Thursday, 26 April 2012

Guiding punters to the door

A couple of years ago, the Good Pub Guide attracted a lot of criticism for its plan to charge pubs £199 a year for a full entry in the publication. This raises the question of how much extra business an entry in a guidebook actually brings in for a pub. While it does include other types of pub, the GPG very much majors on the middle-class rural dining pub where you’ll get a nice braised lamb shank with redcurrant jus and coriander mash. If you run that type of pub, especially in a touristy area, you’ll probably attract a lot of trade from featuring in the book, so your outlay is likely to be well worthwhile.

CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide obviously has a very different remit, and of course doesn’t charge for entry. It also covers a wider overall spectrum of pubs than the GPG. Here there’s likely to be a wide variation in the amount of trade an entry will attract. Many people use the GBG as a kind of woolly-jumpered version of the GPG, and the food-serving pubs in the National Parks and other heavily touristed areas are likely to gain the most benefit. Likewise pubs in the centres of tourist-friendly towns like York and Stratford that don’t tend to be so well represented in the GPG. The beer-ticking fraternity will be on the lookout for new venues where they might get a few scoops, and any major city centre will have people staying on business or for conferences who will want to know where they can get a decent pint in the evenings. Pubs near football grounds like the Armoury in Stockport may well attract trade from visiting fans.

But pubs in the suburbs, or in smaller towns with little tourist appeal like Northwich or Worksop, are unlikely to see many new customers, especially if they don’t serve food, or if they are just two-beer locals rather than having an array of beers on the bar. The picture shows the Grapes in Hazel Grove (page 317 of the 2012 edition), a Robinson’s pub which according to the Guide just offers Hatters and Unicorn, although I understand it now has seasonal beers as well. It’s an excellent little boozer, and to my mind it’s a good thing that the GBG can still find space for pubs of that type, but it’s hard to imagine that many people will open the Guide and identify it as a must-visit pub. Indeed the casual pubgoer in Hazel Grove would be more likely to make for the Spoons a few doors down the road. In many cases, an appearance in the Guide is primarily a badge of accomplishment for the licensee, not a generator of trade.

There’s also the question of how much value an entry in the GBG will be to a Wetherspoon’s. In practice, I would say very little. I recognise that some are far better than others in terms of beer quality, beer range and ambiance, but I’d say if you’re inclined to go in Spoons and find yourself in a strange town, you’ll probably go in anyway, and if you’re not you’ll still stay away. And they don’t tend to hide their light under a bushel down alleyways and in back streets. If the beer’s good, you may stay for another, and when you get back to the hotel note that the pub was in the GBG, but it probably won’t influence your decision in the first place. Therefore, from a personal perspective, listing any Spoons is a waste of space – I expect the Guide to lead me to places that I might not otherwise have found.


  1. An interesting question to ask, and I ask this because I do not know the answer is "Why buy a beer guide?" Even the more expensive pubs can be affordable one off transactions. You can quite easily figure the better pubs out for yourself or even those in the price range you are happy with.

    I can understand listening to the recommendations of your peers, but paying 16 quid for a book of recommendations for towns you are unlikely to visit?

    I can understand buying a tourist guide to an area, even one that concentrated on drinking establishments. Especially if the area was noted for such things, like say Munich. One would come in handy for a first visit.

    But an annual almanac of the beard clubs favoured pong shops?

  2. Some of my friends tick off Good Beer Guide pubs, though they don't bother with 'Spoons.

  3. @Cookie - if you're in an area you're unfamiliar with, it can be difficult to establish what are the "good" pubs nearby. Buying a book like the GBG saves you a lot of faffing around on the Internet. Plenty of people travel around the country on business; many others have five or six short holidays or weekend breaks a year in the UK.

    And many people (although maybe less than 30 years ago) do see going out and trying different pubs as a leisure interest.

  4. I get what you say, Mudge, but you'd have to be a bit of a beer obsessive to buy one. A decent place to eat and have a pint isn't that difficult to find regardless of where you go. As I said, I can understand a tourist guide to Barcelona, Berlin, Paris whether a bit of everything or specifically tailored to an interest like eating and drinking or even fashion.

