As the UK’s pubs and restaurants prepare for the first restriction-free Christmas period in three years, the football World Cup should be the perfect way to kick start crucial festive trading.
With around a third of venues at risk of closure in the new year, as energy, labour and food and drink prices soar, the industry is in desperate need of a boost.
“So many things hinge on England and Wales doing well . . . we’re crossing our fingers that’s for sure,” said Chris Conchie, head of sports marketing at Greene King, which will show the World Cup starting in Qatar next week in most of its 1,050 managed pubs. “As the tournament progresses, the games get bigger and bigger, and their commercial impact grows too.”
But as the cost of living crisis becomes more intense and the weather turns colder, for some the hope of respite for the battered hospitality sector is already fading.
Steven Alton, chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping, which represents independent pubs, said many venues would need to trade 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels “just to stand still” against a backdrop of “crippling inflation and energy costs”.
“At least during the group stages, the greatest beneficiaries are likely to be the retailers, where people can buy drinks more cheaply, and food delivery companies, especially if the weather is wet and cold,” said Peel Hunt analyst Douglas Jack.
About 16mn Britons will watch at least one World Cup game in a pub this year, according to projections produced by KAM, a research agency, and Fanzo, a pub-finding app for sports fans.
But two-thirds of 300 pub goers surveyed by KAM and Heineken said they would watch their spending more carefully during the World Cup this winter because of cost of living concerns.
The novelty of a winter World Cup is also not without complications for pubs and bars: a clash with Christmas party season has made planning for the event awkward and the colder weather means pub gardens will largely go unused, cutting capacity.
“If we could have had Christmas and the World Cup separately, we probably would have made more money, as there will be some cannibalisation,” said Sophie Herbert, marketing director at Beds and Bars Group, which runs sports bar Belushi’s.
Research from GlobalData, compiled for the retailer VoucherCodes, forecast that spending in hospitality venues would be 10 per cent below the World Cup four years ago and 52 per cent down on the Euros last year. The research pinned the fall on cost of living worries, colder weather and pubs having less space to accommodate customers because of Christmas party bookings.
“It’s not your normal World Cup where you put on your shorts and bucket hat, and grab a cider and head out into the sunshine,” said Conchie. Greene King has been planning for the World Cup longer than any other sports tournament in his 20-year career because of the “overlap with Christmas”, he added.
Phil Urban, chief executive at Mitchells & Butlers, the UK’s largest listed pub group, said the group’s drinks-led pubs, such as Ember Inns, expected to do “really well” during the World Cup but that big matches would “hammer” food-led gastropubs, such as Toby Carvery.
The tournament starts just as the pub industry is flagging. This week, JD Wetherspoon said sales in the five weeks to November 6 were 1.1 per cent down compared with 2019.
Meanwhile, despite reaching the semi-finals at the last World Cup and reaching the Euros final last year, the England men’s team has fallen out of form lately and is not the favourite. Wales, a footballing minnow, are in their first World Cup for 64 years and expected to struggle.
Pubs are also facing a staff shortage that Alton warned threatened to “undermine” the benefits of the World Cup.
In August, the vacancy rate across the hospitality industry stood at 7.2 per cent — at least two percentage points higher than any other sector. A third of venues struggling with workforce issues said they may be forced to reduce opening hours over the festive season to cope, according to a survey conducted by UKHospitality and other industry bodies.
Still some publicans remain optimistic.
“I think for the majority of our customers this will be a period where they want to suspend their concerns about the state of the economy,” said Fuller, Smith & Turner chief executive Simon Emeny.
“The World Cup will be a net positive for us,” added Marston’s chief executive Andrew Andrea. “If we get completely stratospheric and England make the semis or the final, that will be a huge uplift.”
Fanzo co-founder Leo MacLehose said it should still be “the best December pubs have had in a long while”, especially if England make the latter stages of the tournament.
But it may not be enough to reverse the tide of closures. The World Cup “will help some businesses with cash flow to get through the winter but we’re still going to see a lot of closures,” said Jack.