THIS time last year, there were signs our industry was starting to turn a corner.
Thankfully this has been the case and during the past year there has been a gradual improvement. What initially seemed a terminal decline of the pub has come to an end.
Granted, this improvement is felt in certain areas more than it is felt in others. Pubs in busy cities, large towns and traditional tourist areas will always see the benefits first but the recovery will certainly take longer to make its way to certain parts of rural Ireland.
External economic factors are helping. Firstly, while many are still facing difficult times, overall, consumer confidence is on the rise again as the economy begins to recover and this should be positive for many pubs across the country.
Secondly, the pub is absolutely crucial to this country’s tourism offering and as tourism continues to play a big part in this country’s recovery, our industry has a duty to ensure every visitor’s experience is joyous, positive, and valued.
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Last summer was very positive for the trade. CSO figures showed tourism numbers rose by 10% in 2014 and the pub cemented its place as the number one attraction.
The effects of the Wild Atlantic Way has had a positive impact from Cork right up to Donegal. We should also take heart from the fact that the most recent CSO figures show a 14% rise in visitor numbers for the first three months of 2015.
In reality though, last summer only highlighted what we knew already, that a growing tourism trade will be good for the pub trade and likewise the pub will continue to be good for tourism. Research reinforces my point here which shows over 80% of tourists use the pub for food and/or entertainment.
In a recent Fáilte Ireland survey of more than 1,500 visitors to Ireland, 83% of those surveyed said they had listened to live Irish music in a pub. It is the pub which attracts visitors back to our shores time and time again.
We expect that if forecasts come through, that thousands of extra seasonal jobs will be created this summer. These jobs are to be welcomed and heralded throughout the country.
There are other reasons behind this improvement and publicans deserve credit for adapting to the difficult times they have faced.
The vast majority of pubs have become leaner businesses and have started focussing on changed offerings ensuring that when a customer visits the pub they are enjoying an enhanced experience and are getting value for money.
Overall, publicans have embraced more creative ways of marketing and promoting themselves. They realise customers now need a reason to leave their homes and pubs must offer experiences and variety.
I have travelled the length and breadth of the country and we now have publicans specialising in different areas such as a wide ranging craft beer offering, high quality of food, increased focus on live events, and sourcing top-class entertainment acts. Publicans are also engaging in pub theatre nights, Irish-speaking only nights, open-mic comedy sessions, and much, much more.
The contribution of the pub to levels of employment in this country cannot be overlooked. Looking at current stats, more than 90,000 people are dependent on the drinks industry for employment, the majority of whom are in the pub trade.
In Kerry alone, where our AGM is taking place this week, 4,330 people are reliant upon the industry for employment contributing €99m in payroll per annum.
Other developments have happened during my first year as president that are satisfying.
I am both pleased and relieved that at last, the heads of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill have been introduced.
This is the first time after many years of promises that we have actually seen in writing what the Government is committing to. It may not give us everything that we have looked for and indeed may well fall short in some areas, but at least we have sight of the policy direction the Government has taken. We welcome most, if not all, of it.
Ultimately though, we have to focus on the positives, take heart from this gradual improvement and look forward with renewed optimism.
As other services like post offices, tourist offices and garda stations are being closed, there will be a further reliance on pubs in many rural areas for essential services and a hub for the community.
I would remind people that as an industry, we are united, hard-working, creative, very resilient and are very much aware of our economic and social relevance.
Through constantly adapting, being innovative and maintaining our level of determination, we will continue this gradual improvement and will be back to tell the next chapter of our story next year.