    I don't get why I would buy a recommendation for the best pubs in Stevenage, even if my company were to send me there. Unless I were desperate to drink pong in front of 20 handpumps and surrounded by white bearded gentlemen telling the "nackers chuff" was drinking well tonight.

  5. Serendipity may well lead you to an acceptable place to eat and drink, but if you trusted to it you would be unlikely to stumble across the Arden Arms in Stockport, the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth or the Great Western in Wolverhampton.

    And the point of the post is what do pubs get out of it, not what do punters get out of it.

  6. But I like to subvert beer blogs.

    If these pubs are any good, I might expect to find out via a verbal recommendation. If I visit stuckpit I might ask you to recommend somewhere nice, you live there, know the place, appear to know the difference between the murderers arms and a gaff you can take a bird. I might even check out your mate Clarkey's free beer magazine to see the pub awards, but there appears to be some right dodgy dives given the thumbs up in there, so I take those as a recommendation to avoid.

    Don't need a 16 quid book.

    As for what pubs get out of it. A warm feeling inside because some bearded old codgers said they liked the gaff? The trade of Ed's weird mates who to tick things off?

  7. £5 one off fee for GBG android app that updated F.O.C this year for me, integrated with google maps to help you find your way...much better and lighter!

  8. If I'm headed somewhere and expect I might want an evening meal or somewhere to sit I invariably look online.
    If they have the menu and meal prices online and the place/beer selection/area looks decent then I will head for it.
    £199 will pay for a basic website. More people can see that than will read a guidebook.

  9. I agree that Spoons ought not be in the GBG for the same reasons you cite. I buy the GBG on alternative years, the changes being minimal. Playing bowls means that I have frequent outings all over the country so the GBG comes in very handy. When on a flying visit there is no time for trial and error. Surely Northwich and Worksop pubs benefit from the GBG in some way, those places do have open borders!

  10. I'm not saying that the GBG will bring no new punters to pubs in Northwich and Worksop, but the number will be a lot less than for a food-serving free house in the Lake District, or a specialist alehouse in the centre of Leeds.

    In fact, the only pub listed in Northwich is Spoons :-|

  11. Another factor about the GBG is that many people buy it as much for the breweries section as the pub listings.

  12. My local got dropped from the GBG and trade is, if anything, up. Local CAMRA bigwigs came round a couple of months ago on one of their crawls and asked if there was a CAMRA discount. On being told there wasn't, they said it might help the pub get back in the GBG if a discount was offered. Draw your own conclusions.
    Having said this, I get the GBG most years as I don't know where I'm likely to rock up and I would like to find some decent beer. Also, I use it to find decent accommodation on the basis that if the pub takes care to keep its beer well, there's a fighting chance they will take similar care if they provide rooms. Haven't been disappointed so far.
    Agree no point whatsoever listing Spoons.

  13. personally Ive always found the CAMRA GBG a useful book to own, though I dont buy it annually and switched to the mobile app this last year anyway, but I will always consult it whenever Im visiting or staying anywhere Im unfamiliar with.

    Simply because I know it will direct me towards some absolute hidden gems of pubs serving good beer, that I would never have found any other way simply by wandering around or even asking locals for advice, because these places often are the ones that are completely off the tourist beaten tracks.

    there was one instance on a staycation in the UK,and Id left my GBG in the hotel and could only remember the name of the road the guide had said the pub was on. So I asked directions from locals in the real ale pub in town, but was actually sent to the wrong pub,which was obvious when I got there as there was no way the pub Id been sent to would ever get in the guide :)

    so I put my trust in the fact the guide did know better than the advice id been give and pressed on, and eventually found this quite small pub definately out in the suburbs, must have been a good 20mins walk out of the town centre, and yet it honestly was the best pub i visited on that entire holiday, and there is no way on earth Id have found it without the GBG listing it

    that to me is the value of the book/app, sure in places like York/London etc its like reading a bible in a church,but there are plenty of places where its more than valuable

    and I dont have a problem with Spoons being listed in the guide if they are good enough to get in,infact thats more useful to know IMO, that its good enough to be listed, than wasting a trip to find out if it is or not.

