Association?

GW: I think the BBPA and UKH have been doing a very good job with lobbying. There has been a large amount of work put in by both association and also the Bii. They have draft guidance that is available on their websites and bacta has had some input on this around machine guidance where it has been applicable. I think the disappointment was around the lack of clarity from the government on dates, and which has only just been resolved.

CS: With a decline in pub footfall, either as a result of social distancing requirements or a general fear of going out, do you think PubCos will revisit their machine density and look to remove AWPs?

GW: Currently we haven’t seen any appetite for this on a large scale. We have been working closely with customers and we are in almost all instances been able to keep equipment on site. There are obviously instances where this has not been possible and machines will need to be removed, but overall, we are managing to keep density. But these are very early days to be predicting the outcome of density.

CS: Do you think the way that you operate equipment in pubs will change in terms of service and collections?

GW: There will in the short term be some quite big changes. For example, operations, machine changes, collections and service times will be different Longer term I think it’s hard to say, how long current and new or changed restrictions will be in place. But from our dialogue with customers it is clear that we are all willing to work together to ensure that we all survive

 

Matt Bicknell Operations Director, Regal Gaming and Leisure

 

Coinslot: Can you describe how big a logistical task reopening is?

Matt BicknellMatt Bicknell: There’s absolutely no doubt that the reopening programme represents the single biggest mobilisation and logistics exercise in Regal’s history. The key challenges have included sourcing and delivering over five metric tonnes of pound coins, ensuring adequate supplies of PPE to ensure that we meet the highest standards of staff welfare which is always our highest priority and mobilising a business whilst there is an inevitable lack of clarity as to detailed rules by which the pubs sector will open. Our strategy and vision is that it is vital to get mobilisation done right and done early. As such we are mobilising in advance of every i being dotted and t being crossed. This is a massive undertaking that is taking place against a background of zero income and without access to the direct industry support provided to other elements the leisure sector.

CS: Is cashless machine play a bigger issue now than it was previously and how are you responding to this?

MB: Whilst the Gambling Act does not currently allow the use of cards on gaming machines, there is an undeniable and pronounced trend towards cashless which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis – indeed there will be a number of pubs that actually reopen as cashless businesses. As a progressive operator we have to be examining all of the options that we are able to deliver whilst complying with the existing legislation. We have for some time been working alongside industry partners to deliver solutions that are in line with consumer trends. Our objectives as a business and as a part of the world famous Gauselmann Group is to always be ahead of the curve

We should never forget that AWPs are part of the gaming entertainment industry

CS: How do you rate the lobbying activities undertaken by the British Beer and Pub Association?

MB: The entire management team at Regal is fully aware of the huge amount of work that has been done behind the scenes and alongside other operators, we have had very productive calls facilitated by both the British Beer and Pub Association and BACTA to discuss the best ways to remobilise the industry in a safe and sensible manner. BACTA has done sterling work on behalf of the industry and I would like to go on the record to congratulate John White and the team for representing the industry so well and with such energy and professionalism.

CS: With a decline in pub footfall, either as a result of social distancing requirements or a general fear of going out, do you think PubCos will revisit their machine density and look to remove AWPs?

MB: Nobody should underestimate the challenge that lies ahead, but AWPs form an important part of the overall entertainment offering as do pool tables, Juke Boxes and all of the other products that we offer. It is inevitable that in the shorter term Social Distancing Rules risk reducing the overall entertainment proposition. From the dialogue that we have with customers I am confident that PubCos will be keen to maintain the best possible entertainment experience, of which the AWP offering forms an integral part. Regal is pro-actively working with our customers to ensure that we don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and there is a collective recognition that Pubs would be much poorer places without the products that we operate and supply

CS: Do you think the way that you operate equipment in pubs will change in terms of service and collections?

MB: Nobody can be 100 percent sure how the world will look post-COVID but it is inevitable that it will be very different in terms of consumer behaviour, the retail environment generally and how service-led businesses such as ours will be required to respond to the ‘new normal’. We have seen how crucial a role technology plays in terms of minimising disruption and this applies equally to machine operation. Regal has invested heavily in IT and connectivity, including connecting all digital machines to our MARS system. This technology infrastructure enables us to provide our customers with innovative and pro-active solutions, reporting and delivering first line fix solutions which don’t require a visit and which maximise efficiency. Technology is the most important tool in the box and one in which Regal has a significant advantage.

 

Chris Haley Managing Director, Dransfields

Coinslot: Can you describe how big a logistical task reopening is?

