You might think pubs have cracked the family market, but children are changing and the pub industry isn't keeping up.
Take my eight-year-old for example. She stresses about straws (and single-use plastics in general). She's really into rugby and wears pink. She likes playing Minecraft and making dens in the garden. She is, in short, a perfect example of a Generation Alpha kid (people born between 2010 and 2025).
This is backed up by new research from comic The Beano (yes, it's still going). Its insights team – Beano Studios – recently ran a study on Generation Alpha (Gen A), surveying over 2,000 kids and their parents.
The results show that today's under 10s, despite being born after the iPad was launched, are returning to more outdoor and traditional pursuits such as climbing trees and knitting. When they do use technology they use it to build and create, rather than passively watch; they are very accepting of individuality and push against gender stereotyping (hence wearing pink and playing rugby), and are activists in the home – using their "pester power" for good causes such as making more environmentally friendly choices.
More crucially for businesses, this generation is having a huge influence on the decisions their parents are making - and their parents are mostly avocado-munching millennials (apart from me, I'm older), who contribute one-third of restaurants' annual revenue and spend 13 per cent of their annual income on eating out. Not a market to miss out on.
Bridge the generation gap
Helen Gilmour is director of insight at Beano Studios and she says pubs are going to have to change if they are to attract this group. "I really think there'll be more opportunities for family-friendly spaces where adults and children can play together," she says.
"Look at all the experiential opportunities such as Harry Potter World; ball parks opening for adults in the evening; [assault courses] Tough Mudder and Mini-Mudder – this merging of the generations is something to build on to create much more rounded family experiences and the opportunity to build on memories."
She warns against trying any quick fixes for this market, however. "They appear to display a much higher level of critical thinking [and] they will interrogate narratives, so claims need to be backed up. Sustainability and environmental concerns are high on the agenda for Gen A. Already one in five, five-to-nine-year olds have been on a protest march." In other words, be prepared to walk the walk.
Overall, this all sounds perfectly placed for pubs to take advantage of – and yet thus far, we are failing to do so.
As Karl Chessell, business unit director of on-trade insights firm CGA points out, there is a "quality gap" when it comes to family pubs. "Our research shows that while there are lots of venues that score well on quality and lots that score well on being family-friendly, very few score well in both and that is what today's parents are looking for.
"The choices their parents make are important to today's kids, particularly those choices around health and sustainability, and we are seeing those preferences come through. For example, 92 per cent of consumers who are parents avoid single-use plastic when purchasing food-to-go, versus 90 per cent of non-parents. Eighty-nine per cent of parents think it's important that the brands they visit invest in the local community, versus just over 80 per cent of non- parents. So, it's important to everyone, but more so in families than it used to be."
There are some pubs that are hitting the target for this market, however, and the rest of the industry would do well to learn from them. Karl points to Hickory's Smokehouse, an 11-strong chain that prides itself on its VIK (Very Important Kids) offer. This
includes a menu created in collaboration with parents, outdoor play areas and events such as Character Breakfasts, where children can meet a favourite from films or TV.
"It's a very child-led business, so even when they show what might be considered an event for grown-ups, big sports matches for example, there's an emphasis on the children and it being for the whole family," Karl says.
Other independents tapping into the market include the The Stags Head in Goosnargh, Lancashire and The Bell Inn in Broadheath, Worcester, which you can read about in the case study below.
The Beano Studios study shows that by 2025 we will have reached "peak Gen A" with two billion of them globally, and this is a generation that is already showing all the signs of one that acts on its likes and dislikes. Beano Studios' Helen point to YouTube star James Charles, a Gen A favourite, who lost three million of his subscribers in a couple of days in reaction to what was seen as ungrateful behaviour.
You have been warned.
The Stags Head in Goosnargh, Lancashire
Winner of this year's Star Pubs & Bars award for Most Family Friendly Pub, licensee Martin Sanderson and his wife Rowena took on the pub two years ago after they'd spotted a gap in the market for a premium family dining venue.
"Outside we have a football pitch, a play area, chickens [below], garden games and a big bouncy castle – weather permitting," he explains. "Inside we have a games table full of board games and puzzles for all ages and we offer all the children, not just colouring in sheets but paper mini-chefs hats they can decorate.
"All our events are child friendly – we run a traditional sports day over the May Day Bank Holiday, for example. We hold events aimed specifically at kids too, such as our Breakfast with Santa in December, which we hold between 10 and 12pm when we would otherwise be closed. A kid's entertainer dresses as Santa and we buy 99p selection boxes as gifts; we sing carols and have games and we charge £6 a ticket. We do a similar event for Easter too.
"We offer two menus – Mini Diners for children of six and under and a Junior Diner menu for six to 12-year olds. Drinks-wise we offer cordials with soda, flavoured milk and the usual fizzy drinks all served in mini-milk bottles with paper straws. We're looking at developing a way to allow kids to order their own from an iPad menu, as well, to let them build their own meals."
The Bell Inn in Broadheath, Worcestershire
"There's a lot more competition for the family market now and not just from other pubs – look at how organisations like the National Trust have geared themselves up for children," says licensee Lyndsey Davies
"In the garden here we have three play huts, a play area, a sandpit, Little Tykes cars, lots to keep the kids happy. But in the winter we have to work a bit harder and have invested in things like activity packs, so we are going beyond just colouring in."
The Ei pub also offers a "kids eat free on Fridays" deal, which runs from 5pm until 7pm and family-friendly events such as
the pub's Christmas bash, complete with snow machine.
Food is an area where Lyndsey has found she needs to go above and beyond to compete now as well – gone are the days of frozen chicken nuggets & chips.
"We do offer chicken nuggets and things that go with chips and beans but we make it all ourselves from quality ingredients. Lots of kids go for pasta dishes these days and we are experiencing more requests for vegetarian and vegan kids' food, which we do offer. As parents ourselves we found too often we had to compromise between great activities for the kids and quality food. Here we do both."