  14. A good post Curmudgeon, and a good point about Spoons - too many branches, my own included, seem to pad out their entry quota with their local JDW(s). I know the guide is supposed to be a "Good Beer Guide", and, all other things being equal, pubs should be primarily selected on the quality of the beer they serve.

    We all know though this is a false premise, and has been right from the Guide's inception. The very first GBG (1974) contained pubs selected solely because they sold un-pressurised beer. There were some right grotty outlets included in this original guide, and no doubt some pretty grotty beer sold in then as well!

    Now we see pubs selected purely because a small clique of local CAMRA members like to drink there, or because someone on the committe just happens to be a friend of the landlord!

    We have tried to eliminate these practices in our branch by using scores from the National Beer Scoring Scheme, which all branch members, plus visitors from outside the branch, can contribute to. However, we still see personal favourites taking precedent at selection meetings, and when it comes to a show of hands, a persuasive speaker can often sway the vote in his or her favour, especially when everyone's got a few pints under their belts!

    Having said this the GBG is still far superior and far less biased than guides like the Good Pub Guide that charge for inclusion. It's just a pity that CAMRA didn't think to get in on the act first, as Good Pub Guide is now a far better description of the GBG than its current title.

  15. CAMRA will be launching it's own national online pub guide shortly (short=>6 months and <5 years) which will (eventually) contain information about all pubs (real ale or otherwise).

    Would you buy the GBG if you could search on a postcode and find information out about all the pubs?

  16. "they said it might help the pub get back in the GBG if a discount was offered."

    Sounds very dodgy - if the individuals were concerned were known to the licensee as local branch officials, then I would say a complaint to St Albans would be in order.

    @Paul - my local branch has a selection procedure where the obvious strong candidates for re-entry are nodded through (subject to objection), but all the others are voted on via a secret ballot, which helps eliminate the factor of individuals unduly influencing the meeting. NBSS scores are provided, and indeed analysed in detail, but, given an agreed minimum cut-off point, are not regarded as the sole determining factor.

  17. If there are so many Spoons in this guide, you'd all be better off with the free Spoons App from the Apple & Android stores. Tells you where your Nearest Spoons are. It's all you'll ever need.

  18. Martin, Cambridge27 April 2012 at 12:44

    Good item.

    The Good Beer Guide is the most tangible end product of CAMRA, even though a tiny fraction of the membership vote on it.

    My major "hobby" is visiting GBG pubs; I'm constantly impressed at how few duffers (poor beer) feature in the up-to-date guide, and how often an unlikely entrant, such as a Hungry Horse or Vintage Inn, offers good beer.

    When I ask a new entrant about the impact of GBG inclusion, I rarely hear that trade is up because of it.

    There are undoubtedly some beer-led pubs that don't make the GBG because of inconsistent beer (read-too many handpumps) which continue to thrive.

    I think the importance of the GBG has been diminished by Cask Marque; I've heard of people using the CM app to find pubs on their travels.

  19. As GBG sceptics, we never buy it. It probably brings in a little more business than would be achieved by word-of-mouth, but not much.

    One of the reasons we don't buy it is because we found a few places where good pubs we stumbled upon were omitted while 'Spoons was listed. In general, we find the symbiotic relationship between CAMRA and Wetherspoon's a bit weird.

  20. The GBG is CAMRA's best-selling book and makes a lot of money for the campaign, to the ridiculous extent that the national AGM passed a motion that branches may not print complete lists of their own GBG entries in their local newsletters, even though it is the branches' hard work that produced the lists. I spoke against that stupid idea, but it was passed anyway. The reason given was protecting GBG sales, which is nonsense, but that is how important the GBG is to CAMRA. Personally, I stopped buying the GBG years ago because I hardly used it.

    CAMRA places too much importance on the Guide; the vast majority of real ale drinkers don't buy the GBG (& most aren't CAMRA members either). In my opinion, the best tools CAMRA has to get the real ale message across are local magazines and local festivals. All reach far more people than the GBG - or the GBBF (Great British Beer Festival) for that matter, another overrated flagship CAMRA venture.

  21. I would point out that Wetherspoons are just a pub co with no more or less reason to be included OR EXCLUDED from the GBG than any other.