Chris HaleyChris Haley: It’s a significant challenge, but one we’ve been planning for ever since the country went into lockdown back in March. I’m delighted to say that Dransfields has already carried out all required Risk Assessments for each of our depots, and for each employee role, and distributed the necessary PPE to the field-based staff. All depots have had the necessary adjustments carried out to ensure COVID safe working practices are in place. With planning and determination, we managed to collect the majority of sites before the lockdown but there were some we didn’t get to. We are therefore bringing some collectors and engineers back to work to deal with these and to begin the task of re-floating machines in line with customer requests. Dransfield’s supplies circa 5,000 individual free trade premises in addition to Tenanted and Managed houses and all need to be contacted to ascertain their plans for re-opening; this is a massive task. Early indications are that more than 50 percent of our customers will not be re-opening their doors on 4 July. Unfortunately, gaming machines will have technical issues when they are switched back on, simply due to the length of time that they have been off and all jukeboxes will have locked out. We will therefore be facing a tsunami of service calls when premises re-open.

CS: Is cashless machine play a bigger issue now than it was previously and how are you responding to this?

CH: We see this is a major issue when sites re-open. The growth of contactless payment has been massively boosted by the current crisis and you can see this in all shops regardless of their size. We have been reviewing the COVID risk assessments of many of our customers and time again they are majoring on cashless payments. In the two weeks prior to the lockdown Dransfield’s had begun the trial of the Game Payment cashless payment App in one of our sites and the results were better than expected with a lot of interest from customers being shown in the App. We have therefore taken the decision to extend this trial across our estate and have already placed an order to increase the trial to 50 customers as soon as we are able. We see the cashless App becoming crucial for our business as the reduction in cash transactions caused by COVID-19 will affect machine income and we need to give customers the ability to play machines using an alternative payment method. The ability to perform age verification checks via the App is also of great interest to many of our customers.

CS: How do you rate the lobbying activities undertaken by the British Beer and Pub Association?

CH: I sit on the Mancom of Bacta and we have been working closely with all other trade associations and bodies including the BBPA to lobby the Government for a firm reopening date. In my opinion, the trade associations have done an excellent job in highlighting to Government the key issues affecting their members. The Government needs to give clear messages and stop “testing” public opinion via the press and social media. The whole false dawn of pubs with a beer garden being allowed to re-open on 22 June being a classic example.

We see the cashless App becoming crucial for our business

CS: With a decline in pub footfall, either as a result of social distancing requirements or a general fear of going out, do you think PubCos will revisit their machine density and look to remove AWPs?

CH: There has been excellent co-operation between Operators and the Pubco’s with a joint working group set up to discuss the issues facing us all. The honest answer is that there may be some reduction in density in smaller venues or an element of machine relocation within the premises.

CS: Do you think the way that you operate equipment in pubs will change in terms of service and collections?

CH: There will undoubtedly be changes, many of which will be brought about by social distancing requirements. We are planning much more planned preventative maintenance with an emphasis on engineers checking all machines on site whilst there, rather than just attending to a machine that is out of order. Collections will take longer to process due to the use of PPE and other safety measures whilst on site. Collection frequencies are likely to change depending on the machine income and operators will need flexibility around collections as they will encounter greater staff shortages due to COVID infection, shielding, self-isolation etc. We are going back to work in a considerably different operating environment to the one we left.

CS: How will the ‘new normal’ impact game design and game play – do you think percentage pay outs will increase for example?

CH: We’ll be evaluating machine popularity as we lift out of lockdown and will always gauge player feedback where possible, but at this stage, we are not planning any changes.

CS:With food likely to be less of a profit centre, is there an opportunity/ possibility that pubs that are without gaming machines will look at new revenue streams including income from AWPs?

CH: Let’s hope so! It is different for Dransfield’s in that many of our customer’s, particularly clubs didn’t serve food before so this is unlikely to see a big change for us. I think it will be interesting to watch how the market evolves and adapts to the ‘new normal’. Obviously, we would be more than happy to explore any potential new opportunities or revisit previously lost machine positions.

CS: As pubs try and create an atmosphere with fewer customers, does pay to play music become more relevant particularly jukeboxes that have apps which mean customers don’t have to touch hard surfaces?

CH: I read in the press that the Government was thinking of banning music in venues to prevent people raising their voices and thereby projecting the virus. Let’s hope not, jukeboxes have been struggling to maintain income levels for a few years, despite the investment made in the products. I do see a rise in the use of Apps to choose music as I expect people to be moving around a lot less in venues. Seat-based music selection is therefore likely to increase in popularity.


Share this article