IT’S FRIDAY evening in Belfast city centre and Colin Neill of Pubs of Ulster is having after-work drinks with friends in a bar near the Victoria Square shopping centre. Last year about 100 pubs closed in Northern Ireland with the same number expected to go out of business this year.
From a tourism perspective, however, 2012 is being hailed as a bumper opportunity for Northern Ireland and Neill is optimistic that some publicans will be one of the beneficiaries of increased visitor numbers.
“The Northern Ireland Tourist Board have branded this year ‘Our Time, Our Place’ so we are telling publicans it’s also ‘Your pub, Your chance’,” says Neill, who is chief executive of the professional body of the retail licensed trade. “If your a pub is in a tourist location and you can’t make a go of it this year, you may as well pack your bags and go home.”
Just a few of the events on the calendar include the Titanic celebrations, the opening of the Belfast MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre), the Peace One Day concert in Derry and the Irish Open golf tournament in Portrush.
But even with the expected tourism bonanza, publicans operating under what Neill says are “outdated” licensing laws are having to work harder than ever to stay in business. “We tell people all the time, you can’t just open your doors and expect people to walk in. Not anymore,” says Neill.
With swirly, girly design touches Victoria’s bar is an example of a pub that is managing to buck the trend.
An Elvis impersonator walks around with a roving microphone doing a soundcheck for his performance later on.
“Elvis” is only part of the entertainment on offer at this bar run by Brian McKenna who since taking it over a year ago has targeted the over-30 female audience.
His approach is “all about service. Treating people in a way that makes them want to come back.”
But also important are the speed dating evenings, the regular burlesque and karaoke nights and his latest idea, clairvoyant events where customers can indulge their interest in all things psychic. “I know I am probably a laughing stock in the trade because of the kind of entertainment I am putting on but it’s working for me. I have a clear idea of my target market and I am attracting them in,” he says.
Only 30 per cent of the alcohol consumed across Northern Ireland is drunk in pubs and the industry has been living with the impact of cheap supermarket alcohol for longer than publicans in the South.
Suburban pubs are struggling while some of the busiest bars in the city are helped by the fact that they are located in the Cathedral Quarter, now a fully-fledged tourist destination. Pubs such as the Duke of York, the John Hewitt and the Spaniard all do well.
The other pubs keeping their heads above water and escaping receivership are constantly finding new ways to provide added value.
Director of blingtastic venue Cafe Vaudeville in the city centre Kieran McGuigan invests £2,000 (€2,400) every Friday night in a troupe of dancers, including a drag queen, who strut their high octane stuff on a balcony while punters down below drink cocktails and attempt to replicate the moves. “You can’t just sit back and do nothing, you have to give people something to come out for,” he says, surveying the scene.
When Anthony Farrell, an artist and cocktail specialist from Portadown, opened Love and Death Inc on two floors above a pizzeria on Ann Street in Belfast, he had a clear idea of what his brand would offer. “I wanted to open an Irish speakeasy, something a bit edgy, offering great cocktails and food. Our emphasis is on a quality night out without ripping people off,” he says, as the upstairs bar of his venue which also houses a club, live music venue and a restaurant fills up. It’s a distinctive brand, where cocktails are taken deadly seriously and served in classic coupe glasses.
The décor is eclectic, with cassette tapes and toy action figures hanging from the ceiling.
Business, he says, is good. There is talk of opening a branch in New York and he has plans for a new venue in Belfast – a kind of “Anglo/Irish/French community tavern” inspired by his visits to Bordeaux.
Farrell says the race to the bottom of the glass which has seen some venues in the city charging £1 and less for alcoholic drinks is worrying. A 20-year-old man is believed to have drowned in the Lagan recently after his family said he had been drinking £1 vodka shots in a nightclub. His body has still not been found.
Until recently when they came under pressure to stop, at least one venue in the city was offering drinks for 90p under the slogan “The Craic is 90”.
Colin Neill, of Pubs of Ulster, has already come out fighting against these “irresponsible” promotions.
“Pubs are the new cigarette, an industry under siege. But while these are very tough times we still have to operate responsibly,” he says.