    They have 900ish pubs which makes them biggish but nothing like Punch, Enterprise, Stonegate, Greene King, Marstons.... even Heinekin have more pubs than Spoons. Nobody is suggesting all Marstons pubs should be removed from the GBG so why pick on Spoons?

    In our branch there are 2 Wetherspoons in the 2012 GBG. One has been there for a number of years and likely to remain so as it's consistently one of the top beer scoring pubs in the branch. The other comes lower down the beer scores and lower down the voting - it doesn't get my vote but it gets others'.

    However, we have SIX other Wetherspoons in the branch - five of which more often than not don't even meet the quality level to get to the vote. There's no automatic right for 'Spoons.

  22. I like Red's comment, blogger ought to have "like", like facebook.

    So volunteers collect all the data, write the book and then CAMRA sells it back to them ? Ha Ha.

    What mugs accept this?

    Back in the 70's when cask conditioned gut rot was all but dead and only 3 pubs in the land flogged it, maybe there was a point to the shebang. These days the point appears to be to fund dodgy supermarket hating activities.

  23. @geordiemanc: I'm not responsible for CAMRA policy, and I'm not saying CAMRA shouldn't put any Spoons in the GBG, I'm just saying that information is useless to me.

    Spoons differ from other pubcos in that they have a consistent, standardised offer across their whole estate. They may be like Vintage Inns or Brewers Fayre, but they are not remotely comparable to Punch or Marston's.

    If I'm away from home, I may go in the local Spoons for a meal, or just for a drink. But whether it is in the GBG will make no difference to that decision.

    It's a bit like putting McDonalds in the Good Burger Guide, or Pizza Express in the Good Pizza Guide.

  24. The point is it's not Spoons fault that they are more consistent than others - that is down to the failings of the other pub co's who consistently fail to compete.

    As for the information being useless - if visiting Manchester how would you decide which of the six Wetherspoons in the city centre to go in? Random pick or go to the two that are in the GBG?

  25. I'd probably pick the nearest one, but if it was too full of smelly deadlegs try another.

    And I can only count five - Manchester & County, Moon Under Water, Waterhouse, Paramount and Seven Stars.

  26. Martin, Cambridge30 April 2012 at 12:13

    Follow-up to RedNev's last point; it may well be local festivals that bring real ale to public attention (my local Cambridge fest is a case in point), but I reckon there is still a need to separate good from bad beer provided by pubs on a daily basis.

    The Beer Guide might not be an annual purchase due to costs (the application only costs a fiver though), but clearly still does good business.

    I also think it helpful to attempt to differentiate pubs, even if Wetherspoons, that put in the effort to provide consistent beer. My own local, which runs on Broadside, Wherry and an occasional Punch guest, is in the guide when plenty of competition provides more exotic choice of dishwash.

  27. There used to be "Try also" sections in the GBG, in which pubs were listed without description. This should be brought back for JDWs: by all means list the better ones, but don't waste space describing the decor or listing the beers.

  28. Crucial and interesting post.

  29. The 'try also' sections were scrapped for space reasons.

    The fact that some people don't like the corporate styling or the clientele of Wetherspoons is no reason to exclude them from the Good Beer Guide. I do recall in the 1970s most breweries tried to make their pubs look as alike as possible (Boddington's was one of the worst offenders), but no one argued for their exclusion on those grounds.

  30. The quality of both beer and pub has improved dramatically for me since I've started using the GBG rather than recommendations or seeing which pubs look nice from the outside.

    If pubs are listed in the GBG, then I believe that means they sell the better ale in town, which usually means they care more about what they are doing. In turn, this usually means happier friendlier staff, better cleanliness, all the little quirks that make for a better all round pub experience.

    The same would go for any Spoons included, 'a badge of accomplishment' as you say is a good way of describing a pub's inclusion. I'd also like to think it'd be a wake up call to other pubs to 'up their game' and get included next year, but perhaps a bit idealistic!

    1. Well that was worth waiting 4 years for Simon - spot on. This idea you can find out about good beer by "recommendation" is plain daft when you go beyond your local area. Most people in my village would "recommend" the Chef & Brewer as a pub because it does a £5 burger offer at lunchtime.


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