Bar Nation’s senior project manager Dale Bowers gives Access the lowdown on the bar scene

What have you noticed changing in the bar and concession sector over the last year?

There have been some massive changes over the past 12 and 24 months. I think the one that is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and lips is around environmental. It is no secret that bars can produce a huge amount of waste on sites with cups, packaging etc, and this year has set a real precedent going forward about tackling this but not just tackling it, making sure that it is known to be tackled.

Half of the environmental battle is making sure that people are aware of what you are doing and the reasons for it, not just assuming. Secondly a massive change we have seen this year is the increased knowledge and expectations of the customer. Everyone now expects festivals to produce a vaster array of drinks, including ales, cocktails etc, a real ‘premiumisation’. You can see festivals and companies that are not willing to move forward with this trend are dropping off like flies.

Is the demand for innovative design increasing?

As mentioned above, this is becoming even more and more at the forefront of people’s minds, and especially in the case of organisers. Even though the festival industry is as big as people know it is, every knows everyone and every goes to everyone else’s festival. With the production at shows like All Points East and Houghton clear for everyone to see, organisers are wanting to recreate, reinvent and ultimately out produce other shows, which does also sell tickets.

As a bar operator, we have really had to (and happily) up the feel and offerings on our bars. Be it custom made frontages from the likes of Fables or bringing in local craft breweries with shire horses and truck, aesthetics and the offering are paramount for organisers and the customer experience. But as a positive spin from this, the customer experience has really increased at festivals and so have the revenues alongside this.

How much does cost come into the equation? Events are constantly looking to grow both in size and profit, but are bar companies also reaping the rewards of what has been one of the most buoyant event seasons to date?

Unfortunately, cost is always the nature of the beast. Aesthetics, offerings, price point, staffing levels etc all vary in importance to an organiser from show to show, but cost is always the bottom line. For a large amount of festivals in the independent smaller to medium scene the difference between a successful and poor event can cost them their living and of course we always want to provide them with the best we can.

It does vary from event to event and organiser to organiser on how much cost they are willing to place on certain items, some value bar aesthetics higher for example and are therefore willing to place a larger budget on this. We have been fortunate to work alongside many of our shows for years and have therefore grown alongside them. 2018 was a very successful year for Bar Nation and it wouldn’t have been so without them.

Brexit is on the horizon. Is this going to cause you problem? And how can you combat it?

I think Brexit is going to cause all industries issues, in particular with staffing in the case of festival bars. However, the uncertainty of holidays in 2019 due to Brexit can be healthy for them as well. It was something I discovered at the AIF when the findings came out about people choosing a festival or a holiday.

With the mess that could be holidays this year, festivals will become an even more appealing option for people across the UK and I think the scene will thrive from that. I may be looking for silver linings, but I believe it really can. In terms of issues with stock supply from foreign lands and staffing, I believe that the Multi Nationals such as Heineken and ABInBev will have little issues getting their stock to us and supply should not be an issue. We may see an increase in local UK products at festivals in 2019 alongside these though which again I don’t think is a bad thing.

Training – how do you invest into more training, learning and development for your staff?

This is a key area for us at Bar Nation, we have recently invested a large amount into an online staff training platform which all our staff, agency or our own, will have to do. There are multiply levels and covers everything from health and safety to bespoke training on each show. Bars are, in all instances, only as good as their staff as they are the frontline and is all about building the rapport with customers through a high level of service as well as personality and knowledge alongside that. We spent a large amount of time looking for the right fit to ensure this all covered for 2019 and am happy to say that we have found that.

How is the relationship between organiser and bar provider working? 

The organiser/promoter relationship varies however in all instances I am happy to say and I am sure that this is similar across a large number of suppliers for festivals, that the relationships are strong and very much friends. You invest a large amount of time together and as a result if the relationship is not strong and there is trust issues (much like an actual relationship!) it won’t work. Before taking any new shows into our calendar we always make sure to get to know the organiser/promoter well, if we don’t believe that we can be friends with them then we will not work that show. We want people to enjoy working with us and vice versa. However in all cases, we do understand that we are ultimately a supplier to their show and do have to act accordingly if things were to happen.

Apprenticeships: Are you, investing into this format of recruitment and development?

This is something I am very proud to say that we have a long standing history in and are continuing to do so. We have a very close relationship with Brookes University who have an excellent hospitality and marketing school (amongst others). Each year alongside, Santander, we run both a 6 month and 3 month apprenticeship scheme and am happy to say that a number of the people that done it have gone on to work for the company. We are also introducing a new scheme in 2019 where we will be giving problems to both the marketing and hospitality school master degree students to create solutions which they will then be presenting to us. The winner of which will get to then see their solution through in a real life scenario.

Freelance work – with the market growing rapidly, are you outsourcing more now than before?

This is happening across the board in the festival sector. With the likes of Live Nation, Mama Co, AEG etc all bringing in freelance workers from project managers to stage managers and everything in between. This is something that bars are all having to follow in order to increase profitability alongside anything else, offering people 6 month contracts, reducing the overheads on the quieter months. However, it does mean that fresh thoughts and ideas are all pumped into the sector and ourselves which is really helping our offering develop.

Winning business – has this process changed for you? Are you more proactive or reactive in this competitive market?

We have definitely changed our technique massively over the last year or two. Previously all business had come through word of mouth (and a lot still does), but we are now much more proactive in seeking new business and potential shows we would like to work alongside. Without giving too much away, we have a very simple three part process which is identify, access and convert.

What does the bars and concessions industry look like in 10 years’ time?

This one is difficult, I think there are some key areas however. Firstly the consciousness of the customer towards all issues, currently this is environmental, but there will be identification of further issues (which may not even be aware to us) and action around those. I think the other two key areas will be around innovation and automation.

We see it currently for the likes of McDonalds with their self service machines, with the ever effect use of wifi at festivals I think customers will be able to pre order their drinks on site and just collect, bars will no longer require till operators, just serving staff. This will ultimately decrease queueing times as well as increasing profitability for bars with reduced overheads. I think past that there will be a lot more self service bars, the next step on from the previous point. People will be pouring their own pints at their own pace.

I think finally around innovation their will be an increased awareness and play on the nature of second life at festivals. People will be encouraged to reinvent themselves at festivals more than before by experiencing and acting in ways never encouraged in their usual daily lives. Bar offerings will reflect a healthier drinking image.

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