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Why and when are pubs heaving, or dead?

With enough data you could probably predict when pubs will be busy, or quiet. But, occasionally, it seems to be a mystery.

Years ago, Jess was involved, at a remove, in the management of a hotel-restaurant-pub, and sometimes worked with the manager to attempt to anticipate the ebb and flow of business.

They’d take into account various factors:

  • bookings
  • day of the week
  • payday
  • NHS payday
  • school holidays
  • bank holidays
  • general tourism data
  • weather
  • events and festivals

Sometimes, they nailed it.

Other times, they’d double the kitchen order and bring on extra staff, only to have them rattling round a mostly empty bar.

Or, alternatively, bank on a quiet one only to run out of chips and cask ale by 2pm on Saturday.

We’ve often pondered on the longer-term patterns that might be at play.

For example, if December 2021 was quiet, does that mean December 2022 will be extra busy? If people go abroad one year, will they stay at home the next?

And different pubs, in different towns and cities, have their own rhythms.

In Bristol, you definitely need to know when City or Rovers are playing.

Last weekend, we struggled to get into pubs in Bristol. The Good Measure (quiet back street), The Portcullis (ditto, but with Belgian beer festival), The Kings Head (east of city centre) and The Barley Mow (back street) were all rammed.

We ended up at the Moor taproom, because it’s on the way home and usually has space, and even that seemed busier than usual.

When we asked about this on Twitter, someone pointed out that last Friday, the last Friday of the month, was payday for many people. But not for everyone. The 28th of the month and last working day of the month are also common.

Our best guess, observing the crowds, was a mix of:

  • World Cup
  • last opportunity to meet mates before Christmas obligations kick in
  • people in town for Christmas shopping
  • people calling Christmas early to counter the general bleakness

Or, to put that more simply, football + early Christmas.

We’re tempted to discount football, though, because most of the pubs we wanted to go to didn’t have football on.

Maybe this is what Christmas was always like and we’ve just forgotten after several really weird years.

Oh, who knows. It’s clearly complicated.

If you run a pub, how do you go about working out how busy you might be? What patterns have you spotted?

6 replies on “Why and when are pubs heaving, or dead?”

Was also transpride SW at the weekend with a March on Sat that would have meant town would’ve been busier than usual. I know at least a few people were heading to same pubs!

Maybe a lot of people wanted to specifically go to pubs where there was no football on 🙂

Maybe, but the football pubs were also very busy! So it definitely felt like more people out altogether.

You are conflating two different issues here – football on TV and those going to games as live spectators. They are two distinctly different dynamics.

In student towns and cities such as Oxford, the arrival and departure of the students is a big factor, with events such as Freshers’ week further adding to the spike in trade. However, not all pubs are popular with the students, just like not all pubs are popular with football fans.

It’s a question I regularly ask myself! We had a fairly busy weekend, 5-8pm on Saturday was dead and it was heaving afterwards – annoying as the second staff shift finishes as 9pm as it’s usually dead after then, so I had a busy close to do on my own!

Still, it’d be boring if it was predictable…

The feature on Google Maps might be of interest regarding this question where a bar graph is often displayed against pubs, shops, restaurants, etc. to show how busy the venue usually is by hour and day of the week. This must be generated by location data from phone users. When there’s enough live data, the graph is updated in real time and, anecdotally, it seems quite surprising how often the real time data and prediction are out of kilter (possibly due to extrapolating from small sample sizes). However, the data does overall seem quite accurate for pubs I know well.

There may also be an overflow effect where customers find one pub busy but then move on to an alternative (and so on in turn). The layout of certain pubs, particularly ones with a higher density of furniture to open floor space, may mean that they appear dramatically busier at 120% of seated capacity than, say, 80% because people stand in doorways, corridors, in front of serving areas at the bar, etc. There’s also other factors like people staying longer overall in a pub if it takes longer to get served and a possible self-reinforcing effect where some customers enjoy a busy atmosphere more than a quiet one and are more inclined to stay in a pub if it’s “buzzing” (more likely to meet people they know, etc. etc.) It might, therefore, at a city level only need a small percentage increase of people going out to have the effect of making lots of pubs appear rammed.

It would be interesting to know if the big pubcos do research on this. I’m sure supermarkets and shopping centre operators do (they count people entering a supermarket and anticipate the effect on checkouts queues).

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